Johan Huizinga, (1872-1945) a historian and anthropologist specialising in cultural history published his seminal work, ‘Homo Ludens’ in 1938. This work investigates the role of play within culture–and has gained a reputation as the definitive work discussing the role of games and play within culture. Huizenga defined play as “a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it ” .

Today Huizenga is most famously remembered for his bold statement that “civilization arises and unfolds in and as play” .

Huizenga further states “Games proceed within their own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. They promote the formation of social groupings that tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress the difference from the common world by disguise or other means” . Further, according to his conception, “Play was a primitive phenomenon based on voluntary, artificial and limited activities, which might be the first step to civilized culture.

Huizinga’s opus makes clear that the playing of games, both organised games and casual sports is a core activity for most people. The type of game may change throughout a person’s life but Huizenga asserts that the inclination to take part in games of one sort or another often lasts throughout a person’s life. The reasons and motivation for this continuing involvement may vary widely from individual to individual.

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Most popular Sports and Games are reckoned to have evolved from early survivalist habits such as hunting, or from aspects of a military lifestyle. Games such as fencing, horse riding or archery are obvious examples.

The activities that people pursue for pleasure have developed into sports that routinely demand strength, speed and coordination or other motor skills on the part of the player, typically if played within a codified set of rules to ensure a fair match between opponents. Different outcomes typically appear when the player’s feat is measured or timed, particularly so when winning the contest becomes the primary goal. In contrast, within Traditional Sports and Games (TSG) the best times or performances are typically noted preserved in local legends, but never recorded in an analytical format. In this way the performances almost assume the role of “folk lore” and thus can be recalled by different persons in various ways over time.

The most celebrated modern sports event, the Olympic Games, obviously has the word ‘game’ in its name and it represents the ultimate refinement of people’s propensity to engage in sports and games as so ably described by Huizinga. In early sporting contests organized by the ancient Greeks at Olympia, only the names of the winners were recorded. Their times or distances achieved were not measured, and neither were the names of the other competitors. So we must ask ourselves were these, then, games or sports?

If we apply the ethos contained within the tenets within traditional sports and games then the answer is obviously “Yes”. However we now know that sporting prowess is not the only rationale behind the Olympic movement, either now or during Ancient times. The educational element was as important, if not more so, than that of the sporting success displayed by participants in the Panhellenic Games held at Olympia. Great significance was placed on both physical and spiritual teaching (in Greek, kalos kagathos) during the more than one thousand year continuance of these Ancient Games. If examined from today’s perspective we would similarly recognise these events as typical sporting competitions or meetings.

Huizinga was primarily studying the relationship between play and culture as well as social and scientific life. He believed that play was a primitive phenomenon that could be the first step towards civilised culture. He also went so far as to suggest that culture originated from play: “Play is the greatness given to culture, existing before the culture itself, interwoven in human living from the very beginning up to the individual experiencing it by each of us, even the research”. Huizinga also claimed that play does not simply have a biological or psychological aspect but it should be seen as a cultural act which served as a foundation for great civilizations (much like Ancient Greece through the Olmypics). This was also a theory of Eugeniusz Piasecki however they had never met each other but they both supported the idea that play is the source of culture. Referring back to de Coubertin, he did realise that the renewal of the games could greatly benefit the French civilisation, after witnessing Arnold’s work at Rugby School which encouraged the spread of sports across England and de Coubertin recognised many advantages in this movement, including the expansion of British power throughout the nineteenth Century and the increased physical prowess of the British armed forces.

As France had recently suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Prussians in 1871 de Coubertin immediately saw the benefit of encouraging greater physical prowess across the French nation and particularly throughout the French Army. He realised that this movement would lead to a training establishment that encouraged both physical and intellectual development as it did for the Ancient Greeks for over 1000 years.

J. Moller was an academic expert in Traditional sports and games. He was heavily involved in a number of major projects within the field and was dedicated to a comparative study of European regions. From this project he noted five aspects that help to answer the question: “what made traditional sports and games lose or preserve their meaning?” Moller debated that Huizinga was incorrect in arguing that modern economic and political forces greatly affect position of play.

Moller believed industrialization, was simply not a reason for the disappearance of the ancient games. Rather, other factors such as modern sport and its organization with the ‘sportification process’ wiped out the previous original games. For Moller it was religion, cultural diversity and identity which maintained stronger ties among the population as they struggle for their own culture, independence, and where they care for traditions as a means of identification in the creation of an identity within their own nation. The people coming forth with cultural initiative are not only people from rural communities, but they are also intellectuals, professionals and civil servants “who attempt to keep local culture alive and with it the ancient games” .

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Johan Huizinga Essay. (2019, Dec 19). Retrieved from

Johan Huizinga Essay
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