Homo Ludens or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Game


A Dutch historian called Johan Huizinga wrote about the "Playing Human" (Homo Ludens) in a 1931 book, among the first to discuss the important part games have played in shaping our culture and civilisation. He even goes as far as to say that playing is a necessary condition for culture to develop.

In my case, I've been fascinated by games of all shapes and sizes since I was a child. While running around in the sun or sitting with a couple of friends to play a board-game during a rainy afternoon definitely have their own appeal, it was computer games that brought it all to another level for me.

My first encounter with such a beast occurred during a visit to a health-centre which also performed regular testing of pilots and cosmonauts (yes, Romania did send a man into space, in collaboration with the then-USSR). I must have been around seven years old at the time, and given the opportunity to experience a test "like real pilots" I obviously jumped at the occasion. Looking back to it now, it was just a system designed to ascertain reaction time under various conditions, but to me it seemed like the most amazing machine. All I had to do was use a joystick to position a white square over the outline of a moving plane, and press a button as soon a light came up. I don't know if it was the difficulty increasing with each successful attempt, or the whole fascination with the blinking lights, but in short order I was addicted.

Seeing my interest in the game and unwillingness to let go once the "test" had ended, the researcher offered to show me more "computer games" on his office computer, another wondrous piece of technology which I had not encountered before. In retrospect, it was probably just their way of giving me something to do while they discussed "grown-up stuff", but for me it was nothing short of a revelation. A simple white square moving around to "cut" pieces of the screen while avoiding balls and black squares, or a silhouette of a man pushing boxes around — in my mind, the little dots of Xonix became heroes and gorillas while the warehouse from Sokoban took a life of its own. There it was, this gray box with a four-colour screen and a keyboard full of buttons, which could instantly turn into anything imaginable — it was the catalyst that drove me to later pursue Computer Science and shaped my whole future; I still remember fondly one of my first ever computer program, a simple "guess the number" game.

Fast-forwarding through the following years, I embraced gaming on the personal computers of the time — first a ZX Spectrum (Romanian clone using a reverse-engineered chip), then a 80286 PC — and went through a veritable cornucopia of games.

On my old website I used to have this long list of titles, many of them from the 80s and the 90s but nonetheless great examples of gaming at its best. The categories are pretty arbitrary, and the order of course is only from my own perspective — but you can peruse it below, it might bring back a fond memory or two:

  1. The Curse of Monkey Island (Monkey 3) - LucasArts
  2. The Day of the Tentacle (DOTT) - LucasArts
  3. Grim Fandango - LucasArts
  4. Monkey Island (Monkey 1) - LucasArts
  5. Space Quest 5 - Sierra
  6. Indiana Jones and the Faith of Atlantis (Indy 4) - LucasArts
  1. Relentless - Little Big Adventure 2 - Adelaide
  2. Relentless - Little Big Adventure - Adelaide
  3. Alone in the Dark 3 - InterPlay
  1. The Incredible Machine 1 & 2 - Sierra
  2. Pushover - Ocean
  3. Lemmings 1, 2 & Xmas - Psygnosis, DMA Design
  4. Color Buster - Pyramid Software
  5. Sokoban - Spectrum Holobyte
  1. Homeworld - Relic, Sierra
  2. Starcraft - Blizzard
  3. Dark Reign
  4. Warcraft 2 - Blizzard
  5. Command & Conquer - Westwood Studios
  6. Dune 2 - Westwood Studios
  1. F22ADF - Digital Image Design
  2. EF2000 - Digital Image Design
  3. F22 Retaliator - Digital Image Design, Ocean
  4. Comanche
  5. LHX - Electronic Arts
  1. Half-Life - Valve, Sierra
  2. MDK - Shiny Entertainment
  3. Quake - Id Software
  4. Duke Nukem 3D - 3D Realms
  5. Quake 2 - Id Software
  1. Forsaken - Apogee
  2. Descent Freespace 2 - Interplay
  3. Archimedean Dynasty - Blue Byte
  4. Descent - Parallax, Interplay
  5. Descent 2 - Parallax, Interplay
  1. Quake - Id Software
  2. Half-Life - Valve, Sierra
  3. Quake 2 - Id Software
  4. Duke Nukem 3D - 3D Realms
  5. Doom 2 - Id Software
  1. Descent - Parallax, Interplay
  2. Forsaken - Apogee
  3. Descent 3 - Outrage, Interplay
  1. Earth Worm Jim 2 - Shiny Entertainment, Funsoft
  2. Flash Back - Delphine, US Gold
  3. Another World - Delphine
  4. Metal Mutant - Silmarils
  5. Prince of Persia - Broderbound Software
  1. The Lost Vikings - Interplay
  2. Loom - LucasArts
  3. UGH! - Play Byte, Bones Park
  4. SimCity - Maxis
  5. Offroads - Virgin Games
  1. The Incredible Machine 1 & 2 - Sierra
  2. Grim Fandango - LucasArts
  3. Pushover - Ocean
  4. MDK - Shiny Entertainment
  5. UGH! - Play Byte, Bones Park

These days the "video game" industry is a billion-dollar behemoth. I still play them, just a lot less than I used to — mostly due to lack of time, but also because it's become difficult to distil the quality fragrances out of the flood of titles. One interesting fact is that through all my entanglement with games over the years, I somehow managed to completely avoid touching consoles and console games altogether. I have to admit it was also part of a sort of snobbism — since after all PC games tended to be more detailed and a lot more complex than their console counterparts — but reading about some of the staple titles of the console world such as "Shadow of the Colossus" which I only found out about recently, it felt like I was missing something. It's quite apparent that the gaming world is moving towards hand-helds and consoles, while PCs become more and more work-only devices.

Reading about some beautiful and original new games being released for consoles exclusively gave me that final nudge to go and do something I would never have considered back in the 90s — I bought a PlayStation 3. Leaving ethical misgivings about Sony as a company aside, it was the one console that offered in its collection the titles I wanted to experience, so I didn't have much of a choice (and the options in general were quite limited anyway). So far it has been a part of my life since Christmas, and I haven't regretted one second of it! But that's a story for another time...


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