Books in Play: Sources for a Life
Why do lives turn in some directions and not others? That question is of special pertinence to academics who decide, presumably without coercion, to focus their energies on often highly specialized topics. Occasionally those topics become the centerpieces of careers, both professional and personal. An individual becomes known as someone who studies something.
This essay describes themes in my own path to studying human play. Similar to any other person’s journey, a good portion of that is attributable to early life experiences. I grew up in the American Midwest during the 1950s and 1960’s. In that faraway time, outdoor play was the vehicle by which children assembled group identity and sorted out their relationships to one another. Indoor play, especially among family members, performed similar functions. Board and table games were scenes of spirited competition and equally fervent cooperation. Rules were obeyed – and broken. In play, big brothers could be beaten; parents, teased. Even then, it was clear to me that play was a protected world where unusual things were permitted to happen and emotional lessons were learned without recourse or recrimination.
Such themes were magnified in school sports. Sports of every sort – and especially basketball in my state of Indiana – were foci of community life. Things occurring in gyms were matters of great import. As a participant, I sensed that these events functioned as powerful identity ceremonies, testing and displaying the “character” of individuals, teams, and communities. Nor did it escape my notice that only some people – especially young males – were given center stage and celebrated for their exploits. Others were cast into supporting roles, relegated to audiences, or otherwise marginalized.
For some years, I set aside these issues. But in graduate school I returned to them. Some of that was due to the encouragement I received from prominent professors like anthropologist Victor Turner, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and sociologist Donald Levine. Those scholars were interested less in sports and games than in broader questions about how people express themselves and experience satisfaction, find status in one another’s company, and cultivate personal identities that they can inhabit with some measure of comfort and self-respect. Play, I realized, was one avenue by which these conclusions might be reached.
The other great resource, and my emphasis here, was books, particularly those sometimes regarded as classic writings on play. Although it has become fashionable to dismiss older, celebrated writings – and especially privileged lists of these – as residues of time and culture, the best of them continue to challenge readers with their brilliant exposition and their enduring questions. At least, the great writings on play functioned in this way for me.
The first is Homo Ludens: A Study of Play Element in Culture. In that book, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga presents a powerful thesis regarding the character and importance of human play. According to Huizinga, play is something for adults as much as for children. It is not just physical or psychological activity but social and cultural exploration as well. Indeed, it is a key mechanism by which societies develop and evaluate their own possibilities. What Huizinga called the “magic circle” of play has included historically tennis courts, courts of law, tournament grounds, philosophical symposia, stages, screens, and temples. When we enter these settings, we set aside the rule of consequence and material gain. Time and space are redefined. In every case, we play to experience new opportunities for living.
Huizinga’s vision was then – and remains – fundamental to my thinking. So it was striking to me to see it criticized, strongly, by the French philosopher and anthropologist Roger Caillois. In Man, Play, and Games, Caillois advanced the view that there is not just one form of play (Huizinga’s social competition or agon) but four, each irreducible to the others. Those other three are mimicry (the project of role performance and masquerade), ilinx (the quest for turbulence and vertigo), and alea (the fascination with fate or chance).
Caillois explained also that play varies dramatically in its degree of formality and regulation. Perhaps at its basis, play is carefree and improvisational (what he called piadia); but in its more complicated forms it operates under the terms of conventionalized challenges and rules (ludus). And he added that societies vary in their play preferences. Traditional societies emphasize mimicry and ilinx, essentially how people locate themselves in vast, swirling forces they can never hope to control. Modern societies focus more on agon, especially in its combination with alea. Celebrated now is the individual’s ability to express themselves against the forces of the world (including other people) and through those processes to build meaning systems.
Two great sociologists should be mentioned, if briefly. The first, Georg Simmel, demonstrated that play is less a pattern of personal expression than it is a social and cultural form that people enter and inhabit. Because all of us know what it means to play – and to participate in distinctive forms of play – we can prepare ourselves for events of each type, operate in these with assurance, and tell others what we did there. More profoundly, we can play together.
A similar vision was presented by Simmel’s intellectual descendant Erving Goffman. Goffman is famous for developing elaborate metaphors for social life – as ritual, as theater, and as a game in which information is presented and withheld. On the one hand, individuals pursue their interests strategically while maintaining a certain “idealized” identity before others. On the other, they know that they must acknowledge the rule system pertinent to each social encounter.
In an early work, Encounters, Goffman develops this theme. Games are semi-permeable meaning systems that participants erect and sustain. Much of the challenge of games involves protecting these meanings and seeing that everyone stays focused on what is occurring there. Inevitably, however, external matters – including people’s more general commitments – intrude. To some extent that outer world must be kept at bay. But not entirely, for the “fun” of games exists as a tension between in-game activities (where people are “players”) and wider involvements (where they function as “persons”). Games are joyful because they allow us to present – and interpolate – alternative versions of ourselves.
Last mentioned is New Zealander Brian Sutton-Smith, whose great work The Ambiguity of Play was published in 1997. Although a folklorist and comparative psychologist by training, Sutton-Smith embraced many academic disciplines and many ways of thinking about play. In the above book he organized hundreds of scholarly contributions into seven major explanatory frameworks or “rhetorics.” For Sutton-Smith, it is crucial for play studies to honor the wonderful variety of its subject matter and to accept the legitimacy of these different scholarly approaches. It is in the essence of play to resist both theoretical simplification and domestication by those who would administer it. The best forms of play are wild, rebellious, and ambiguous.
Great writers are to be honored. But their models are not to be adopted slavishly. My current book Play and the Human Condition addresses the challenges presented by the classic play scholars and integrates their contributions with the work of many others. My thesis is that play, however various, is unified as a distinctive pathway for self-realization. That pathway is to be differentiated from other, equally fundamental forms of self-expression. Play cultivates certain skills, forms of awareness, and experiences that are necessary for persons and societies. Whatever the merits of my book may be, it arises as a response to the writings presented above.
The image featured at the beginning of this post is by Ajith Kumar.