I’m in the middle of the summer-intensive course, Ritual Studies. I thought I would share a short reflection I recently wrote on the ties between “play” and “ritual” as detailed by Johan Huizinga. It’s not for everybody, so feel free to either enjoy or not enjoy at your leisure.
“Lighting bolt,” the man, dressed in a grey overcoat, yells at his Styrofoam armored friend one Saturday afternoon in a park. You watch, dumbfounded, while protecting your daughter, whose only desire was to swing on the monkey bars. Why are these weirdoes, you think, doing this here, now? “That’s plus two damage,” the knight says. “You definitely got me.” Thousands of miles away, the cold stare of strategy looks across a table. “Checkmate,” Carlsen says. Anand, the champion now defeated, bows his head to the victor. “It was your Semi-Slav,” he says, “I couldn’t break it down.” What do these two events—larping in the park and the World Championship of Chess—have in common? According Johan Huizinga, the phenomenon in common is that of play, a significant, meaningful, and cultural activity (1). Play is primordial, resistant to logical interpretation, and undeniable (3). In fact, one can even say, “pure play is one of the main bases of civilization,” which, in its highest form, is revealed in ritual (5).
Play, in Huizinga’s mind, has numerous markers that denote its unique cultural place. First, play is voluntary and must be freely undertaken (7). One cannot help but think of the corporate picnic or the military social outing that purposely transgresses the freedom found in play with the oxymoronic title: “mandatory fun.” The silliness of “forced play” as a concept reveals the level to which the freedom of play has been internalized in culture. Second, play is not real life (8). It is set apart from the mundane. In the truest sense of the word, play is sacred. Third, play is limited. One must have real life in order to recognize play life and, eventually, all play must end or it risks becoming real (9). Fourth, if play is limited in time, then it is also limited in space (10). In other words, play is bounded spatially. We mark the lines of a football field, soccer pitch, or baseball diamond, so that we know what is inbounds and out of bounds—in play and out of play. Fifth, play creates order (10). If the world is chaotic and fractured, then it is in play that—for a time—we can forget the uncertainty of the arbitrary unknown and know reality definitively, even if it is only an imagined construct. As Umberto Eco writes in striking parallel: “The possible world of narrative is the only universe in which we can be absolutely certain about something, and it gives us a very strong sense of the truth” (Legendary Lands 440). Sixth, play is tense, which gives play “an ethical value in so far as it means a testing of the player’s prowess” (11). Seventh, play is bounded by rules (11), which create a known certainty that leaves little doubt. How many times have you looked up the consequences in Scrabble of playing a word that is not a word? No one questions the rules. No one claims: “These rules are a false construct, an illusion that I choose to supplant with my rules, culturally appropriate to my heritage.” One can do this. Nothing will stop him or her from doing so. But the game will cease to be Scrabble. In other words, no one is ever more certain of his or her reality than when playing by the rules. Eighth, play creates a permanent community, one that stands even after the game has finished (12). Ninth, play is secret and stresses difference (12). “No,” I can hear my daughter saying, “I don’t play that game, that game is dumb. I play, Bling, Bling Princess.” Tenth, play is not serious, but it is absorbing (2), which brings us back to our encounter in the park and our dueling grandmasters. Though the larper and the chess player have little in common, they both find themselves absorbed in their chosen game and, for a time, playing as if it mattered.
Having established the formal characteristics of play and the function of play—a contest for something or a representation of something (13)—Huizinga turns his attention to ritual as play. “Ritual,” he writes, “is a matter of shows, representations, dramatic performances, imaginative actualizations of a vicarious nature” (15). In other words, “the whole point [of ritual] is the playing” (17). This is not a bringing down of ritual or the sacred, but rather a Platonic bringing up, an admittance that ritual acknowledged as play is exaltation, reaching the “highest regions of the spirit” (19).
“Wait,” you say. “Is Huizinga claiming that my priest is pretending and knows that she is pretending? Is my priest the wizard in the park?” In a word, yes. As Huizinga writes, “[in ritual] there is an underlying consciousness of things ‘not being real’” (22). This does not detract from ritual’s perceived holiness, but rather emphasizes the ludic nature inherent in ritualized behavior.
In the end, Huizinga claims that play is one of the main bases of civilization and that the highest goal of play is revealed in ritual. It is important to note that the concept of ritual play is not equivalent to some kind of Foucauldian manipulation of power. For Huizinga, play is essential to humanity and is perfected in ritual. Our priests, imams, and rabbis are not trying to fool us, even if what they are doing is strikingly similar to that of the role of Dungeon Master. Play, rather, is a necessary part of human experience, a part in which we cannot help but create and participate. In fact, one could even go so far as to say that it is only through play and play alone that ritual can even function. After all, ritual requires the characteristics inherent to play in order to be successful.