In modern culture, the element of play has long constituted a problem.footnote1 Associated with either the past or a possible future, it often appeared as an anachronism. The 19th-century bourgeoisie, for example, relegated play to the past by identifying it almost exclusively with children, in a sphere increasingly separated from ‘proper’ social life. Ernst Haeckel’s famous 1866 law, ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’, was but one manifestation of a tendency in that period to construct parallels between the lives of individuals and those of the species; to relegate play and games to the sphere of the child was perhaps also to suggest a parallel in human history, to associate them with an earlier stage in the development of civilization. When the 19th-century German educator Friedrich Fröbel stated that ‘play at this time is not trivial, it is highly serious and of deep significance’, the implication was that at other times—in life after childhood—it is indeed trivial.footnote2 Its only function was as preparation for adulthood. Play and games had to be educational and constructive, readying boys and girls for their later respective roles, necessitating clearly distinct toys for each gender.

Bourgeois moralists saw the less segregated sphere of the child among the working classes, on the other hand, as a dangerous admixture. Workers were seen as engaging in crude, bawdy behaviour and in highly suspicious games of chance, rather than in the one kind of game that would be beneficial to them: namely, organized sports. But for Johan Huizinga, in modern sport, with its emphasis on competition, professionalism and profit, ‘the old play-factor has undergone almost complete atrophy’.footnote3 Huizinga was one of a number of thinkers who, either looking back nostalgically or announcing a new played future, criticized modern society for having abandoned play. While there may have been some compensating developments outside of sports, for Huizinga nevertheless ‘the sad conclusion forces itself upon us that the play-element in culture has been on the wane ever since the eighteenth century, when it was in full flower. Civilization today is no longer played.’footnote4

While Huizinga has long held sway over cultural analyses of play, in recent years the rise of ‘game studies’ has resulted in something of a paradigm shift. Play, so long alien to the way in which modern society conceived of itself, has now become embedded in computer games, which constitute a bigger industry than Hollywood. Does this signal the obsolescence of older theories of play? Perhaps the very fact that these now look increasingly anachronistic gives them contemporary relevance: they may provide pointers for thinking and acting beyond the limitations of actually existing games.

If theory arrives on the scene once a phenomenon begins to lose its formerly self-evident character, it should come as no surprise that the modern theory of play has its origins in the moment when, according to Huizinga, the play instinct had begun to wane. While Friedrich Schiller’s fifteenth letter from the Aesthetic Education of Man did not give such a stark diagnosis of the present, his notion of play already straddled past and future—between the artistic heights of ancient Greece and a projected humanity mandated by reason—leaving the present as a divide to be bridged. Schiller posited a ‘play instinct’ that is the synthesis of two drives existing in a dialectical tension: the ‘sensuous instinct’, which seeks immersion in sensuous and temporal life, and the ‘formal instinct’, which seeks to extract timeless ideas from the plenitude of life. Beauty can be neither pure life nor pure form, neither philosophical idea nor artistic abstraction. True beauty only exists due to the play instinct, in which man freely exercises his faculties in a dialogue with the world of the senses. It is only thus, in the resulting unity of reality and form, of the accidental and the necessary, of suffering and freedom, that man is truly complete. This was an aesthetic along Kantian lines: as in Kant’s third Critique, it is the task of beauty to reconcile reason and the senses.footnote5 But departing from Kant, for Schiller beauty was rooted in play. ‘The object of the play instinct, represented in a general statement, may therefore bear the name of living form; a term that serves to describe all aesthetic qualities of phenomena, and what people style, in the widest sense, beauty.footnote6

Stating that man only plays when he is fully man, and that he is only fully man when he plays, Schiller claimed that this insight would at once carry both the whole edifice of ‘aesthetic art’, and that of the even more difficult ‘art of life’. Such a proposition, he argued, was unexpected only for philosophers; it had been alive in the minds and the art of the ancient Greeks. Schiller’s text called for a project of aesthetic revolution that would avoid the violence done by the ‘mechanical artists’ of the French Revolution, wedding the Gestalten of reason organically to the material and sensuous world so as not to ‘injure the manifold in nature’. It is easy to see that such a project, meant to put the revolutionary transformation of society on a sure footing and complete it, could become an ideological alternative to political change; the ‘aesthetic revolution’ as a stand-in for the political one, rather than its fulfilment.

In Antiquity, the play drive had manifested itself in the Olympic Games, which came close to realizing the ideal:

No error will ever be incurred if we seek the ideal of beauty on the same road on which we satisfy our play-impulse. We can immediately understand why the ideal form of a Venus, of a Juno, and of an Apollo, is to be sought not at Rome, but in Greece, if we contrast the Greek population, delighting in the bloodless athletic contests of boxing, racing and intellectual rivalry at Olympia, with the Roman people gloating over the agony of a gladiator. Now reason pronounces that the beautiful must not only be life and form, but a living form, that is, beauty, inasmuch as it dictates to man the twofold law of absolute formality and absolute reality. Reason also utters the decision that man shall only play with beauty, and he shall only play with beauty.footnote7