What Do Gamers & Social Workers Have In Common?

The Dutch cultural theorist and early scholar of ludic studies Johan Huizinga took play very seriously.  Gamers and Social Workers alike would have loved Johan–he spoke out against Nazism and German influence on Dutch Science in 1942 at a lecture he gave.  This was not the first time he had done so.  As early as 1935 he had grown alarmed at the rise of fascism and written, “We live in a demened world, and we know it.”  By 1942, his speaking truth to power had finally gone too far in Nazi estimations, and he was imprisoned, then detained, by the Nazis in the village of De Steeg.  He died there 3 years later.

It was during these final years of his life that he refined and wrote his book, Homo Ludens, which translates to “Man the Player.”  In this book he explored the serious nature of play as a cultural phenomenon present in art, war, and politics.

Huizinga determined that play has 5 essential elements, to which I add examples as appropriate to gaming and/or social work:

  1. Play is free, is in fact freedom. When we are playing, we are not doing it for any other reason than that we want to.  Play to be play must be a voluntary activity that we initiate or accept the invitation to enter into ourselves.  In that regard you could say that play is always an assertion of the self, and free will.  We gamers choose to spend our time gaming, choose one game over the other.  This is why gaming as play does not adhere to the slavish concept of addiction.
  2. Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life. What makes play so much fun, and so important is specifically that is isn’t bounded by the realities of daily living.  It is pretend, and extraordinary, and it allows us to escape real life.  But this is exactly why gamers and other people who play aren’t psychotic.  We may talk about the games we play to lengths that bore or disturb others, but we know that games are apart from real life.  That’s what makes them fun!  I may hurl arcane energy at a dragon in WoW, but I am aware (albeit sadly at times) that if I ever encounter a dragon in real life I will not be able to summon magic at my whim to destroy it.  And that is why Second Life is not called First Life.  For play to be play, we have to know we are taking ourselves out of the real world to participate in something else.
  3. Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration. When I get ready to play WoW,  I sit down or stand at my computer; but when I play I am in Azeroth.  Whether it is chess, poker or a video game, the play experience takes place in another time and space, and it has a beginning and an end.  Even MMORPGs, which push the last quality in some ways, have an end for individual players, when we cease participating in the game world for the time being and resume the activities of daily living that await us in the real world.
  4. Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme. By this Huizinga meant that for play to work it needs to have rules as well as time and space boundaries.  We all know how to play Hide and Seek, the next time you play it try being the “Seeker” and go hide along with everyone else; or come out of hiding and start chasing the Seeker.  Bizarre and funny, but the game won’t be Hide and Seek anymore–Tag, maybe, but then we’ll know that something has fundamentally changed.  And in World of Warcraft everyone needs the same amount of experience points to get to level 80, and we expect the griffin flight paths to always stop in the same places.  Wizards will never wear plate mail and hunters can’t teleport.  That’s just the way things are, that’s the order of things.
  5. Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it. Ask any gold farmer around the world, and they will tell you that there is a big difference between playing WoW and logging in to the game to make and then sell money.  Gold selling can’t even happen entirely in-game, and Blizzard bans it for good reason.  It’s cheating, not serious play.  The loot items that I “get” in the game aren’t things I can profit from in the real world.  I can’t take my Corp’rethar Ceremonial Crown with me when I leave the game, which is why I would be so useless if a dragon shows up in Harvard Square.  And although Second Life has a different approach, allowing you to buy in-world “Lindens” for real-world monies, I’d suggest that the act of buying the Lindens occurs outside the play experience:  Sigmund Steampunk isn’t buying Lindens, Mike is buying Lindens “out here” and sending them to Sigmund “in there.”

So what’s all this got to do with gamers and social workers?  Lots!  Both gamers and social workers value freedom a great deal for starters.  And social workers (I am saying social workers, but this applies to all psychotherapists) understand that therapy, like gaming, is a form of play.  We experience more freedom to explore and express our internal world in therapy.  It happens at a given time and place, even as an online event.  What happens inside the therapy, a la Winnicott’s “Transitional Phenomenon,”  is both alike and different from the “real world.”  And there is order in therapy, some firm rules and limits in terms of what can or should happen in it.

As for the money bit, I would suggest that if we lived in a culture where capitalism was not the norm, the same parts of therapy that are so powerful and rewarding, the play-elements, would still be as powerful.  Another way of looking at this is to ask yourself if you conduct therapy any differently with patients who are on Medicaid than those who are private pay?  I’m not talking about feeling annoyed that you aren’t getting paid well, but the game you play.  Do you only think psychodynamically with your private patients?  Do you change the boundaries when its Medicaid?  Or do you try your best to do what’s best for each patient regardless of the payment?

And as social workers, don’t you advocate for others with the powers that be in ways that are not connected with your material interest?  Take Civil Rights, for example.  The years and years of advocating, protesting and legislating are not something that the social workers involved derived a profit from.  In fact that is what makes our endurance in fighting for social justice so admirable.

This is why many gamers will make excellent social workers, by the way.  Gamers are experts at endurance.  That guy in your office that seems like a “slacker” actually has more in common with you than you think.  He has spent hours trying to down the Lich King–trying and failing, and then trying again.  He has spent hours researching strategies to work as part of a team and not given up.  Jane McGonigal pointed out recently on NPR that majority of time gamers are online, they are failing to accomplish their tasks.  That’s why it is so admirable that they keep at it.   So yes the adolescent you’re sitting with may have grades that are plummeting in school, but don’t blame the games!  Try instead to harness that discipline, focus and stamina by exploring how it shows up in-game, and then how it can be used to change his real life.

And the connection between gaming and social justice isn’t as far-fetched as you may think:  A 2009 Pew presentation from Amanda Lenhart showed that 49% of teen gamers reported seeing people being “hateful, racist or sexist” while playing– which means that they can identify hate, sexism and racism.  What’s more, three-quarters of these kids reported seeing other players regularly respond to such behavior to confront it.  That’s a hell of a lot better than most high schools and college campuses are doing these days!

So gamers and social workers both understand the value and seriousness of play, as an imagined space in therapy or in Azeroth.  Gamers and social workers both understand the value of psychic change and social activism.  And gamers and social workers alike regularly demonstrate hard work and stamina in the face of dragons and fascism.

Johan Huizinga would be proud.


  1. This is an interesting and thought-provoking post. I must admit that, as a long-time addictions therapist, I have looked askance at people who game and do online “playing” first in the addictive category but you are making an impact!! I have also usually questioned the underlying assumptions in any theory b/c I want to do “what works” and “what feels like it is me.” I hope that makes sense. I like the idea of channeling the energy and looking at perseverance of addicts. I also must admit that I have wanted to learn some of the games. I had originally heard that they were so violent and didn’t really explore this myself. As like most people, trying something new is somewhat daunting and, yes, humbling. I’ve thought of asking my 14 year old nephew!! Anyway, any suggestions for those of us that would like to perhaps try it out. I mean there is the obvious “try it out” but something maybe that would be helpful to know before going to a WoW site or maybe a game that you suggest that might be easier to learn? The last time I tried online gaming–ping pong was the main task….but, hey, a few years late isn’t all bad…..

    • Hi Vickie, thanks for reading and thinking with us about this! I think that there are a lot of games I could suggest you look at, and the approach to them is definitely to cultivate a “beginner’s mind.” I think Malcolm Gladwell estimated that it takes us 10,000 hours doing something before we become competent at it. No, I am not going to suggest you try to play WoW for 10,000 hours. But there are several different types to start if you don’t like shooters. If you have an iphone I would suggest the simple yet sensorally pleasing “Flower Chain.” if you want something pretty and easy to start with. It can also be an interesting metaphoric object lesson about how the behaviors we have impact the larger social community (important for addicts and non-addicts alike.) If you try it and agree please come back and tell us.

      For the Wii, I am dying to try, Epic Mickey, and many adults may find this an interesting game to try because it returns them to the nostalgia of Disney. But depending on your tastes, I am actually inclined to suggest you DO talk to your nephew. There are so many games out there, and he may have more suggestions that would be of particular interest to you.

      There is also a whole genre of games called “socially serious games,” which are fun but also embed learning about things necessary to bring about social justice. One I have played a few levels is http://www.playagainstallodds.com/ and another that is about Darfur is http://www.darfurisdying.com/ . These are web-based and can be played for free.

      Finally, as someone working in addictions, you may find this article of interest. It discussed the work Dick Dillon has done with setting up a virtual aftercare program to help adolescents finishing up their inpatient stay. http://www.hypergridbusiness.com/2010/10/treatment-center-gets-865000-for-second-opensim-project/

  2. Hey Mike,

    I really appreciate your commitment to broadening the perspective of your colleagues (us!) Until now I had not taken gaming seriously other than to monitor how many hours a young person may spend doing it.
    The points you make in this blog illicit new considerations in my viewpoints. We know the value of play for all ages, the value of spontaneity in a performance-driven society, the value of practicing rules & boundaries, of exploration, creativity, perseverance and more.
    “There is also a whole genre of games called “socially serious games,” which are fun but also embed learning about things necessary to bring about social justice.” Mike, THAT caught my attention..
    As and EMDR certified trauma therapist, I know how important the development of new behavioral or conceptual templates can be for healing. Never would I have considered that some of these games may offer the opportunity for such development…
    Also, I have taken your advice and placed a business page on facebook. If you would be so kind as to “like it” I am told the search-engines will “like” me more! facebook-revelation counseling. Thanks~
    appreciate your articles, keep it up. Marta Hatter, LCSW

  3. A Kang, LCSW says

    Thanks, Mike. It has been many years since I conquered the original Mario Brothers on what we then called just “Nintendo.” Now, if I could only summons that passion, energy and resilience, I’m sure my clients would benefit! As I often say to my clients, I guess its a matter of perspective.

    • It is in fact very much a matter of perspective. In her new book, “Reality is Broken,” Jane McGonigal reminds us that gamers are amongst the most resourceful and resilient people when it comes to doing the difficult. So for a change of perspective for those of us who remember Mario Bros., try to go through the week looking for those “hidden blocks,” that you can tap to get power-ups. Where in the workplace can you see and jump for them?!

  4. I really like thinking of the concept of play as part of the psychotherapy space. I hadn’t considered that before, but it really fits my experience. Thanks for adding that perspective to my world!

    On the power of gaming: just want to put in a plug here to encourage people to check out the work of Edward Castronova, author of Synthetic Worlds: the Business and Culture of Online Games and also Exodus to the Virtual World. Among other things he discusses that “gaming” will become the primary way of engaging people in many aspects of society and that policy makers will begin to take this into account.

  5. I really think I need to become a gamer~ at least a little bit ~:-) Will search for one that does not involve guns tho~ am more a bow and arrow, knife or spear warrior.

    Spent some time with a 7 year old during my travels in Christchurch, New Zealand and noticed that his concept of play was very limited~ and he was not accessing the internet. Instead there were DVDs and TV. I took him on a garden play~ we found a gateway (like I used when I was a kid), twirled to gain entrance and then went forth imagining dragon spines to walk on (rock borders) and green oceans of grass to swim across.

    Even today, on a walk to explore the area of the city I am in, I found myself a portal and the river walk became an adventurous exploration of a new land.


    Social injustices are very hard emotionally, I think you are onto something about aligning a sense of play with practice. Ogres abound, as do bands of warriors and healers~ and ultimately it is not violence that brings resolution and growth personally and to the community~ but skill, stealth, wit, humor, and embodiment of the trickster or magic archetypes at times.

    • Char, thanks for this. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the comments which recall playful episodes wax poetic as yours does. There are lots of different games you could start with, I mentioned a few on my comments. Recently I became a johnny-come-lately fan of Peggle, which is not at all violent, but very cheery and fun! Check it out and let me know what you think. Another game that my friend and colleague Brenda Corderman and I love is Angry Birds!

  6. Jesse Kauffman says

    Thanks for this post. I’ve always loved play and games and I’m enjoying the challenge of integrating my love for play with my current pursuit of an MSW.

    In my love of play, I find that I’ve often struggled with the idea that “Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.” I’m not saying that I keep an eye out for dragons on my way home from work but that I like when play bleeds into real life. Joy tends to tag-along with the freedom that comes from play and I wonder why sometimes (or often) the joy fades so quickly when the play is done. I wonder if that separation combined with the fear of the Depth Police (from your Selfie Esteem post) convinces us to prematurely drop the benefits of play and “straighten up” for the real world.

    Sorry for being so late to this conversation.

    p.s. I love the discreet smiley face.

  7. Daniel Ortiz Reti says

    Wow I am late to the party! I enjoyed your article. As a Social Worker and a Gamer I have always felt there was a connection between the two. I must say that my career path is not therapy but I feel that even macro and policy practice is very much connected to gaming the related culture.


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  3. […] Huizinga referred to the “magic circle” of play, within which the game unfolds.  Therapy, with its 45-50 minute hour, office setting and professional boundaries, is such a magic circle.  If you don’t take the idea of play seriously, you will probably find this analogy offensive.  But in my opinion play is very serious.  In psychotherapy, patient and therapist become earnestly engaged in the immediacy of what happens.  People become ghosts of other people, monsters appear, and ancient kingdoms rise up from beneath the waves for a day.  I believe that most people who have been in treatment will be able to recall the immersive and powerful experiences they have had there, experiences which have felt tragic and heroic.  Hopefully the patient leaves the magic circle having changed, the unnecessary obstacle is overcome, and life gets better. […]

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