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Where does play begin, and where does it end?

Play is the thing

Release Date: 07/16/2019

Take a look at the images at the top of this post. Which of them would you say represent a form of play? Some of you might require some kind of thing to play with, others will focus on rules. In the view of many play researchers, only 3 of these are images of play (we’ll come to which three later). But I’d like to argue that they all embody, in different ways and to different extents, important aspects of play that I’d like to explore on this blog. And yes, the last one is flirting. I’ll explain.

Without pretending to offer any kind of theory of play, here are three important aspects, as I see them.

  1. Exploration: in my reading around play, one of the most intriguing definitions suggests that play is any activity in which players assign meaning to objects or actions, not in the real world, but in a kind of mental play space. To take one example, the classic ‘last one to the tree’s a poo-head’, the tree is assigned meaning as an objective, and the slowest child, a poo-head.  This kind of assigning meaning is most obvious in imaginative play and pretty easy to grasp in games- part of the power of video games is that they make this play space literally exist in visual and auditory terms. It’s less obvious in some of my other examples, but it might help to think of the play space as a ‘what if’ space. In peek a boo, the ‘what if’ is whether and when mum will reappear. In drinking games it’s ‘what if we had to only speak in a needlessly complicated code while progressively incapacitating ourselves?’ I’ll let you fill in the gaps around flirting. I’m not in the business of excluding activities from the category of play, but the idea of a mental play space, distinct from real world interactions, explains why actual exploration, or reading, or having a drink, are not in themselves play.A word on sport before I move on: it could be objected that sport’s ‘play space’ is physical, not mental- after all, a goal is a goal. If you take that view, all I would suggest is that you watch some sport that you do not know anything about: check out some Kabbadi then tell me sport isn’t played in a mental space!
  2.  Structure. For some of our forms of play the structures and rules are explicit- although frequently for board games they are also frequently opaque! Video games don’t spell out a rules set, typically, but they constrain the player’s options in ways that are highly structured, even in open world games. Similarly, play with toys structures the actions of a child in ways that are subtle but powerful. It’s less obvious that flirting or chase play have structure, because the structure is implicit, negotiated and ever changing, but anyone who has ever transgressed the rules of flirt can assure you they exist. The tendency to miss or ignore these unwritten rules of play are also one of the main reasons that children on the autistic spectrum, even if socially motivated, struggle to sustain play, and thereby friendship.
  3. Interaction. Do you play crosswords? I think probably crosswords aren’t play, and I suspect the reason is a lack of interaction. Again, in some forms of play, interaction is an obvious feature, but play conducted alone is less obviously interactive. But you are interacting with a system, which will respond to your actions in a way that is on some way deterministic, but not completely predictable, at least to you. Static puzzles like crosswords do not interact in this way, and it does seem as if this kind of interaction is a necessary, but obviously not sufficient, condition of an activity counting as play.

What about fun? Isn’t that a necessary condition? Well, play doesn’t have to be fun. I’ve played Monopoly junior, so believe me, I’ve learned that the hard way. It doesn’t even have to be potentially fun to count as play- let’s say you’re playing a video game that you hate because you’re being paid to review it. There will be the grim satisfaction of composing scathing appraisals of its qualities, but no part of the experience can be described as fun. For me, fun, connection and joy are the reasons for play, but they don’t define its nature.

So play is an activity that consists in structured, interactive exploration of a mental space. Why does this matter? Because play is ubiquitous, important and, in many of its forms, under-valued . I mentioned at the start of this post that for many play researchers, only ‘free play’, performed by children free of adult structure and intervention, counts as play. The rest is ‘entertainment’, in their view. So perhaps the most popular, financially significant, and innovative aspect of our culture is not getting the analysis it deserves.

Instead, as I pointed out in my previous post, we get this weird mixture of drooling acquisitiveness, perfectionism, and moralising. The latter tendency, though the smallest in volume, is arguably the most interesting, and next time I’m planning to wade into that particular swamp and ask whether there is, actually, any such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forms of play.

What I would like more than anything, having written this, is to be challenged on my thoughts on the nature of play. Have at me!