Review: Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga

Book: Homo Ludens: the Study of the Play Element in Culture
Author: Johan Huizinga, anthropologist
Year: 1938

Summary: One of the foundational texts on games, it is an academic look at culture and play. A must read for game designers, and highly recommended for everyone else for serious consideration, but this is a dense text not written for a general audience.


I struggle to write a review of a book that is probably one of the most cited books in game design texts. I can’t remember the last time I read something deeply about design that did not reference Huizinga. All the previous books I’ve reviewed have quoted him, and for good reason: this is the best book I’ve ever read about the field of play. That’s not faint praise. I read a ton, and Homo Ludens completely enthralled me. I recommend it to anyone searching for a deeper understanding of play in human culture. I wish I had not waited so long to finally sit down and read it.

Written in 1938, you would expect it to be outdated but I felt the opposite: it’s incredibly relevant. It is not your standard game design textbook: it’s short, at only 214 pages, with no lessons or rules on how to make games or even what makes a good game. It is an anthropology book, not a game design book. Despite its academic roots I actually found it fairly easy to follow without much background (he references other texts, but his arguments are pretty clearly laid out in his own words) but keep in mind that I tend to prefer more academic styles of writing so others may find it a difficult, dense read. Huizinga was a Dutch anthropologist, so I read an English translation of the book – I felt it was fine, but you get a bit of that stilted effect any time its not the native language. He also explores, defines, and uses some foreign words like agon, the Greek term for “play element”, and several terms related to competition and contest. These factors combine to create a very dense, theoretical, and difficult text to read. If that doesn’t bother you (it certainly doesn’t bother me) then please pick it up.

The phrase “Homo Ludens” is the author’s proposed replacement for “Homo Sapiens”, instead of man that thinks he offers man that plays as a better description of our species. To support that, he takes a philosophical, historical, anthropological, and linguistic approach to “what is play?” and “what role does play have in human culture?” His main argument is that play is intrinsic to mankind, that it serves a valuable place because play is valuable in itself rather than as practice for some kind of survival instinct (as others claim). He claims that culture is derived from play, and that without play there is no culture.

To back up his argument, he outlines the anthropological beginnings of many aspects of modern civilization that we associate with culture: war, law, religion, the arts, poetry, philosophy, and so on. In each of these chapters (titled clearly as “Play and War” and “Play and Law” and so on) he builds out the origins of that element by looking at “primitive” people (an unfortunate term, but don’t let that distract you) that exist outside of modern civilization (which he does not quite define) both from the past and his modern day.  He claims each of these – from religion to law – are rooted in play, and as our civilization(s) progressed the play-element became less important and more obscured but, nonetheless, still exists. By looking at those cultures that haven’t progressed into modern (mostly Western) civilization, he can point out more obvious influence of play in things like law and religious practices. He draws from a wealth of human culture that spans the globe: from Inuits, to early Chinese societies, to the origin of Greek contests, to Norse mythology, to tribal African religions, and so on.

It’s hard to really sum up his findings because it’s so dense with ideas. For example, he points out that philosophy originates from riddle-contests, where knowledge was not only sacred but also a tool to beat others (outsmart them) in a contest. He points to the anthropological underpinings of law as not a quest for truth but rather a method to settle disputes while entertaining an audience. Early justice in many societies took the form of rhetorical battles, insults, poems and dancing performances – all contests, and often entertainment, with very little focus on moral judgment (this comes later). I think Huizinga makes a very good case for religion and ritual as rooted in play, but this is the hardest to summarize from the book while doing it justice.

Huizinga is the person who coined the term “magic circle” as the special place where the rules of the real world give way to the rules of the game or play. While as modern game designers we think of the magic circle as, say, the poker table, the chess board, the tennis court, or the game world in a video game, Huizinga applies that term more broadly. For him, the magic circle is a ritualistic space: it is the playground, the courthouse, the temple, and the battlefield. To give you an idea of the exhaustiveness of his argument, Huizinga places the following under the domain of play: contest, competition, wagers and gambling, performance, warplay, wordplay and rhetoric, riddles, divination, art, holiday feasts, gift-giving, harvest celebrations, ritual and religion, honor and chivalry. One of my favorite pieces in the book was his description of potlach, a form of one-upmanship in gift-giving and conspicuous consumption (and destruction) of wealth.

I learned a lot from this book that, I think, will continue to inform me as a designer. I found myself thinking a lot about how I could integrate ritual and performance into games, but also drawing connections to many things we do in life that could be considered forms of play – poetry slams, celebrity worship, Passover seders, and the talking heads arguing on Fox News.

Like I said, this is not a practical book nor is it an easy read, but if you make games for a living it is worth your time to read this and reflect on how your games fit within this space of play as Huizinga describes it. All professional designers should give this book a try, especially those interested in art games and experimental forms of play. Students just getting into games may not see its relevance immediately, and might be better served by a different text (like Art of Game Design). But regardless of where you are in relation to game design, if the above article piques your interest then I sincerely encourage you to pick up Homo Ludens.