Jesper Juul: "Playing". In Henry Lowood and Raiford Guins (eds.): Debugging Game History - A Critical Lexicon. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2016. pp. 351-358.


Many animals besides humans—notably mammals and birds—exhibit play behavior (Burghardt 2006), but here I discuss something more specific—namely humans playing games. We can think of games as rule-bound and mostly goal-oriented activities that differ from other goal-oriented activities in that the primary consequences of game playing are negotiable rather than obligatory (Juul 2005, chap. 2). In addition, we tend to discuss game playing as a voluntary act whose primary purpose is entertainment.

Game playing is therefore a subset of the larger set of play activities, which points directly to a juxtaposition: play is broadly associated with free-form and voluntary activities, yet games are also defined by rule structures that in part limit what players can do. This juxtaposition contains the fundamental question of game playing: Is game playing a free activity, or is it determined and controlled by the game rules?

Four Conceptions of Game Playing

There have historically been four central conceptions of the act of playing a game. They fall roughly on a scale from the assumption that the game dictates the playing of the game to the assumption that the player essentially creates a game by playing it. The four conceptions are:

1. Playing as submission, where the player is bound by the limits set forth by the game rules.

2. Playing as constrained freedom, where the game creates a space in which players acquire a certain amount of freedom and the opportunity to perform particular acts.

3. Playing as subversion, where the player works around both the designer's intentions and the game object's apparent limitations.

4. Playing as creation, where the game is ultimately irrelevant for (or at least secondary to) the actual playing.

Broadly stated, the first two conceptions are game-centric in that they focus on the game design's contribution to the game-playing activity, whereas the two latter conceptions are player-centric in that they emphasize the player's contribution. Generally speaking, the player-centric conceptions of game playing have appeared quite recently and often as a reaction to earlier game-centric theories.

These four conceptions are general claims about all game playing. I discuss hybrid and prescriptive conceptions later in the chapter and question whether it is at all correct to consider the issue of game playing as a conflict between games and players. In addition, each of the conceptions can be used to cast games in either a positive or a negative light.


In Truth and Method, philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer argues that play is a type of submission to the game: “The real subject of the game (this is shown precisely in those experiences in which there is only a single player) is not the player but the game itself. What holds the player in its spell, draws him into play, is the game itself” (2004, 106). For Gadamer, this is not a bad thing; it is simply a particular trait of playfulness that Gadamer sees in both games and art. Many critical views of video games agree with Gadamer that game playing is a kind of submission but rate this relationship as profoundly negative, describing players as being controlled by the game to the detriment of their free ability to act or make decisions. For example, in Mind at Play (1983) Geoffrey Loftus and Elizabeth Loftus discuss elements of video game design in terms of Skinner boxes, referring explicitly to behaviorist experiments with rats.

Specifying the idea of game playing as submission, Scott Rettberg has argued that World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004) involves players in a Protestant work ethic and that “the game is training a generation of good corporate citizens” (2008, 20). Game playing can thus be devalued on the assumption that submission is negative, but the same conception can alternatively be viewed through a positive lens because this very control trains players for future experiences of adversity. Benjamin Franklin thus extolled the lessons of perseverance that chess playing could teach the player: “We learn by chess the habit of not being discouraged by present bad appearances in the state of our affairs, the habit of hoping for a favorable change, and that of persevering in the search of resources” (1786, n.p.).

Constrained Freedom

Johan Huizinga famously declared play to be a voluntary activity, one that we can then use for “stepping out of 'real' life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own” (1950, 8). This definition does not posit game playing as a moment of absolute freedom but rather as a situation where players are given a freedom that is usually temporally and spatially delimited—that is, taking place within a magic circle (Salen and Zimmerman 2004; Huizinga 1950). Thus, conceiving game playing as a type of constrained freedom assumes that this freedom is enabled by the game design. For example, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman say that “play is free movement within a more rigid structure” (2004, 304). Bernard Suits (1978) similarly argues that although game rules on one level do limit player options—for example, by forbidding the golf player to carry the ball to the hole by hand or by disallowing chess players to introduce an extra king of their own—game rules also enable new meaningful actions that would not be possible without the game (see also Juul 2005). It is only when the rules of chess have been specified for a check or a checkmate that these actions become available and meaningful.

This conception of constrained freedom connects game playing with other art forms. Ragnhild Tronstad (2001) and Clara Fernández-Vara (2005) have in particular compared game playing to theater and to performances more generally. Fernández-Vara argues that “the performance of the player is a negotiation between scripted behaviours and improvisation based on the system” (2005, 7). Game playing, then, is like acting in a play, where actors are valued for their ability to express fixed material in interesting ways.


Playing can also be contrued as a type of subversion, where the player overcomes both the designer's intentions and the game object's apparent limitations. The difference between constrained freedom and subversion is that the former conceives the game as an enabler of player activity, but the latter, like submission, sees the game as fundamentally limiting. The subversion perspective argues that players actively overcome the limitations of the game structure as well as the game developers' possible intentions. For example, in Cheating (2007) Mia Consalvo stresses how players may act against designer intentions. Espen Aarseth (2007), following Gadamer, describes submission as the general law of game playing but argues that player subversions and transgressions are moments of “hope” when players see the possibility of escaping the submission that their game playing implies.

Placing subversion in a historical context, Jonas Heide Smith (2006) argues that for various historical reasons, notably the predispositions of some types of critical theory, the field of game studies has privileged the conception of the player as a subversive force, working against designer intentions. Joshua Tanenbaum (2013) similarly argues that both scholars and the game industry have set up a false conflict between designers and players when they view players as being primarily subversive.


Unlike subversion, which sees the game as an actual set of limitations that the player can overcome, the creation perspective sees the game rules as irrelevant or at least secondary to the player's contribution. Like subversion, creation comes in differing strengths. In the weaker variation, Mikael Jakobsson examines players of a Super Smash Bros. (HAL Laboratory, 2001) tournament and does not discount the existence of a game, but he argues “that the very nature of a game can change without changing the core rules” (2007, 293). Linda Hughes, studying Foursquare players, argues that “players can take the same game and collectively make of it strikingly different experiences” (1999, 94).

In stronger formulations, the game in effect becomes secondary to game playing. Laura Ermi and Franz Mäyrä say that “the essence of a game is rooted in its interactive nature, and there is no game without a player” (2005). In a yet stronger phrasing, Anne-Mette Thorhauge claims that game rules are in actuality created by players: “The player culture is not just something taking place 'on top' of the game, it rather defines the game as a product of the continuous communication and negotiation among players” (2013, 389).

Hybrid and Prescriptive Ideas

I have placed these four conceptions on a scale, and proponents of each conception also tend to present their own position as being placed on such a scale. Some theorists argue that insufficient emphasis has been put on game design, and some argue that players' contribution is undervalued. One agreement in the discussion, then, is that there is an underlying scale to be tipped, and that any emphasis on the game must be to the detriment of any emphasis on the player and vice versa. But what if this is wrong?

The alternative argument is that game playing operates differently depending on both the game and the player. A precursor of this argument can be seen in Roger Caillois' distinction between paidia (free-form play) and ludus (structured games) activities ([1958] 2001, chap. 2). However, Caillois still emphasizes that paidia is an unstructured activity, and he therefore does not consider the possibility that a strictly structured activity can give rise to freedom for the player. But the distinction between games of emergence and games of progression (Juul 2002) as well as the existence of “games” without goals (Juul 2009, chap. 7) suggest that a game design can be more or less open to different uses by players. In this case, structured game design can in and of itself enable player freedom, meaning that the perceived conflict between game-centric and player-centric viewpoints may be a misunderstanding.

A further option is to remember that arguments are often made for the benefits of particular types of design. For instance, calls for emergent gameplay (H. Smith 2003) argue for the value of games that leave room for the player. It is clear that such prescriptive ideas about game design must assume that design matters and that game playing will be different with different games. For example, the New Games movement of the early 1970s often exhibited a distaste for the playing-as-submission formula (New Games Foundation 1976) and therefore designed less-competitive and more loosely structured group activities.

Along similar lines but for different ends, the experimental game developer Tale of Tales argues that rules, goals in particular, “get in the way of playfulness” (Harvey and Samyn 2006). Here, the constraints that game rules and goals impose are seen as working against the expressive or experiential aspect of game playing. This question thereby connects to broader cultural conceptions of expressivity and art. In a controversial statement, late film critic Roger Ebert made the opposite argument—namely, that video games can never be art because “by their nature [they] require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control” (2005). This distinction illustrates how the different conceptions of game playing are invoked with references to broader cultural ideas, even though these ideas may not be as fixed as presupposed: in fact, there is cultural disagreement about whether art works, such as games, should control users or give them freedom.

The Value of Freedom and Constraint

Any discussion of freedom in games, such as this one, will automatically draw upon cultural assumptions about the value of freedom relative to duty, order, submission, and so on. In the present day and in the Western world, it may seem obvious that freedom and subversion are preferable to submission, but the truth is that this view has changed historically. For the New Games movement, working in California in the early 1970s, the value of freedom in the face of oppressive systems was a given. But beyond that, think only of how Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—the Abrahamic religions—have in different ways emphasized the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, holding forth unwavering submission to God's will as a something to be emulated. In other words, submission has often been understood as preferable to individual freedom, and approaching game playing with this belief would make it possible to reverse many of the arguments discussed earlier, seeing subversive gameplay as a problem rather than as a moment to be cherished.

The seeming opposition between submission, constrained freedom, subversion, and creation may then be an illusion: if a game can be designed such that players have more freedom to use it in the ways that they see fit, then the player contribution is not at the expense of the role of the game design or vice versa. Games may be more or less flexible, as players may be (Juul 2009), and these variations are characteristic of this particularly human phenomenon of game playing. A purely game-centric perspective will always have the flaw of denying the contribution by players, and a purely player-centric perspective will have to ignore that players express aesthetic preferences for particular games (Björk and Juul 2012). Game playing is therefore not a conflict between games and players but a moment where games and players fit together and mutually constitute each other.

Works Cited

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