Merits of Play


At the time it seemed a strange topic to which to be attracted. The year was 1968. In April Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot in Memphis; in June, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, the night he won the California primary; and in August, we watched a “police riot” in Chicago during the Democratic convention. In November Nixon won the Presidency. The war in Vietnam was raging. Why was I attracted, as a grad student, to what academic writers called “ludic behavior”

In plain English, the world of play.

I was not impressed by vague calls for “revolution,” or the apparent belief that halting the U.S. intervention in Vietnam would solve the troubles of our own society. While not denying the prevalent realities, I sought a source of creativity that would help us see our society as it was, even if, as the poet Emily Dickinson advised, we had to “tell it slant. ” That is, to see it from what seemed to be an unlikely perspective.

I was moved by several books and papers: Homo Liudens, which the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga had published in his native language way back in 1938, but which did not appear in English until 1949; Man, Play, and Games by Roger Callois in 1961; and papers written by Brian Sutton-Smith (who much later gave us a book, The Ambiguity of Play in 1997).

In the late 1960s Stanford allowed grad students to recruit professors from two or more departments and apply to establish an interdisciplinary program. I chose the rubric of “social imagination,” bringing in professors from political science, psychology, and English literature. However, my program came to a halt when the chair of the committee unexpectedly died, after I had also gradually learned about the difficulties of being a departmental orphan.

Meanwhile, however, I had an opportunity to explore such questions as these: In what sense does culture proceed from and incorporate play-forms? What is the relation between play-forms and creativity of many kinds? What is the role of play for adults as well as for kids? How can play help us to envision changes, developments, adaptations in our culture?

There are several theories about the role of play in childhood: for example, that it allows a learning of skills that will become useful in adult life, such as hunting and fighting; that it helps the brain to develop; that it teaches flexibility of response. Much less work has been done on play in adulthood, perhaps because there is much less to study.

I was mainly concerned by the utilitarian nature of our society. Of everything, we ask, what is its purpose? We allow that some things are worth doing for their own sake, but our goals in general presuppose activity directed at an end. This is peculiar in a rich society, which could afford to do some things for their own sake, once the basics are taken care of.

It’s true that most sex is for pleasure with no desire to reproduce, that some people do manage to “play” during the 4% of the year devoted to most vacations, and that parents may “play” with their kids as well as discipline them. However, the realm of work is huge.

A psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has put forward the idea of “flow,” which is related to one kind of play. For example, any task that is challenging but not impossible may induce flow in the trained performer, whether it’s playing jazz, doing brain surgery, climbing a rock face, anything that’s absorbing but not overwhelming. (Readers of Toynbee will recognize an similar structure in his notion of challenge and response.) In Csikszentmihalyi, one key element seems to be forgetting the self.

Some romantics argue that adult life would be substantially enriched by learning to play as adults as one did in childhood. A literary example is of course Wordsworth. A contemporary student of play, indeed the founder of the National Institute for Play, is a physician named Stuart Brown. He feels it’s good for what ails us.

But adults have “put away childish things,” to quote a religious formula; they are absorbed by the serious tasks of making a living, raising a family, perhaps leaving a legacy.

A loose coalition of anthropologists,, biologists, educators, ethologists, historians, neuroscientists, psychologists, and others will continue to find out more about the many forms of play. Meanwhile, we might seek ways to allow grownups to engage in several forms of play, including acting as if without responsibility, the way animals pretend to fight.

Given the growing challenges that I don’t have to enumerate, it would seem necessary for us to take more responsibility, but that intuitive direction may be fruitless, may lead only to denial in some, to moralizing in others. We may need to learn from acting as you do in play, as if there are no consequences. ()Here is an example of thid approach from citizen diplomacy in Moscow.)

We have developed war games. The next stage of our cultural evolution could be games that help to reveal what we need to do to avoid disaster and to thrive. What is nearly automatic in kids needs to be more deliberate for adults, but might yield big counter-intuitive benefits.

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