Playing: It’s Serious Business

Today we are going to talk about playing. But we will go deep. In fact, we will travel to the 20th century, when an entire new academic field, the field of Game Studies, was being developed. What? You didn’t know games can be studied academically? Well, you are in for a surprise!

You see, playing games has always been part of human nature. As the famous Dutch historian Johan Huizinga would put it, we are “Homo Ludens,” which is also the title of a book he published in 1938.

Then, Roger Caillois, a French sociologist, elaborated further on that in 1961 in the book Man, Play and Games.

Roger Caillois (1913-1978)

Caillois separated play into two types: ludus and paideia. Ludus, a Latin word, concerns the type of play that is governed by rules and is structured (think of chess). On the other hand, paideia (a Greek word, so difficult to pronounce), concerns unstructured, freeform play (think of making LEGO sets or exploring the Minecraft world).

Moreover, these two types can be further broken down into four types of play.

Agon: The word comes from the Greek word “αγών” that means “competition.” It stands for all the games that include the competitive element and typically end with winners and losers.

Alea: That’s Latin for “dice” and also refers to games of luck. A game of “alea” might also require some skill, but it is main focus is how much Lady Luck smiles on you.

Ilinx: Another Greek word for your vocabulary here. “Ilinx” roughly translates to dizziness, and it refers to play that rocks you out of your chair and gives you a sense of vertigo or disorientation. Roller coasters would be a good example here.

Mimesis: This one refers to mimicry. If you are pretending to be anything else than what you actually are, you are engaging into it. LARPing, playing DnD, pretending to be an astronaut, acting on a stage, trolling people online: they all belong here.

In that sense, football, is a game that belongs to the realm of ludus (structured) and follows the form of agon (skills). Now, contemporary games might only include one element of those mentioned above, but they might also include more (or all of them).


It might not be evident, but there is a lot of stuff happening here.


And here I have a test for you. Can you come up with more examples of games that include (and combine) these elements? The more you think about it, the crazier it becomes. Give it a try! And yes, this test is also a form of play. Can you decide which one?

This time we only scratched the surface, as there is a mountain of books and articles on more serious aspects of playing. If you want to know more, make sure to read more articles here. And come to our Arcade Talks if you have the chance. By following our social media accounts, you will find out when they are happening.

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