Caillois- Man, Play and Games

This semester, I have a book-a-week class on games in culture.  I’ve tentatively decided to try giving a go at posting a blog on each after both reading and discussing the book in class.  This is a bit ambitious, considering all I have to do, so I might get backlogged.  Please bear with me 🙂

The first book we read for class is Roger Caillois’s Man, Play and Games, a rather foundational book for games studies.  Caillois discusses the social nature of play and tries his best to categorize play into four distinct categories (with two distinct styles).  I, personally, latch on to theoretical frame works (and subvert them, usually), and this is mostly what I got out of the book.  To a sociologist, the chapters on sociocultural play practices might be infinitely more interesting than a theoretical framework.  Here is my take-away.

Play exhibits most or all of the following:

  1. Free. To be able to enter or exit the play willingly.
  2. Separate.  Within a space and time that are defined, so as to keep it apart from reality.
  3. Uncertain. The outcome is unable to be figured out perfectly every time by its participants.
  4. Unproductive.  At the end, reality has been unchanged.
  5. Governed by rules. Follows a set of rules that makes the play understandable by providing constraint.
  6. Make-believe. Held within the imagination, and identifiable as being different from reality.

Play exhibits one of four types, agôn, alea, mimicry, and ilinx.  Caillois borrowed words from other languages where he felt they were the truest to his concept.  They break down to, basically, skilled competition, chance, simulation and vertigo, respectively.

Agôn play is the use of one’s own skill to defeat an opponent.  Most sports are agôn.  Alea play is the surrender of one’s own skill to chance.  Rather it is play in which the player cannot control the outcome.  Gambling games and the lottery are kinds of alea.  Mimicry play is the act of taking on another role and simulating an event.  Acting and masquerades are kinds of mimicry. Ilinx play is play that seeks out to panic or unsettle one’s own biology. Spinning in place and swinging are kinds of ilinx.

Caillois also makes a point that play can be either uncontrolled and spontaneous (padia) or it can be deliberate, planned and skillful (ludus).  He basically suggests the padia is child’s play and ludus is adult play (though he obviously did not know me as a child).

Caillois further suggests that play can be of multiple types, but also states that agôn is incompatible with ilinx and that mimicry is incompatible with alea.  Based on this information, one could plot this on a three-dimensional graph, but only half of the graph could be used.  I happen to like graphs, but it seems a bit limited.

Man, Play and Games is one of those books that you read in games studies because everyone reads it.  The ideas are dated, though.  Caillois wrote the book in 1958.  Then, play was mostly physical or imagined.  Television had made a mark by then, but Caillois never specifically pegs it in the book.  I expect he would place it as pure mimicry, as it is a spectacle (he tends to place spectacles in mimicry) and predominantly acted.  Caillois had, very likely, never seen a video game, given that the first one was a checkers simulation in 1951 (Source  Although Spacewar! is often heralded as the first, it came in 1962).  If Caillois had written more about play after Spacewar! he may have rethought some of his ideas.

Video Games present a problem for Caillois.  They hold at least three types of play that he describes.  They are competitions, either with the designers of the game or another player.  They are simulations: players taking on a role to achieve their goal while not physically being that role.  They unsettle the mind and can make one forget reality (escape).  This contradicts the idea that play cannot contain both agôn and ilinx at the same time.

I also have some nitpicks about Caillois.  First, he interchangeably uses “games” and “play” when games and play are separate terms and should be so treated.  I tend to also place fun outside of play or games, but note that they usually contain fun.  Not every game is fun for every person, though, so we cannot say that games or play are inherently fun.  Caillois suggests that games and play are inherently enjoyable (fun) but it seems as though he says that play and games are different based on who you are.  I think this is the wrong approach.

Secondly, Caillos suggests that play cannot affect reality.  It must be separate and make-believe.  Caillois also brings up that play is a cultural object, and uses mask play to emphasize this.  This seems contradictory.  The mask-play he uses is religious, the use of masks in ritualistic performances.  These ritualistic performances can change a person’s beliefs and affect how they approach life.  Acting is another form of play that Caillois uses often.  Actors and their audiences learn from the playing of roles, and this learning changes how they approach life.  In fact, it has been suggested that games are great teaching tools.  The playing of a game will almost always affect reality, even if the player does not realize it.

I have one, final nitpick.  And it is not really a nitpick, but a big problem I have with the book.  Caillois tries to fit things into categories.  Categories are good for marketing and pigeonholing, but most things do not fit into nice little boxes.  I don’t like categories, even though my first response to something is to try and categorize it.  It’s how our brains work, after all.  Caillois is taking play and trying to say this play is this type, even though what it often seems like he is describing is player motivations to play.  I find it less interesting to say “this game is agôn, and this is what agôn is.”  Instead, I find it more interesting to say “This is agôn. This game shares these qualities with agôn.”  What’s the difference you ask?  In the first sentence, we are attributing the game to one particular type, which suggests that it exhibits everything that type offers.  In the second, we are instead saying that there is a type of play and this game uses these parts of this type.  It makes it easier to talk about something critically.  The first sentence is dismissive. It is trying to not talk about the game, but instead place it in a category and talk about that, as if that category describes the game perfectly (when it never will).


So here’s the short of it.  Man, Play and Games is important to read, but it does have problems due to it being so dated.  If you’re interested in games or play, read it.  It says some interesting things.  Just be prepared to disagree with it and formulate your own ideas.


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