Oh You, I thought while reading Huizinga’s Homo Ludens. You’re almost there. Almost.
Reading Huizinga’s text was an experience in somewhat grateful frustration. Huizinga was a pioneer, that much is fact. He was one of the first people to really consider games and play from an academic perspective, and I think all academics interested in Games Studies should probably read his work. That isn’t to say, though, that I agree with a lot of it. Huizinga is noticeably a product of his time and a lot of his ideas really only apply to an age where games were not a medium of targeted narrative. Yes, people play Ring-Around-The-Rosie for fun, but games have since greatly evolved as a medium of play, and the definition of ‘play’ is no longer dictated by the necessity of fun or escape. As a result, I tend to fall more in line with Callois (though I have disagreements with him as well) academically.
That isn’t to say, however, that I think Huizinga is particularly ineffective. Sure, the science behind some of his ideas is questionable — Animals, for example, do laugh — but Huizinga at least established a discourse, which is something I find admirable.
Going forward in Games Studies, I think it’s important that we try to understand games at a deeper level. What games do, what games are, and what makes them function are very important in understanding Play as a medium of both narrative and competition; Huizinga’s definition of games sort of misses out on many functional elements of design in games. But I thank him for creating a vocabulary (even as it has changed over the years) for people to at least examine games on a deeper level.
I think games are interesting because they are very concrete systems, objective rules justified by systems that present a single structure of interaction for a player. This seems extremely limited, but I feel that is what makes the medium interesting; games are a means for a player to arbitrarily put themselves in a position of agency, their interaction and what it means inside that system being far more meaningful than the system itself. Diplomacy isn’t interesting because a few people are sitting around trying to escape their daily lives, it’s interesting because of their choices.
We currently live in an Era of video games, which is quite lucky for me because I feel that they most often demonstrate what I find so exciting about games. They are, even without stories, systems designed so a player has the agency to construct a narrative that means something. This is, I think, what makes games ‘games’, and inherently also defines play.
Reading ahead into Sicart and Callois, I’m glad that academia did not settle for Huizinga’s analysis. Games are one of the view mediums that has physically changed forms during my lifetime — what was ‘play’ ten years ago does not even remotely resemble what is play now, and while games all have the same fundamental interactions the way we go about them has changed incredibly. So I’m glad we have Juuls and Kohler, and I’m glad we have new academics ready to interpret a world of play that Huizinga couldn’t have possibly even dreamed of.