The building blocks of argument

Written arguments take skill and experience to craft. They rely on a coherent grasp of data, as well as logic and diverse techniques of persuasion. As such, it is a skill that takes some time to master. It is especially difficult to teach. Often, students are asked to learn about argument through studying existing texts. It can be dreary! In the spirit of playfulness, I propose an alternative.

Accident Investigation: Jack and Jill

In this post, I will share a writing guide I have used with students for almost a decade. I wrote it at around 2am in the morning when I was having a fit of insomnia-fuelled creativity, so that may account for the playful approach. I was trying to think of illustrative examples I could use for students to learn from which would not draw on just another boring essay topic. I also was looking for a scenario they could engage with playfully, and consider different interpretations of events.

So I chose a nursery rhyme.

Jack and Jill went up the hill

To fetch a pail of water

Jack fell down and broke his crown

And Jill came tumbling after!

This nursery rhyme was a substitute for a case study or example for students to use in constructing an imaginary argumentative essay. The subject of the essay was to be ‘Are hills dangerous?’ as this was an incredibly open question which could be interpreted in a wide variety of ways.

Developing a Thesis

So why is Jack and Jill a playful example to use in showing students how to develop a thesis, or argument? First of all, it links back to childhood rhymes and nonsense play – as such it highlights and challenges the austerity and seriousness of tone in academic writing. It also emphasises that developing an essay tries not only on specialist prior knowledge of the subject, but on further research. To direct that research, the lack of detail in the nursery rhyme invites curiosity and investigation: what hill did Jack and Jill climb? Why were they there together? What caused the fall? Were both of them equally hurt?

In my guide I present students with a range of possible theses they might improvise based on the question:

Thesis A Hills are dangerous environments, as evidenced by the accident and injury experienced by both Jack and Jill.

Thesis B Hills are not dangerous places when compared with urban environments where the majority of the population live; but they may pose risks due to being unfamiliar.

Thesis C Hills are dangerous places, but the resourcing of adequate emergency services such as first aid centres and search and rescue operations is sufficient to mitigate the risk to the public.

Thesis D Whether hills are dangerous or not, the regulation of public access to the natural environment is an infringement of people’s rights to leisure.

You can find my most recently updated student handout for download here.

Using existing games to provoke learning

In a previous post I have described how games can be used to enhance learning in three ways; as a simulation of real situations, as a carrier of thematic information, or as competitive skill practice.

One of the ideal scenarios in using existing games for educational purposes is the appropriation or adaptation of excellently designed and mass produced games. These make your life as a trainer or educator much simpler, as you don’t have to become a professional game designer in adddition to your existing work.

This week I have been playing Brass: Birmingham to consider whether the theme of the game or the skill practice required to perform well in the game are in any way matched to the learning needs of business management students. My conclusions so far? The theme gives some historical context appropriate to learning about entrepreneurship in the industrial revolution, but the game is too long and complex for simple adoption in a learning context.

So what’s the problem with complex games? In short, time.

A number of university courses and professional development programs now use simulations and serious games as a way to deliver engaging content. So lengthy amounts of classroom time can be effectively devoted to game-playing. However, research on the effectiveness of simulations has suggested that they need to be quite close in experience to real-world possible events. So crisis simulations held in a board room, stock market simulations that students engage with via a trading platform and so on help prepare students for the possible ‘reality’ the simulation mimics. They do not demand a leap of imagination to apply. By contrast, abstracted resource management games such as Brass:Birmingham, do.

Business as unusual

We appear to be living through times of radical change. Thanks to the interference of the coronavirus pandemic, like many of you, I am now managing working from home as a self-employed professional alongside family commitments. The situation is frightening, but also an opportunity for learning and transforming our working practices.

Change on this scale is frightening because it is interfering with our regular routines and patterns of behaviour that give meaning to our everyday actions. We are working in different environments, merging work and family, improvising solutions or work-arounds all while experiencing highly charged emotions around the health risks and changing relationships we are now faced with. It can provide a sense of calm to understand how our routines convey meaning, and also how introducing practices such as play can help.

In our ordinary behaviour, we practice something called audience segregation. That is, we take on roles to present ourselves and our values differently in different places and to different people – and we try to keep those places and people separate. So at home we might be ‘children’s entertainer’, ‘chef’ or ‘building manager’, while at work we might be ‘boss who is a stickler for the rules’ or ‘office clown’. Outside of these relatively private spaces, we also have a set of behaviours and appearances which we employ in shared public spaces; to appear approachable or dignified, to convey popularity or solidarity. Appearances on digital media have a different, and emerging, set of rules and behaviours. I hope to cover these in another post as there are too many features to discuss in this one!

All of these behaviours serve a purpose, to make us feel a part of a community, to feel separate from people we disapprove of, and to support our values and sense of self-respect.

I cannot state strongly enough how attached we are to these psychological dynamics. Our mental well-being rests wholeheartedly in these routines. This is why so many advice columns out there are avidly recommending not to work from home in your pyjamas! But more than this, it is of the utmost importance to maintain positive social connection and meaningful structure.

Play can assist you in this as it engages a known routine within safe boundaries and marks a distinction between serious and non-serious activity. So why not incorporate a regular ‘play time’ into your weekly schedule? And if you want to incorporate some serious play into regular practices for personal reflection, I’ll be posting some LEGO build challenges for that on the website here.

5 things you didn’t know about using games for assessment

Richard Landers at the University of Minnesota hosted an excellent interdisciplinary workshop on game based assessment this summer featuring the latest international research. As part of the first day‘s content, a number of speakers summarised their findings on using and designing games. This included applications such as psychologically profiling candidates for employment and for assessing skills. It’s an excellent collection of the state of the art on game based assessment practices. Here’s just five of the top key points.

1.Games are as reliable as other tests

Games are as reliable as other forms of candidate psychometric testing, and are often preferred by candidates – as long as they are carefully designed and administered. However, not all game-based assessments are the same, and they have to be designed and administered rigorously within the parameters of their validity. They also have the same limitations.

2. Behaviour in games is indicative of behaviour elsewhere

Research into how players behave in games played solely for pleasure shows that these behaviours reliably crop up in other parts of life, including the workplace. This encompasses behaviour such as teamwork, a positive attitude to learning, competitiveness, as well as negative behaviours such as rudeness and aggression.

3. Computer game design and application can be very time-consuming

In design, implementation and analysis, the application of computer games for valid testing purposes holds huge promise – but is very time consuming. For valid and reliable results against specific criteria, development of new test games can take years. However, if the intended application is a roll out to a mass of candidates in the thousands or millions, such investment may be worthwhile. Mass application of games can also generate valuable datasets to identify performance, though analysis techniques are still in development.

4. Participants feel game based assessment offers fairer methods of recruitment

Candidates often prefer games-based assessments as being less stressful than conventional testing. They also feel that self-assessment games including specific features offer fairer outcomes. Like tests, games offer a scoring system, but participants especially feel that the contextual elements of games including immediate feedback, a progressive level structure, and a business-related narrative contribute to the fairness of the outcomes.

5. Game based assessment can reproduce existing psychometric test biases

Unfortunately, the structural biases evident in existing psychometric testing methods are not avoided when games are designed and implemented to reliably test for the same variables. However, this may suggest that the bias issue is related to existing scientific consensus on the variables themselves rather than the method of testing or a lack of proficiency within disadvantaged groups.

3 things about effective training I learned as a university lecturer

We’ve all been there, those of us who have taught undergraduate students. The 9am slot. The time when hordes of empty seats face us thanks to 2-4-1 offers at the student’s union the night before. And those brave souls who have made the effort to attend stare vacantly at the podium. There is no more melancholy experience of participant disengagement. But luckily, it did lead to my learning a wide range of tricks and techniques to enhance engagement.

1. Don’t treat learners like idiots

I know, if they’re hungover it’s self-inflicted injury, right? But have a little compassion. There’s not that much difference between a new university student and any learner – in fact observing academics when they have to sit in classrooms often shows them to be the most inattentive and disruptive of students! Despite the inequality of expertise between the ‘sage on the stage’ and the learner, everyone has relevant expertise to contribute. And an ‘I told you so’ attitude will not have a productive effect in helping any learners reach their outcomes.

If your learners or trainees lack knowledge of the topic, I often found it helped to start with a punching bag exercise. This is an exercise where you invite them to propose the worst imaginable scenario of ignorance. According to your topic this may represent the most bumbling of practitioners, the most unstrategic of managers, the worst value proposition. This imagined punching bag person makes learners feel comfortable and knowledgable by comparison, confident to contribute to discussion, and draws out genuine expertise about what to avoid.

2. Plan your outcome not your content

It may seem much easier to have a fixed idea about the content your learners or trainees need to cover. It’s easier to prepare, to schedule and plan, and to ensure that the specified material is all delivered with no omissions or gaps. You can offer opportunities to ask questions and provide support, and even test participant’s cognitive understanding. But will they be able to recall and deliver when it matters? What do you do with those who didn’t ‘get it’ in the classroom or workshop?

A focus on outcomes rather than content is part of a ‘flipped’ educational method where you give all relevant information to learners in formats they can access at any time. Because information is not learning, and time spent delivering information is time that can be better used for development. Moving away from a clock-based system to an understanding-based system also involves more interactive training and teaching techniques. Providing tests and quizzes or simulation exercises allows a more in-depth focus on developing understanding, which is also more in alignment with client’s or students real interests.

3. Turn your learners into teachers

People learn best from those whose expertise and cultural reference points are similar to their own. While there is an important value to be gained from exploring our differences, getting to that stage relies upon a shared basis of communication and understanding. In the majority of teaching and training settings, that shared platform takes a long time to develop, and getting to the stage where trainer and trainee can meet on shared territory requires both to learn more about each other.

In the early stages, whether that’s minutes or weeks of a learning programme, learners will often have more in common with each other than with the trainer. Utilising this shared bond to enhance their development is a great way to get started. Encourage students or trainees to reflect on their initial learning stages together, present their thoughts to each other, and support feedback between these groups and your expertise. It all begins to establish a common territory – and you might learn something too.

Opening Teaching to Play

Today I am delivering a short session as part of the Open University’s pre-conference development workshop for scholars of Critical Management Studies, aimed specifically at early career researchers and PhD students. I’m particularly excited about being able to present, side-by-side, games promoting social change from 2018 (Who’s She by Playeress), and from 1908 (Suffrageto, sold by the WSPU).

Gamification is a current popular trend in HE. While there are many examples of poor or even unethical gamification, research has indicated that games offer a productive mechanism for cognitive learning, and even that the affective potential of games can help students develop valued graduate attributes. Drawing on Huizinga’s (1932) argument that play precedes culture, we can also identify playful behaviour within a wide variety of seemingly sacred social contexts (e.g. law courts), and particularly in the development of knowledge through wordplay and social competition. Office politics or the ‘game playing’ of career oriented behaviour is one such example! The way in which scholars publish, critique and challenge each other’s ideas to advance knowledge is an advanced form of this game-playing instinct.

So why should we keep games out of the classroom? Many teaching contexts continue to rely on information delivery based on talk and writing, with perhaps some limited discussion. This is then supported by independent learning using a variety of techniques, which may be supported or unsupported by institutional training. While many students have become highly proficient in this method through prior experience, it does not come naturally. By contrast, playing games does. The main challenge to such adoption lies in discovering or developing games which promote the designed learning outcomes. I call these ‘intended gaming outcomes’.

Follow the links if you would like to download the slides and handouts from the session.

Playing for Social and Ecological Value

Here at Seriously Learned, a lot of new development work has been going on over springtime – and this will be reflected in a website product update soon! Now a member of ANTZ Network, Seriously Learned is committed to supporting organisations in the discovery of their social value potential, with a range of new game-based training opportunities in collaboration, social valuation and diversity to support this.

The other development I’ve been working on is a comprehensive overhaul of suitable games for developing awareness and practice for ecological sustainability. This is a burgeoning area in scientific communication, so there are lots of new opportunities to review your resource use and develop more sustainable practice through play!

How can we play for value?

When we play games, those games introduce us to different models of what is valuable, along with rules of behaviour regarding how such value is distributed or produced. Something as simple as a board game can communicate who can take resources and when, and in playing we learn how far these mechanics can be trusted when other players develop different strategies to compete. Games encode value in their core mechanics, and through a repetitive ‘loop’ of behaviour (e.g your ‘turn’) different actions can be more or less effective in ‘winning’ – achieving the game outcome.

This ‘gaming loop’ is what attracts us to gameplay, as it corresponds closely with our neuro-psychological learning loops. Playing the game successfully according to its values makes us feel good. So games that introduce different values are a great way of considering how we can still enjoy success through different patterns of behaviour.

In this way, we can use games as a starting point to reflect on which of our behaviours matter to achieving value, and what kinds of value. For example, many social minority groups face a penalty in the workplace because their behaviours don’t fit in with expectations, and as human beings we are programmed to see difference as a possible threat as well as a possible advantage. This is at the root of unconscious bias. But we can train ourselves to be more accepting of diversity and to recognise its value through acknowledgment of characteristics that do and don’t matter!

When we know what behaviours do and do not matter, we can embrace alternative innovations and practices, both social and ecological!

Can play improve wellbeing at work? Check out these 4 areas where it could…

Workplace wellbeing is a difficult target to reach, but Laine & Rinne have summarised key areas which need to be considered by those brave enough to try. The list below shows how play has the potential to help with each of these.

1 – Health

While being in good health is a combination of lifestyle and luck, both promoting good health and recovery from illness can be supported by play activities. Research has highlighted how play can help mentally prepare us for coping with pain and illness, supporting the development of resilience and even enhancing recovery times! The old favourite that laughing is great medicine also holds true, so five minutes of fun as a regular habit could help to decrease absence due to sickness. Try out quick and silly party games like Asmodee’s Dobble or Ridley’s Avocado Smash!

2 – Stress, role conflict and the meaning of work

We’ve all had days where we feel torn in two, wearing too many hats or overwhelmed in trying to be the person everyone needs us to be. Play can help develop core strategies to protect against this, including reframing conflicting goals and meanings. Reframing is a hugely transformative technique that requires acknowledging the location of the conflict as part of who we think we are or want to be. That conflict can then be explored playfully and productively in conjunction with an awareness of our goals and identity. Exploring conflict and stress playfully as a productive exercise can highlight different ways of thinking about roles and our temporary or long term commitments to them.

Play-based techniques can also help reorient employees to what they find meaningful in their work through a focus on their core motivations. After all, we rarely need motivation to have fun! However, this type of intervention usually requires the use of applied play toolkits such as LEGO Serious Play, or facilitation using tools such as conversation cubes.

3 – Personality & Social Relations

While play wont change your personality, it can help you get a better understanding of others. Developing good relations can rely on knowing the different personalities within your team. When we play games we have opportunities for catharsis, a release of tension or built-up emotions. It doesn’t have to be anything as aggressive as beating the boss at paintball, either! Engaging in team games can develop trust and support bonding through shared experiences of success or failure. Some workplaces might be more suited to regular outdoor sports, but any type of social game from charades to Secret Hitler or Pandemic can engage groups in a fulfilling collaborative or competitive social experience.

4 – Uncertainty & change

Change and uncertainty can often be frightening. They threaten our plans for the future and push us outside of our usual practice. Adopting a playful attitude, however, can help build resilience in the face of change. When we play, we remain prepared to change our game without excessive fear of the consequences and maintain a flexible attitude. Building a culture of such flexibility by encouraging playfulness in the workplace can help organisations and individuals face uncertain futures with greater confidence. Helpfully, the genuine promotion of any type of play activity will do this, provided leaders genuinely support creativity and play as a beneficial mechanism!

Take some time in 2019 to play with yourself

Many people will be dusting off their old box of New Year’s Resolutions from 2018 today, acknowledging how unsuccessful or successful they were and planning some new ones for 2019. The trouble with New Year’s Resolutions is that they are often incredibly virtuous, a bit unpleasant, and too hard to keep up year-round. So to help you make your 2019 a little bit more fun, I’ve created a few videos to help you be your own coach and cheerleader. And you can do it in less than an hour a week – by playing with lego (or a similar brick-related toy product).

Play Along: the Skills Build

Part 1 – Technical skills

Part 2 – Using bricks as metaphors

Part 3 – Telling a story

Once you have completed the skills build, you are ready to move onto the self-coaching part of the process. This involves a repeatable 30 minute activity.

Self-coaching with LEGO Serious Play materials

Commit to regular play

Advice for self-coaching

Coaching yourself is much more difficult than being coached by someone else, but it can still pay off! You simply need to ensure you commit to regular sessions, and promise yourself to be honest.

Basic Coaching Questions

WHAT and WHY and WHAT. Getting great results is often about asking great questions. These question words help orient you towards a goal, understanding your current situation and considering your path towards change. What do I want to change? Why is it a problem? What can I do to make a difference? Finally, HOW will help you focus on your actions towards change.

To model your current satisfaction, fill out the Life Satisfaction Wheel

Keeping Track

The most important way to keep yourself motivated and bring about the change you aim for is by keeping track – but it doesn’t matter how you do it. You can keep a diary or bullet journal, build it using a LEGO diagram or calendar chart, or make a vlog. Just make sure you give yourself 15 or 20 minutes every fortnight to reflect and review your progress – and be playful!

Let’s make 2019 a year of serious fun. Play along!

Are we Homo Ludens? Huizinga’s 5-point definition of play.

Homo Ludens is a text frequently cited yet less often read with respect to games and culture. Establishing the concept of the ‘magic circle’, many subsequent studies of games use this work of historical analysis to convey authority and gravitas to the field, and Huizinga’s key message is still a compelling one: that to play is necessary to human life and culture.

This post will shortly be available as a video on the Seriously Learned Youtube channel, meanwhile you can hear Laura talking about Huizinga on BBC Radio 3 here.

Who was Johan Huizinga?

Johan Huizinga was a linguist and historian based at Leiden University when he wrote Homo Ludens in the 1930s. He was particularly interested in the behaviours of courtly life in the medieval, renaissance and late baroque periods, and noted their tendency towards play. However, in scholarly circles in the Netherlands he was a controversial figure and branded a detached recluse for concentrating on telling tales of a beautiful and idealised past, rather than addressing the contemporary dangers of Fascism and Nazism. Nonetheless, anti-Nazi actions he had taken in the 1930s and later criticism of the occupation of the Netherlands had him detained in 1942 and he was subsequently refused permission to return to Leiden. He died in 1945.

Colie (1964) was instrumental in foregrounding Huizinga’s contribution to English-speaking scholars in the post-war period. She highlights that Homo Ludens is not a theory of games, but rather a theory of the function of play in human culture. Colie implies that Huizinga’s work on play is important for recognising that as social beings we don’t only come up with rules to get along together, but also allow for spaces where we can break those rules in order to explore alternative ways of organising.

What is play?

In Homo Ludens, Huizinga points out that Ancient Greek culture distinguished between paidia – lighthearted or child’s play, and agon – sport or games, but to the Romans, all was included in the term ludus – play. By exploring the challenges and contests in Greek sport and identifying the linguistic approach to play in Germanic and Romance languages, as well as Sanskrit, Sinitic (Chinese) and Native American (Blackfoot), Huizinga sides with the Roman characterisation of both types of activity as the same. He identifies that play incorporates descriptions of nature and human action, pretence and limits, freedom of movement and of competition. Most frequently, Huizinga identifies play as comprising a pledge to undergo some kind of risk and tension, even to the degree of deadly seriousness as in violent sporting matches.

The 5 characteristics.

Huizinga outlines five characteristics of play;

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”

1. Play is voluntary

The voluntary nature of play is in contrast to the involuntary nature of the things we must do for survival. This is obvious in tasks such as washing or tending crops but less obvious when we start to consider ‘playful’ activities such as craft or artistry which require toil or training. Huizinga debates this in the distinction between the musical (arts) and plastic (crafts) to argue that while performance is a type of free play which may rely upon expertise and training, the training or crafting of skill or a piece of art is work. In this distinction, the showing of a painting might be play, but the production of it is labour.

2. Play is Rule Ordered

When we enter into play, we agree to play by explicit or implied rules, which are often different to those we normally follow. These rules are rules of behaviour as well as of material significance. For example, the idea of taking turns, and that everyone shall have a turn to act or speak is a frequent unwritten rule of most conversational games. The use of physical tokens to represent action is another frequent rule, along with details such as how many tokens a player has and how actions through them may be performed.

3. Play happens within fixed boundaries: the ‘magic circle’

The setting aside of play as a distinct practice is closely related to the understanding of the specific order and binding rules of play. When we agree to the restriction of rules, we also agree that these restrictions will only apply for a time and/or place. We allow ourselves the freedom to step outside of that space or time, whether loser or victor, and return to a different set of rules of behaviour. Those who breach the boundaries are contemptuous, spoil-sports or barbarians, and are swiftly excluded.

4. Play is different

When we play, we are distinctly aware that what we are doing is not ‘ordinary life’, though we might mimic everyday activities. We inhabit a different ‘mental world’ where there might be consequences to what we are doing, but those consequences usually adhere to different rules. This is one of the main reasons why play can be so satisfying, as we sometimes need to enter a space where the rules are different to everyday life – fairer or more clearly specified, in order to explore why some practices have been successful or unsuccessful.

5. Play is not useful or in a material interest

One of the important elements of play is “what is at stake”. Although gambling and risk-taking are identified by Huizinga as key to understanding the tension and excitement of play, play is nonetheless non-purposeful. Huizinga compares professional and amateur sports in this respect, highlighting that once the playing of a game is subservient to a material interest it no longer can be understood as pure play. However, in conjunction with the concept of the magic circle, it remains possible to identify play as having serious and material consequences without necessarily invalidating its status. Importantly, although satisfaction is key to play, Huizinga’s definition does not rely solely upon a psychological perspective of play as producing a ‘feeling’ of engagement (or flow) as a definitive factor.

Play and Culture

Huizinga explores a wide range of social activities in Homo Ludens that we might not identify as play. These include ‘sporting’ activities such as duels to the death or verbal ‘battles’ such as public debates. He also points out the importance of play to ceremony and performance. Both dance and music are play performances, though we would not often think of these as we do games.

Gifts: Conspicuous consumption and destruction

A significant type of play identified in Homo Ludens is drawn from Mauss’ work on gift-exchange, which shares similarities with Veblen’s work on conspicuous consumption.

one proves one’s superiority not merely by the lavish prodigality of one’s gifts but, what is even more striking, by the wholesale destruction of one’s possessions just to show that one can do without them.

This highlights how the practice of giving away high-value items conveys a message regarding the wealth and virtue of the gift-giver, and places an obligation on the receiver to reciprocate, or in the case of the destruction of property, to compete.

This type of competition compares with boasting or slanging matches, and is labelled a ‘squandering match’ by Huizinga. The expression of excessive politeness is a comparable reversed game to that of the boasting match, in which each participant strives to be more courteous than the other.

Knowledge: play to learn

Just as there are forms of contest based on chance, dexterity or physical ability, Huizinga points out the common occurrence of knowledge contests in history and myth. Knowledge contests also remain so central to contemporary life we don’t even recognise them as such – though we call them ‘tests’ and ‘qualifying exams’! In Homo Ludens, Huizinga focuses on the role of wordplay and riddles in schooling particular types of thinking or expertise.

The answer to an enigmatic question is not found by reflection or logical reasoning. It comes quite literally as a sudden solution – a loosening of the tie by which the questioner holds you bound. The corollary of this is that by giving the correct answer you strike him powerless. In principle there is only one answer to every question. It can be found if you know the rules of the game.

While this resembles being quizzed in front of a class, the riddle-question can also push the limit of knowledge by motivating participation in the challenge. Huizinga presents the example of the ‘superlative question’ game, such as “what is sweeter than…” where each answer become the next question. To answer “I don’t know” is to lose the game, so it motivates scholarship. If we take a different version of this question, such as “what is smaller than…” our eventual result today would be to study advanced mathematics or particle physics!

Law: the courtroom as a ‘magic circle’

the lawsuit can be regarded as a game of chance, a contest, or a verbal battle

When we consider the seriousness of a court of law, Huizinga’s assertion that we can identify law as a type of play seems an extreme one. It relies upon the recognition of  historical and cultural approaches to justice which rely upon the setting aside of a context in which a trial may be fairly conducted. The pursuit of justice must be set apart from other social activity in order to establish principles of fairness, and as such it utilises the characteristics of a play contest. This setting-apart of the courtroom also applies to the judge and other roles within it – as these individuals must set aside personal attitudes and concerns. This presents some explanation, Huizinga suggests, for the peculiar use of costume or regalia in the legal profession.

Play and War: worlds apart?

Its principle of reciprocal rights, its diplomatic forms, its mutual obligations in the matter of honouring treaties and, in the event of war, officially abrogating peace, all bear a formal resemblance to play-rules inasmuch as they are only binding while the game itself – i.e. the need for order in human affairs – is recognized.

If we look to ancient civilization it is not difficult to find a link between violent sports and the training of skills for war. From ancient strategy games to contemporary computer games, the theme of warplay is a popular one. Unlike the moral panics which propose that warplay encourages violence, Huizinga proposes that the limiting rules of play are fundamentally necessary to distinguishing between human engagement in war, an aggressive combat between equals, and animal violence in the pursuit of survival.

Implicit to Huizinga’s writing on this seems to be the proposal that war without limitations is a challenge to all human civilisation; war without limitations is not an activity that may be claimed by homo sapiens without placing that very categorisation in jeopardy.

We might, in a purely formal sense, call all society a game if we bear in mind that this game is the living principle of all civilization.

Is everything play?

Since Huizinga, other influential scholars have presented definitions of play which make different distinctions. Caillois’ Man, Play and Games (1961) reintroduced the distinction between ‘play’ (imaginative fantasy) and ‘sport’ (skill-based games), while some psychologists have proposed a definition of ‘unstructured’ play as the individual experience of creativity or improvisation.

Purposeful play, or the appropriation of play-like characteristics to activity which is not different to “ordinary life”, for Huizinga, is false play. In the final chapter of Homo Ludens, Huizinga expresses concerns about the use of play to conceal political or social agendas or to promote ‘barbaric’ tendencies such as the infantilisation, subjugation or oppression of others.

Overall, Homo Ludens highlights how many cultural activities incorporate play-like characteristics, and also indicates that new cultural practices can emerge from playing with existing norms and formats. Yet Huizinga makes no assumption about the quality of play activity; suggesting that it can be debased to meaningless repetition, or can be elevated to ritual or sacred status. Where play offers scope for development and improvisation of culture, it may be seen as a productive force. Yet some characteristics of play may be employed to inhibit the development of collective culture, and the victories achieved through play are empty ones.