Homo Ludens – Life Playing Games


One way to look at people is as sophisticated game playing instruments. A child is born and plays with parents and others as she learns to navigate the world. She goes to school and plays the game to get along with teachers and fellow students. If she learns the rules and fits in well enough, she can remain in school settings long enough to get advanced academic degrees. She will learn rules for some kind of employment and stick to the rules in order to win at paying bills. You don’t want to hear my rant about the games that are played in political systems. Let’s just agree that people build imaginary systems by which to govern themselves and choice leaders. I am suggesting we can model people’s behavior as game playing throughout the life journey.

There are activities people engage in that naturally appear as games or play. Such activities include sports, online computer games, fictional entertainment, and some social interactions. In 1938, Dutch historian and cultural theorist, Johan Huizinga published Homo Ludens. Huizinga suggested that play is a part of the way human culture is created and maintained. Many literary and art theorists discussed how to analyze creative products through the lens of game playing. Since then, some critics have focused most on game theory and looking at detective fiction. Obviously, computer games are an embodiment of gaming and playing. They approach how people interact with those types of games, and how games can be crafted. Some types of fiction seem especially compatible with viewing as game activities. The author of detective fiction toys with the reader by sharing some clues while withholding others. The course of the story teases the reader and characters with a growing body of evidence for the truth about the crime. At the conclusion of the story, the reader is either satisfied with the game path they have followed, or not. It is easy to see this type of fiction as directly connecting to people as game players.

Perhaps this ludic model is even useful when looking at sciences like evolution. Biological organisms function within tight constraints to live. They must process air and water. They must gather food, reproduce and raise offspring. The steps they must take can be seen as rules to the game. The options taken by plants and animals are moves in the play. When a species’ offspring have undergone changes in form or function, that species has manipulated the game rules to its advantage. Perhaps early humans began to develop a brain that could run scenarios and anticipate the next steps in possible games. Human language itself may have been constructed in order to express the possible games steps between different people. The brain is a wonderful instrument for producing and understanding games. The downside is that humans can create games that cause a great deal of trouble for people, like the electoral college in America.

Fiction writing seems like a good topic for me to end this blog post. As stated above, some fiction books are easy to model as play between the author and the reader. I would extend the model and say that all fiction writing can be treated the same way. In my book, Asante’s Gullah Journey, I tease the reader with characters who face difficult or impossible tasks. The reader is meant to try and guess how the characters will overcome their challenges. A fiction book like Asante’s fits within a genre that supplies certain expectations and rules. An author is expected to mostly follow the genre expectations while producing enough surprises to keep the reader on their toes. So, fiction stories can be a subtle play between author and reader to find enjoyment and fulfillment. Homo Ludens loves fictional play, as demonstrated by the resources invested in online gaming, movies, television, books, and comics.

S. A. Gibson is the author of Asante’s Gullah Journey. The story is set in a future United States without modern technology. Only 99 cents this month:



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