What Play Is(n’t)

I’ve been spinning my wheels trying to come up with a solid definition of “play” that assimilates all of the research I’ve done and fully and accurately describes my use of the word/idea in my research endeavors (and in life in general).

As Brain Sutton-Smith argues in The Ambiguity of Play, play has been studied and written about throughout much of time amongst many disciplines. Each era has had its own perception of play influenced by attitudes towards work/labor, community, responsibility, social propriety, and other cultural aspects. Academics in the fields of education, neuroscience, animal biology, literature, technology, and more have had their say about play. So, in addition to the fact that everyone has come up with their own definition of play, and there are about a hundred different “definitions”, there’s also this gleaming fact:
“Any earnest definition of play has to be haunted by the possibility that playful enjoinders will render it invalid.”  – Brian Sutton-Smith The Ambiguity of Play, p.213
So, instead of coming up with an academic definition, I went the list route.
Play is …
  • experienced
  • expressed through an activity or behavior
  • voluntary
  • imagined
  • fun or enjoyable

Play is not…

  • forced or mandatory
    • This is part of the reason that work and play are often seen in opposition.

I expect that both of these lists will fluctuate. As an academic, I want there to be a solid definition of play. However, in order to academically “define” play, you have to dissect it, in a way. You have to kill it and rip it to shreds and analyze every little piece of it before you can say, for sure, what the definition is. But, kind of like dissecting a frog, when the first step in the dissection is to kill the thing, you miss out on all the liveliness. You can see the frog’s physical bits, but you don’t know anything about it’s soul. You don’t know where his favorite place to hunt for flies was, or which ponds he preferred to soak in. You don’t know if he had any froggy friends, and if he did, you certainly don’t know anything about them. By dissecting play, we make the experience of play almost unrecognizable.

I’ve identified that “Play is experienced” first on my list for a reason – I think it’s one of the most important and perhaps under-studied aspects of play. One thing that struck me as I was reading about each of the seven rhetorics of play identified by Sutton-Smith was that very rarely did the scholars who studied, wrote and spoke about each of rhetorics pay any attention to the experience of the player in their research (which Sutton-Smith points out and remarks on several times throughout the book). Modern scholars such as Stuart Brown have addressed this lack of experiential research through conducting “play histories”, which is a great improvement over the strictly empirical methods previously practiced by play scholars. Brown describes that,

…there is no way to really understand play without remembering the feeling of play. If we leave the emotion of play out of the science, it’s like throwing a dinner party and serving pictures of food. The guests can understand all they care to about how the food looks and hear descriptions of how the food tastes, but until they put actual food in their mouths they won’t really appreciate what the meal is about. (Brown 2009, 20-1)

At the end of the day, what matters (or should matter) most about play is how a player experiences it, and how that experience  shapes their mind and their life. I’ll leave it at that for now.


Leave a reply