The Typology and Sociology of Play

In Les jeux et les hommes (1958; translated as Man, Play and Games by Meyer Barash, 1961), Roger Caillois establishes a theory of play that builds directly on the foundations laid by Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens. Caillois greatly refines Huizinga’s theory, and his terms and concepts provide a crucial vocabulary and mental framework that are extremely useful in discussing games and play.

Additionally, Caillois extrapolates from games to macro-level social organization and dynamics. His observations, although over half a century old, are more timely than ever for a community increasingly concerned with relationships amongst gamers, our responsibilities to one another, and the role and function of games in society.

This post is a concise resource for players and designers interested in such topics. Direct references to Man, Play, and Games cite the first University of Illinois Press printing, 2001.

The Fundamentals of Play

Formal Qualities of Play

Caillois lists 6 fundamental qualities of play:

  • Free
  • Separate
  • Uncertain
  • Unproductive
  • Regulated
  • Fictive

You’ll note these closely align with the key points of Huizinga’s definition.

Types of Play

Agon: overcoming an arbitrary obstacle through skill and acumen; a footrace to beat a record or another runner
Alea: players are passive, and victory is determined solely by random chance; the spin of the roulette wheel, the roll of the die
Mimicry: imitation in an imaginary universe; the fun of assuming an identity not your own
Ilinx: the thrill of vertigo and the distortion of perception; activities involving disorientation (and often speed) such as carnival rides

Ways of Playing

Paidia: purely imaginative play; the as if of make-believe
Ludus: structured and organized play; games with formalized rules

Paidia and ludus form a continuum. Paidia’s informal as if gradually transitions into the formal rules that define ludus. As this happens, the types of play begin to distinguish themselves.

Complementary and Contradictory Types

Fundamental Relationships

Agon and alea

  • Compatible and complementary ways of deciding a winner through symmetrical forms of absolute equality
  • When combined, players depend on a balance of their own prowess and the whims of fate
  • Presumes the heavy regulation of ludus

Mimicry and ilinx

  • Presume an openness and lack of formal rules
  • The awareness of simulation is effaced by vertigo and ecstasis
  • Highly immersive

Contingent Relationships

Alea and ilinx: the vicissitudes of chance can enthrall, paralyze, and madden the player; both presuppose the resignation of personal will

Agon and mimicry: every competition is a spectacle, and simulations can compete against one another; both involve a champion or star performer who exhibits perfect discipline to achieve their goal

Forbidden Relationships

Agon and ilinx: vertigo is antithetical to the controlled effort of competition
Alea and mimicry: simulation cannot deceive or sway random determinism

The Social Functions of Games

Individuals can play by themselves, but play inevitably attracts like-minded groups. These gatherings formalize conventions and become the pretext for performance and exhibition staged before a sympathetic audience. Prevalence and stability leads to social legitimization and eventual institutionalization.

Institutionalization

Play ceases to be play when its activities become integrated into everyday life.

Agon: professional gamers and athletes
Alea: day traders
Mimicry: performers of stage and screen; creators of art and literature
Ilinx: stunt performers, extreme athletes

Corruption

The pleasure of play can grow to the point of obsession, excess, and fatality.

Agon: untempered conflict; failing to respect other players and refusing to recognize the authority and legitimacy of the rules or referee
Alea: appealing to superstition and magical thinking as a means of winning; relying on lucky charms and rituals
Mimicry: loss of identity and alienation, dissolution of the boundary between reality and fantasy; intentional, malicious deception
Ilinx: the pathological pursuit of vertiginous states of consciousness; substance abuse

Sociology Derived from Games

Caillois argues that any given society adopts the dynamics of the play-types it holds in highest esteem. (See page 87 for a very concise summary.) These constitute a culture’s moral and intellectual values. These values can change over time, and older ones leave behind a “residue” of devalued toys and games.

Dionysian” societies are dominated by mimicry-ilinx; political power derives from superstition and hysteria and is exercised by elites donning fearsome disguises.

Rational” societies grow from Dionysian ones and gradually adopt an agon-alea model; every person’s life is an interplay between the random chance of birth/heritage and their own abilities and efforts.

Mimicry and agon are the positive, constructive poles of their respective dialectics. Alea and ilinx are passive and destructive if unchecked by their counterparts.

“In societies based upon the combination of merit and chance, there is also an incessant effort, not always successful or rapid, to augment the role of justice to the detriment of that of chance. This effort is called progress” (78).


This is intended only as a handy overview. If you’re interested in the typology and sociology of play and games, Man, Play and Games is a very accessible and compelling read.

Liber Ludorum is entirely reader-funded. Please consider lending your support.

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