The Benefits of Board Games: Play (Part 1)

homoludensIf you have not read it, add Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture to your reading list. It is a quintessential evaluation of play and of humans as players. Understanding play is essential for those designing vehicles of play (games). It is important for those engaging in play, as well, for to play is human and understanding play means greater understanding of ourselves.

I have listed play as the first benefit of board games:

  1. Play is a natural human activity and board games are an outlet for play

Huizinga argues that homo ludens, Man the Player, is just as apt a descriptor for humankind as homo sapiens, “wise man” or Man the Thinker. He says that “play is more than a mere physiological phenomenon or psychological reflex. It goes beyond the confines of purely physical or purely biological activity. It is a significant function – that is to say, there is some sense to it.” Huizinga discusses five main characteristics and two functions of play (outlined below) in the first chapter of Homo Ludens. These characteristics and functions can be mapped to board games, which qualifies board games as activities of play. Starting with this post, I will first discuss each of the five characteristics individually and then end with a post on the two functions. This should keep each post to a bite-sized, easy to read length. I will link the characteristics and functions to their relevant posts as they are completed.

Five Main Characteristics of Play

  1. Play is voluntary
  2. Play is not “real” life, it is pretend
  3. Play is limited by time and place
  4. Play demands order (rules)
  5. Play promotes social communities

Functions of Play

  1. A contest for something
  2. A representation of something

First Characteristic: Play is voluntary

Huizinga says, “Play is superfluous. … It is never imposed by physical necessity or moral duty. It is never a task. … It is free, is in fact freedom.” Play cannot be forced. Attempts at forced play undoubtedly lose the fun-element that is essential to play.

Playing board games is typically an activity one chooses to participate in voluntarily. Board games are a leisure activity and hobby with origins dating back to 5000 B.C.E. We had games before we had written language! The oldest known game pieces are carved dice that were found in Turkey and dice are still very prevalent in all sorts of games today such as Dungeons & Dragons, FarkleRoll for It!, and Quantum. Looking to sites like Facebook and Meetup yields dozens of groups where people freely, and eagerly, discuss board games and organize gaming sessions.

On the flip side of voluntary, when a play activity is forced, or even grudgingly joined, the activity can cease to be play and become work, or, as Huizinga states, “it could at best be but a forcible imitation of [play].” Examples in gaming would be instances where the fun-element is notably lost when someone reluctantly plays a game they do not enjoy or if someone sits out as a player to take on the role of facilitator/rules teacher – both of these situations represent work more than play. (This does not mean that someone cannot find enjoyment in teaching rules – it simply means that teaching rules is not strictly play.)

A question that arises when considering Huizinga’s description of play as voluntary is… what about work that involves play? (“Work” meaning professional activities such as research, participant observation, design, and play-testing OR educational activities such as homework and studying.) Can work involve play? Can work be voluntary? At what point does play cease to be play and become something else? These are questions that I will explore when I discuss the second benefit of board games: they can be educational. You can learn while playing, you can play with purpose, you can engage in serious play.

Stay tuned for Play (Part 2): Play is not “real” life, it is pretend! For now I leave you with a video of me voluntarily engaging in a serious game of fetch with my kitten, Bacchus:


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