“The incidence of play is not associated with any particular stage of civilization or view of the universe. Any thinking person can see at a glance that play is a thing on its own, even if his language possesses no general concept to express it. Play cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.”
— Johan Huizinga

Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture puts forth a number of interesting arguments about the nature and practice of play. It builds the case that play precedes culture, is linked fundamentally to “the great archetypal activities,” including the construction of language and myth, and even that “genuine, pure play is the basis for civilization” (Kindle loc. 107-131). In framing his definition of play, he notes that play must be voluntary–and is, in fact, an expression of freedom. It must also be an “interlude,” a temporary state with beginning and end (however often it may be repeated). Play also necessitates some form of structure, with internal rules. (Indeed, Huizinga’s discussion of play as a sort of constructed space with internal rules that must be consistently held up, lest the play be violated and broken, puts me very strongly in mind of J. R. R. Tolkien’s discussion of the Secondary World from “Tree and Leaf.”) Huzinga notes both “contest” and “representation” as functions of play, and a substantive measure of the text discusses how various cultures have distinguished between them.

While a fascinating text, particularly from the perspective of a historical view, I find that my own interests (at least in the context of this list) may not be entirely compatible with the Huizinga’s efforts. For one, I am not interested in his extensive discussions of which language and/or culture best represent or embody play. Much of the work seems to engage in attempts at hierarchy and cultural evaluation, casting countless distinctions between “high and low” elements of culture–from play to religion. A bias towards the “modern” and “Western” is readily apparent, which of course places certain limitations on the text. All in all, the text provides interesting context and ways to think about play, but I do not believe it will have much direct impact on my thinking in the long term. In particular, I do not see any way to “do Huizinga” pedagogically–that is, I do not believe I can directly instantiate these ideas in the classroom.

Questions and Answers

1. Considering Adichie’s description of being unable to perceive herself as included in a particular community until she had seen herself welcome there, how can we use Johnson’s pleasure-oriented “renegade rhetoric” to create a more inclusive academic community that encourages students to be active, engaged participants rather than feel academics are a toil inflicted upon them?

Huzinga places definite value on play as distinct from labor, which I suppose is compatible with Johnson’s idea of play/pleasure as something external from “masochistic” institutional systems. Huizinga also makes much of the seriousness and value of play in constructing cultural elements, which is compatible.

2. In the text, identify a specific community that is discussed. What role does inclusion in and engagement with that community play in forming an identity (both as an individual and as part of said community) that serves to facilitate the goals of liberation and critical consciousness as put forth by Paulo Freire and bell hooks?

Huzinga argues that play is a method of establishing identity and self, a way of participating in community and constructing culture. However, no direct link to liberation or critical consciousness is apparent. Again, I believe that Huizinga’s thinking can be used to support the ideas of those who have worked with these questions, but his own ideas do not directly engage with these questions.

3. How can seeking to orient toward pleasure and satisfaction as pedagogical modes be designed to specifically address the concepts of varied learning styles, multiple intelligences, and the highly varied backgrounds (personal, cultural, academic) of students?

The closest Huzinga seems to come to this is when he states, “All peoples play, and play remarkably alike; but their languages differ widely in their conception of play, conceiving it neither as distinctly nor as broadly as modern European languages do” (Kindle loc. 585-586). Unfortunately, this statement seems to be made more from the perspective of arguing for the supremacy of certain languages over others than for the sake of orienting toward the distinctions he has alluded to.

4. What can we learn about learning, both as students and teachers, by studying the ostensibly enjoyment-oriented concept and practice of “play”? What connects pleasure and play–enjoyment and engagement–to learning, cognition, and individual development?

Here is the real point of contact for Huizinga’s text. The strong connection I see here resonates with more recent thinkers, such as Koster, who note the importance as play as an end in and of itself. Huzinga points out that play, when it becomes too focused on external considerations–such as the regimentation of sport or the reward-focus of many contests–then the experience of play is decreased. This also resonates with Johnson’s assertion that learning–and I will take from Koster that “play” and “learning” are essentially linked, if not the same–loses effectiveness when it is done for the sake of only external punishment/reward from established institutional systems.

5. In considering the concept of “inclusion,” how can a focus on student pleasure and engagement in academic pursuits serve to address fundamental questions of complex exclusion and divided identities? Consider this discussion in terms of a borderland, such as discussed by Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera. Students’ language is a kind of homeland for them, a place they have long occupied; what divisions and exclusions are we asking them to navigate (within and without) by asking them to learn to write and use language “correctly” without including their own pre-existing language—their own territory, as it were—into the process?

As noted in the answer to question three, this does not seem to be a notable consideration.


Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955. Kindle edition.

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