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Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture
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Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture

4.01  ·  Rating details ·  1,957 ratings  ·  154 reviews
In Homo Ludens, the classic evaluation of play that has become a "must-read" for those in game design, Dutch philosopher Johan Huizinga defines play as the central activity in flourishing societies. Like civilization, play requires structure and participants willing to create within limits. Starting with Plato, Huizinga traces the contribution of Homo Ludens, or "Man the p ...more
Paperback, 220 pages
Published June 1st 1971 by Beacon Press (first published 1938)
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 ·  1,957 ratings  ·  154 reviews

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I know, you think this is going to be one of those books where an academic has a stupid idea, but runs with it anyway and then spends half of the book saying, ‘no, no listen, hear me out on this…’ in ever more desperate tones. But this is so much better than that.

This book starts off reminding us that while we like to think of ourselves as homo sapiens (wise man) our ‘wisdom’ has proven increasingly hard to mention without including an ironic wink or an embarrassed cough, at least. We also have

it took me a long time, but it's not an easy study and most of the references it made seemed to bounce off my head like some blank wall... i so need to study more of everything...


first and foremost, this can't be a review with a plot resume or a linear story line. it's an essay, a study, a scientific paper (a long one, for sure) and it brings along a baggage of information that you can hardly incorporate.

i have only been seriously reading scientific, non-fiction works for about
Oct 28, 2016 rated it really liked it
What is play? Well, now you know - it's a lot of things.

It's a really exciting text, partly because play is fun to think about, and partly because the writer's passion for the topic grabs hold off your imagination. It's not just play, it's play-culture, it's the play-factor. I've written a few blog posts about it because I feel like the ideas deserve it. Very forward thinking for a turn of the 20th century writer.
Jonny Thomson
May 17, 2019 rated it liked it
I need to caveat this review by saying I enjoyed the reading experience much more than I did the book's content/thesis, and so the 3* is probably the average of the two.

By reading experience, I mean that it was brilliant to dive again into a book that presents a philosophical and anthropological argument, and to engage with it intellectually; I enjoyed reading, challenging, questioning, noting, and contemplating. It's the first book in a while I've made notes on, and where I sat after each chap
An Idler
Oct 19, 2017 rated it liked it
Johan Huizinga intrigues me and often says things that stick in my head, but he and I ultimately fail to really connect in a transfer of ideas. I'm willing to take most of the blame. Maybe some of his argument is being lost in translation, or perhaps a difference in presuppositions means the occasional leap in his logic is too far for me to follow. Still, I'm glad I read another of his books. But this leaves me feeling much the same way as I did at the end of The Waning of the Middle Ages.

Nick Carraway LLC
May 28, 2013 rated it liked it
1) ''Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.''

2) ''As a culture proceeds, either progressing or regressing, the original relationship we have postulated between play and non-play does not remain static. As a rule the play-element gradually recedes into the background, being absorbed for the most part in the sacred sphere. The remainder crystallizes as knowledge: folkl
John Gustafson
Apr 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I'd never heard of this book (written in 1938) until recently, when I started running across references to it in a lot of disparate places. It's fascinating, and I wonder if play-theory is going to make a comeback as a major school of literary and social criticism. "Play," after all, is one of the few values that has remained intact across both New Criticism and postmodernism (although I've always found that postmodernism plays lip service to play, favoring narrow identity politics). Huizinga's ...more
Mar 01, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's a great read. I must say it helps a lot if you have at least basic knowledge of cultural history - history of philosophy (mainly Ancient Greek), religion, history of anthropology (Boas, Malinowski, Maus), literature -, and history in general, also knowledge of Latin and Ancient Greek, as well as German and actually any other language you might know. It's easier and more engaging to read if you have some interest in philology, as the approach is highly philological. Having said that, I do st ...more
Keary Birch
Aug 18, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2020
Finally, I am finished. A long and in many ways difficult read but worth it and it made me think. There are issues, specifically that the translation (the book was written on German originally and, it would appear, translated by a historian). But it has a lot of interesting ideas and interestingly enough an comment in the last chapter that is very germane to world politics today.

A very worthwhile read.
Mar 18, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: psychology
"[In Ethiopia] even under Italian rule, litigation still continued to be a passion and a sport that delighted the natives. According to an English newspaper, a judge received a visit from a man who had lost his case on the previous day, but now said contentedly: 'I had a very bad lawyer, you know, all the same I'm glad to have had a good run for my money!'" ...more
Nick LaLone
Mar 15, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Everyone should read this book at some point before the end of their undergraduate degree. The things it has to say about society, the way society was formed, and the wide variety of ways in which society declines / rises is of special importance to just about any type of degree a person could get.
This first study of play & culture (1938) gives great basic understanding of what works in gamification and any environment that involves play.
Emilio Garofalo
Dec 29, 2014 rated it it was amazing
The seminal work in this field of study
Ron Peters
Huizinga* argues that many aspects of culture developed within his formal framework of play and are still shaped by aspects of this framework. Civilization is, in other words, played. It “does not come from play… it arises in and as play.” But he defines play variously and applies his definitions variously throughout the book.

His basic and none too playful framework of play defines it as something freely engaged in, standing outside of ordinary life (“not serious” yet intensely absorbing), proce
Jan 10, 2013 rated it it was ok
As college students, how many of us ever made it through the entire "recommended reading" list for a class? And for a class with 17 recommended titles and "Homo Ludens" being the most difficult to acquire (the vast University of Minnesota library system doesn't have a copy), even the most thorough of us could be forgiven for leaving it by the wayside.

But four years after taking the Toy Product Design class that cited Homo Ludens, I find myself helping to teach it, and I figured I ought to have a
Arturo Herrero
Oct 27, 2017 rated it liked it
The main premise of Homo Ludens is that play is primary to and a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of the generation of culture.

The fact that play and culture are actually interwoven with one another was neither observed nor expressed, whereas for us the whole point is to show that genuine, pure play is one of the main bases of civilisation.

Institutions such as religion, law, government, and the armed forces originally started as play-forms, or games, and only gradually did they becom
Sep 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Intriguing, readable book. I can easily see why it was a pathbreaking book when it was published over 60 years ago, and definitely more interesting than most metahistories. I think the key insight that the nature of play as something that was apart from other functions became the model for much of the key features of civilization is well taken, and it is intriguing to see him work with so much different material, including cultures beyond Europe to make his point. Almost 70 years on the point ab ...more
Mar 15, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Journalist Tom Chatfield of Prospect has chosen to discuss Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens , on FiveBooks as one of the top five on his subject - Computer Games, saying that:

It’s a book about the way that play precedes culture, and is a distinct and very complicated human phenomenon, which the author sees as giving rise to much that we think of as civilisation, as encoding a set of human values, ideas and ways of being in the world.”

The full interview is available here:
Sep 19, 2018 rated it liked it
While the central definition of play and the ideas spun from this were revelatory, each idea had to be excavated from text that didn't offer a recognizable through-line and was therefore a less than pleasant read. ...more
It took me so long to read it, that being at the end I already forgot what was the start about )
First published in 1938 (in German in 1944), in English translation in 1950 (my edition prepared from the German), Huizinga (great name - a Dutchman) presents 12 or XII chapters of historical, anthropological and sociological analysis of the play instinct.
Homo Ludens, latin for Man the player, works on the idea of the Agon, or the idea of matches and contests as the epitome of the nature of play.

Huizinga roams back to Ancient Greece and Rome, also using the now anachronistic language of 'primit
Apr 12, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It seems to me that Huizinga wrote it in a linear form and time, and so you can see that as time passes he becomes "a little bit" of a racist. Although at first, he uses historical references of ancient, primitives and a variety of human societies or cultures to support his statement, that of an even more side of a human figure like "homo luden", in a manner of recpectful and receptive way of historical content itself, his lasts chapters contain some racist designation of his speaking on, also a ...more
Camilo Ignacio
Mar 28, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: work-non-fiction
I read this book to have a deeper understanding on games and play, and how they create and can be applied to gamification, so my approach was very utilitarian which is not the focus of the book. The book is a very thorough philosophical and sociological study (as well as old written in 1938) on how the play-element (defined in the first chapter), first becomes culture through the sphere of rituals and the ceremonial, and then how this branches out to every sphere of society from warfare to art, ...more
Natty S
Dec 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
Became interested in Huizinga based on a thread at FetLife about the role of play in BDSM and he did not disappoint. While Huinzinga doesn't think play has much to do with sex (one can only imagine how boring his sex life must be!), he does believe play is the basis of much we consider "serious" like law, warfare, and religion. That, indeed, civilization can't happen without play. To be sure, this is a very dated work written originally in the late 1930s, so lots of condescending comments about ...more
Sep 30, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The author researches the role of the play in the culture's formation. He made a good job of finding the influence of the game in every aspect of life. Nothing of what he said seems farfetched but, at some point, it began to look like cheery-picking. Nevertheless, this is not a major problem for the book, this is Huizinga’s biases in what we should treat as a good element of play and what as a bad. He openly and sincerely shows his biases without even trying to hide them. To my surprise, this di ...more
Aug 06, 2020 rated it liked it
I like the idea of Huizinga's book, that play is a key element of human (and animal life) and that we should take it more seriously. But his text is hard to get through for a contemporary reader. Aside from lots of references to classical European civilizations with many terms from ancient Greek peppered throughout the text (in Greek alphabet), his use of terms like "savages" to talk about native or indigenous peoples is offputting. I don't know if Huizinga himself has a version that would be mo ...more
Even if we contest the limits of the concept of play as Huizinga defines them, his expansion of that term remains instructive, inviting a heuristic (and playful!) trying-out of the idea across disparate zones of human activity. Some of his analyses of the "play-factor" in ostensibly serious contexts were mildly revelatory for me (e.g. the gamelike, ritual function of legal codes and courts). It's no surprise that his "magic circle" concept has taken on new life in discussions around the virtual. ...more
Book with some interesting ideas and thoughts as to how most components of civilization are made up of some sorte of 'game' element.
However, given the date at which the book was written it becomes clear how most fields of study, such as antropolgy, have evolved and left behind some concepts like talking about others as 'savages' or 'uncivilized', and this idea is so deeply rooted in the author's theories that it's hard to believe that most of what he says would get a lot of attention now-a-days
Feb 02, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Riddles, games, contests, and ritual -- these are the forms of play, according to the author, that result in cultural institutions, from law and politics and war to the production of art. Like the philologists and cultural anthropologists before him, he's capable of drawing from deep wells, although you can't claim the method is scientific or narrow. Towards the end however he fails to observe the role of play in art, perhaps from generational prejudices, and sometimes his definition of play bec ...more
Jul 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The concept if this book is of follows: what is play and how can we identify the play-element in our culture?

One thing to note that this text is very difficult to skim through. I will have to read it again to truly understand the writer's intentions and goals.

I give it 5 stars because it definitely proposes interesting points and confronts our conception of seriousness. Do we understand what seriousness means? By constantly trying to be serious are we killing freedom? Why are we so obsessed with
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Johan Huizinga was a Dutch historian and one of the founders of modern cultural history.

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