23 May Roger Caillois

Man, Play and Games is the influential 1961 book by the French Sociologist Roger Caillois, (French Les jeux et les hommes, 1958) on the sociology of play and games or, in Caillois’ terms, sociology derived from play. Caillois interprets many social structures as elaborate forms of games and much behaviour as a form of play.

Caillois builds critically on the theories of Johan Huizinga, adding a more comprehensive review of play forms. Caillois disputes Huizinga’s emphasis on competition in play. He also notes the considerable difficulty in defining play, concluding that play is best described by six core characteristics: it is free, or not obligatory; it is separate (from the routine of life) occupying its own time and space; it is uncertain, so that the results of play cannot be pre-determined and so that the player’s initiative is involved; it is unproductive in that it creates no wealth and ends as it begins; it is governed by rules that suspend ordinary laws and behaviours and that must be followed by players; and it involves make-believe that confirms for players the existence of imagined realities that may be set against ‘real life’.

Caillois argues that we can understand the complexity of games by referring to four play forms and two types of play:

  • Agon, or Competition.
  • Alea, or Chance.
  • Mimesis, or role playing.
  • Ilinx (Greek for “whirlpool”), or Vertigo

Caillois also places forms of play on a continuum from ludus, structured activities with explicit rules (games), to paidia, unstructured and spontaneous activities (playfulness), although in human affairs the tendency is always to turn paidia into ludus, and that established rules are also subject to the pressures of paidia. It is this process of rule-forming and re-forming that may be used to account for the apparent instability of cultures.