Play Scholar Roger Caillois's Theories Analyzed in American Journal of Play

American Journal of Play News Release
One Manhattan Square Rochester, NY 14607 585-263-2700

April 11, 2011

For Immediate Release

Contact: Susan Trien, 585-410-6359,

Are Quilting and Football Both Forms of Play?
20th-Century Scholar Roger Caillois's Play Theories Analyzed
in American Journal of Play

Rochester, NEW YORK—True or false?  Bungee jumping, chess, football, and quilting are all
forms of play.

The ability to define play would seem fairly simple; however, its definition remains a matter of scholarly dispute. More than a half-century ago, French sociologist Roger Caillois (1913-1978), one of three of the most influential play scholars of the 20th century (along with Johan Huizinga and Brian Sutton-Smith), systematized the various experiences of play in an easy-to-grasp classification. Writing in the American Journal of Play, Thomas S. Henricks, Distinguished University Professor at Elon University, rethinks the pioneering work of Roger Caillois to help address some of the paradoxes of play.

Henricks offers a sweeping exploration of Caillois’s life, work, and continued relevance to contemporary play scholarship. Writes Henricks, “A half century has passed since Roger Caillois’s classic study of play, culture, and human condition. First published in 1958 as Les Jeux et Les Hommes and then with an English translation in 1961, the book spans the concerns of many disciplines and fits neatly into none. Most prominently, perhaps, Man, Play, and Games is a kind of sociological or anthropological study, an attempt to categorize certain forms of play and to describe how these forms operate in societies.”

Caillois broke play down into four classifications that explain how individuals engage the world:

  • Agon (from the Greek word for struggle, or contest): Games of competition such as football, billiards, or chess.
  • Alea (from the Latin word for chance): Games that delight in their randomness, such as roulette, a lottery, or card games.
  • Mimicry: Games that incorporate pretending, storytelling, role-playing, or disguise, as in Halloween or Mardi Gras.     
  • Ilinx: (Greek for “whirlpool”): Games that involve a rapid whirling or falling movement or a state of disorder, as in the dizzying pleasure of twirling  or riding a rollercoaster, or the rush of downhill skiing.

Games can combine several of the above features. For example, dancing is an ilinx activity but it an also be combined with mimicry (if one is portraying characters) or with agon (in dance competitions). 

According to Caillois’s classification theory, games can also be placed on a continuum between two opposite polls—at one extreme, uncontrolled fantasy (which he called paidia) and at the other, a rule-bound conventions (which he called ludus).

Henricks believes “Caillois’s classification of the four types of play has value, for it makes play scholars analyze the different kinds of challenges that any particular game (and more informal play activity) presents. And it encourages these same scholars to think about the different kinds of satisfactions offered in such games. To what degree does pleasure come from asserting oneself against (or controlling) environmental challenge, and to what degree does pleasure stem from giving oneself to forces too powerful to be controlled?”

In conclusion, writes Henricks, “there is always some tension or balance between the themes of assertion and compliance—between discovering what you can do to the world and what the world can do to you. That people make these discoveries in somewhat different ways is, I think, the abiding message of Caillois’s work.”


About the American Journal of Play (a publication of The Strong, home of the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play, in Rochester, New York):  Peer-reviewed and written in a clear, straightforward style, the American Journal of Play is the first interdisciplinary journal dedicated solely to the study of play. Providing thought-provoking content from some of the most prominent national researchers and writers in the field, each issue is filled with articles, essays, interviews, and book reviews that explore the critical role of play in learning and human development. To view the most current issue, visit: