I first became aware of Johan Huizinga and his keywords homo ludens via the upper warrens of the video essay rabbit hole a few years ago, but once I was on the lookout for him, I started to see him everywhere. Not only in references and footnotes from other amateurs and scholars in the field of games studies, where his work is foundational, but all around me, subtly: in everyday interactions, in the fiction I read, in politics I couldn’t tune out; in just the way when you learn a new word, you suddenly find it coming up serendipitously left and right. Even where his name is absent, Huizinga’s key insights and concepts–the play aspect of culture, the game-like nature of human reality delineated by the magic circle or field of play–are so universal and so interesting as to crop up almost of their own accord and in the strangest places.

Through no fault of his own but simply by virtue of having brought attention to a way of looking at the world, namely with the lens of play (and he himself points out this is quite ancient and widespread), Huizinga has become a synecdoche for a certain strand of games studies and, to many, a symbol of everything wrong with it. This branch of academia reasonably enough wants to be seen as authoritative, and it leans on authorities like Huizinga for help to explain its basic outlook and definitions. Huizinga then, perhaps inevitably, becomes a target for the more radical, critical, and socially conscious voices in the conversation. These scholars, too, must justify themselves, but whether from temperament or ideology they opt to do so largely by way of opposition and paradox. I’m only speculating (punching down? Well, it’s only shadowboxing) but academia, too, seems like a game–perhaps the latter players do what they do out of jeu d’esprit, for a challenge, or simply for fun.

Contests in skill, strength and perseverance have, as we have shown, always occupied an important place in every culture either in connection with ritual or simply for fun and festivity.

Homo Ludens, p 195
A chill, uncredited picture from a cranky blog “outside the academy”

To play on the image of the magic circle, Huizinga’s name is one to conjure with, though what it calls up is contentious. An Ariel from the cloven pine, or a demon breathing brimstone and Orientalism–either way, he may prove a power beyond the control of most practitioners, myself included. Admirers of Huizinga like me find ourselves latecomers to a guild intellectually much impoverished. However shiny and plentiful the new contents and hermeneutics at our disposal, however righteous our corrective breadth, we are children compared to scholars of his era, with their connection to the classics and dedication to learning world languages. His detractors, with whom I sympathize much as I disagree, seem to me to know little what they do. Protected by the circumference whose very form they criticize, learning to see by the very ring of light whose old-fashioned candles they curse, they congratulate themselves on being able to peer a little farther into the dark along narrow beams of theory; when what we should do is draw the circle ever wider and expand the reach of its light for all.

Like Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea hounded by the shadow he released in his exuberance, games studies has been haunted by Huizinga. Unable to master the many-sided learning inherited along with his terms, and embarrassed of Huizinga’s own open debts to an intellectual tradition still vital in his time with canons of value incommensurate with our own, as much as the games studies field strives to distance itself from him, he knows its true name. Games studies is intertwined with and inseparable from cultural history.

But does that mean it is irredeemably passé, ignorant like anyone who lived and died before our time of what we’ve learned since, and in need of a purge? Or could the long shadow Huizinga casts over games studies be more benign? Like the Holy Ghost in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, perhaps his spirit “over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” Taking up the challenge of reading Huizinga anew, not only engaging with him in footnotes and introductions without the full context of his work, but wrestling with him face to face, we enrich both games studies and ourselves. Those who cut and run miss out on stores of learning, not to mention self-reflection and honesty, that come from struggling when it would be easier to dismiss him.

Either way, to read Huizinga and the tradition he stands for is something like that unnamed game* you never stop playing once you learn about it, and lose every time you catch yourself remembering that you’re playing–and that’s the fun of it–only to begin again.

In my own wizardly greed for reading, I have been a’questing off and on through Huizinga’s work, and in what follows I’ll point out some of the highlights from across his writings which I’ve been able to access in English.

In British English, in this case, reminiscent of the ingenious Kenneth Clark:

In general, we might say that a civilisation is the healthier the more closely the circles of intellectual creation and intellectual curiosity coincide, provided only that the entire process is not confined to a narrow elite. It goes without saying that the circle of creative artists must not be equated with that of the intellectuals. If we identify the two, we ignore not only peasant and popular art, but also our great masters, for few of them were educated men in the full sense of the term.

Dutch Civilisation in the 17th Century, Johan Huizinga

Huizinga’s lesser-known book on art and historical knowledge makes use of another magic circle here, a sort of Venn diagram, to distinguish artists from their critics, but also Dutchmen from their neighbors, etching and engraving from painting, and visual appreciation from thinking and writing generally. In reading his treatment of the limits of Rembrandt, I couldn’t help wondering if any of Huizinga’s own drawings were out there.

Rembrandt - Jacob Blessing the Children of Joseph - WGA19117.jpg
The Blessing of Jacob, Rembrandt

This is the only one I’ve been able to find:

Map met 18 tekeningen voor 'Keur van gedenkwaardige tafereelen uit de vaderlandsche historiën'
Keur van gedenkwaardige Tafereelen uit de Vaderlandsche Historiën – “A selection of memorable scenes of patriotic history,” according to google. Rijksmuseum

But never mind. Huizinga was a teacher who wrote books in his spare time. For that alone he has a kind of heroic status in my eyes. It’s also a telling remark on the difference between our times and societies, how daunting such an endeavor appears now, which should be the most natural thing in the world.

From his student days, where Huizinga studied linguistics and completed his dissertation on “Vidushaka, the comic character in the drama of ancient India” (obituaries) to late and posthumous works, such as the jeremiad In the Shadow of Tomorrow and an idiosyncratic book on America, expansiveness and exploration, hope and curiosity, are balanced by a focus on historical events and conditions. The recurrent themes of play and games are everywhere implicit in Huizinga’s work, but mostly they run subterranean through his studies of language, literature, art, and culture, only emerging into full articulation as a result of these more established contributions of cultural history.

Huizinga’s short book on Erasmus entails his close reading of the Praise of Folly, along with the “game of knucklebones,” providing him with the germs of his later survey. (Curiously, revisiting Erasmus also helped CS Lewis begin what would become his Allegory of Love.) Huizinga’s major historical study, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, flows directly into Homo Ludens. The shadow he foresaw so clearly was covering the world in war, yet he managed to translate his own works for a wider English-speaking audience.

I hope we are still listening. Any reading of Homo Ludens–with its justly celebrated philosophical approach to games, its play-consciousness that allows us to reappraise any worldview at all–should be accompanied at the least by Autumn of the Middle Ages, if none of Huizinga’s other writings. Ideally, these would form the core of a curriculum that also incorporated the likes of Beyond a Boundary, by CLR James, or Football in Sun and Shadow, by Eduardo Galeano, so as to ensure the diversity of viewpoints and play-styles so critical to anyone who aspires to the sort of learning these books and their authors embody themselves. But there is only so much room and time. Even if he is left out of such a curriculum taken up with righting historical wrongs of representation, as Huizinga himself perceived,

This new perception is, as always, only accessible to us at the expense of temporarily turning a blind eye on past beauty or truth.

Autumn, p 321, on Michelangelo’s take on Flemish art

The ways in which a culture’s received notions of past periods, our “perception of the time,” get shaped by our attention to painting vs literature come across in Dutch Civilisation and in Autumn (294), very much in line with more recent views on how media and history shape one another in Hamlet on the Holodeck, for instance.

But the game is much more than a medium, or even an art, in Huizinga’s thought. Its circles encompass the city (2), the passions and leisure of leaders (“To us, there is hardly a game more peaceful and quiet than chess” 8), and imaginary roleplaying, from Scheherazade and the caliph of The Thousand and One Nights, to knights playing at Arthurian adventures (11)–just in the opening pages of The Autumn of the Middle Ages.

A little further in, we see that rapture and reason, playing loosely with academic boundaries and argumentation, lead Huizinga to make the sort of leaps that caused controversy even in his own time and cause many to discredit his work on the basis of an isolated word:

The great game of the beautiful life played as the dream of noble courage and fidelity had another form than that of the tournament…the knightly orders. While it may not be easy to show a direct link, no one even casually familiar with the customs of primitive people will have any doubt that the roots of knightly orders, just as those of the tournaments and the chivalric initiations themselves, go back to the sacred customs of a distant past.


Yet the comparison between noble knights and “primitive people” can only be seen as derogatory by readers if their mind is already made up; for Huizinga, the nobility, the “sacred” quality of the “beautiful life’s” game-like aspect, is an inheritance from the ancestors. “Primitive” here must be made to mean something quite different by the reader primed to assume it denotes inferiority or connotes any kind of wretched othering. To the contrary, Huizinga shows his medieval subjects had their own savagery to tame:

The effort to stylize love was more than a vain game. The power of passion itself required that late medieval society transform the life of love into a beautiful play with noble rules. Here above all, if men were not to fall into crude barbarism, there was a need to frame emotion within fixed forms.


Those forms, of course, are those enchanting loops of play, the magic circle again, derived more than they are invented. For the transformation Huizinga describes, there must be both material at hand and a more perfect form in mind. He will develop his own fuller articulation of them in Homo Ludens. And that work, for all its influence, for all its own barbarisms and errors, stands ready as ever to frame further growth and development.

In a passing phrase, echoing The Imitation of Christ, Huizinga remarks, “pastoral is an imitatio” (150). Perhaps this dream of mine of an academy which exists outside the academy, unfurling like a pavilion any place there are readers, can only be so many words, and in practice would look as ridiculous as something out of Cervantes. Yet it seems to me that the classic themes of a more natural life and a connection to illo tempore, yearning for the mythic bygone place and time, clearly has its place in scholarship as in literature. It flows from the old pastorals into the more elegiac monologues of medieval bards and then modulates into self-examination in Renaissance voices, such as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold”; it animates much of the imaginaria and teaching of modern writers like Tolkien and Lewis, and the rebellion against it only returns it another form in Pullman. For all that the contemporary worlds of art and learning seem to have been sundered from all classical ties or roots, Huizinga sustains them. Whole and living in his works, we glimpse an utterly vibrant picture of human culture, inviting and light-dappled as the shade of a great tree.

Some secondary sources:

Homo Ludens: A Renewed Reading provides a helpful overview of the reception Huizinga’s most games-studies-ish work has received since its publication mid-20th century, far more rigorous than my own panegyrics here.

Gombrich on Homo Ludens, for me, is really the best starting point for the revision McDonald has in mind to track. Even from his standpoint of the 70s, the distinguished art historian is able to pick up on the troubling threads of Orientalism and primitivism laced throughout Huizinga’s life and work, while still acknowledging his kinship with Erasmus, the great scholar of the northern Renaissance who was unable to avert the breakdown of the Reformation. It appears in the collection for a conference on Huizinga’s centenary.

For book-length treatments, consider In Praise of Ambiguity: Erasmus, Huizinga, and the Seriousness of Play, by Willem Otterspeer, and his Reading Huizinga, which gets into wider questions of philology and literature. I haven’t actually read them yet, but they look like the real deal.

A piece in Pop Matters by LB Jeffries and, more scholarly, An Approximation, by Hector Rodriguez, both orient the student of games towards central ideas in Homo Ludens.

In the Shadow of Tomorrow, by Jason Hawreliak, rightly extends the role of play in Huizinga’s work and attempts a tentative reappraisal of his political valence. Also see his conversation with Alex Schmid and me, on heroism and games.

A more critical reading, Homo Ludens and the crisis in the humanities, by Koen B. Tanghe, illustrates the humanities-sciences breach, in some respect recapitulated in the “dull binary” of narratology-ludology within games studies.

In Amy Orrock’s article about humanist education and Bruegal’s Children’s Games, Huizinga himself is never mentioned, but we see his key ideas turn up in Rabelais and in reality.

Pieter Bruegel,  Children’s Games, 1560, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna

Finally, in their episode on Homo Ludens, the Game Studies Study Buddies carp at Huizinga’s canonical primacy, agonize over the liberal arts’ entanglement with neoliberal market forces, and actually do a fairly nice introduction to the book as a whole in the midst of their crabbed critique. One of their favorite hobby horses is pointing out how small a piece of Homo Ludens is about the famous magic circle–an indictment of how it is taught, and indeed a testament to the value of actually reading the original book in its totality and its proper context. Instead of tracking Huizinga’s argument or getting at what might have led him to make it or why it matters, however, we learn he is an essentializing racist and unwitting proto-fascist–or rather, we learn that with the tools available to contemporary graduate studies, he could not be read otherwise. To attempt it, reading him so charitably and naively as we have done here, we may as well be speaking a different language than the hosts. How far afield their discussion takes us from what Huizinga purports to show: the essentially playful nature of human culture! To suppose there is such a thing is anathema, it seems, to the ideologue-careerists. One is left with play only as a word for the more devious means of class oppression and consciousness-flattening. Whereas what reading and discussing Huizinga could yield are insights into the life of the mind, that abiding wellspring no one can dominate or diminish.

Johan Huizinga
From a call for papers, appropriately enough. Since closed, but there will be others, no doubt

*Sometimes called the white bear principle, according to wikipedia, the game appears in this form in Dostoevsky’s Winter Notes on Summer Impressions:

One must make the sacrifice in just this spirit; one must give all and even desire consciously to get nothing in return, to obligate no one. How can this be done? It is just like trying not to think of a polar bear. Try this experiment on yourself: try not to think of a polar bear and you will see that the cursed animal keeps returning to your mind. What is to be done then? Well, there is nothing you can do about it; rather it must happen of itself; it must he present in one’s nature; it must be an unconscious ingredient of the nature of the race. In a word, if there is to be a foundation for brotherhood and love, there must be love.

p 112

Or as Huizinga puts it, toward the end of Homo Ludens,

The human mind can only disengage itself from the magic circle of play by turning towards the ultimate.


2 thoughts on “In the Shadow of Huizinga: Games Studies and Cultural History

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