In Homo Ludens, the iconic treatise on the cultural importance and prevalence of play, Johan Huizinga makes one of society’s first attempts to systematically categorise the notion of play. Travelling through the very beginnings of human culture and across a spread of languages, customs, traditions, and opinions the author attempts to make plain an idea so intangible it has been relegated to the realms of folly. Ultimately, however, Huizinga’s message is one of stern and rigorous adamance that ‘play culture’ is a necessary, natural aspect of human existence.
It wasn’t a popular idea then, but we’re currently witnessing a Huizinga revival with similar discourses growing around video games.
Play theory, game theory, whatever you want to call it, there are very few news pieces hitting mainstream Twitter feeds about the role rag doll physics play in our imaginations when combined with Just Cause 3’s chaotic approach to player engagement, or the development of online network play and how that has forever altered the industry landscape. Not enough time is devoted to the complexities underlying the simple hobby that now makes up the vast majority of the entertainment industry.
We have tomes dedicated to film theory, university courses devoted to musical theory, and a handful of books, a magazine feature or two, and a small but growing blog community devoted to the true study of games and play. It’s understandable, the medium is only starting to mature even today. It’s been relegated to the bedrooms of children and adolescents all it’s life but now we want it to fly the nest and change the world. Which, of course as stated by my position, is an undeniable promise for the future of interactive entertainment; it will change the world.
Play has already changed the world. Time and time again. From innate elements of gamification present in education, politics, and career progression to religious ceremonial traditions (see Huizinga) and societal development (see McGonigal). So while all this is happening, and the notion of play is beginning to creep into every element of our lives, I’m confident we’ll see more appreciation for, and engagement with, the particularities of game and play theory in writing.
And the most exciting part is we’re still defining it. More and more literature is published every day that takes a new angle on a game element or development process we’ve previously taken for granted. The game theory field is so young it’s practically open for the taking. We get to watch our medium mature to a sophisticated vehicle for artistic discourse and we get to decide how that is represented.
Nothing can tap into emotion or learning as much as interactivity and as far as Huizinga’s concerned there are few things more innate to the human consciousness than play. So it’s time to take play seriously and ensure that the maturity and sophistication of our medium can withstand the folly that has come to be associated with it. This can be achieved through a) our own smug understanding that, at the heart of every online battle, solo campaign, or coop experience is a timeless and innate element of human existence and b) our drive to share that understanding.
Reading List from “On Taking Play Seriously”