Homo Ludens: The Power of Play

Reading Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, I became very transfixed on the semiotic power of the word play, particularly in the sections “Playing and Knowing” and “Play-Forms in Philosophy”. I’m still puzzling over the (im)possibility of distinction in defining play as both outside of ordinary life while simultaneously absorbing individuals in play.  This resonated for me in thinking back to meaningful play in Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play and in continuing to try to both illustrate and complicate their nested circles diagram of play as [starting from the center and radiating outward] rules) play) culture). Salen and Zimmerman describe meaningful play as the process by which a player takes action within the designed system of a game and the response of the system to the action—meaning is in the relationship between (player) action and (system) outcome. Perhaps inappropriately doing so, I feel like I am trying to equate system to culture in some respects, at least in as a means of providing context. Culture, to define it simply, is the “real” setting of time and space (which encompasses an expanse of elements in its boundedness). It is a space that play happens within as a negotiation between players and play (games/rules). Despite it being bounded in terms of some governance of order/pattern and formal structures, there is still room for a degree of unknowing or ambiguity in what emerges. In Huizinga’s work, I am likening this to his account of the sophists in the function of language as a “knowing-game” (154) in that there exist play-qualities in the art of declamation and disputation (153) as competition. Because human judgements are ambiguous, “one can put a thing like this or like that” (152) in order to create meaning. While this is ambiguous in a sense, it still seems like potential connectivity with culture and play from S/Z in that language is meaningful play. It adheres to structural constraint but is productive in its emergent qualities. I find this illustrated in Huizinga through his account of playing and knowing:

The astonishing similarity that characterizes agonistic customs in all cultures is perhaps nowhere more striking than in the domain of the human mind itself, that is to say, in knowledge and wisdom. For archaic man, doing and daring are power, but knowing is a magical power…For this reason there must be competitions in such knowledge at the sacred feasts, because the spoken word has a direct influence on the world order (105).

Language as meaningful play is something I’m still working on articulating, but find potential in Huizinga’s description of play and seriousness through scared play as extension. Sacred play in knocking at the door of the unknowable (107). A sacred game cuts across distinction between play and seriousness because it is both at once—a ritual of the highest importance and essentially a game of recreation and philosophy. Civilization arose out of the combination of play and seriousness as a mental medium (110-11). Meaning is constructed through language play.

In being transfixed on the semiotic power of play, I was reminded of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book Metaphors We Live By for its exploration of metaphor as a mechanism of the mind that allows us to use what we know about physical and social experiences to provide understanding. Their terming of conceptual metaphor shape not only our communication (language), but how we think and act—we perceive and act in accordance with metaphor.

Metaphor for most people is a device of the poetic imagination and rhetorical flourish—a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as a characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think we can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.

I’m wondering what Lakoff and Johnson’s conceptual metaphor/structure can make available in Huizinga’s treatment of seriousness and play. They end their book with a chapter on understanding in which the position metaphor as imaginative rationality through experience. They state that:

  • The metaphors we live by, whether cultural or personal, are partially preserved in ritual
  • Cultural metaphors, and the values entailed by them, are propagated by ritual
  • Ritual forms an indispensable part of the experiential basis for our cultural metaphorical systems. There can be no culture without ritual (234-35)

How might these help to understand play in culture?


i am a liar and i am a lier.

i wake up to the sound of the cat chewing paper (rising with the dawn, not to work beyond the setting sun).

it’s sunday morning [(how is it already sunday morning again?] the weekend is not over).

it’s chilly outside but I open the window for the cat anyway because sometimes i like to extend this tiny apartment through space by the open window extensions too. i make her a blanket window seat to equalize the sensations of in/out. i wrap up in a blanket too, mug of coffee, equalizing alertness with a mind that tends to wander. within two minutes the heat is coming on to equalize temperature, and she is on my lap (we are comfortably occupying inter-spaces).

i keep wondering what it means to be an artist. and what i can replace that term and its associations with by my actions. as a compositionist i am bringing together, cutting, layering, juxtaposing, prying into in-between spaces, and looking to word debris and word dust and word created and left in unintentional time capsules. this word is not just word. this word is not just text. this text is not just text (i am a compositionist in a field of writers, scholars, and artists).

i wrote a list in class the other day while the students worked at computers (i have fits of creativity):

a pond

a mirror

a prism

a magnifying glass

a pair of glasses (spectacles)

a pair of binoculars

a telescope

a microscope

a television

an omniscient narrator

it was/is a questioning of what i was/am valuing in the classroom/education and the role i had/have as the role students look to for guidance to what is important to know and in what ways this knowing should be demonstrated (“students should be able to______________________”). i have been privileging metaphors of seeing and observation, but then what am i neglecting? in illuminating one, the other(s) lay in shadow. what i want to know is, how can i see sounds? train the ear to see like we teach our eyes.


i want to work with sound more. my captivation with imagetext is not/never will be over, but i want to show students compositions like this (warning: noisy and dischordant to many – i am on a liars bender lately):

it has/does small-t truth tellings, soundbite sized experience and communication, layers, creates happening spaces in between juxtapositions and pairings, doesn’t care for musical “mastery” but exploration of the spirit of trying things and being unapologetic about the composition its creativity has assembled.

maybe composition in parts is more easily seen when it is heard?

what can i listen/see from here? following my ear and eye.

it’s now sunday night and i’m still thinking in flipping frames and freezes. flash animations. remixes and remediations. compilations of composing of pieces and pieces (composites). after listening to burroughs, negativland, and (more) liars, i want to spend my winter break composing a digital cv with video/animation.

mind moves in flits and fits.

seismic design

(Thanks to my new Moleskine, I was able to scribble a note to myself about this interview at a stoplight on the way home from school Friday)

This a portion of “Designing a Bridge for Earthquake Country”, an NPR Science Friday Interview with Dr. Marwan Nader, lead design engineer of the new span of California’s Bay Bridge.


In the interview, Nader describes that the Bay bridge is built on a foundation of soil, not rock, which amplifies seismic motion – a problem in California. The new Bay Bridge has not just been designed, but seismically designed as a self-anchored suspension bridge, which differs from the ground anchorage of a typical suspension bridge. Nader explains that instead the cable is anchored to the deck of the bridge, so the loads the cable bears go to the deck. Another difference is that the cables are three-dimensional, instead of the vertical cables on typical suspension bridges, which satisfies the need for design equilibrium.

(images from Wikipedia: self-anchored suspension bridge) The above image is of a traditional suspension bridge. Note that the anchors are in ground.

Versus this self-anchored suspension design in which the cables are anchored directly to the deck.


FLATOW: …also, I noticed from the design is that the bridge is made in difference pieces so that parts can move independently of one another, correct?

NADER: That’s correct.

FLATOW: Doing so, so that when the Earth shakes, it all just sort of floats.

NADER: Right. The seismic design, the way we understand it, is basically there are effectively two ways to resist the motions. One is to really design a bunker, which effectively is very strong to take the forces…

FLATOW: So you’re fighting nature.

NADER: Yes. And what you’re doing there, is you’re really taking on whatever the motions are. And the earthquake has a very interesting characteristic to it. It’s like a musical, effectively. It’s got areas where there’s a lot of energy, which is at the frequencies that are very, very low or very, you know, very, very high. Excuse me. And then that’s where you’re getting the most energy. And then as you get the structure to be more flexible, that’s where the energy gets smaller. So if you are a little bit careful about it, you can actually design your structure to be in the areas where the earthquake is less damaging. And by making that structure tuned to what Mother Nature’s going to apply, you actually avoid that ground of the force.

The other aspect of it is designing components, if you will, that are made to take on the damage. Like when we drive cars. If you think about it, cars – we know we drive cars. We know that we’d like not to get into accident, but we planned for that accident. And the idea…

FLATOW: It’s like crumple zones.

NADER: Exactly. And the idea behind it, is you get the damage to occur in areas where you keep the car functional to the extent possible when it’s a midsized type of accident that you have. And the idea is that the fenders take all the damage. Very similar to that, is our bridge is designed that way. We actually looked at specific areas which we said that’s where it makes sense to have the damage occur. We designed those elements to take on that damage, and thereby protecting the more important elements to it.

FLATOW: So you can replace those damaged pieces later on.

NADER: Exactly. The idea is that, after an event, the bridge is still functional. We would go in – obviously, the engineers at that time would go in and do a, you know, an inspection, evaluate – there will be damage, but it will be in a form where you can actually make it available so that emergency traffic can be – immediately after that, go on it, and shortly after that go through normal traffic.

The bridge

Please don’t read this as writing is the bridge to ______________; I’m more interested in the design of the bridge itself. I don’t know much about the engineering of bridges, but this idea really struck me as something interesting for the design of composition, and as something that fit within/alongside my ideas of page tectonics: seismic design. Here is a new metaphor for conceptual use. Designs that are functionally flexible, that can withstand shifts and even damage when the larger body (composition) moves. Where would such a design allow us to go that we couldn’t reach before?