While Huizinga provided a useful starting definition of play, I think that his work might have suffered a bit from his insistence on keeping everything in one amorphous category of “play.” Caillois, on the other hand, benefits from his attempt to establish a taxonomy that accounts for a variety of different forms of play and games. I’m not saying that I buy into his system of four categories, but I do think such categorization is a reasonable starting point for thinking about the nature of games.
One area in which Caillois’s work suffers a bit is the unclear line between play and games. Instead of clearly defining this line, he uses a sliding scale with paida (free play) and ludus (structured games) at the extremes. For the rest of his work, Caillois navigates around this scale without warning, and never provides adequate clarification of what makes a game a game. This is especially visible in sections dealing with the mimicry and ilinix categories. We have amusement park rides being talked about in the same manner as sports with little examination of what it means for something to be a game.
I would also like to raise issues with Caillois’s (and Huizinga’s) use of a wide range of cultural examples to make their arguments. Part of me enjoys reading works that use these sorts of methodologies. In a hyper-specialized field, it can be refreshing to read these arguments that attempt to encapsulate so much of human experience. With that said, this methodology certainly has its problems. Caillois readily assumes a linear, progressive model of history, which makes it easy for him to overgeneralize and essentialize pre-modern societies. Looking past his treatment of pre-modern societies, Caillois over-generalizes in other areas, too. For instance, he reduces democratic societies down to a struggle between merit and chance in much the same way he would examine a card game that has elements of both agôn and alea (p. 111-114), which completely ignores many complex forces in society. It’s much easier to simply claim that large segments of the population would rather wait for good fortune or identify with a star from a distance than engage in the harsh realities of competition themselves.
Having mentioned those critiques, I would like to return to a more positive stance on Caillois. For me, at least, the four categories encapsulate a lot of the defining characteristics of popular games. Every game I can think of at the moment can be broken down into the Caillois’s categories, and it’s remarkable that these categories laid out more than fifty years ago still seem somewhat applicable today. However, I would argue that contemporary developments in games, i.e. the growth of professional sports and the expanded capabilities and ubiquity of computer gaming, routinely combine at least three of Caillois’s categories, making the entire attempt at taxonomy that much more messy.