Play and Games

Figure 6 Play and Games [edited and adapted by S. Bezzina] (Freepik #5 n.d.)

Throughout the years, prominent researchers from various scholarly fields have discussed and given various attributes to the terms play and game. The ambiguity and challenges that arise in trying to explain and distinguish between the two terms are even more brought to the fore by the fact that linguistically, these are rarely differentiated. In fact, the English language presents itself as an atypical occasion where the difference between the terms can be perceived. This has led to terminological slippage between play and game in translating the original work written on the subject to English.

Dutch anthropologist Johan Huizinga (1949) and French sociologist Roger Caillois (1961) have defined play as a voluntary and safe activity of intrinsic value, with order and rules and having uncertain, social, absorbing and make-believe dimensions (Huizinga 1949, Caillois 1961). However, a fundamental problem lies in the fact that both scholars offer broad definitions, which apart from defining the term play, address also the resulting effects brought about by play. In his book, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, the philosopher Bernard Suits (1978) has espoused the characteristics of play proposed earlier and suggests that:

To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude]. (Suits 1978, p 41).

It is important to note that Suits (1978) does not define the term play or game but is effectively describing the act of playing a game. Suits (1978) argues that in order to achieve the game’s objective, the player enters into a psychological disposition, called ‘lusory attitude’ (Suits 1978, p 40), where the rules are followed voluntarily, even though these limit one’s freedom. On a conceptual level and in line with Suits’ (1978) argument, game-designers and academics Salen and Zimmerman (2004), differentiate play as one vital element of a game, described by gameplay as the ‘formalized interaction that occurs when players follow the rules of a game and experience its system through play’ (Salen and Zimmerman 2004, p 303). However, Salen and Zimmerman (2004) go further in describing the relationship between play and game, as a mutual correlation, distinct on another level (Salen and Zimmerman 2004). In fact, the authors argue that typologically, games are a subset of play, in the sense that ‘games constitute a formalized part of everything we might consider to be play’ (Salen and Zimmerman 2004, p 303).

Caillois (1961) proposes a theoretical model for classifying these different forms of play and ultimately distinguish between play and game. His ‘fundamental categories’ (Caillois 1961, p 14) include competitive (or agon), chance-based (or alea) and role-based (or mimicry) play, as well as physical play involving vertigo (or ilinx) (Caillois 1961). Furthermore, Caillois (1961) provides a ‘continuum between two opposite poles’ (Caillois 1961, p 13), stretching from paidia to ludus, along which these categories can be analysed. Paidia is the uncontrolled, free-form and improvised form of play while ludus represents rule-bound and formalised play (Caillois 1961).

It is interesting to note Caillois’ (1961) and Suits’ (1978) understanding of the concept of play in terms of what Huizinga (1949) describes as the ‘magic circle’ or ‘temporary worlds within the ordinary world’ (Huizinga 1949, p 10). In Huizinga’s (1949) terms, whilst moving inside the ‘magic circle’ (Huizinga 1949, p 10), the player is effectively leaving reality and entering into paidia or ludus (Caillois 1961). On crossing the circle’s boundary, the player adopts a ‘lusory attitude’ (Suits 1978, p 40) towards the act of playing a game, by voluntarily accepting rules which limit freedom, in pursuit of a goal inside the very same circle. Although Huizinga (1949) himself admittedly recognises that the magic from inside the circle can be retained ‘beyond the duration of the individual game’ (Huizinga 1949, p 12) and thus outside of the circle, the conceptualisation of an enclosed and sealed space, like a circle, puts emphasis on the rigid nature of the border separating play from reality.

Even though Huizinga (1949), Caillois’ (1961) or Suits’ (1978) never explicitly define the term game, their seminal work in the field of play studies inspired the definitions of game that followed. Most notably, the definition presented by Avedon and Sutton-Smith (1971), together with the one put forward by Salen and Zimmerman (2004), identify games on a number of dimensions. The central notions in both definitions are system/activity, contest/conflict, voluntariness, artificiality, rules and outcome (Avedon and Sutton-Smith 1971, Salen and Zimmerman 2004). Both definitions are robust enough in clearly distinguishing games from other game-like activities, while offering concise and unambiguous formulations. For the purpose of this dissertation, I propose the following definition:

A game is a well-defined and organised environment of interrelated elements, defined by rules, with and within which player/s interact in pursuit of a goal.

This working definition of the term game, draws on Salen and Zimmerman’s concept of system as ‘a set of things that affect one another within an environment to form a larger pattern that is different from any of the individual parts’ (Salen and Zimmerman 2004, p 50), by describing a game as an organised environment. Rather than settling on the term system, as adopted by Salen and Zimmerman (2004), the idea or concept of organised environment is used in my definition as it provides a less-specialised and more organic expression. The elements that define this environment include the different parts of the game, the players and ultimately the game itself. Although each element possesses distinguishable features determined by the rules of the game, their interrelatedness emerges through the strategic, social and cultural relationships, amongst others, that exist between them. The environment itself is well-defined either physically or symbolically by clear entrance and exit points. These demarcate its temporal and spatial existence in the real world as this environment both informs and is informed by the ordinary world. The ludic activities happening within, organised by Caillois’ in ‘fundamental categories of play’ (Caillois 1961, p 33), are possible only due to the ‘lusory attitude’ (Suits 1978, p 40) adopted by the players, whilst entering the environment. These activities are governed by game rules and involve an extended interaction between the players themselves and with the surrounding environment (Avedon and Sutton-Smith 1971), making the players’ pursuit of the ‘prelusory goal’ (Suits 1978, p 37) realisable.

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