Thoughts on “Play”

Here, then, we have the first main characteristic of play: that it is free, is in fact freedom. A second characteristic is closely connected with this, namely, that play is not “ordinary” or “real” life. It is rather a stepping out of “real” life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own . . . . Nevertheless . . . the consciousness of play being “only a pretend” does not by any means prevent it from proceeding with the utmost seriousness, with an absorption, a devotion that passes into rapture and, temporarily at least, completely abolishes that troublesome “only” feeling. Any game can at any time wholly run away with the players. The contrast between play and seriousness is always fluid. The inferiority of play is continually being offset by the corresponding superiority of its seriousness. Play turns to seriousness and seriousness to play. Play may rise to heights of beauty and sublimity that leave seriousness far beneath.

—Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture

3 comments so far

  1. violacious on

    Great quotation — thank you for sharing.

  2. ranat on

    I had an interesting reaction to this, which was something akin to “What?” I was confused at first, because it does seem to apply to modern experience. Then I realized that my discomfort with the quote was because in many tribal and/or hunter-gatherer societies, play is sacred, play is how we learn. Play is absolutely real. But Huizinga was Dutch, born in the late 1800s, well after the division of work and leisure, a distinction that doesn’t exist in many tribal/traditional/indigenous cultures. I am reminded of something I read from Spirit of the Shuar (I haven’t read the whole thing, just skimmed).

    A bunch of tourists and/or cultural studies types were asking a couple what their favorite thing to do was, and they didn’t understand the question. The woman said, “We like everything we do, that’s why we do it.” One of the tourists insisted, “But you must like something more than other things. Do you like cooking more, or working in the garden, or relaxing, or eating?” The couple looked at each other, and then replied, “Of course our favorite thing is making love,” which rather shocked them all. The man said to the tourists, “You need to make love more. It’s obvious you don’t do it enough.”

    That’s what I remember anyway. I don’t have the book in front of me.

    I wonder if people who reject the idea of BDSM-related activities as play do so because of the idea that play is unreal. I personally really like the term, and feel that it transcends the subculture lexicon, because it so perfectly describes what I feel. I’m playing; I’m in a sacred space, I’m learning, what I am doing is very real, even if it is a fantasy.

  3. subversive_sub on

    Totally. I have had conversations with people who reject the term “play” for exactly the reason you describe. And what I always try to explain is that “play” is not frivolous activity, that it is in fact extremely important.

    I think that this is also what Huizinga is trying to do in Homo Ludens: to reestablish play as a fundamental part of human existence. I think he uses somewhat ambivalent terms to describe play, and I really like that, because to me, play does hover between the real and the unreal. Of course, Huizinga wasn’t talking about sexual play or even what Western cultures would consider “leisure activity,” but more specifically about *games*.

    …I will definitely be writing more on this soon, I think it’s an extremely interesting topic!


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