Monthly Archives: February 2013

Review of Man, Play and Games by Roger Caillois

Building off of Johan Huizinga’s account (read my review), Roger Caillois, in Man, Play and Games, introduces an expanded and more exhaustive account of play. Huizinga put forward the thesis of showing how culture and play interact, support and emerge out of each other. Caillois’ goal is different; he wants to provide an exhaustive, descriptive account of play in all its variations and forms.

He starts by recapitulating Huizinga’s account and discussing what he regards as its short comings. According to Huizinga, play is a voluntary activity with fixed rules that create a special order residing outside the ordinary pattern of life. It is absorbing, with its own sense of space and time. Lastly, it is not connected to the achieving of any interest (external to play).

Caillois regards Huizinga’s account of play as both “too broad and too narrow” (4). It is too broad because it incorporates into “play” what Caillois calls the “secret and mysterious” (4). This seems to be referring to ritual or religious practices that seem to fit Huizinga’s definition, but do not seem, rightly, to be called “play.” (Indeed, Huizinga does focus a lot on these ‘mysteries’.)

It is too narrow, argues Caillois, because Huizinga’s account excludes types of play that are not based on rules as well as games of chance. Caillois distinguishes between rule-based games and make-believe. In the latter, rules do not govern or establish the play: instead the players play roles. The governing element is more an attitude or stance that players take to act as if they are someone other than what they are. These are clearly examples of play so ought not to be excluded from the concept.

Since Huizinga regards play as incompatible with profit or the gaining of material interests, there is no room in his account of play for games of chance. Caillois seeks to remedy this by arguing that while play has to be unproductive, it does not need to preclude the players from exchanging property or wealth. The goal of play is not to produce anything: “it creates no wealth or goods…[it] is an occasion of pure waste” (5). The players’ attitudes, if they are indeed playing, have to reflect this as well. This serves to exclude professional players, such as pro athletes: “it is clear that they are not players but workers” (6). In games of chance, Caillois argues, there is no production, only an exchange of goods. These are zero-sum games, there is no productive value at all: hence the idea of pure waste.

I think Caillois is right to point out Huizinga’s exclusion of games of chance; nevertheless, I am not convinced that play necessarily must be unproductive or that games of chance are necessarily zero-sum. Caillois does not argue for either of these claims (likely because many people regard them as truisms), but they require, I think, independent justification.

Caillois goes on to introduce his definition and influential typology of play. His definition is that play is an activity that is free, separate, uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules and make-believe (9-10). They are free because they cannot be obligatory without losing their play-quality. They are separate in the sense of creating a special space and time (distinct from the mundane/everyday existence). They are uncertain in that the results or outcomes of the play are not known in advance or predetermined. They are unproductive, as indicated above, because they produce no goods or wealth. They are governed by rules that define the goals and appropriate means for these goals. Lastly, they involve make-believe because of the attitude players have to have towards the play: an acceptance of the special, created world of play.

I’ve already noted my concern about the necessity of the unproductive. Certainly play is something that is a good in itself: it has internal goods that are the primary reason for participating and engaging in the play. But this does not exclude the possibility of external reasons as well. Many things can both be goods-in-themselves while at the same time still being constitutive of other goods. Another quibble is the manner which Caillois treats the issue of rule-governed play and make-believe. Moments before he introduces this list of essential attributes he claimed that play was either rule-governed or make-believe (9), but then he lists these elements as part of a conjunctive that makes up his differentia. Later, he clarifies these latter two parts by arguing that play is regulated and fictive (43). In this way, he avoids this problem. Regulation is not the same as rule-based: make-believe role-playing can be regulated by roles one takes on without explicit rules. Fictive gets at the important idea that playing requires one stepping into this special world; and this doesn’t necessarily imply an absence of rules. Though in this later presentation, he does tell the reader that these two aspects tend to exclude each other.

Caillois’ definition, though, is not that different from Huizinga. What really marks out Caillois’ contribution is his classification of games. He divides games into four broad types: Agon (competition); Alea (chance); Mimicry (simulation): and Ilinx (vertigo). Each of these can range along an axis from what Paidia to Ludens. This range moves from something close to pure frolic (Paidia; lacking almost any structure or rules; the players’ attitudes are more exuberant and spontaneous) to highly structured (Ludens; more calculated and controlled; requiring much more precise and developed skill).

So sports, being competitive, fall under agon. Casino games and dice playing are alea. The game of tag is a kind of mimicry (One pretends to be ‘it’). Lastly, ilinx are kinds of play, like whirling around or amusement park rides, where the goal is a momentary break from normal consciousness. Many games are a mix of these types. A game like poker involves both alea and agon: it is a competition requiring the developing of keen psychological skills but depends on the random distribution of cards.

Using this matrix, Caillois is able to organize all games and types of play. It also allows him to identify ways in which play or games interact with culture and how play can be corrupted. In other words, create what he calls a “Sociology derived from Games”

His definition and typology are also used to explain how play or games get corrupted. Essentially, play is corrupted as more of the rules, structures, and motivations of the non-play/mundane reality mix into play. Not surprisingly, the pursuit of profit is a major corrupting force. Professionals are a “contagion of reality” (45). It pushes aside, at least momentarily, the internal motivations and goals of play. Not just profit does this, but the bringing in reality in any of various ways can corrupt the play. Professionalism can also defeat the free element of play by making it obligatory to play on such-a-such an occasion. The inclusion of too much ‘reality’ can undermine the fictive element. Interestingly, Caillois also sees a parallel perversion that occurs when the blurring goes from play to reality. For example, he discusses superstition as the application of the rules of alea (games of chance) to reality.

As a philosopher of sport, I am much more interested in the definition and typology than the sociological accounts of games (or how games inform sociology). No doubt this can be fascinating in many ways and of possible great worth for a sociologist or anthropologist. Nevertheless, I am not such how far an understanding of the play-elements of tribes that use masks for their sacred rituals can give us about contemporary games and athletics. This is not a criticism of Caillois or others who would extend this account. It is just a statement of (1) my own interests and (2) how far I think an over-arching, all-encompassing conception of ‘play’ can go. As far as (2) goes, I think Huizinga and Caillois are reaching too far into other areas for the concept of play. They are identifying categories of things that are closely related to play or play-inchoate. There is likely a more general concept that covers all these things, but they err in extending ‘play’ to cover all of this. Thus, insofar as one is trying to understand ‘play’ proper, this over-arching conception does not add that much. Caillois seems to suspect this as well: “The facts studied in the name of play are so heterogeneous that one is led to speculate that the word “play” is perhaps merely a trap” (162).

Caillois’ book is an exhaustive, comprehensive, and structured account of play and its role in society and culture. It is an important work if one is interested in play, games, sport, or their interactions with society.

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