Between Civilization & Play: A Cultural Perspective on TTRPGs

Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens was published in Danish in 1938. A German edition followed in 1944. The English translation appeared in 1949. And in 2020, it remains a landmark of play theory.

Huizinga, a cultural historian, had one goal: to understand play itself. In Homo Ludens, he steps away from psychological, sociological, and other disciplinary theories in order to better understand the persistence and importance of human play.

Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga. Beacon Paperback edition, 1955.

Huizinga concludes play is pre-cultural, but it does not end when culture begins. Pure play is the basis of culture and civilization, and it continues to pervade and shape both. Homo Ludens establishes and explores this precept by examining play’s influence on art, law, religion, philosophy, literature, and the process of socialization.

Throughout, Huizinga’s subtext is that play is the most exalted human activity. It permeates and undergirds every aspect of our lives and cultures. When we play, we are at our most human. We are, perhaps, at our most civilized—more so than when engaged in other more allegedly “sophisticated” pursuits.

Huizinga’s book precedes TTRPGs’ emergence by several decades. So what happens when we examine this relatively recent form through the lens Huizinga provides?

What is Play?

One of Homo Ludens’s most practical contributions is its concise but encompassing definition 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.’”

This definition (often summarized as “the magic circle”) encompasses five key points that are worth emphasizing individually:

  • Play is freely engaged; it can’t be mandated or coerced.
  • Play is disconnected from ordinary life; mundane concerns don’t apply within the field of play.
  • Play is intrinsically satisfying; it is not fundamentally connected to or motivated by any external goal or objective.
  • Play has definite limits in space and time; it only happens in a certain place and during a certain period.
  • Play operates according to special rules; these govern players’ actions but don’t apply to the external world, the rules of which likewise don’t impose on play.
  • Additionally, play tends to establish a community that persists beyond the place, time, and activity of play; players develop cohesive bonds and a sense of being “apart together.”

It’s not surprising to find RPGs fit cleanly into this schema; they emerged from wargames, board games, and theatrical performance, all of which Huizinga was familiar with. But what’s important and interesting are how and why they conform to Huizinga’s theory.

Types of Play

Huizinga recognizes two fundamental manifestations of play within culture: competition and representation. TTRPGs unify these two forms. The genre literally takes its name from—is defined by—this union: roleplaying and game.

Play as representation is most evident in theatre; we go to see a play. Competition is present in every sport we watch. The contrast is obvious. Hamlet is not a game; football is not a dramatic performance. But both are play.

Representation

RPGs recombine performance and competition in the act of play; they give players goals, obstacles to those goals, and rules for overcoming obstacles. To do so, players relinquish their mundane identity and assume the role of a character (or characters) not themselves.

Representation is one of Huizinga’s two fundamental types of play. Alexandre Benois, “Italian Comedy (Indescreet Punchinello)”, 1906. Public domain.

Like actors and actresses, they generally don’t lose sight of their identity outside that character, but they take their character (and their play) seriously. Huizinga calls this “imaginative actualization”—players take on and embody a role. Representation is an act of establishing identity; by wearing a mask, literal or metaphorical, the performer becomes the person or thing portrayed. In representation, the distinction between player and played dissolves.

In many games, players will compete against one another on equal footing. They may also work together against the game. But in typical TTRPGs, they primarily compete against the game master.

Competition

GMs are typically distinguished from players, but the GM is nonetheless a player—a participant in the game. Their primary purpose is to establish desirable goals and compelling conflicts; overcoming these conflicts and achieving goals make RPGs satisfying for the other players.

Huizinga interprets civilization as fundamentally influenced by pre-cultural competitive play. Bull-Leaping Fresco from Akrotiri, Therea, 1450 BCE. Photo by Jebulon, 2015. Public domain.

Satisfaction, in this sense, depends largely on agency—how much influence does the player have on the game world? How meaningful is their ability to play? In storytelling games like TTRPGs, that agency contributes to, and even drives, the larger course of the narrative.

Aesthetic Play

Huizinga closely aligns play with art and beauty. He notes that play, in the process of creating order, also creates rhythm and tension. We see these in a football match, and we also see them in Hamlet. So when we think of TTRPGs tending toward art, we necessarily think of their narrative nature.

The juxtaposition of warrior and game illustrates conflict’s central role in play. Utagawa Kuniyoshi, “Hatakeyama sitting next to a Go board,” 1845. Public domain.

Although the responsibility of building a narrative frequently falls on a GM (when a game calls for one), it’s nonetheless a collaborative effort. The GM holds a semi-privileged position, but they are still just one player among many.

And while it may help to have someone at the table familiar with the hero’s journey, the archetypes, and three-act narrative structure, it isn’t necessary. We see these frameworks every day, in all media, to the point that they’re ingrained in us even if we don’t explicitly recognize them. Whether by nature or nurture, we organize events into narrative arcs and turn them into satisfying stories.

When this happens, TTRPG players are recapitulating one of the primary, emergent functions of play: they are creating culture. This can take many forms—drawing maps, keeping journals, circulating in-jokes—but the effect is the same. The magic circle gives rise to a culture unique to the group apart.

Conclusion

Homo Ludens uses terms that many gamers will find inappropriate, insensitive, and offensive—terms like “savages,” “primitives,” and “negros.” Johan Huizinga is clearly a product of his own time.

Although his view of other peoples is less than progressive, Huizinga’s attitude toward their play cultures is fundamentally egalitarian. The contests and performances of pre-modern, primal, and altern peoples are placed alongside, on equal footing with, those of the modern West. None are privileged; all are expressions of play, our common cultural denominator.

The disparity of Huizinga’s attitudes exposes, perhaps most potently, the work play does and the power it wields: to remove us from dominant perspectives, to neutralize bias, and to expose our true, shared human nature.


If you’re interested in learning more about the material and cultural history of board games, wargaming, and the emergence of TTRPGs, Professor Peachez’s concise History of Tabletop RPGs makes a good a starting point.

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