Caillois' typology

What kind of games are music games?

The source

In this article we'll examine our field in the context of Roger Caillois' typology which was presented in Man, Play and Games ), a seminal work of academic inquiry into the topic of games. Despite having Huizinga's Homo Ludens as his basic source material, Caillois doesn't draw any direct connections towards music, but the typologies and insights in Les Jeux et les Hommes, originally published in 1958, still find usage in game studies to this day (more on that at the end).


One axis of the typology: ludus (rule-based) and paidia (experiential) cross with the four other categories that will be at the center of our attention. In French there is no clear-cut distinction between "game" and "play", so it seems like ludus-paidia adds exactly this distinction.

The four broadly usable categories of playful activities are:

  • competition (Callois': agon),
  • chance (alea),
  • make-believe (mimicry), and
  • vertigo (ilinx).

Agon is by far the most rule-based category (ludus) and ilinx the least (paidia). But still, the pleasures of balancing and getting off balance are present also in (rule-based) sports, or could even be extended to computer games, so the two axis indeed cross.

Caillois considers the categories to be mixed in different ratios in all playful activities. Music games are very diverse themselves, but maybe there are some trends to be discovered?

RPG — Role-Playing Game, a game where the main focus is assuming the role of a fictional character.

We can see mimicry, acting something out, in the musical interpretation itself. There are also music games that develop story or theme, in the style of RPGs or improvisational theatre. Close to theatre is also the area of music games where ilinx is clearly seen, when body movement is involved (dance or body percussion being prime examples). Ilinx factor is also visible when any larger, physically demanding instrument is played. Never-the-less these two fundamental categories are less frequent within music games than two others, alea and agon.

Praying to RNG gods

RNG — Random Number Generator, a technical method of providing chance results in computer programs.

Aleatoricism is a modern composing technique that employs chance. Alea means dice, so is every aleatoric piece automatically a game piece? It depends, not only on exact preferred definitions of a "music game" and "aleatoricism", but also on a process itself. In Caillois' interpretation alea (chance element in games) gains a ritual flavour as the point of gambling seems to be devoting oneself to some kind of higher power. This same helplessness is mocked in computer gaming by sayings like "Oh, help me RNG-zus!" and similar.

A lot of it is about the stakes. You need to care about the result to get an engaging effect of loosing control. In gambling your incentive is monetary and in computer games you play with the amount of precious time you invested in the game so far. Would aleatoric audition pieces be fitting to raise the stakes? Yes, but that would also go against a requirement for games, which, according to Caillois, have to be unproductive , 10). In the book the paradoxical situation of gamblers is thoroughly examined.

In game design the focus is usually more on the subjective unpredictability. As you need to play out a situation unknown in advance to you, mixing alea and agon often raises the skill floor, however, most often chance is considered to be opposite of skill, and Caillois suggests similarly.


Games of skill, agon, are most often competitive and key feature of this type is 'evening the playing field' — giving fair chances to every player, known also as balance (the most basic type of it). Single player or cooperative games may belong to agon when the result of the game correlates to participants' skill. Although music games may not require a specific musical skill, usually players try to play as skillfully as they can. On the other hand, the natural state for music games might be between competition and cooperation (with co-optionality), tending more to irregular paidia than to rule-based ludus where agon resides.

Final contexts

Some version of this article was on the wiki from the very start in 2018 (it even appears in our opening announcement video). But later a wild a PhD dissertation appeared ) which:

  • examines the notions above in deep,
  • makes the Callois' typology a basis for a categorization of "ludic pieces" (a term for music games introduced by Gabrielle Chou for additional precision),
  • contextualizes the study in the broader context of ludology,
  • makes a reference to our wiki on the way (wow!) ;)

This is freely available online, and very much a recommended read for everyone interested in music games and their scholarly study. On top of that, it makes a proper use of Caillois' typology.


πŸ“œ Chou, Gabrielle. 2023. β€œPlay Makes Perfect: An Exploration of Game and Play Elements in Composition and Performance.” PhD diss., City University of New York.

πŸ“œ Caillois, Roger. 2021 [1958]. Man, Play and Games. Translated by Meyer Barash. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press

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