Homo Ludens

While I was doing some interval training at the sports field by the beach, I watched some young teenagers, six of them, playing football—tennis. They had no net, but marked the position of the imagined net with a couple of bags on the ground. One side serves by kicking the ball into the diagonally opposite court, from where it can be returned by foot or head or knee. The receivers must return the ball before it bounces twice. With no equipment except a ball, they managed to play competitively and with a minimum of argument.

I suspect their parents and possibly their school teachers would have been amazed at their ability to set up this game and to play it peacefully. I also admired their organisation, especially two aspects of it: peaceful competition and cooperation in patterned behaviour. Of course each side wanted to win but here that motive was perhaps at its lowest possible level. They were competing in order to play, while enjoying the patterned movement which allowed them to display their skills with the ball, and their identity as a group of friends.

Both the patterned movement and the spirit of friendship can be seen in the animal world, for example amongst birds. When sparrows arise and fly in a flock their flight is patterned and the flock moves as one. Again many birds have specifically patterned mating rituals, while male competition for sexual partners uses ritualised combat. Foxes learn how to hunt in play-fighting.

Some animals and all human beings have detached these behaviours from their original purposes, creating games which have no purpose other than competition b) fun and c) friendship. Games are not a necessary activity but rather an adornment of life, like art, like worship, which also make creative use of patterns. In 1938 Johan Huizinga wrote a book called Homo Ludens in which he analysed play as central to human nature. I do not agree with many of his claims – for example his characterisation of war as a kind of play-, but I agree with him about the centrality of play in human nature.

In fact I see play as central to the nature of God, whose persuasive involvement in the micro and macro events of the universe might best be described as play, in its encouragement of creative patterning and mutual belonging. If that is right, human play is also an imitation of God who is honoured by it. The book of Proverbs in the Bible ascribes this playfulness to God’s Wisdom:

At the first, before the beginning of the earth/ I was with him like a little child, / and was daily his delight,/ rejoicing in the inhabited world…

Uncorrupted play -all professional play is corrupt – is a way of sharing God’s creative pleasure in the universe.

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