Play and Mentation

I just finished reading a fascinating book called Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element of Culture. The author, Johan Huizinga, was a Dutch scholar. I knew him for a biography of my hero Erasmus, probably the best biography I’ve come across yet. Huizinga died of starvation in the famine that swept across Holland just before it was liberated from the Nazis.

I’m sad to tell you that you’ll not be able to find this book. It’s long out of print, and I was very lucky to find a copy. That’s too bad, because Huizinga’s analysis of play is impressive. Console yourself with the knowledge that his treatment is appallingly academic. Greek words such as agon, diagogue, and paidia are sprinkled liberally across the pages. Yes, we’ve finally reached the point where, if you really want to understand game design, you’ll have to brush up on your Greek.

Huizinga’s thoughts reveal much about the nature of play. His basic definition of play is "a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy, and the consciousness that it is different from ordinary life." He points out that there are at least three basic dimensions of play: the agonistic (contest) element, the ludic (exuberant, fanciful) element, and the diagogic (pastime) element. These elements combine in varying degrees to affect a wide variety of cultural activities.

Play takes place in a closed environment. We circumscribe play, temporally and spatially. We play football on a football field. This plot of ground was just a grassy field yesterday, but today, we mark it off and make it special; inside this space, we will fight a battle according to carefully prescribed rules. Thus, with play, we set aside a time and a place and suspend the normal rules of reality, imposing our own system of rules to govern our behavior. Once the game is over, we return to reality.

The chapter that really blew me away was "The play-concept as expressed in language". Huizinga analyzes the way in which various concepts of play are expressed in a variety of languages. The lesson that emerges from this is that the concept of play extends over a huge range of activities. There is, of course, the conventional sense of play, but there is also the "play of ideas", "swordplay", play as the freedom of action of a machine part, playing a musical instrument, a stage play, and the various erotic connotations of play (in German, a child born out of wedlock is called a "Spielkind", literally, "play-child"). The English word lechery is the only surviving remnant in English of the Old Germanic root leik, leikan, to play. Also striking is the fact that the Latin word for play, ludere, survives in English in lewd.

But there is another aspect of play that emerges from this linguistic analysis, and that is play as simulation. In Japanese, the most polite or formal means of expression is called asobase-kotoba, literally "play-language", and it communicates the notion that those we speak about are so refined that they only play at life. Thus, the polite way to say "I hear that your father died" is "I hear that your father has played dying." Even more striking are such words as allude, collude, and illusion, all of which are derivatives of the Latin ludere, and all of which refer to a sham, shadow, or simulated reality.

With these ideas established, Huizinga proceeds to examine the play-concept in a wide variety of human activities. I was astounded by his revelations about the universality of play. It shows up everywhere; Huizinga has chapters on play in law, war, art, philosophy, and poetry. Yes, I know it sounds crazy. But consider the law. It takes place within fixed limits of time and place: a trial in a courtroom. It is controlled by an extensive set of rules that are freely accepted (albeit by the people as a polity, not by individuals) and absolutely binding. And there is certainly a feeling that a court of law is not ordinary life. The law takes place in its own little world, isolated from the rest of the world, and with a strong system of rules. Does that not sound rather like a game, or at least play? And why is it that the law has so many rituals? In Britain, barristers and judges alike still wear wigs. Why? They are playing, not in the sense of childishness or exuberance, but rather in the sense of isolating themselves from the real world to create a little self-contained world of justice.

By the way, Huizinga’s comment on Erasmus was: "Erasmus! His whole being seems to radiate the play-spirit." Perhaps my infatuation with Erasmus is not so arbitrary after all.

Two deep concepts emerged for me on contemplation of this work. The first is the notion of play as modeling; the second concerns the subjunctive nature of play. When we play, we create our own little world that follows our rules. Unlike the real world, our play-world makes sense. In the real world, good men die while evil men prosper; things break for no apparent reason; crops fail; the weather jiggles about arbitrarily. We feel at the mercy of arbitrary forces in the real world. But in our play-world, we control the rules and our rules make sense. There’s a satisfying predictability in the play-world. It’s a world you can believe in.

The other aspect of play is its subjunctivity. We play "if-only" in our games. Once we have erected our imaginary world, we then explore it with experimental behaviors too risky to try in the real world. How many mousy wimps become macho aggressors in the bedroom, if only for an hour? How many muscled he-men cradle like babies in the arms of their lovers? How many prim and severe ladies turn into lecherous animals? Perhaps these things do not happen daily, but they do happen. But the bedroom is not the only place we play. How about all those manly types who dress up and play soldier, or play hunter? How about the women who dress to the nines on a Saturday night and troll the social places?

These two concepts of play, modeling and subjunctivity, strike me as enormously important. They are the basis of something very important about mentation. Modeling boils the world down to a clean subset, and subjunctivity explores the characteristics of that subset. This, it seems to me, is the foundation of creativity. The world is a complicated and messy place; we don’t know what it will do next. By modeling the world in some fashion, we create a mentally manipulable version of the world. There are zillions of ways to model the world; we are always creating new models. A playful person is particularly good at making models.

When a little boy holds a stick in his hand and makes appropriately wet white noise with his mouth, spraying saliva all over himself, and then swoops the stick down to a leaf on the ground and makes a loud explosive sound, he is modeling a jet bomber. You and I see a little boy spraying saliva on a stick and a leaf, but he has created a mental model of jet bombers.

By manipulating our model subjunctively, by asking "what-if" about its performance, we develop new insights into the world. Early developments in metallurgy were derived from the realization that molten metal is "just like water". I very much doubt that anybody ever successfully tested that hypothesis by direct sensory evaluation. But by thinking of molten metal as if it were water, early humans created the thought that it might be manipulated like water, by pouring it from cups. From this a whole welter of developments arose.

I am therefore tempted to ask, is there any aspect of human mentation that cannot be described in terms of model-making plus subjunctivity? If not, what does that suggest about the place of play in the human mind?

What I find so exciting about this line of thought is that it suggests that play-behavior is deeply connected with human thought. Play-behavior is not an aberration, nor a sideshow, nor idle recreation; somehow it is very closely tied to the way that we think about the world.

One of the most sensational intellectual developments of the last 100 years was Einstein’s theory of relativity. There were actually two theories: special relativity and general relativity. What is most intriguing here is the trigger-point for both theories. In both cases, Einstein could put his finger on the mental step that triggered each theory. In the case of special relativity, Einstein asked himself, "What would it be like to ride on a beam of light?" Think about the fundamental playfulness of this image. This is not hard, cold science; this is not abstract equations and formulae; this is a playful concept, a what-if game. And it was the trigger point for the theory of special relativity. Once Einstein started to answer these questions, his theory came tumbling out of the intellectual woodwork almost naturally. The same thing happened with general relativity. Einstein asked himself, "What would it be like to stand inside a closed elevator in space? How would you know if you were in a gravitational field or being accelerated?" This playful question led to the Principle of Equivalence, which in turn led to all sorts of conclusions about the nature of spacetime.

Consider the deep playfulness of language. What is a metaphor but a "play on words"? Why do we have to say, "slower than molasses in winter" when we could just as easily say, "very slow"? When we refer to an unlikely event as one that won’t happen "until hell freezes over", are we not playing with our fears of damnation? Why would we refer to the unre-elected holder of the most powerful political office on the planet as a "lame duck President"?

Even some of our deepest religious and ethical ideas are founded in play. Why should we believe in the devil? Here is a personification of evil, a playful way of taking a complex subject (evil) and giving it physical form (devil). Even I, an atheist, find it useful to talk about complicated issues in terms of a real god. To what extent are such references a matter of play or a matter of mentation?

Why is that humor pervades all human interaction? Even the most serious of our activities is not immune to humor. In the midst of delicate arms control negotiations in Moscow, Henry Kissinger relates that a pause was reached when photocopies of working documents became necessary. He suggested that they simply hold the documents up to the chandelier. Everybody laughed. His Soviet hosts demurred. "Those cameras are too old; they were installed during Stalin’s day. Why don’t we use the cameras in the wooden panelling?" More laughter.

Oral arguments before the Supreme Court have been punctuated with jokes. In my oral examination for my master’s degree, I replied to a particularly tricky question by cracking an obscure joke; my answer was accepted. Alan Shephard hit a golf ball on the moon. A desperately wounded German soldier in Italy in 1943 asked a nearby American to give him assistance in relieving himself. As the American helped out, the German smiled weakly and asked, "Do you realize that you’re giving aid and comfort to the enemy?"

There’s something very deep here, something fundamental about the nature of the human mind. Like children playfully climbing on old cannons at a Civil War battleground, we game designers are toying with something that we don’t come close to understanding. Someday we will, and when we do, game design will no longer be seen as a trivial or lightweight effort. Someday game design will be part of our effort to understand ourselves. Someday, game design will yield profound new insights.

Gosh, do you think we could use those insights to build a bigger bomb?