Photo credit:The Searching Wolf
Pieter Brueghel, Kermesse (1567-8) Oil on canvas, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
The epiphet Homo ludens was made famous by Johan Huizinga’s landmark book of the same name. Homo ludens refers to man the player.

What are the biological roots of play?

What are the cognitive and cultural elements of the various kinds of games we play? Are there substantial differences between the games adults play and the games that children play?

Why do we become lost in play? How are play and improvisation linked to creativity and problem solving?


Animal play is mostly a juvenile phenomenon. It is a rehearsal for complex skills of adulthood essential for survival. Sometimes animal play, even in adults, seems to be blissful and performed for its own sake. Human play has its origins in animal play but has evolved to a high degree of sophistication. Play, a precocious curiosity and a penchant for fun can be viewed as neotenous features.


When fully engaged in a game or task our relationship to the flow of time seems altered. On rare occasions, when all contingent conditions are optimal, we may experience rapture or feel otherwise transported.

There is sensuous pleasure in going where curiosity takes us. There is joy in discovering new things and solving problems. Finding significance, constructing meaning and learning are not only life-sustaining necessities; they are inextricable from how we amuse ourselves. When faced with repetitive tasks or periods of inaction we like to make things interesting by finding points of interest and imposing constraints on ourselves. We tend to set ourselves challenges and interim goals. It would be almost impossible for workers painting the lanes in a swimming pool not to race.


A game is its own self-referential world. It has a life of its own. Games can be loosely or tightly organized. They can be solo or cooperative. They may include elements of conflict and competition; may require varying combinations of skill and luck; may involve role play and make-believe; and may be performed for the thrill of physical exhilaration or other mind-altering sensation. A game may model, or represent, discrete ways of performing actions in the real world.

Can playing ingenious games suffice as a universal metaphor for the human condition?
Can we view all kinds of human activities as rule construed, improvisational language games?


Dutch historian [1872-1945]
In his forward to Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga asserts:

A happier age than ours once made bold to call our species by the name of Homo Sapiens. In the course of time we have come to realize that we are not so reasonable after all as the Eighteenth Century, with its worship of reason and its naïve optimism, thought us; hence modern fashion inclines to designate our species as Homo faber: Man the Maker. But though faber may not be quite so dubious as sapiens it is, as a name specific of the human being, even less appropriate, seeing that many animals too are makers. There is a third function, however, applicable to both human and animal life, and just as important as reasoning and making – namely, playing. It seems to me that next to Homo Faber, and perhaps on the same level as Homo Sapiens, Homo Ludens, Man the Player, deserves a place in our nomenclature.

Huizinga, Johan (1950) Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. The Beacon Press, Boston.