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Dec 14, 2008



Ah, well, I'd mostly just hoped for a quiet increase in posts. But, thank you, sir, in helping to realize my hope.

The discussion of the nature of play brings to my mind what I think is the oft-overlooked and underappreciated study of children's play (other than in developmental psychology). That this subject hasn't been given the attention it deserves is partly the result of how much adults forget and are partly alienated from the quality of childhood experience, and partly because play in general is wrongly thought to be trivial and insignificant.

When I first encountered the Opies' groundbreaking work, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, it was an epiphany for me as I suddenly became aware of the expanse and significance of this vibrant and stable subculture. Play as a subject of intellectual inquiry has been tainted by its association with juvenilia and thus both mostly ignored and usually misunderstood.

I certainly agree that the analytical paradigm of play as merely an activity and not a disposition is a restrictive miscomprehension.

As a result some Googling I did just a moment ago, I came across this interesting piece by folklorist James Mechling, Children's Folklore, Children's Brains. In it, he repeatedly refers to a book, The Ambiguity of Play, by anthropologist and "play theorist", Brian Sutton-Smith. It sounds very interesting and relevant; though perhaps you are well aware of it.

It seems to me that play in animals is training for actual environmental interaction and in this sense, it's no accident that virtual worlds are so compelling for so many. And play seems to me to be a significant combination of contingency and ritual; games are a more formalized and restricted version of this but usually exist within a social context that has a function quite independent of play. It's no accident that we talk about "mind games" and think about social competition as a form of game-playing.


Completely agreed on all counts, Keith. While I'm not an expert on the scholarship on children, the work of Jean Piaget has always been my go-to thinker to weave this together, with his notion how children delight in the world's mixture of pattern and unpredictability.

Sutton-Smith is referenced in the piece, and I think his work is very consonant with what I argue, although in this piece I focus more on an even earlier and overlooked article in American Anthropologist by Csikszentmihalyi and Stith Bennett, as well as some very fine short pieces by anthropologists of play that date from the time Sutton-Smith was in charge of an anthropological organization for the study of play (see the linked piece for more on that). The overall point is that these arguments appeared here and there over the course of the twentieth century, but ultimately they didn't gain precedence over the more problematic treatments of play that continue to dominate not only in anthropology, but across the academy and beyond.


Huizinga: If this innate tendency of the mind…is in fact rooted in play, then we are confronted with a very serious issue. We can only touch on it here. The play attitude must have been present before human culture or human speech existed…

Caillois: These diverse qualities [of play activities] are purely formal. They do not prejudge the content of games.


Yet another example of how Huizinga was on the right track but Caillois tied himself up in knots.


dmyers>Huizinga>The play attitude must have been present before human culture or human speech existed…

There are animals that play, so he was on fairly safe ground with this one.



Keith said: I certainly agree that the analytical paradigm of play as merely an activity and not a disposition is a restrictive miscomprehension.

When I pointed out the activity versus disposition bit to a friend of mine, he called both positions "incomplete". While I haven't read the paper yet (hooray for tomorrow), I'm wondering if it isn't a mistake to deliberately exclude play-as-activity from consideration.

I look forward to reading the paper itself.


Hi Thomas,

This is interesting stuff, but what's the goal here? To establish 'play as disposition' as counterpoint (possible) or to supplant the 'play as activity' interpretation (unlikely)?

The boundary work gets more time spent upon it than anything else in this field, as far as I can tell, but most of it seems concerned with endlessly massaging the definitions. I struggle to find the point in this, except where some new perspective can be rendered as a supplement to prior viewpoints - which does seem to be the goal in this paper, at least at first glance.

As perhaps the only person who still finds Caillois' work highly applicable in their work (which in my case is commercial game design, not academic research), I want to observe that most of the criticisms levelled against him seem to be at minutae that have no bearing in interpreting his actual work. His boundary work is weak compared to modern debate on the subject, but it's perfectly adequate for the work he's doing, and he's quite clear that he's not interested in taxonomy or anything of the kind.

Five of Caillois' six groupings (as I will be publishing in a new book shortly) correspond directly to brain regions/neurotransmitters - I consider this to have been a remarkable achievement considering he was working from strict observation alone. The sixth - the one that doesn't seem to correspond - is paidia. Still working on this, though! :)

Have downloaded the paper and will chew through it when I get a chance... Looks interesting!

Keith: "It seems to me that play in animals is training for actual environmental interaction"

I wonder if this viewpoint is perhaps actuated by your prior beliefs... :)

Does animal play prepare them for actual environmental interaction? Certainly. But it also alleviates stress, promotes bonding/trust (among social animals), and serves several other roles beside.

Have you spent much time watching animals at play?

Although I only study one family in depth (sciuridae) I haven't yet spotted a pattern of play in people that I can't also observe in (most) squirrel species, albeit in a smaller, simpler fashion. (Although since they are not fully-social, social play is less developed than in canines or vulpines, say, but it still occurs).

I suppose my challenge here becomes: are you attesting that play in humans is (solely) training for actual environmental interaction? If not, what exactly are you trying to assert here?

I'm genuinely curious! :)

Best wishes everyone!


Thanks for the comments Chris and Michael, and I'll look forward to hearing what you think after you've read the piece, where at least some of your questions should be answered. :)

It probably bears mentioning that the aim, as with all theoretical work, is to put us in a better position to answer the questions that interest us. In this case, that means that I am arguing that we will make more headway by treating game as a cultural form and play as a mode of experience, just as doing that for ritual and religious experience was incredibly useful in anthropology.

Could one do things differently? Of course; this way of thinking about things in this area is not offered as transcendentally "true". The case I'm making is that if we're interested in talking about games, and play, in all times and places in human experience, then analytical frameworks based on popular understandings (of work vs. play, for example) are going to replicate certain assumptions specific to, say, modernity. Similarly, reductionist ones (such as to biological processes) that do not allow for culturo-historical variation are going to create more problems than they solve.

@Chris: As I point out in the piece, Caillois had some useful insights into play and games, but ultimately his approach was hampered by his commitment to play's lack of productivity. This is a major shortcoming that does not go away no matter how closely one looks at Caillois' work. But, again, perhaps we should discuss it after you've read it. :)



As you point our yourself, the idea of play as disposition or perspective is one of the more well-defined descriptions of play, so I am a bit unsure who you are trying to convince here.


The game/play distinction has also been discussed much. This has a long history in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sports, for example:

Suits, Bernard. “Tricky Triad: Games, Play, and Sports”, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport. 15, 1988. pg. 1-9.


This discussion only really works in English - try decoupling Jeux from Jeux or Spiel from Spiel. In the Scandinavian languages, you game a game and play play - so it is non-obvious that play/game are intertwined in the first place.

Gadamer could be interesting here, as could a closer reading of Caillois or Huizinga (who coins the neologism "ludic", which unfortunately isn't present in the English translation).


Finally - from following discussions on TN and elsewhere, it appears to me that denying play/work distinctions is the single most conventional thing an anthropologist can do? Isn't it tempting to break the mold just a little? Western (and many other) cultures operate with play/work distinctions, so wouldn't it be interesting to look at how play/work is created and negotiated, rather than simply throwing the baby out with the bathwater?


@Jesper: Thanks for the comments. Yes, as I point out in the piece these insights into the problematic and surprisingly durable conflation of game and play have been made here and there, and one can find more examples, but that valuable point has yet to rise to the level of informing most (or even much) work on games and play. To take one example mentioned above, Sutton-Smith's otherwise valuable work seems not to have sorted out the activity vs. disposition issue.

More broadly, I am seeking to get the study of games and play out of, roughly speaking, its ghetto of self-referential exceptionalism, which itself perhaps unknowingly reproduces the very dichotomy of work/play it claims at times to transcend. Of course, I am speaking in broad terms, here, but the study of games and play would benefit from being connected to social theory and philosophy, which this piece seeks to do. In light of that, I'm struck that in two comments in a row on my posts to TN, you more or less implicitly suggest that I am speaking from a narrowly anthropological point of view or evincing a narrowly anthropological fixation (the other example is here). I disagree. In my opinion what you're reading as an anthropologist's view on the study of games and ritual is in fact one possible view from the standpoint of social theory and philosophy writ large. Again, I think this kind of connection can only help the study of games.

In reference to your final point, there is a world of difference between working *from* the work/play distinction, as if it were a given, and studying it as a cultural assumption specific to a certain time and place (with then possibly interesting implications for, say, games in that context). The latter is what, in fact, I am working to make room for. To miss the epistemological difference between the two is to run the risk of replicating mistakes that robust social theory should help us avoid.


I will be reading the paper shortly, so I've been keeping quiet, but I just wanted to chime in on the point about -- I'm not sure what to call it -- "respecting" play?

The tiny observation I'd offer is that the politics of drawing play/work lines will probably turn out to be much the same as the politics of other distinctions that are made the basis for unfair discrimination. To take feminism, for instance, the culture notion of feminine difference is problematic and can't be easily resolved by either saying that 1) men and women are fundamentally different by nature or 2) that the difference does not exist. (And I'm not saying this in contradistinction to anything said prior.)

I wonder if the proponents of play are going through something similar in the question for greater "inclusion" in the relevant power relationships?


1. Play is a disposition/attitude: sounds good. Depends on what you mean by disposition/attitude. If you mean an act of cognition, even better. If so, play becomes an "activity" once again: a materialist activity of the brain. (Not overly social, I also note.)

2. Quickest way to insure contingency: doubt the hell out of things. I call this an "anti"-principle. Seems very much a play thing: an act of cognition.

3. The purpose here seems to be to disassociate play from games because play is most difficult to capture in the talons of culture and games are a whole lot easier to puncture and rip and tear with those sharply pointed and anthropologically revealed talons of terror. And so we diverge.

The question remaining: Are game forms, in fact, "contingent"? Games are cultural artifacts, to be sure, but they also have interesting and similar formal properties. Go and chess. Patacakes and singalongs. Slapjack and Find Waldo. Whatever do these similarities mean? Whatever do they represent?


There is a form for unbound contingency: paradox. Likewise, perhaps, there is a form for playful disposition: game.


No, I would say that games are not utterly contingent themselves, if by that you mean that they are each sui generis. They have histories; they have similarities of form. Since, as I see them, they are made up of a contrived mix of constraints and sources of possibility (contingency), these similarities may not solely be in "structure" -- they may also be in the kinds and arrangement of contingencies.

Now, it is important to note that sometimes plumbing these similarities can be illuminating, pointing to a specific historical connection, or a formal similarity that helps us to recognize things we might not otherwise. But, of course, focusing only on similarities of structure, and furthermore on categorization from these in an ahistorical sense, can lead us into problems. This was the problem Louis Agassiz's biology long ago. Darwin's revolutionary answer (which I've referenced here before) was to point out that the categorization of species was, at best, a useful fiction, and that we should always keep in mind the moving target that we are studying, that it is characterized by processes never fixed in any absolute sense. That insight seems vital to me in the study of games (as an earlier piece of mine articulated).

As re: (1), I'm afraid I can't go along with you on the materialist reduction (as you might expect). We are social beings. But that kind of disagreement is unlikely to be resolved here.

As re: (3), close, but that's not what motivates this. The aim is twofold. On one hand it is simply to be free to examine games as a cultural form, without being bound by some test of experience before a game could even be identified. Just as we can have failed ritual, still amenable to analysis based on our understanding of what ritual is, so should we be able to study games and game-like processes irrespective of their ability to prompt a particular mode of experience.

On the other hand the aim is to think through playful experience somewhat like William James thought through religious experience, and thereby be ready to understand how a readiness to improvise, and all the rest, may be something we find in the same wide variety as James found the spiritual; never found unshaped by culturo-historical circumstances, certainly, but easier to recognize for being articulated in a heuristic fashion.


Thanks for the clarifications - I'm very much looking forward to reading this.

Re: Caillois, I don't think his work is hampered by this distinction between work and play, although I agree it is not an especially salient distinction. But it's utterly tangential to what he's doing.

Perhaps this comes down to what you think Caillois' work is about... I would say he has more in common with Ekman than Sutton-Smith (say) i.e. cross-cultural observation, not definitions/boundary work. But I have no desire to open a side-bar on this right now. :)

And incidentally, I'm no fan of pure reductionism: you have to look at the big picture as well as the small, or else you're seriously missing out!

Well, I probably won't be back on Terra Nova until after Gregorian New Year now, so have fun and happy Winter Festival of your choice! *waves*


nice info



Well, in discussions of play/work such as this one, my experience is that the common unexamined assumption is that the distinction should be denied off-hand.
I.e. the problem I see is that too many people are working *against* the work/play distinction because this is what conventional wisdom says you should do.

I think the major accomplishments of game studies have been when we have managed to avoid reproducing assumptions from other fields and reproducing what we all learned in grad school.

For example: showing that games aren't simply "narratives"; that you can discuss game definitions; and that the play/work distinction and the magic circle are useful tools that are sensitive to how players actually use and create games.

So there. A little rant. Happy holidays!


It's understandable that you've seen that kind of ping-pong, back and forth of affirmations and denials on work/play, but there's no reason you should see that in the piece at hand.

Game studies has a lot to contribute to existing social theory, to be sure, but at times when it has thought it has created something new that's more because of a lack of awareness of what social theory and philosophy have actually said. I'm not sure ignorance is a virtue there.

For example, even your own definitions of games have made, in my opinion, the error of seeking to link whether something is or is not a game to the bringing about of a particular kind of experience on the part of the participant. The paper above charts one history that shows what some of the problems that tend to follow from that kind of assumption have been.


Given the concerns expressed here about clarifying the connections between gaming, play, and experience, I wonder if there might not be some profit to be realized in rolling the streams of thought that come down to us from Bakhtin, Benjamin, and Deleuze. Angela Ndalianis took some interesting steps in this direction with her explorations of serial repetition, remnants, ruins and labyrinths in her Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (2004).


Thank you for the comment, Bill. The Bakhtin in particular strikes me as an apt addition, as it puts me in mind of his attention to laughter (à la Democritus) as denoting one possible attitude toward the whole of life, not really different from James' reflections on passages from Renan and Voltaire that I discuss in the SSRN piece. And of course Bakthin's attention in general to the ways in which representation cannot capture the fullness of experience are relevant for the discussion of the limits of representation in attempting to formulate an understanding of play.


Just finished reading it. A couple loosely coupled thoughts..

1) One thing that strikes me about your last few paragraphs is the note that we call them "players". And I recognized that we want people to "play games", not "game games", as Jesper say the Scandinavians put it. In one sense, it's a kind of.. "Here is my game. Participate, but do not exploit."

2) Bill points out Deleuze, who is my latest faddish fascination. While I haven't dug very far into him, I wonder whether or not his desiring-machines may point towards another perspective to take on Julian's "ludo-capitalism".

3) A question: Why don't you bother with the term "paideia" at all? I haven't actually read Man, Play, and Games yet, but I believe that this is what Callois used as a stand-in for "play", which is a whole lot more than simply a waste of time. For myself, I'm perfectly willing to bring education in alongside play.


@Michael: A quick answer about Caillois before I head off to bed. My reservations about Caillois, in addition to what I've noted above, concern his scheme of the different dimensions of play. It is true that he is, in my opinion, near the mark -- at his best he is talking about different dimensions of play as a mode of experience, and then carefully linking some of those dimensions to different kinds of games.

But my concern is that his scheme is presented as something more than a model. When William James wrote about the varieties of religious experience, he stressed that we must resist the temptation to feel we can identify the scope of that variety and capture it in one kind of framework or another. The histories are too tangled and long, the circumstances too various, to make such an effort viable when framed as anything more than the most tenuous shorthand. I believe the same thing is true for this mode of experience I call here play.

So, when I read Caillois, and learn about ludus and paidia, alea and ilinx, I see it as an attempt to craft a category system for play that would shut down more questions than it would answer. Can it be used wisely? Yes, but with such schemes the temptation is very great to have them drive the analysis. If he had been more careful or qualified in his claims, he might have found me a more sympathetic reader.

What is more, some of his claims are just odd. "There can be no relationship between paidia, which is tumultuous and exuberant, and alea, which is passive anticipation of and mute immobility pending the outcome of the game" (p. 31). What is that supposed to mean? And how far are Caillois' claims supposed to take us, when the highest stakes gambling game one finds in Greece, dice gambling, which is a 50-50 game, prompts *anything but* such mute immobility? Everything is driven by Caillois' scheme, you see. It has a logic to itself, on which culture can find no real purchase.


Play and games are for learning and a sense of achievement. Even if they are not linked???... they certainly have the same purpose and stimulate out minds in a very similar way.

I don't have the long words the rest of you do... but what would be the point of intellectually seperating them?


Thomas --

So now I have read it -- it was a pleasure to read. Just a few comments:

1) I'm very much on board with the play/games distinction you're making. I've conflated the two in the past in order to bring thoughts about play to bear on questions of game regulation, but the difference between the two is becoming clearer to me as time goes on. At least in English, the language we use actually implies that each type and each iteration of game is different, while play is a single universal thing. I suppose my interest in the association between play and games comes primarily from the desire to find a logic in the way that games are regulated.

2) Echoing a comment from Jesper above, your discussion of play as disposition did remind me of Bernard Suits -- I thought a few words about The Grasshopper would have been interesting.

3) The Olympics are a great subject -- I'd like to spend an extended time studying their history and regulation. I do wonder a bit about your account -- while they may backfire their organizers at the margins, it seems to me that, by and large, the Olympic Games are scripted to produce certain winners who do, in fact, win. I have heard that all countries that televise the games tend to televise their own teams in events where they stand a chance of winning a medal. So the threat of lost symbolic capital is significantly reduced by the media narrative.

4) It seems you might have been looking through the old ASP journals? If so, are you saying it started out as primarily an anthropological organization?


@Greg: Thanks for the great comments. Yes, pointing to the Suits would make sense, absolutely. It's from that era when several people said very helpful things about play that mostly didn't stick.

Re: The Olympics. Yes, absolutely, the way games can backfire on institutions is not in any way guaranteed. I'm trying to convey only that, compared to ritual, they may be slightly less amenable to institutional control, but that's not to say that they aren't often successfully so controlled. Foxhunting is my go-to example there -- the institutionalization of games often pushes them toward becoming ritual, in a way.

Re: ASP. Yes, it *was* an anthropological organization at the start, which is interesting. Again that links to the ways that even those working from the work/play distinction (at least on the play side), were led by the subject to begin to break down their own preconceptions, as well as of course to the relatively greater "success" of the Society for the Anthropology of Work. :)


dmyers>Huizinga>The play attitude must have been present before human culture or human speech existed…

There are animals that play, so he was on fairly safe ground with this one.


Huizinga: "Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing. We can safely assert, even, that human civilization has added no essential feature to the general idea of play."


We are social beings.

Because, no doubt, society tells us so? Ah, but to prove it...


@dmyers: It's not a question of proof, it's rather a question of whether we subscribe to a monism (as described in the piece) under which every phenomenon we encounter must be reducible to one 'prime mover,' be it biology, representation, or what have you.

You may continue in your quixotic one liners to push things like practice and representation to the side in favor of a reductionist biological account (if that is indeed what you are arguing -- it's frankly hard to tell), but you are not arguing against anyone here (at least, as far as I can see) that is trying on the other side to reduce it all to representation or practice (or the "social" more broadly). Is the material (the biological, the environmental, in a sense) part of what's going on? Of course. But pointing to any given example of how the biological is involved is not sufficient for an attempt to collapse everything into them. (One could also add, since it seems to be the example at hand, that no one claimed animals who play aren't social.)

Instead, and as pointed out in the piece, we might take our clue from Darwin and the pragmatists who followed him -- the phenomena we experience in the world are the result of messy, open-ended processes that have multiple causes, not just one. This does not leave us lost and paralyzed in our attempts to understand what happens, but it does mean that our answers will be particular and historical, generated out of empirical inquiry, and able to contribute only to the most guarded of generalizations.


Hi Thomas,

*Finally* found time to read your paper - and really enjoyed it too. Nice work!

I'm going to start with the Caillois issue, before moving on... You cite Caillois from p5 of Les Jeux et Les Hommes with this line "play is an occasion of pure waste". But this is where he sets up the framework for establishing what he is examining cross-culturally i.e. activities which are non-productive. That's the basis of his study, from which his system emerges.

But then in the final part of the book, he takes the system and flips it around - he applies the system to culture, upon the whole of culture. In applying agon and alea to the culture of "advanced" nations, for instance, there is no possible way we can see agon and alea as "occasions of pure waste" since agon is seen as the organising principle of society in this case, and alea its necessary complement.

Now it may be true that others have run with this distinction (it seems to me that plenty of researchers manage to miss everything of value in Caillois' work), but I don't think Caillois' intent in this book was to pigeonhole play with this throwaway line in the prefatory remarks. Rather, I think Caillois is outlining the framework for proceeding to the system - a system which, in my estimation at least, roundly refutes this claim in practice.

There is doubtless room for many interpretations here, but I personally feel that Caillois would have approved of your perspective in this paper in all respects excepts one - namely your mistaking his initial framing conditions with his conclusions. :)

I don't think this need be the focus of debate, however, I just had to get the words out of my head. As the last remaining person who values Caillois' work, I felt the need to mount a futile defence. :D

Your central thrust: to view play as a dispositional stance toward the indeterminate, is fascinating and certainly bears some thought, and considerable scrutiny. What precisely is indeterminate about the levelling up of a World of Warcraft character, is my opening question... When it will happen? It is surely not if it will happen.

I like the casting of Flow into anxiety as excessive contingency and boredom as insufficient contingency - this is an interesting viewpoint. But again, what exactly is the contingency involved in levelling up a character by grinding? I don't quite see the indeterminacy here, but I'm open to it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the paper and I shall continue to ponder the merits of considering play as a disposition.

Best wishes!


What happened to my comment from yesterday? Ack. Did Terra Nova eat it? I don't have time to retype. :(

Oh well, in brief, finally found time to read the paper, loved it, like the central idea, but (on a trivial aside) think it's a mistake to take a comment from Callois' introduction and assume that's the whole of his position (no matter what other people have done with the idea since). The whole of the latter half of Les Jeux et Les Hommes runs contrary to the line you quoted, which suggests to me a misunderstanding of some kind. I suspect Caillois would have approved of your paper. :)

Will continue to ponder the "play as a disposition concept"...


Ah, there it is - it turned up. Never mind. :)


Comments are borked at the moment. My apologies.


Finally have the comments issue sorted out and able to respond, Chris.

It is true that I reference Caillois' early quote frequently, but I do that to call attention to how his saying it then provides an excuse for the continued treatment of play as consequence-free in later work by others. This assumption, I think, is on the wane a *bit* now, partly through the work of people here like Julian and TL (and others), but pointing to Caillois' quote is an effective way to highlight just what kind of license (from a statement by a major thinker) work that follows that assumption has had.

As for his ideas more generally, I responded above more pointedly to my problem with his discussion as he treats it. Yes, he certainly imagines the whole of cultural life as shot through with these forms of play, and the question of their consequentiality seems ultimately to be answered in the affirmative.

But the truly problematic things about Caillois are not about this. They are about how his treatment is deeply functionalist. By this I mean that he has come up with a universal and ahistorical system (don't let his evolutionism stand as history -- like all vulgar evolutionisms it is directional and totalizing) that accounts for everything based on basic needs or drives.

The four kinds of play (ilinx, mimicry, alea, agon) are mapped onto an evolutionary ladder of progress and pinned to a never-questioned assertion that people are individuals motivated by the acquisition of power. Mimicry and ilinx are the paths to power in primitive societies, and then they get pushed aside as society advances technologically in favor of alea and agon.

In all of this there is really no room for history. The point I made earlier about how he ends up with assertions that don't square with the facts (see here) is still on point. This is a totalizing system. Actually, it goes directly against the point of my paper by ultimately folding together play as experienced in these ways and games as activities sensible only in terms of those four ways. It leaves us in no position to ask new questions about the specifically historical and cultural phenomena we may study.

What is more, its picture of human subjectivity is already culturally located, as I alluded to above. It presupposes individuals, driven by a desire for power, who when frustrated by that desire behave in lockstep ways (by seeking, say, drugs [ilinx] or fan culture [mimicry->identification] in advanced society).

In some ways, at some points, he does say that now and then things can turn out differently (at one point he calls it an extraordinary bet that a society may make that pays off -- here we have a related problem of anthropomorphizing society in the same terms). He points as well to the fact that the particular form a game takes is not a perfect or direct reflection of agon, alea, etc. But these sporadic qualifications pale in comparison to his assertion of an overarching scheme that irons out history and particularity in favor of a unified notion of what humans are, what needs they have, and the system that follows.

I'll respond in another comment to the other questions you had, specifically about contingency and WoW.

Thanks for the patience, Chris!


The question of the contingency of grinding is an interesting one. One thing to remember is that the contrived contingency of games is not only with respect to their "end-state" outcome, if they have one. Games typically have multiple contingent outcomes in the course of playing (the missed basketball shot, for example). It's also probably useful to keep in mind that leveling is a *lot* easier now than it was in vanilla WoW (although even then I found it remarkably unchallenging), we might want to think about its solo levelling gameplay as marked by a trend toward routinization and away from contingency. In a general sense this is right.

In this way levelling moves toward becoming a means to an end, rather than an end in and of itself. The unmistakably contingent gameplay (and by this I actually mean that proper mixture of pattern and unpredictability that makes for a compelling [part of the] game) is most obviously in PvP and endgame -- challenging 5-man instancing, and raiding -- although we could of course find many more interesting examples. These would include the "mini-games" like competitive node farming, or the ways in which the vehicle mechanic reintroduces some limited mastery for the player by providing a wholly new (and smaller) ability set. The Thrusting Hodir's Spear daily fits this category.

But these are not hard and fast distinctions. As Liz pointed out here, the grind in some cases can be a compelling form of gameplay. I would argue, however, that the term grind as socially used in this area is not terribly reliable. In Liz's examples I would point to how these are cases where we still have some compelling contingencies, rather like the circumstances described in the context of flow, by Csikszentmihalyi. In the context of embodied mastery, we can have gaming experiences that are no longer so much challenging in the sense of driving further developments of mastery, but which are compelling nonetheless because they do (to a greater or lesser extent) demand the application of that mastery in contingent circumstances. Much like a practiced maker of cedar shingles is doing a job that commands a great deal of attention (with the very large spinning saws in close proximity to the body), but which looks repetitive, I think we might find useful a distinction between the compelling grind and the routine grind (and of course people may vary in the extent to which any given activity would appear as one or the other).

Grind in Liz's sense contrasts with examples in WoW where a repetitive action is truly and utterly routinized, requiring or admitting of virtually no development or application of performative mastery. Entering multiple AH auctions by hand (I don't use Auctioneer simply because I don't play the AH) takes on that quality for me. Lag keeps me from seeking to achieve some mastery over efficient entry (in terms of say, fastest time), and everything else is truly a series of rote actions. No wonder it's so much a target for addons -- in a way a whole class of addons could be seen as those that minimize routinized actions in the game.


Thomas: thanks for your detailed reply! Most of your criticisms of Caillois are valid, and although I find the latter part of Les Joux et Les Hommes to be extremely entertaining reading, it certainly fails as an anthropological account by modern standards.

I think my fullest reply to your criticism would be to look at the chapter on Caillois' Patterns of Play in my newest book, "Beyond Game Design" (with Terra Nova regular Richard Bartle and others) which is out in time for GDC. (This is not meant as a plug, but of course it ends up becoming one... sorry about that!) In the chapter, I demonstrate that what Caillois had spotted was biological in origin, and indeed was a remarkably coherent attempt at getting a handle on this long before the science caught up. That it fails in an anthropological context seems less of a criticism to me when it succeeds as a pioneering work of observational science in a very different context to the one it is usually taken in.

As someone who can watch 1960s science fiction and simply compensate in my own mind for the deficiencies of budget, perhaps I am simply well suited to making allowances for older work. :)

Re: the grind, it is certainly the case that grinding can be a compelling gameplay activity, for all that people bitch about it. I play several games in a grinding fashion myself, and notice that there is very little indeterminacy involved, which does make me wonder about the role of indeterminacy in these cases. (I also note that "very little" is not the same as "none"). However, coherent rewards of some kind must be available for the grinding play to compel. I have a quick piece concerning this which will go up on ihobo.com tomorrow - I mention your paper briefly. :)

The link should be http://blog.ihobo.com/2009/03/grip-the-biology-of-compulsion.html (goes live Tuesday morning). As is often the case with me, this is a quick summary of my thoughts on a subject with links, and doesn't rise to the status of a paper. Since I slipped academia for industry after my Masters, I just haven't felt compelled to the required degree of rigour. :)

Once again, thanks for your detailed reply, and I hope you get a chance to look at my take on Caillois sometime in the future.

Best wishes!


@Chris: I do indeed look forward to reading the chapter. To be clear, the criticisms I have voiced of Caillois are not at all specifically anthropological ones, they are criticisms from the point of view of social theory generally; that is, there are certain features of arguments that we have come to understand are deeply problematic in a general way across the social sciences, such as functionalist arguments, or totalizing ones.

Cannot wait to check out the piece on ihobo -- I'll definitely chase that down once it appears, and thank you very much for the paper mention in advance. :)


Thomas: yes, I appreciate that the early optimism of sociology to provide reliable models for such things have ended up ringing rather hollow. This is far from the only place in modern science where the enthusiasm of scientists outstripped the capacity of the research to deliver. :)

The piece on ihobo is up now.

Best wishes!


I think that there is a misunderstanding about why Huizinga and Callois are saying that games have no consequences. Let me try to explain:
What Huizinga and Callois seem to be unhappy about in the modern divide between play and work or the "this is serious" and the "this is just a game", is the loss of the experience of the holy. The very idea of play as activity and that all play exists in order to serve something beyond its own scope (for example play being a way to prepare oneself for the later stages of life) is the very problem for them. When Huizinga and Callois say that games have no consequences, they want to address the fact that a game's measure of success is not what you gain through it in real life, but that the true gain is the participation in and sharing of the "holy" experience. Playing is not just slipping into a role and perform within certain constraints, but “live” this role straight from the heart – roleplaying is not only mimetic, it is metectic . This is a priceless experience, it's immeasurable, real-life consequences are not its concern, even if such consequences can be observed in certain games... The holy experience in play implies devotion and the experience of the values of the phratria (the “brotherhood” amongst the participiants of the game). But with the modern divide, this priceless inner experience which creates a very special connection with others has now become a waste of time in the face of the modern concepts like profit maximization, individual interest, efficiency and institutional goals set by states and bureaucracies. Play has now been positioned as the opposite of the serious and useless. But this is a misconception about play and its historical roots. As Huizinga sees it, you could say that the "serious" leaves no space for the playful, but that play, despite not being "the real thing", always requires seriousity to an extend. Maybe simply because pretense won't work if noone takes the players actions for serious. You don’t have to join the game, but if you decide to with your free will, you have to obey to the holy that makes the game itself a “serious” experience. You will understand better what I mean when you remember how you ask your friends to be serious if they don't play the game as it needs to be played. "Don't joke around (jocare), please be serious (ludere)"; "Have respect to other players" etc...


Also I think Callois distintion between structured and free play refers to another important distinction, the one between "private" and "public". While "paidia" (kids play with no social status implications) is not part of rites du passage and remains in the realm of the private, ludus (or agon) is always part of "the games", the feasts and rituals of the people, and done in public. Agon and agora share the same root.

The importance of play, ritual and the holy can be maybe observed in the difference between the shaman who pays tribute to the soul of the animal by respecting its dead body, and the concentration camp which is a rationally organized machine that dissects the harvested carcasses in the most efficient way. A culture which does not actively maintain the "play element" in all its "serious" institutions will have a devastating impact on everything that walks and breathes...


Interesting thoughts -- I do think you find that sort of sentiment expressed in Huizinga, esp. in the later chapters of Homo Ludens.


Yes, I agree that (as noted in the paper) when Huizinga discusses the "play element" he is on a much more useful track. I'm afraid that I don't see much of Caillois that connects with this kind of sentiment, however.

Altug, thank you for the great comments. While I would hesitate a bit about whether notions of the sacred or the serious (even as you carefully mean it) would bear a lot of weight going forward, I think one of the most powerful threads that comes out of his work is the way in which it provides grounds for a critique of bureaucracy and routinization (I thought roughly through some of my ideas about this here).


Hi Thomas,

I'm glad you liked the comments.

Have you ever had a look at Richard Rorty’s works on pragmatism? His notion of contingency seems to be closer to the sort of contingency you see in Huizinga’s notion of the play element.

I believe that approaches like “shit happens” or bettabilitarianism are still deterministic (or non-contingent) in the sense that they assume that the contingent world would not miss a chance to do the opposite of what we’d love it to produce(for example a still 'utilitarian' pay-off in the case of the bettabilitarian). This depicts contingency mainly as some sort of pro-active evil.

I believe the cynical tone in this approach results in the sacred, magical or extraordinary being driven out of our perception of the universe. Life is reduced to an account of fortunate and unfortunate events whose impact can be measured through the gain and loss of money and presented in the form of a balance sheet. It is still indexed to "success" and the individual is left to her own destiny.

Rorty's approach to contingency on the other hand, sees a chance for solidarity in it. This is because thrownness is the commons of the community of those who have nothing in common. As fellow travellers we never "bet" alone. Or as Borges puts it: It was one man who fought all the wars and it was one man who died all the deaths.


A quick response before I dash off to teach a class. :)

I have read Rorty, yes. Actually I find him somewhat cynical in the same way that I find Holmes cynical. I wouldn't go as far as you do to see their contingency as a kind of "gotcha" type. That is, I think seeing it as "not missing a chance" to do the opposite of what you might want as a characterization that very precisely makes contingency non-contingent, and I don't see any of the pragmatist figures as falling into that trap.

But the cynicism is there in Holmes, for reasons that relate to the lack of hope he seems to exhibit in the process of the social production of knowledge. I see Rorty as broadly speaking in the same camp. Dewey, on the other hand, somehow seems able to recoup an optimism about social process without losing sight of the ineradicable presence of indeterminacy. He's the one I'm digging into more as of late.


Yet another example of how Huizinga was on the right track but Caillois tied himself up in knots

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