We all play. Even the most serious among us, those austere persons who don’t have time to waste, happen to shoot in a ball or challenge someone to a game of chess sometimes. Others are compulsive gamblers who don’t feel alive unless they are wagering their house in a game of dices. But why do we play ? What is, exactly, a game ? And what does this activity tell about us ?

It is a curious fact, upon close inspection, that every civilization integrates in its system an activity which is, almost by definition, useless. If I were to talk only about the Western world, I could mention the antic Olympic Games, knight’s tournaments or the World Cup, but also poker, dices, crosswords or Zelda. At first sight, it seems that what we call “a game” is any kind of activity in which we waste our (precious) energy in a way that isn’t productive for the rest of the society. Thankfully for us, a few brillant minds have already toiled to define the notion of games, and t;o divide into vague and porous categories its different manifestations.

What is a game ?

Let’s begin with a first question : what are the origins of games ? There is already a confusion on this point. Two conceptions oppose themselves : the first, and most popular, suggests that games are an emanation of culture — a society which is developed enough to form a culture produces games from the now-useless elements, such as the bow which is given to the child when no longer needed to hunt preys. Another, more original — hence, more interesting -, asserts that games are the origins of our culture. It’s, in a way, the chicken and egg situation.

The second thesis has been suggested by Johan Huizinga, in a major essay, Homo Ludens (1938). Forget about the chicken and the egg : games existed before man was a man, claims the dutch scholar. Huizinga begins his essay with a unequivocal assertion : “Games are older than culture”. He later adds : “Culture is born under the form of games ; culture, in its origins, is played”. He offers a precise definition of games, which might serve as a basis for further reflexion : “an activity that is free, perceived as “fictitious” and situated out of the daily life, nevertheless able to absorb totally the player ; an action devoid of any material interest, and of any usefulness ; which is accomplished in an expressly circumscribed time and space, which unfolds with order, according to given rules ; and which begets in life group relationships”. Take the time to ponder on this definition, because it’s an important one. Let’s add to it that there might sometimes be a stake, usually a symbolical one, the winner’s reputation — material goods are only its consequences. And Huizinga observes a suprising fact : this definition integrates perfectly soccer, dance, frisbee, cards, theatre, but also the sight of two dogs playing together. Examine each of these activities, you’ll see it fits.

Now, let’s come back to the question of the origins of games. Huizinga asserts that games existed before mankind was able to use concepts : the first religious rites were only a manifestation of the sacred — masks, determined area, out of the daily life, integrating a fictitious dimension, obeying to precise rules, and federating the group. These rites have begotten laws as well as wars. More surprising yet : since it’s during these ceremonies that poesy was born, Huizinga considers literature (and that also applies to music) as a manifestation of games. After all, “poesis is a recreational function. It is situated as a recreational place in the mind, in its own universe created by the mind, where things have a different appearance than in “real life”, and are tied together by links that are not logical ones”. Poesy would only be, then, a “competition of virtuosity of mocking retort” ; its rules (since you need rules to determine who wins and who loses) are metrics, rhymes, or the capacity to create an original image. Originally, then, metaphors were nothing but a well-aimed shoot to the goal.

I was really impressed by this idea, and I think that it deserves a moment of consideration. If we accept this second thesis as true, it means that everything that surrounds us is derived from one game or another. Houses, cars, politics — all. I just wanted to insist on that point.

Carol Lew, Dogs Playing Poker

Competition, luck, simulation and dizziness

Another reflexion relevant to the subject has been led by French writer and sociologist Roger Caillois — for whom, by the way, Homo Ludens is an essay “disputable in most of its assertions”. If Caillois challenges Huizinga in Man, plays and games (1961), it is mostly to underline one point that is missing in his predecessor’s development, and show, by contrast, how much of a genius he is : all games don’t answer to the same needs ; we can thus establish a classification of games. This being said, Caillois recognises that he agrees with most of what Huizinga says. Duel, provocations, strike of arguments.

Caillois distinguishes four kinds of games — one game can fit in two, or even more, of these categories. Let’s be honest : we’re reaching the tricky part of this development, and it’s a bit fastidious. But I’ve made it as short as possible, and you’ll see at the end that it was necessary. There’s even a recapitulative picture !

Our first category is the agon, a “competition […] fight in which the equality of chances is artificially created so that the antagonists can fight in the best conditions, susceptibles of giving a precise and undisputable value to the champion’s glory.” At the very other end of the spectrum, the alea gathers “all the games based […] on a decision which doesn’t depend on the player, on which he doesn’t have any kind of influence, and when what is at stake is not so much to win against one’s opponent than against fate”. “Alea’s function is to abolish the natural or obtained superiorities of the players”. If both agon and aleastand for opposite attitudes”, let us note that they obey a same law : “the artificial creation between players of conditions of equality refused to men by reality”.

Let us now examine two rather different categories because, asserts Caillois, all games don’t rely exclusively on competition. Let’s starty with mimicry, which “does not consist in having an activity or enduring fate in an imaginary environment, but in becoming oneself an illusory character and act in consequence”. “Mimicry is permanent invention ; there’s only one rule to this game : the actor has to fascinate his spectator, and avoid the spectator refusing the illusion”. And, last but not least, the last category has the pretty name of ilinx, “the pursuit of vertigo”, unifying games “that consist in an attempt at destroying, for a moment, stability of perception”.

These four categories are in tension between two poles — I promise that after this, I’m over with classifications ; but they have an interest. The first pole is called paidia, “primary freedom, need for relaxation and both distraction and fantasy”. The second is called ludus, “the taste for gratuitous difficulty”. Caillois defines as a contemporary evolution of ludus what we call a hobby, a “secondary and free activity, started and continued for one’s pleasure”. Now, as promised, here are all these categories neatly classified by Roger Caillois himself (translated from the French). I hope this will help you to understand this rather abstruse categorization.

Caillois’s classification of games, in Man, Plays and Games.

Well, this is all very interesting, but isn’t in itself an answer to the question: why do we play? We’re coming to it.

Equality and order

One of the essential elements in Huizinga’s definition is that games are out of the daily life. It takes place in an empty time and space, which we can freely make ours, and which we chose to define as a new reality — that’s what asserts psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott in Playing and reality (1971). A place where we can write our own laws, with which others can’t cheat — unless they want to provoke a collapse of the game, and thus a collapse of the real. A place we can make ours in different ways, depending on what we want, would precise Roger Caillois. Games, as such, are a time-space we control and we have created in the real world, in which we have the illusion that we’re all equal. A laborer can beat his employer, accomplish his need for domination, and then go back to work as normal. In that sense, the activity of playing games — which Huizinga and Caillois believe to be disappearing in our post-industrial society — reminds me of another activity : that of the carnavalesque. Reminder : in the Middle-Ages, carnival night was when serves could openly mock their masters, and even ended up electing a carnival night’s king, which exerted a symbolical power till dawn. Mikhail Bakhtine defined in Rabelais and His World (1982), this night as a moment of inversion of the hierarchies and values, an example of the subversive possibilities of the powerless. What we’ve seen previously allows us to understand that carnival is nothing but a game (circumscribed place / defined length / fiction / shared rules), and maybe sheds an interesting light on our relation with games.

To play, today, in our complex and often sense-lacking world, is thus to assert our capacity to shape reality for at least a moment, to assert our capacity of autodetermination and our freedom. And, when the final whistle blows, everything goes back to normal.

French journalist writing on literature, culture, tech and technocriticism. Personal website : https://www.curabooks.fr. Twitter : @NicolasCelnik

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