A game constitutes a universal form of behaviour by homo sapiens, and is also a characteristic of many animals: for example, certain interaction modes which take place both between humans and between mammals of other species, have the appearance of a fight, but their participants are not experiencing these or engaging in them as real fights. Gregory Bateson has observed that this form of simulated behaviour is only possible if those involved are able to metacommunicate, that is, to communicate on their communication, sharing the meaning that they are giving to this activity in terms similar to the following: “it’s just a friendly nibbling and not hostile”, or: “this is a game not a fight”.
These types of games, which involve carrying out an action “as if” it were another, such as rituals (for example, certain peace ceremonies held between human adversaries) have a fragile nature: the distinction between a real and simulated attack, between a threatening expression and a simulated threatening expression, between the territory and the map, is always liable to suffer interruptions or misunderstandings, and as such the risk that actual violence may occur. As such, rituals and games contain symbolic devices which counter any possible wrongdoings and commit those involved to defining such activities as behaviour of its own kind.
The world illusion [from the original: ilusión], from the Latin illudêre, derived from ludêre, to play, opens up a field of meaning which is extremely significant for Spanish: it refers to delusion, false appearance, but also to the emotional state of an expectant complacency, focused on future events. Illudêre also possesses the meaning of taking risks, specifically in relation to one’s own position or activity. This leads to the player “deluding him/herself” with the game, which encloses a form of gratification whilst however also running the risk of being deluded as well as deluding him/herself.
Researchers in child psychology and other social scientists have placed great importance on the learning and the playing of games by children: through dramatic games, children familiarise themselves with cultural rules and, in general, with moral rules.
According to George H. Mead, games of the play type (that is, playing roles) enable children to recreate fictitious situations, thus taking on the expectations that their parents nurture regarding them, at a moment when they are still not able to generalise or systematise representations of these actual adult roles. In games of the type game (such as games of sport), behaviour takes place within a socially structured activity, which presupposes knowledge and acceptance of the whole system of represented roles, dealing with that which Mead has designated as the “generalized other”, that is, the representation of a general norm within a social group.
Through taking part in games and using specific toys, children develop the sense of a “third zone”, between interiority and exteriority, which allows them to play the role of subjects in opposition to objects. This intermediate zone of experience, as theorised by Donald W. Winnicott, remains active throughout life, related to the arts and religion, use of the imagination and, in general, cultural creation. Vygotsky, in turn, thought that children need the illusory and imaginary work of the game to express unrealisable desires and biological, psychic and cultural needs stemming from their own situation of dependence.
One of the great theoreticians of ludic activity, Johan Huizinga, considers that it is more appropriate to qualify homo sapiens with the term ludens than with faber. Huizinga did not try and question the place that the game occupies within the set of different cultural manifestations, but rather sought to show to what extent culture itself possesses the character of a game and deals with the game. In formal terms, the game constitutes a free activity, which is realised “as if” it were strange to the normal world, and thus experimented with, but despite this it can completely absorb the player. Practising the game seeks in itself the obtaining of a satisfaction which dispenses with material gratification, and takes place within specific spatial-temporal coordinates, according to determined rules which produces effects of tension, emotion and mystery.
Roger Caillois, another notable researcher into ludic activity, attributes similar features to games, and has proposed the following classification system:
Agon: to designate competitive games which participants lock into and which take place in conditions of relative equality, where each tries to achieve a position of superiority by the end. Included in this category are sports in general and those belonging to the “games room”.
Alea: to designate the so-called “games of chance”, in which decisions and the results do not depend on the player. Here it is not so much competing with an adversary as abandoning oneself to destiny. If, in the agonistic games, players express their will, in games of chance they abandon it.
Mimicry: Any game which supposes the provisional acceptance of a limit for separated activity, which is alien to normal experience and circumscribed by precise and previously established spatial-temporal limits. In these types of games what is dominant is the sense of the simulation, or experience “as if” where the players transform themselves into another. This category includes games which imply the practice of mimicry, masks and disguise.
Ilinx: In games involving dizziness, an attempt is made to compromise the stability of perception, engendering the spasm, the trance, or a voluptuous bewilderment. Rapid rotating movements, falls or slipping are set up to induce organic states of confusion. The types of experience particular to these types of games include extreme speed, befuddlement or intense feeling of bewilderment or imbalance, which are features of the activities offered by leisure parks.
Pleasure in one’s competence, the challenge of chance, the simulation and the attraction dizziness affords constitute the main stimuli for games, and inevitably enter into the totality of the life of societies, Caillois adds. These attitudes express themselves in a somewhat predetermined manner and combine in particular ways according to different societies. Some of them, when developed and honed, generate cultural forms to which educational or aesthetic values are attributed. Regulated competence, for example, is institutionalised as sport, or the simulation as theatre.
Bateson, G. 1972; Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. University Of Chicago Press (Spanish translation: Bateson, Gregory; 1985; Pasos hacia una Ecología de la Mente; Buenos Aires; Lohle).
Caillois, Roger; Les Jeux et les Hommes, Paris, Gallimard, 1958 (Spanish translation: Caillois, Roger, 1986; Los juegos y los hombres. México; Fondo de Cultura Económica).
Huizinga, Johan, 1998; Homo ludens; Madrid. Alianza.
Mead, George H., Mind, Self, and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist Charles W. Morris (ed.), Cicago: The University of Chicago Press, (1934) 1967 (Spanish translation: Mead, George H., 1990; Espíritu, persona y sociedad: desde el punto de vista del conductismo social; México; Paidós.
Vygotsky, Lev S., 1989; El Desarrollo de los procesos psicológicos superiores; (The Development of Higher Psychological Processes) Barcelona; Crítica.
Winnicott, D.W. 1971; Playing and reality. London: Tavistock. (Spanish translation: Winnicott, Donald W.; 1994; Juego y realidad; Barcelona; Gedisa).