When you were small you particularly enjoyed treasure hunts and dressing up. Almost all the time you were playing elaborate games of ‘make believe’ with your younger sister. You lived for much of the time in a fantasy world.
Watching you, I was reminded that humans have been defined as homo ludens, Latin for ‘playful humans’. For while this playful characteristic does not distinguish us from all other species, it has been particularly developed in humans. The enormous consequences you can see all around you in the mania for competitive games, gambling and sports. It also shows itself in behaviour in many parts of our life which we do not normally think of as ‘games’ or ‘sport’.
There are games of skill and those of chance, of single combatants against each other or of teams, involving different artefacts and different rules (balls, cards, dice). Each tends to work in a slightly different way and to appeal to a different part of our psychology.
Humans are strongly motivated by curiosity and by a basic playfulness, a desire to compete, fantasize, imagine, struggle. This playfulness is very marked in children, but continues throughout life. The bundle of characteristics involved, the desire to win, to dominate, to outstrip the opponent, the delight in good performance, the satisfaction in co-ordinated muscular or social movements, the pleasure in the calculation of risk. All sorts of different elements are involved.
A game is a sort of experiment outside time and space. In a game individuals or teams who start almost exactly equal, play according to the same rules, end up with one temporarily vanquishing the other. It creates difference out of uniformity. It is dynamic and progressive, creating variability out of similarity, artificially creating conflict. It divides and separates people who were previously joined and equal. One person has the top hat in ‘Monopoly’, buys up Park Lane and Mayfair and becomes a rapacious landlord for as long as the game lasts, while another person gets the boot and Old Kent Road.
Much of this is opposed to what happens in many civilizations in India, Africa or China where people attempt to control and downplay open competition in social life. Rituals, that is orderly, standardized repetitive behaviour, are dedicated to reducing confrontation and variations. Thus rituals tend to create a temporary phase of equality and closeness in unequal civilizations, they join people and create unity.
We see a games-like process at work in many of the central institutions of a modern society, the Stock Exchange, Houses of Parliament, the Law Courts as well as on the actual games field. All of these take the form of bounded games, worked out in an arena which allows regulated conflict. This helps change to occur without disrupting the wider society.
Within the particular 'field' of the game, during a limited time-span, people can behave in odd and often irresponsible ways. They can wear odd clothes (huge helmets, white trousers), they often hit each other (boxing) or tackle each other (rugby) or throw things at each other (cricket). Or they may shout at each other in an aggressive way across the floor of the House of Commons, or be very rude to each other in a court of law, or run around madly gesticulating as in the Stock Exchange. Yet such behaviour is limited. At the end people should shake hands and become friends again, for it is ‘only a game’.