For a long time, science still called our species by the scientific name homo sapiens — the wise man. However, realizing that humanity is not really as smart as that arrogant name, and no longer worships reason like the humans of the eighteenth century, the philosophers initiated a new name: homo faber — the maker, which means that we are a species that makes and uses tools to control our destiny and our environment.

But in Homo Ludens, the first book to fully study human plays, Johan Huizinga introduces a new name: homo ludens. “Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes a human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing,” Huizinga said. [1]

Indeed, we play more than we realize, and play affects the way we live more deeply than what it shows. This article will cover human play, from the definition and classification of the game to its becoming a life simulator and a tool of nationalism, knowing that this is still only a small slice in the long history of its existence.

1. Define and categorize plays.

Here we use the definition of two researchers of play and games, Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois. In Man, Play and Games, Caillois consulted and supplemented Huizinga’s definitions, and finally drew the following six points:

First, the game must be voluntary and free. People play on a voluntary basis, whenever they don’t want to play anymore they can freely stop playing without any responsibility. Playing is not necessarily fun, just as long as the player is willing, a losing chess player probably won’t be happy, but the important thing is that they are voluntary, and so the purpose of playing is still purely for the sake of the game. On the other hand, a player being coerced or forced through some painful obligation will not be playing, but are working or fulfilling their duty. And the core of the game — the voluntariness will be clouded by many non-game elements that come in.

Second, the game must have a certain time and space to separate from life. A football match is limited to a certain time period, outside of that time, the game of football does not exist; The same goes for the space, the football match is not valid outside of the preconventional soccer field. Football matches (as well as any other regular game event) are often accompanied by very specific, detailed systems of conventions and documents; they are the paperworks spectators rarely see, but are an important core factor.

Third, the game must always have an uncertain outcome. During the game, the player will play with the mentality of waiting for the result or trying to get a good result, so the player must not know the outcome in advance. The risk game will stop immediately if the player knows in advance the result of this game. Some player vs player games allow the player to surrender, i.e. stop the game before the allotted time is over, due to the fact that the player knows that whether or not the game continues, the outcome of the game is unlikely to change.

Fourth, games do not create goods, wealth, or material things that are useful to society. Some games help players to make a profit such as betting or receiving rewards on being winners, but this is only the exchange, not the production of wealth. In fact, before and after a game, not only nothing was created, but much was consumed. It takes time, energy, intelligence, and sometimes money to prepare the game’s infrastructures.

Fifth, the game must always have strict rules. The rules of the game are the most obvious way to separate the game from life. In the game everything is governed by a different law, and sometimes separate from the laws of society. For example, in combat sports, a boxer is never guilty for intentionally causing injury to his opponent in the ring, even if the injury is grave or fatal, the law cannot convict a boxer of murder, as long as the fight is permitted by law and every action the boxer does is within the scope of the game, with the pure purpose of contributing to the play.

Sixth, the game creates an alternate reality that the player must believe in, in order to play. The creation of a new rule, a separate time and space in the game, combined with requiring players to believe in them, is inherently creating a different reality for the player. Although cheating in the game theoretically causes the game to collapse — because the game only exists when the rules are strictly adhered to, a football striker scored with his hands means they are not playing football, so football ceases to exist from the moment they use their hands — but in reality it doesn’t because cheaters often commit in stealth and always deny their actions. In other words, even if they want to violate the rules behind others’ backs in order to win, in plain sight, they always obey the rules of the game, as well as accepting the win-lose concept in the game.

So the collapse of a game does not come from the sabotage by players, but only occurs when the player no longer believes in it. These are people who find it silly to move 32 wooden statues on a reticle, or who find it futile to kick a leather ball into a plastic net and consider claiming victory from these actions as ridiculous. And with games like dolls playing or role-playing, its rule is the player’s belief. One child will stop playing with toys if he insists that plastic fruit is not fruit and another will stop playing with dolls if she believes the doll is not a baby. If everyone shared this feeling, the games would collapse in an instant. Obviously, belief is the most important thing in a game, and it is what helps the player to enter another reality.

After presenting the definitions that are also the core points that a game must have, we continue to follow Roger Caillois to learn about his classifications of games. In Man, Play and Games, Caillois divides games into four categories.

The first type is competitive (agon), where the game is designed so that the players have the most balanced starting point and resources possible, so that the player wins completely, or almost completely, by their own efforts. Types of mind chess (to distinguish it from chance-based games), combat games, football, volleyball, etc. belong to this category.

The second type is chance-based games (alea), where the game is designed to be completely random, where the player has to do almost nothing but gamble with fate. Heads-up games, black and red card games, and lotteries belong to this category.

The third type is simulation (mimicry), where the game simulates the activities and images of life, and players become actors. These are mock battles, role-playing, acting, painting, story-telling, it can be said that most of the arts belong to this game genre. It is not known whether unintentionally or intentionally that Caillois used the word “imitation” when the ancient Greece philosopher Aristotle famously said “Art imitates life.”

The fourth type is thrill-based games (ilinx), where the game is designed so that the player receives a feeling of shock, sensation, and agitation. These include high-speed racing, slides, swings, bungee jumping, roller coaster rides, and the use of psychostimulants.

However, games often do not belong to only one genre. For example, Parcheesi and jieqi chess are games that combines both competitive and luck, dance is a combination of thrills and simulation, even today’s online digital collectible card games are a combination of three genres: competitive (two players use a strategy to win), chance (cards are drawn to the hand in random order), and simulation (each card represents a character and sometimes even accompanying by its own lore).

2. Game as a life simulator

In the East, the ancient Chinese aristocracy introduced the concept of Four Arts, including four compulsory subjects that all people of the upper class had to learn, which were “qin, qi, shu and hua”. Here “qin” means talent for playing music, “qi” is for playing chess, “shu” is for writing calligraphy, and “hua” is for painting. These four disciplines are based on the definition we gave in part one, they obviously are all games, but the ancient Chinese people did not stop there, they thought that these four games hide potential abilities that make those who succeed in them also succeed in life.

In particular, with “qin”, both Confucianism and Taoism believe that music is a harmony between man and nature (Jin, 2011). Not only that, music is associated with the philosophical thought of Taoism, where the five tones correspond to the five elements, which means that the five sounds also contribute to the existence of all things (Chan, Clancey, & Loy, 2001).

With “qi”, the game here is Go (not Chinese chess), Go is said to have been invented by Chinese astrologers, with the chessboard representing the universe, the marker in the middle is the center of the universe, the four corners of the chessboard represent the four seasons, the white and black pieces represent day and night or yin and yang. The ancient Chinese believed that by mastering Go, one could understand both the Way of God and the Way of Human (Liang, 2007).

With “shu”, the ancient Chinese believed that writing calligraphy helps people demonstrate their soul and temperament, mastering the art of calligraphy helps people perfect their own moral, spiritual and beauty values (Ch’en, Link, Tai, & Tang, 1994). Therefore, the thought of “your handwriting reveals your own character” was formed, affecting many other countries, including Vietnam.

Finally, “hua” has a lot of similarities with “shu”, the picture a person paints does not have the main purpose of reflecting things in the real world, but rather reflects the artist’s views and attitudes towards the world he’s living in (Dillon, 1998). When we look at a painting, we can see the artist’s emotions and feelings, just as when we look at the handwriting, we can know the personality of the person. [2]

In the West, although they do not designate them as the Four Arts like the Chinese do, the elite there have similar compulsory subjects. From an early age, children of the aristocracy had to learn to play an instrument (usually the piano), dance, paint, chess, foreign languages (Latin and sometimes Greek), hunting, and sword fighting. These subjects are basically games in nature rather than useful in life. Especially in the sixteenth century, when knights no longer had their role in the army, but noble children still had to continue learning fencing; Chess was for a long time used for military education [3] and in the thirteenth century chess was even used for social moral education [4].

Not only limited to the games of aristocrats mentioned above, research shows that many games, even children’s games, are also simulations of life. The original hopscotch game had a religious meaning with the stone in the game representing the soul, the drawing on the playing field representing the maze, the purpose of the game was to help the soul escape the maze. When introduced into the Catholic community, the drawing on the playground can be changed from square to semi-circle to simulate the flat projection of a basilica [5]. Before the eighteenth century, the kite in the Far Eastern countries symbolized the souls of the deceased resting in the heaven but still attached to the earth through a fragile string; In Korea, the kite is said to receive all human bad luck and the act of flying the kite is to send those bad luck away [6]. In Vedic India, the priest pushed a swing with the belief that the swing was what made the sun rise, and the cosmic swing was what kept everything running smoothly. [7].

As we showed in part one, most arts are games. Storytelling, a form of literary art, is no exception. Storytelling is a means of simulating life where one doesn’t need to actually experience the event but can still grasp the event authentically. Experiences are fake but feelings are real. Through those emotions, humans rely on it to find a way to cope if those imaginary events one day actually happen to them. Many studies have shown that people who read fiction books have better empathy and social skills than people who don’t read fiction or only read non-fiction [8].

And finally, the most widely recognized game that simulates life is probably chess (and its relatives like Chinese chess, shogi, janggi), which simulates a battle and the player is a military strategist.

However, nowadays people have found the core points of games, and because of the increasingly specialized characteristics of today’s society, games must be more and more isolated from life in order to be able to develop in the right direction. The idea that the game is a simulation of life, and therefore the game is also life, is an idea that is increasingly decaying and on the verge of disappearing.

Games related to religion such as hopscotch, kite flying are still played today, but perhaps no one believes in their religious purposes anymore, because they are less attractive in a world of reason that is increasingly covered by modern science. As for games like chess, the idea of ​​”chess is life” only exists among amateurs, professionals have long given up on that, and military professionals will never recruit a chess grandmaster to solve the problem of military expertise. And those who really do art will understand that this work does not determine the artist’s morality, much less help them master the law of the five elements, yin and yang, heaven and earth, while some still use clichés such as “Literacy is also reflect yourself” or “Your handwriting is your characters”.

This shows that because of the historical factor, considering games as a life simulation has been deeply ingrained in the minds of many generations, but history is also showing that this thinking is wrong and what is the core of games, things that serve the game best.

3. Games as a tool of nationalism

Some competitive games, when professionalized, i.e. recognized by law and with a professional training program, will become sports. The fact that sport is associated with nationalism today is so widely acknowledged that it is not necessary to question why, and if so, how. Sports history can shed light on these questions for us.

Although sports have existed for a long time before that, the year 776 BC marked the first time that humans organized a large and multi-sports festival — the Olympic Games. At that time the Olympic Games were limited to the city-states of Greece. As we all know, ancient Greece was a medium-sized region that was always being divided into many city-states, and these city-states never stopped fighting each other. But in 776 BC, they did a miracle by gathering players from all cities into a small town called Olympia to compete together. The reward for the winning player is something imbued with the true meaning of games, because it’s utterly useless — a headband made of olive leaves.

But the Olympic Games contain more meanings than we might think. By sending the best athletes to represent the city to compete with the representatives of other cities. The Olympics are the place for city-states to metaphor their wars in a less violent and more regulated way. During the three months of the Olympics, all the city-states pledged to an armistice (Olympic Truce) and faithfully complied it. It is easy to see that the Olympic Games are both a metaphor for war and a place to express the desire for peace, when all wars can be reduced to a sports competition, winning or losing often does not take lives, but the respect and glory for the winners are all real and recognized. It is all the more conspicuous when we learn that the prize for the victor is an olive crown, and the olive branch is a symbol of peace in Greece.

On one hand, a metaphor for war, on the other hand, athletes are the crystallization of training efforts and represent the country to compete, so it is not difficult to understand that sport is often associated with nationalism. When they win a sports match, nationalists rejoice as if their whole nation wins. However, the core elements of the game as we presented in part one do not imply nationalism in it, which means that nationalism is not a core of the game, and if it’s not a core, people will easily go over the game’s limit if they’re overly concerned with nationalism.

The history of a number of sports shows that extreme nationalism is not only against the core of the game, but also against the desire for peace that the organizers of the first sports event once hoped for. Instead of reducing war to a sport, i.e. reducing life to a game, nationalist extremists intentionally reverse the above action, i.e. drag life into the game to pollute them.

A typical example can be mentioned in 1972, during the tense period of the Cold War, Soviet player Boris Spassky played against American player Robert Fischer to compete for the world chess championship. That fight was so adulterated by life that when Spassky lost to Fischer, a wave of outrage arose accusing Spassky of match-fixing and these threats went to such an extent that Spassky later had to move to France. In the end history shows that these accusations are baseless and merely the product of extreme nationalism. Fischer’s life was not better, a few years later he was bored with the toxicity of life, he abandoned chess altogether and retired to hide from the public’s eyes, but quitting competitive chess does not mean giving up chess, he still loves and plays this game well. So much so that in 1992 he won a rematch with Spassky, even though Spassky had attended chess tournaments all these years. This example shows us that extreme nationalism doesn’t serve the game and player development at all.

The next example shows that extreme nationalism in sport does not serve peace. These are the racist and religious discrimination acts that Vietnamese football fans throw at the referee after a losing match, or the act of gloating over the death of the opposite team’s coach father. In the 2002 World Cup semi-finals, the Koreans cursed Germany’s goalkeepers and strikers by stitching their pictures into funeral photos, all because they were opponents in a game.

By dragging life into the game, extreme nationalism creates a mentality to win by all means, statements like “Losing the game but winning the hearts of fans” are signs of dragging life into the game as a reason to claim some victory, even if it’s irrelevant. But “win by all means” is a misnomer at the core of the game, because the ways to win in a game are limited to the rules of the game, only in life, or specifically in war, there is “win by all means”, all means, that is, including the most cruel and dangerous means.

Finally, as Huizinga observes that play is older than culture, and that it is so deeply rooted in humanity that we deserve a new name, homo ludens, so that the game is adulterated by life and human malice is inevitable. And it is also inevitable that the game can never be simply a game, but it will always be used as a tool for something else. This article is not meant to fulfill that utopian ideal, but to point out what is the core of the game, and when people are not aiming for that core they should understand that they are not serving the game, they are promoting something else, admiring something else, giving love to something else, not the game, especially not the game.



[1] Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens. Barcelona Altaya, 1997.

[2] L. Wang, “‘The Four Arts’ : a prototype interactive game for engaging and interacting with Chinese culture using touch screen interfaces : an exegesis to be presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Masters of Design in Visual Communication Design, at Massey University, Albany, New Zealand,”, 2011, doi:

[3] “Aristocratic Education in Europe |,”, 2013. (accessed Jun. 23, 2021).

[4] Shenk, David. The Immortal Game : A History of Chess : Or How 32 Carved Pieces on a Board Illuminated Our Understanding of War, Art, Science, and the Human Brain. London, Souvenir, 2008.

[5] Caillois, Roger. Man, Play and Games. Urbana, Ill., University Of Illinois Press ; Wantage, 2001, p. 82.

[6] Caillois, Roger. Man, Play and Games. Urbana, Ill., University Of Illinois Press ; Wantage, 2001, p. 59.

[7] Caillois, Roger. Man, Play and Games. Urbana, Ill., University Of Illinois Press ; Wantage, 2001, p. 60.

[8] R. A. Mar, Maja Djikic, and K. Oatley, “Effects of Reading on Knowledge, Social Abilities, and Selfhood Theory and Empirical Studies,” ResearchGate, 2008. (accessed Jun. 23, 2021).

R. A. Mar, K. Oatley, and J. B. Peterson, “Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy: Ruling out individual differences and examining…,” ResearchGate, Dec. 31, 2009. (accessed Jun. 23, 2021).

Further reading:

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens. Barcelona Altaya, 1997.

Caillois, Roger. Man, Play and Games. Urbana, Ill., University Of Illinois Press ; Wantage, 2001.



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