Human beings, being human, play. Disciplinary reflection on the topic for this special issue bobs and flickers over an ontological gulf. “A game is being played whenever human beings interact.”1 “Man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays.”2 The second of these pronouncements, a philosopher-poet’s two centuries old, is roughly coeval with the rise of the human sciences in their modern (culturalist, historicist) aspect. The first comes, just two years ago, from a mathematician-economist who, for all the shiny new game-theory tools he sets forth, remains on the spoor of the same ancient quarry: the conundrum of “human being.” For Ken Binman, play is pervasively ingredient in human behavior; for Friedrich Schiller, it normatively constitutes humanity as such. If either one of them is right—and probably they both are—then play emerges as a phenomenon ungraspably ubiquitous, which no mode of inquiry can go to work on without penning it first into folds of conceptual limitation that severely hamper the job. The landscape of ludology is even more crisscrossed with binarism than most of our knowledge, and the readiest sign of this is the suspicious mutual interference among play’s many definitions. Play is nature’s latest coup in the kindergarten-laboratory of primate evolution, a juvenile feint in training for adult realities ahead; and it is also the elder’s reward, the warrior’s recreative rest in aftermath. Play is the gallant rebellion staged by spontaneity against standardizing abstraction; and it is also the consolation infused into leisure by a society committed to the routinization of work. Play is what isn’t serious and doesn’t count; and it is also what makes life worth living, precisely insofar as it dodges the calculus of utility.
Play as such pays no mind at all to these opening gambits of intellectual mastery. That’s because it knows them inside out, better in fact than they know themselves. The fact that the defining limits one discipline imposes on play look arbitrarily rule-bound from the vantage of another may be a blessing in disguise, may be indeed the key to a vast ludic paradox. For, after a while, our disciplinary strategies to understand play start to resemble nothing so much as forms of play in their own right, sentenced in advance to recapitulate play’s most radically originary habit: the postulation of an arbitrary rule. From anthropology to zoology—a [End Page v] disciplinary A to Z that the contents of this issue embrace, along with (inter alia) etymology, sociology of labor, history of ideas, literary analysis, educational policy—our methods for interrogating play must at some point answer to the very regimen they have invented. They are, being human, preemptively infiltrated by their protean object of inquiry, and eventually they are outflanked by it. It’s all in the game: ludology is doomed, know it or not, to play with itself. That we may at least know that much, more widely and keenly than we did, is one goal the present issue of NLH seeks to score.3
To this end, our own framings-in and -out deserve a brief prefatory acknowledgment. The following pages are silent on playing Medea, or the xylophone, or left tackle, but not because theatre, music, and sports are either inaccessible to our inquiry or immune to it. All three ludic species get an oblique glance now and then: theatrical play in Michael Holquist’s treatment of the visionary drama in Goethe’s Faust; playing music in Stephen Nachmanovitch’s remarks on improvisation; and sporting play many times over: in Holquist’s analysis of gambling, Gary Saul Morson’s of the duel of wit, Matthew Kaiser’s of competition’s role within the Victorian ludic, and our closing triad of essays by Marie-Laure Ryan, David Golumbia, and Thomas Malaby on the highly contemporary, swiftly morphing form of digital games. We bypass altogether Binman’s formal modeling of equilibria and cell sets; with due regard for the elegant metric that game theory offers to psychological and...