Monday, January 7, 2008

Huizinga’s Theory of Play

If you’ve read Chris Crawford on Game Design you’re probably familiar with Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens. I agree with Crawford that Huizinga’s analysis of “play” is probably the best book written on the subject (although I disagree with some of the conclusions that Crawford draws from it). Since I’m going to be talking about play a lot in this blog, it’s probably worthwhile to do a brief recap of Huizinga’s thesis.

Huizinga is interested in “the play element of culture”. The word “of” here is crucial. While Huizinga does spend some time discussing games, his primarily interest is how elements of play manifest themselves during activities that we traditionally don’t think of as “play-full”: rituals, for example, or warfare. It’s interesting stuff, and well-argued, but since (unlike Huizinga) I am primarily interested in games, the most useful part of Homo Ludens for me is the very beginning where he lays out his definition of play.

According to Huizinga, there are three conditions for successful play:

  • It’s voluntary. It’s a state that can’t be entered into either by compulsion or necessity. Rather it’s something that you choose to do (and can choose to stop).

  • It has its own internal logic. While play is in progress the rules of the real world are suspended and the play proceeds according to its own internal constraints. These constraints can be formal rules (“When you pass Go, you collect $200”) or simply informal conventions (“Pretend that the sofa is a castle”).

  • It’s segregated in space and time. It’s not comingled with everyday life, but takes place in a space apart. This space can be formally defined (a chessboard or a baseball diamond) or it can be informal and transitory (the backyard or the mental space of a reader).

Basically, play is the temporary construction of a microcosm – a toy world where the rules are simpler, the entities are fewer, and the interactions are more formalized and obvious. By contrast, the real world is often confusing and ambiguous. Things happen without clear cause and effect. Meanings are hidden, justice is deferred, and entropy is always nipping at our heels.

The appeal of a temporary retreat into a play space should be obvious. The microcosm is a simplified and abstracted version of the real world. While we are in the microcosm the consequences of our actions mimic the consequences we would expect in the real world, but in an amplified and more explicit form. Good triumphs, evil is vanquished, cleverness is rewarded, and … inevitably … the princess is rescued.

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