The freedom of the unpredictable – Philosophy magazine

In 1938, the year Germans, incited by the Nazis, terrorize their Jewish countrymen during Kristallnacht, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) publishes his book Homo ludens. ‘My thesis is that you are the one homo ludens, the playing man, must be seen as a counterpart to National Socialism,’ says cultural historian and Huizinga expert Léon Hanssen. ‘National Socialism is based on an agonal vision of culture, it revolves around rivalry and struggle to the death. The parties you are dealing with are either your friend or your enemy, and in the latter case you must fight them by all means. Huizinga counters this with a playful cultural vision where other parties are co-players. You appreciate your opponent because they make you stronger and you learn to deal with your loss, to adapt to bigger conditions. Unlike combat, play creates unity.’


How can the game have such a positive effect? According to Huizinga, this is due to certain characteristics of the game. First, it is ‘a free action’, a game on command is no longer a game. Secondly, it is something that does not have a direct material interest, or [waarmee] benefit is acquired’. Shopping is not a game, it is folding a plane from the receipt. Third, it can “engage the player.” Think of the concentration of the chess player. Fourth, it takes place ‘within a consciously determined time and space … which proceeds in an orderly manner according to certain rules’. During the fight, boxers must hit each other hard, but kicking is not allowed. And if the boxer knocks his opponent out of the ring, he is punishable. Fifth, Huizinga mentions that the game ‘gives life to societies that like to surround themselves with secrecy or highlight it by disguise as different from the ordinary world’. Take the carnival or the dark habits of the F-side at the football stadium.

This paradoxical combination of freedom and bound by rules, of seriousness and fun, of partisanship and solidarity gives the game its openness and autonomy and thus its special value. The most direct cause Homo ludens writing may have been the rise of National Socialism, but for Huizinga the game has a much wider meaning. According to him, it is even more original than culture: Human and non-human animals were playing even before culture came into existence.

‘Sand is the gold of toys, but shaving cream also offers a lot’

Hanssen: ‘According to Huizinga, there is a playful element in everything we call culture. By this he perhaps means not so much that the whole culture plays, but that elements of the culture develop through play. For example, form experiments in literature have led to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the first major novel. There is also a continuum between frolicking children, boxers and shooting soldiers.’


Play shapes culture, and to stay healthy a culture must keep playing. ‘Huizinga even goes so far as to say that if the element of play is missing, you can no longer speak of culture,’ says Hanssen. ‘In doing so, he turns the game element into a yardstick. For him, National Socialism is a symptom of player erosion that has been taking place since at least the second half of the nineteenth century.’ Because secularization then gains more weight, Huizinga sees that people are more and more at the mercy of themselves. From that moment on, powers greater than them rule as the person who thinks he controls those powers. Think industrialization, mass culture, consumer society and positivist science. Everything must be easy to consume, be useful, generate money, be measurable and calculable.

Hanssen: ‘It is contrary to the unpredictable and open nature of the game, where the winner is only known when the first player crosses the finish line and the ball continues to roll until the ninetieth minute. A society that wants to wall everything up destroys culture. This leads to excesses such as regeneration, which Huizinga calls puerilism. This is how football fans behaved in his time in ways that you would never have seen a hundred years ago’. The cultural critic Huizinga has been widely followed, says Hanssen: “From Georg Lukács to Umberto Eco – from that time you can hardly name a philosopher or cultural critic who Homo ludens haven’t read.’

Huizinga’s influence is also great on sports and exercise science, writes sports philosopher Sandra Meeuwsen LO Magasinet. ‘The incubation of the game concept derived from Huizinga in sports and exercise took place in the decades after the Second World War, a lean period in Western Europe in which there was a need for the restoration of old values ​​and renewed moral confidence. Homo ludens offered this inspiration.’

Remarkably, says Meeuwsen, Huizinga’s critique of modern sports remains underexposed. While he is clear enough: ‘In sport we were dealing with an activity, consciously and recognized as a game, which has, however, been scaled up to such a degree of technical organization, material equipment and scientific thought that in its collective and public mindset exercise threatens to destroy the actual mood of the game.’


Mark Schuurman has a sports student Homo ludens read, although it only comes back to him when he notices during the interview that there are parallels between what Huizinga writes and what he is now doing himself. After a career as a manager in professional basketball, Schuurman deliberately chose a form of basketball (3X3) that consists of at least 80 percent plays. “In traditional basketball, it’s usually coaches, clubs, agents, managers and sports leagues that are in charge. The athlete is often seen as an instrument – think of all the excesses that have come out recently. Basketball player autonomy in 3X3 – each side has three players on the field, hence the name – is why basketball international Jesper Jobse and I were immediately sold when we played this game for the first time. town see team sport. The players are central because the regulations guarantee that they jointly decide, for example, who will be in the team and who will change when.’

‘A child who can play well often finds the solution to his problems himself’

In 2016, Schuurman founded 3X3 Unites together with Jobse. “Through 3X3, we give young people the opportunity to become role models for their neighbourhood. This takes place at different levels. From playing a game 3X3 non-committal, through district, regional and national street leagues – once conceived by young people themselves – for the Olympics or World Championships. Precisely because the young people have so much fun within the lines of the playing field, it continues beyond the lines. Step by step they learn that they are part of a larger whole. We call this the 3X3 Unites ecosystem, where we give them opportunities to develop themselves, but also to help others develop themselves. It can be as a basketball player, but also as an organizer of competitions or related events, as a photographer recording the matches or as an artist inspired by 3X3. You play 3X3 as a sport or as a game on the field, but people and worlds connect around it.’


Wilna van den Heuvel has too Homo ludens studied during the course. The play therapist, artist and lecturer in art therapy and social work at the Hogeschool Utrecht still finds Huizinga’s work contemporary. ‘We refer to it when we explain to our students what play is. The foundation – the playful child – has remained the same, but the outside influence has changed even more negatively than Huizinga already observed. Think of the new media, games, parents who have little time, the pressure to achieve. Teachers often mistakenly believe that they already have to learn letters and numbers from supervision, which leaves less time for play.’

Van den Heuvel believes that this is a bad thing. “Every child has their own therapy,” says play researcher Pim van der Pol. A child who can play well often finds the solution to the problems he encounters. The game is a way of giving what you experience a place. Therefore, a play therapist teaches children – and parents – to play better.’

During play therapy, the game provides insight into the background of problems. ‘Suppose a child is not potty trained at age four. Then you let it play. As a therapist, you see what happens, you witness the inner world. You interpret, but only hypothetically for yourself. If a child in the dollhouse makes mom and dad yell at each other, never ask, “Is that your mom and dad?” No, it’s a father and a mother. But you see what happens, and often it is a reflection of what the child has witnessed. So that could be a reason why the child is not potty trained. You can introduce that hypothesis in a conversation with the parents.’

‘Playing, serious business’ – that’s the name of the course Van den Heuvel uses to get his students in game mode. “It would also be possible to study from a playful attitude, with the same amazement, curiosity and investigative attitude as a playful child. And if you want to guide children in their play, you must first be able to play yourself. But they keep asking, “What must we do to pass the test?” That’s why we let them play with shaving cream. Some say, “I think it’s dirty,” and don’t touch it. Others begin to feel it, to smell it; sometimes they draw in it, smear it on each other, or smear it on the windows. Later they make something out of the foam and role play with it. I always say, “Sand is the gold of toys, but shaving cream also offers a lot.”

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