Broad to the Point of Meaningless

Roger Caillois’ book Man, Play and Games is, in many ways, a direct critique of Huizinga’s Homo Ludens. It attempts to build on the ideas of Huizinga’s work and both critique them as well as to build off of them. Overall the primary theme in in Man, Play and Games is that Homo Ludens, while acting as a strong starting point for discussing games, falls short in fully understanding and explaining both play and games. Caillois focuses on games and their classifications for most of the book, building on Huizinga and his types of games.

Caillois creates 4 primary categories of games, Agon, Alea, Mimicry and Ilinx, in an attempt to more broadly categorize games. This is a direct response to the perceived oversight in classification on Huizinga’s part. Games that would fall under Caillois’ categories of Alea, or games of chance like roulette and slots, and Ilinx, or games that are designed to manipulate the person’s perception or subject them to sensations, would not have a proper category under Huizinga’s system.

If, as Caillois says, Huizinga’s system was too narrow, then I would put forward that Caillois is far too broad in his defining of games. Primarily, I take issue with his categories of Ilinx and Alea. To start with, the entire category of Ilinx, in my mind, struggles to pass a cursory inspection for labeling its content as a game. By Caillois’ own admission, the category is so broad as to include riding on a roller coaster as a game. From an initial, knee jerk reaction, point of view, a roller coaster does not fit my intuitive mental model of a game. This brings into question the other elements of the category, activities such as twirling to induce dizziness. While in a broad sense they could be called “childrens’ games” I find these activities to be, frankly, in the same boat as, though a lesser case of, recreation drug use. While it differs in degrees, smoking pot or drinking alcohol is not all that different to twirling to make yourself dizzy and fall down. It is self inducing an altered state of mind. I am not saying that drinking and smoking are the same as twirling, but I am making the case that they are in the same category. It that is the case, then under Caillois’ classification system, drinking alcohol is a game, and this is a conclusion I cannot agree with.

As for the second category, Alea, Caillois tries to make the case that games of chance are games in the strictest sense. While I feel there is more of a case to be made that these activities are games, they lack a core element that separates a game from an activity. Games of chance lack player agency, which I feel is a core criteria in separating a game from an activity. While anything and everything you do includes some form of agency, games of chance lack any built in mechanism in their rules with which to exercise player agency. While the player might be able to bet on a particular color or number, there is no real decision making process that goes into that choice. Logically and fundamentally there is no difference between choosing red 3 or black 6 in roulette, or choosing to pull the handle now or waiting a moment on a slot machine. In these games of chance there is no player agency, no meaningful choice to be made.

This same idea of player agency can be applied to the games of Ilinx as well, but in the opposite way. Ilinx games have no rules to operate within. There is, as was brought up in discussion, no Magic Circle. They have no objectives beyond the end result, no case of win or loss, no rules. What Caillois defines as Ilinx games are simply activities, not games, and should be excluded from the category of games. To bestow Ilinx or Alea activities with game hood is to broaden the category of games to such a broad point as to render it meaningless.

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