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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

The Play’s the Thing—A Persistent Pervasive Notion

Play, Huizinga (1944/1955) argues, is older than culture. Some of our animal ancestors have been very playful indeed. In his book that put play back on the map, Homo Ludens, (Man The Player) Huizinga shows in detail how culture arises from play: in war, law, philosophy, art, or mythology and religion, according to Huizinga, culture is all about play! D. L. Miller (1970) says that Homo Ludens became the metaphor of a new play mythology, and since Homo Ludens was written, this emergent play mythology has enjoyed ascendency. In his book, Gods and Games, Miller explores this pervasive phenomenon of the proliferation of play and game theory. To give just one relevant example here:

Campbell defines the function of myth . . . by referring to a line from Homo Ludens: "In all the wild imaginings of mythology a fanciful spirit is playing on the border-line between jest and earnest.” . . . Campbell’s researches have led him to view myth as the basis of a people’s meaning. But the basis for the meaning-function of myth, Campbell argues is play. The “logic” of myth, like the “logic” of play, is the “logic” of “as if.” The realm of a man’s myth is described as “the world of gods and demons, the carnival of their masks and the curious game of ‘as if’ in which the festival of the lived myth abrogates all the laws of time, letting the dead swim back to life, and the ‘once upon a time’ becomes the very present.” Campbell suggests that “such a highly played game of ‘as if’ frees our mind and spirit, on the one hand, from the presumption of theology, which pretends to know the laws of God, and, on the other, from the bondage of reason, whose laws do not apply beyond the horizon of human experience.” Campbell, like Huizinga, is performing a serious analysis of society’s seriousness as if it were at base a bit of play. (p. 20)

Caillois, who wrote Man Play and Games or Les Jeux and Les Hommes (1958/2001), went the other way and analyzed actual cultural play as if it had a serious purpose. Caillois took play and looked at it literally, whereas Huizinga used play as a metaphor (D.L. Miller, 1970).


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