The Classification Lens of Callois

Posted on October 5, 2011


I have no [AD&D and me] for you today. That’ll be back next week. But wait! I have another post for you:

I’ve talked before about The Magic Circle: Principles of Gaming & Simulation. I never finished the book, but today I want to talk about it a bit more. The author discusses Roger Callois'[1] classification of games, and I’ve been thinking about how roleplaying games[2] fit into this.

Before I talk more, though, I do want to say: I don’t think labels and definitions are good in themselves. I don’t want to fit roleplaying games into this schema as a way of declaring the truth of how they are, but rather use the schema as a tool to maybe learn something about RPGs. Which goes to say, too, I’m not declaring the truth of this classification system, just using it as a lens for looking at RPGs.

Also, I’m going to quote from the book at length, which may turn some people off, but part of my reason in reading this obscure and difficult book was to cull things of use and interest to those of us who like to think about games. If that’s you, then, this is good stuff, if sometimes dense.

Callois has presented a classification of games that makes an important distinction between two kinds of rules, and four forms of activities in culture. The paida element concerns the free play of a game, based on its intrinsic values for the players. The ludus element pays more attention to institutionalized rules and conventions imposed on the players. The paida-ludus dimension refers to ways of playing. Caillois considered both game qualities to be the extremes of a continuum.

Many games are a mixture of the paida and ludus elements. The four cultural activities — categories of play: agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx vary with respect to locus of control of the players. With agon and mimicry, the players can control events. With alea and ilinx, when entering the game, they leave control to the circumstances. Caillois speaks of four categories of play — competition, chance, simulation, and vertigo — and in addition calls them basic attitudes governing play. He mentioned that they are not always encountered in isolation. In many games the various attitudes of play become associated. He presented six possible pairs:

  • Competition & chance (agon-alea)
  • Competition & simulation (agon-mimicry)
  • Competition & vertigo (agon-ilinx)
  • Chance & simulation (alea-mimicry)
  • Chance & vertigo (alea-ilinx)
  • Simulation & vertigo (mimcry-ilinx)

Based on this scheme, Caillois distinguished forbidden, contingent, and fundamental relationships between these four attitudes of play. As an example of a forbidden relationship, vertigo and competition are incompatible. The conditions for ilinx destroy the conditions for agon: respect for rules, self-control, efforts to win, testing oneself under conditions of equality. In a similar vein, simulation and chance are mutually exclusive.

Regarding contingent relationships: chance and vertigo, as well as competition and simulation, can be associated without harm. A fundamental relationship, on the other hand, exists between agon and alea. They are symmetrical to each other, and complement one another. A multitude of games exist that combine the two attitudes in varying degrees. Card games, golf, poker, soccer, etc., are not purely games of chance. They also require skills, self-control, testing oneself under conditions of equality, and prior submission to the decision of a referee. Many board games are a combination of skill and chance. Agôn and alea are regulated through the rules of the game. Without rules there would be no competition. Mimicry and ilinx form another kind of fundamental relationship. Both presume a world without rules and regulations. Caillois said:

The combination of alea and agôn is a free act of will, stemming from the satisfaction felt in overcoming an arbitrarily conceived and voluntarily accepted obstacle. The alliance of mimicry and ilinx leads to an inexorable, total frenzy, which in its most obvious forms appears to be the opposite of play, an indescribable metamorphosis in the conditions of existence. The fit so provoked, being uninhibited, seems to remove the player as far from the authority, values, and influence of the real world, as the real world seems to influence the formal, protected, regulated, and protected activities that characterize the wholly inhibited games subsumed under the rules of agôn and alea. The association of simulation and vertigo is so powerful and so inseparable that it is naturally part of the sphere of the sacred, perhaps providing one of the principal bases for the terror and fascination of the sacred.

Although tripartite combinations occur, Caillois considered them rare juxtapositions that do not influence the character of the games involved.

So where, if anywhere, do roleplaying games fit? Many RPGs have an element of alea (chance), but I don’t know that that’s fundamental to the medium. They are certainly not games of chance, and even if I’m rolling dice or drawing cards to find the outcome of an action or event, those elements of chance almost always have to be interpreted by someone at the table. The elements of chance in any given RPG aren’t really about alea, then, but rather use chance to serve a different purpose.

What purpose? My gut tells me that ilinx (vertigo), “attempts to disrupt regular perception patterns”, is a strong element of RPGs. When I play a roleplaying game, I control certain elements in the fiction, but not all of them. The other players are there to disrupt me, to surprise me, to–perhaps–collaborate in changing my regular patterns of perception.

Obviously, I think, mimicry (imitation/simulation) is a huge part of roleplaying[3]. We are “pretending to be someone else”, even if we’re not really pretending, right? Even if we’re holding our character or cast of characters at length, we imaginatively take on aspects of them during play.

In the end, I really like the mimicryilinx classification of roleplaying games, because it settles there naturally in my mind, even if I can’t fully pull it apart with my intellect. There’s still something brewing there that I can’t quite grasp. Callois connects that pair with the sacred, with letting yourself go, with a removal from everyday life, which just, sits there in the space that roleplaying games sit in, for me.

I suspect, though, that there’s really no tight fit. Roleplaying games as a medium are incredibly broad. What about agon (competition)? If you write a roleplaying game about mythical Greek heroes competing, and even call it AGON, does that mean roleplaying games can be categorized under agon, or does it just mean that the elements of agon serve the mimicryilinx core of the game?

Shit, I don’t know. And what about games like Do?[4] They completely lack any mimicry.

It would probably help if I actually read Callois, instead of an analysis of him.

I would love for this to be a discussion, either here or on a far-flung forum. What do you think of this lens of classification for games? How does it help you see roleplaying games? What do you make of my thoughts on the matter?


[1] A French academic who wrote, among other things, Man, Play, and Games, a book on the sociology of games and play.

[2] And by “roleplaying game” I mean “or story game, or whatever you want to call it”. In general, on this blog, I don’t make a distinction between the terms and the types of games they refer to.

[3] Let’s stick with mimicry and stay away from simulation, hmm? That last one is minefield in RPG discussion.

[4] Okay, let’s tell it like it is: Do’s a collaborative fiction-writing game, plain and simple. Which I think probably moves it out from under the umbrella of roleplaying/story game, but still, I’m not sure. In my heart of hearts, though, I say: Do’s not an RPG/story game. Does it matter, though? No.

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