Readings – Play

For Thursday read these two texts:

What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun? by David Graeber

Play is by Miguel Sicart (from play Matters)

And write a short response as a comment below here. Some starting points:

  • What are the similarities between the two authors’ notion of play?
  • Can you make examples of the “appropriative” nature of play described by Sicart?
  • Both authors oppose an instrumental way of thinking about play, can you point at examples of this instrumentation? Can work be playful? Can games be work-like?
  1. Both Graeber and Sicart define play to be a meaningful behavior that goes beyond just childish whimsy. According to them, playfulness allows people to achieve freedom in a structured world, which is essential to being human. I especially like Sicart’s carnival theory, where play is a way for humans to define themselves within the limitations of their reality and also shape the meaning of those limitations. Honestly though, I’m not too sure about Graeber’s spiel. I still don’t think I can understand the happiness of fishes.

    My example for appropriative play would be daydreaming. Sometimes daydreams make you feel totally disconnected from reality, but my daydreams are a mix of images and words appropriated from everyday experiences. I then use my imagination to play with those ideas and maybe make sense out of them.

    I think both authors oppose how play is treated as an escape from reality instead of a way to experience reality. Maybe a good example of this way of thinking would be how people usually think of the context for play before they think of play itself. For example, they might think of toys, recess, childhood, or game rules before they think of the actual concept of playing. And usually those contexts are associated as the opposite of things like adulthood, work, or mundane events. But, if we use the authors’ school of thought, work can definitely be playful–its just a matter of transforming the experience of work.

    I’m not sure what that last question means, but if it is asking whether games can feel boring and mundane like actual work, then my answer is yes.

    1. To me, the two articles seem to be Part 1 and Part 2 to the same story. In Part 1, Graeber attempts to find where play comes from. In Part 2, Sicart focuses on expanding what play is. But there is quite a lot of overlap between both of them. Both find play to be more than toys, or games, or really anything in particular, but instead, more a ubiquitous part of life. Graeber suggests play comes from all over reality (“there is a play principle at the basis of all physical reality”), and Sicart expands the scope of play to all of reality (“I am not going to oppose play to reality, to work, to ritual or sports because it exists in all of them.”).

      As for appropriative play, consider Live Action Role Playing (LARP) games such as Humans vs. Zombies, Spoon Assassins, or Nerf Wars (all of these take place each semester at CMU). Players of such games relabel the very physical spaces of reality (classrooms become “safe zones”), times of day (nightttime hours become “unsafe hours”), and people (humans, zombies, assassins, targets, allies). Players are put into artificial roles; alternate and explicit social relationships (friend, enemy) are instituted (as opposed to being, like, casual).

      Insturmentation: Do you remember the days when adults would use the phrase “playtime is over”? Explicit times, or places (“the playroom”) can form instrumentation, as can costumes, masks, toys, board games, computers, or even plastic spoons (as in spoon assassins).

      Work can definitely be playful. Anywhere that work leaves freedom for variation can be a basis for play, open to those skillful enough at the work to see and use that freedom. For example: one day at my summer internship, one of my friends told me how he programmed an internal tool for displaying error messages in an unconventional, though not much harder way, because it was “cool”, although the user wouldn’t notice the difference. [For the technically inclined: he built a python class where you could use it like Tool.ask_user_yn(“Do you like pie?”) and it’d ask “Do you like pie? (y/n)”, but you could also do ask_user_ynm or ask_user_ynabcxyz and it’d auto-generate those methods on the fly, which is black magic you can only really do in languages like Python].

      Games can be work-like, for example, Papers Please.

  2. I was rather impressed with David Graeber’s explanation of animal behavior and the role of “play” in the natural world. The argument was something I had never heard before and which was very obvious to me once it was suggested. Graeber points out that since the twentieth century, people assume that animals themselves ultimately engage the world selfishly. That is, any type of “play” or any type of habits animals have could ultimately serve a selfish purpose later in the world. I was impressed with this argument mostly because he suggests that what we’ve known since the twentieth century is false. I realized that ever since learning biology and psychology in school, I have assumed all animals were inherently selfish and did not engage in “play.” Graeber goes on to discuss the idea of play relating to sub-atomic particles but this section went over my head – I couldn’t imagine these sub-atomic particles (although I understand the controversy in implying these particles do “play”). I was actually more moved with the starting imagery about the worm repeating a useless motion. I’ve seen small bugs repeat useless movements before so this image was more real to me.

    Regarding “Play is” by Meguel Sicart, I was most interested in the notion that play is “contextual.” I felt the term was too broad for something as particular as “play.” however, “play” is also complex. Especially in the way Sicart describes it. It seems Sicart considers anything bringing happiness and laughter as “play.” His compromise in saying that play is “contextual” is just that- a compromise. I don’t particularly like this definition – contextual implies that play must have a context on which to base off when, in reality, play is only informed by context (according to Sicart). More accurately, I feel that play is anything that invokes happiness and laughter and is informed transformed by context.

    The two passages themselves were very interesting. The suggestion that play is not just a form of leisure but a way of life is interesting – I don’t know if I agree (I feel that the “play” they described is too general for me to agree that an entire way of life can be made of play- but the idea is compelling.

  3. Graeber speaks of play as being a fundamental essence of sentience. Play exists in us because it exists at our deepest levels of being. Playfulness appears in the very atoms we are constructed from. Sicart also speaks on the ritualistic nature of games. Rituals are markers of sentience, consciousness, and awareness of one’s place in the world and are a trademark of humanity. Both authors relate play to the fundamental levels of humanity. Play becomes part of the definition of existence. In this way, play can function as work, because it is necessary for a fulfilled human existence—just as eating or sleeping is integral to survival. Play is also omnipresent in the human lifespan. Sicart’s comments on appropriated perceptions of play apply to this pattern. In our society, children are encouraged to play. Toys are specifically targeted as childish playthings, but this classification is positive within the context of children. Mega-industry has built up around toys, marketing them towards children and parents as a natural necessity for productive childhoods. Yet as an individual matures, play is considered a distraction. The consumer attention given to adult players focuses almost entirely on video games, which society then felt the need to classify as art as if to make them “okay” to experience as play. Mature individuals that play games from Dungeons and Dragons to Tetris on their phones are seen as outcasts or time-wasters, yet those people continue to play. At that level, play becomes an escape, so it must persist in our culture in order for individuals and humanity on the whole to survive.

  4. Reading about how scientists are attempting to rationalize play in Graeber’s article, while it is not very surprising, simply baffles me. It would not be unfathomable to believe that the act of play might serve some higher purpose, I firmly believe that the desire to play does not require an explanation. Play is just an activity some creatures ‘do’–with reason or not. I am with the Russians in their belief that play “does not need to be explained. It is simply what life is. We don’t have to explain why creatures desire to be alive.”
    The story about the mystic, the logician, and the fish beautifully describes the nature of play as well.

    Like Graeber, Sicart presents arguments that describe how play is not without purpose. However, while Graeber’s argument focuses more on play’s positive aspects, Sicart introduces the notion of ‘dangerous’ and ‘destructive’ play (or ‘dark play’, as Sicart mentions). I think that these harmful effects of play are not discussed enough in our society due to the largely positive connotations associated with the word ‘play’, so I am surprised but glad that Sicart takes note of that. What I also find surprising is that Sicart states–twice–that “games don’t matter that much”, despite how significant they are in our culture. Though there is some truth to his view as games do not necessarily epitomize play–they are merely a very predominant form of it.

    The premises of Graeber’s and Sicart’s commentaries are the same, but their approaches to explaining play diverge to a considerable extent. Sicart seems to focus more on explaining play on a molecular level, whereas Sicart inspects play from a more philosophical standpoint. As for the ‘appropriative’ nature of play Sicart describes, one personal experience I can think of would be the times in elementary school when my friends and I would turn ‘returning to class from recess’ into a race. These were mostly spontaneous, and as young children we were probably motivated mostly by the desire to have fun in every activity we did–especially for something as mundane as going back to our classroom. Or perhaps we were inherently using this form of competition as a means to validate ourselves, as the first person who could touch the door would be the ‘winner’, the ‘best’, the ‘alpha’. But the last person would just be ‘uncool’. I was often last. This brings me to the point that play could be a chore in certain situations–in my case, I sometimes found it troublesome to partake in races with my friends because I knew losing was inevitable, but at the same time I did not want to be excluded from this ‘fun’ social activity. That being said, ‘playtime’ with my friends was the height of childhood and really shaped me as a person. It still does now–and I cannot imagine how my life would be without it.

  5. The first article made me mad, as will soon become apparent. Was he trolling? Was this a joke? From the start, Graeber positions himself as someone who is somehow on a higher level than scientists because he believes in play for the sake of play. That’s like someone saying they pity NASA because that particular person believes the moon exists for the sole sake of howling. By taking such a petulant tone, Graeber has discouraged discussion and seems to desire a silent audience.

    Graeber’s entire article pivots around the point that science and rational thinking are incongruous with the study of play because scientific study of play somehow “cannibalizes” it. He gives no explanation as to how, just BECAUSE SCIENCE. Intellectuals don’t consider play a “scandal”, they’ve in fact found that play encourages learning. In young mammals (humans = mammals), play is a way to learn and practice fighting, socializing and hunting. *

    My question to Graeber is Why can’t scientists play? Why can’t the study of something be play? In an interview with Antidote, Graeber claims that when scientists play, it contradicts their work. Why is it so important to him that science =/= play?

    Graeber then goes on to describe play as mysterious, a word that perks the ears of scientists everywhere, just before he paints Darwin’s theory as if it precludes the existence of cooperation as a survival measure (it doesn’t). He also continues to use philosophical findings as proof against scientific theories, theories for which he cites no other source than “science”, as if philosophical ponderings offer the same truths as science.

    I enjoyed reading Sicart’s article much more. We play because there’s a benefit to it, however invisible. It is not necessary to alienate science from the play equation. His writings support this view, that play is play and we do it because we like it. Play is exploration, learning. It creates a certain realm where boundaries are encouraged to be pushed. I especially liked how he described play as contextual, it both explores and reflects when and where it is. Horror films are often manifestations of the new fears of their time, and as the decades progress they too have reflected rotating fears of the supernatural, the sub human, the super human, the human, the virus, the alien, the machine, the drug. We play to understand.

    After reading Sicart’s article, I also play is a kind of universal luxury. Depending on one’s quality of life, play can be most of a day or it can be something looked forward to after a long week of work. OR perhaps we use play to get through a long week of work. Play is also how we compute, how we digest and interpret the world and our experiences.

    Back to Graeber. “Why do most of us, then, immediately recoil at such conclusions? Why do they seem crazy and unscientific? Or more to the point, why are we perfectly willing to ascribe agency to a strand of DNA (however “metaphorically”), but consider it absurd to do the same with an electron, a snowflake, or a coherent electromagnetic field?” Because they are unscientific . One of the tenets of science is that a theory must be falsifiable. There is no way to test this theory, so therefore it isn’t science. By removing himself and his views from science, he eliminates any possibility that he could be wrong. It’s a petty move.

    Graeber has conflated philosophy with science. He confuses thought experiments with actual experiments. In fact, he doesn’t reference any modern science at all. He seems desperate to maintain that play is somehow above science while making it clear that he knows nothing about what science actually entails.

    My takeaway from Graeber’s article is that he considers scientists outside the sphere of people he aligns himself with, and the language he uses throughout the article is redolent with his xenophobia of the scientific/economic community. This reads like propaganda. Animals and humans can be survivalist and also play.

    *As a side note, I searched and found nowhere that ants arrange mock wars anywhere except in the discussion of this article.

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one that thought that Graeber article was so, so awful.

  6. Graeber’s views on ‘play’ suggest that it is a component of all animals and natural things that modern scientists, acting on behalf of the notions presented in Darwinism, have refused to even consider. In the current realm, the notion of play is foreign to the scientific explanation for why animals do the things they do. Science is looking at an animal’s actions as a means to survival, success, and mating; it is hard to attribute play to animals since it does not seem to have any overarching goal besides having fun.
    Graeber argues that play may be an essential point to all animals and that we may even make it the basis of an autonomous soul; without it, he argues, the soul is nothing more than the ‘machine’ that Darwinist have made it out to be. To me, the points that he made, were very insightful since play is not something I would contribute to creatures as small as ants. I agree, though that it remains the only explanation for some baseless actions we see these creatures doing. Although, I had to shake my head when he began talking about atoms as sentient beings, most of what he said seemed at least thoughtful enough to get his audience to think about play in animals.
    In his argument, Sicart introduces an aspect of play that Graeber had only touched on. He begins talking about ‘dark’ play or ‘collective’ play or ‘dangerous’ play. In this case, he argues that play does not manifest in simple actions for fun but is a part of our daily lives and rituals that helps us through the day, though he admits that “play happens mostly in context designed for that activity”. Sicart’s article was more relatable for me since he talks deeply about play in present human life and as a part of daily habit whereas Graeber’s argument kept dragging in different alienating subjects (ants, lobsters, atoms, etc).
    Sicart kept the focus on us and in doing so provided a deeper analysis for how it can personally affect us. The play he describes is a way in which we interact with the world around us; as he says it is the duality between order and chaos and how we go about exploring it in our everyday lives. Whereas Greaber’s article seemed whimsical although he was talking about science, Sicart’s analysis of play goes in depth to analyze how we use it to understand the world around us.

  7. “We need to think about play matters and reclaim play as a way of expression, a way of engaging with the world–not as an activity of consumption, but as an activity of production”. I enjoyed reading both of these articles, but this phrase in particular resonated with me pretty strongly. Games, fun, play; these are all slowly creeping out of their societally-sanctioned zones into other areas of experience. We are slowly learning that games can be teaching tools, art, storytellers, community spaces, and more. At the same time, these experiences are reaching back to fun and play as new means of creation and collaboration. Both of these authors seem to agree that play is a pretty fundamental state of being; the thought that just about anything can be spun into a style of play is an inspiring one. It opens the doors to an enormous set of possible places to introduce some experimental play.

  8. Braeder is opposed to both the social Darwinist and “Neo-Darwinist” perspective of play — play as an instrument of species propagation, although he too makes some pretty terrible arguments about ontology of man (and later, literally everything), as well as strawmanning selfish gene theory to fabricate some scientific vs pseudo philosophical dichotomy.
    Chalmers also asked why regarding experience, not just how.
    “The standard answer is that we have known since Heisenberg that the movements of atomic particles are not predetermined” The fuck is this.
    Oh god it just keeps getting worse. Some sort of horrible, aborted brother of compatibilism.
    “Which would mean that at the very foundations of physical reality, we encounter freedom for its own sake—which also means we encounter the most rudimentary form of play.” ???????????
    “it would help explain what we actually observe, such as why, despite the second law of thermodynamics, the universe seems to be getting more, rather than less, complex. ” U wot m8????? His argument seems to go “The scientific standards for identifying play is too rigorous for me, so I’m going to assume everything is play and make insanely grandiose metaphysical claims” tl;dr Anthropologist tries to talk about stuff that’s not anthropology.
    Like Graeber, Sicart also sees play as something which is its own end, as well as a mode of being and acting rather than as a compartmentalized set of actions that only arise during games. Sicart gives concrete definition and makes informative claims about play, like the role of context and rules that give rise to play. He takes care to illustrate it as a form of expression rather than a glorified Skinner box. In that way, gamified work such as fitness games is not necessarily play — play is not an instrument of work. Under Sicart’s description, play is a mode of human relationships, not some ill-defined monadological quality, and so believes it can appropriate human context. Drinking games, for example, can appropriate a party into a mixture of competitive and social environment.

  9. In the Graeber article, I was really interested in the discussion of how the smallest particles of matter could contain the building blocks for concepts like free will and play. It makes a lot of sense to me that even the fundamental particles of matter might have the most basic versions of these abstract qualities commonly associated with only more complex life forms. To counter some of what is being said, I didn’t think Graeber had a completely condescending tone towards science. To me, it felt more like he was presenting some key areas of scientific thought, and then explaining why these widely believed theories could have shortcomings. He wasn’t viewing science as lesser than philosophical thought, but rather urging people to consider other ways to approach things, and presenting in the article one such alternate way. And I agree with him on this, because the world isn’t only science. The world has another layer which is better described by philosophical thought. We don’t think in numbers, we think in words, feelings, emotions. To me, Graeber’s point in presenting the shortcomings of science was that science isn’t best suited to explain everything, and that even scientific explanations can be enriched with philosophical approaches. After all, his main argument, that the non-physical elements of free will and play can exist in building blocks on all levels of matter, gains inspiration from the scientific concept that less complex matter builds into more complex matter. Graeber even states that:

    “I’m not even saying that the position I’m suggesting here—that there is a play principle at the basis of all physical reality—is necessarily true. I would just insist that such a perspective is at least as plausible as the weirdly inconsistent speculations that currently pass for orthodoxy, in which a mindless, robotic universe suddenly produces poets and philosophers out of nowhere.”

    He views the idea he’s presented here as just as plausible as current scientific thought, but also makes room for the idea that his idea isn’t true. Though some of his word choices might seem condescending, what I got from this is that his overall goal is more to speculate than to condescend, and through such speculation he is urging people to question the scientific “truths” of the world.

    Moving on to other things, I think the two articles complement each other really well. Sicart constantly stresses that play is a way of being or experiencing the world, and writes that “We play because we are human, and we need to understand what makes us human, not in an evolutionary or cognitive way but in a humanistic way.” This parallels Graeber’s sentiments that play exists for the sake of play on a fundamental level in all of matter. If play is necessary as a way of being and existing, as Sicart suggests, then it follows that anything that exists even on the most simple level, must have some sort of fundamental “play” or “free-will” like property, as was Graeber’s suggestion. The underlying thought experiments behind both articles parallel each other. Both writers are urging their readers to look beyond the “evolutionary,” “scientific,” “controlled” “instrumentation” way of thinking about play and consciousness, and instead approach it with the mindset that play is something that all life just does for no other reason than to express our existence. That being said, Graeber takes the definition of play more for granted, whereas Sicart attempts to define it, so the articles have different purposes in the discussion on play despite having similar overall themes.

    To answer some of Paolo’s questions more directly, an example of the appropriative nature of play, when play takes over the environment it is in, could be something like the Google Ingress game for Android,which intentionally appropriated the entire world in the context of itself. The mechanics of the game were that people would go to certain locations in the real world and once there would use their phones to unlock portals at that location in the virtual world. While there are many games which kind of unintentionally end up appropriating some larger space, this is an example in which the premise behind it from the beginning was to enhance the appropriative nature of play. Also, work can definitely be playful since it all depends on the mindset of how people approach work. For example, there’s a website called HabitRPG which is essentially a to-do list, but it motivates people to get their work done by making them view their entire life as an RPG game where getting tasks done will increase their HP, strength, weapons, etc. This is also an example like Google Ingress, where it appropriates real life in the context of a game. Games can be work-like as well. If you need to do something tedious over and over in a game with little change between iterations, it can start feeling like a chore to get done rather than a experience to be played. For example, one of my friends wanted to hatch a certain Pokemon in Pokemon X/Y, and he had to keep going back and forth to the same place in order to do this, and he got bored of it so he just got me to do it for him.

    1. Oh oops this is really long sorry. x__x

  10. Trying to answer “why is fun fun” by saying that reaching a state of play is a fundamental goal for particles in the universe is kind of interesting. What we define as fun is somehow a natural entropic state for things, and so they seek it and feel pleasure from it. It’s an attempt to escape the “we do things because genetics” handcuffs that have kind of tied down free-will over the course of the last 50 years.

    There seems to be a mighty leap, though, between living things “enjoying play” and my table enjoying play. Sure, the electrons in the table are “free”, but to what extent? And does that freedom equate to fun?

    Fun, for Graeber, seems to be “something could happen, but we’re unable to exactly say what” – and that definition is one that allows “play”, as an interaction to achieve “fun”, to become hugely important.

    Which leads into Sicart’s deep dive on play as a tool. Interestingly enough, Sicart thinks that play allows us to move beyond fun to a more “disruptive” area, obviously not valuing “fun” quite as highly as Graeber. They both use the idea of “play” as a way to describe a wide swath of interacting within a loose, freedom-like (but still with rules!) environment, but I’m not sure, yet, what Sicart’s pushing for with his thoughts on play, mostly I guess because this is an introduction.

    I think it’s interesting that there’s so much focus on showing the world how important “play” is within our little industry. It’s really interesting, to me, to look at redefining “play” within the context of the real, but I don’t know why/how our culture attempting to make it a “genre” of learning or experience. Play as a whole seems larger than that.

    The tension between the “Apollonian and the Dionysiac” as a fundamental force within the universe is pretty cool to think about, though. Good luck explaining it to Governor Corbett or something, though.

    1. uhg there’s no edit. so many thoughs, though.

  11. Both authors question our existing definitions of what play is. They reject it as merely an activity, and instead make it to be something that deeply defines us and our places in the world.

    Cooking is appropriative. Initially it is something that I just had to do to not die. But I have found great joy in creating food. I experiment with new ingredients, and assign characters to my ingredients. Cooking also involves knives and fire, which are destructive, in the sense they destroy the structure of ingredients, but are also constructive in that they produce my meals.

    Some games can be worked altogether. For example, Starcraft is fun initially, but once one decides to get better at the game, one will have to start memorizing all the builds and timings and practice the same techniques repeatedly. At this point, the game becomes more like work. The same can be applied to traditional sports also. But I feel even at that level, people are still playing, so work and play are not necessarily disjoint.

  12. “Through play, we are in the world.” – Sicart
    “To exercise one’s capacities to their fullest extent is to take pleasure in one’s own existence, and with sociable creatures, such pleasures are proportionally magnified when performed in company.” – Graeber

    Both writers make it quite clear that play is not just a choice, but is imperative to being. That to not play, is to not truly live. An intriguing point to make for sure.

    One of my first thoughts is of how often I have heard adults say something along the lines of “once you graduate, playtime is over”. As an “adult” can not play. An “adult” can not do the action/verb. An “adult” may be playful, or may do something playfully, but it is temporal, it not a permeant state. It can’t be a lasting thing to these “adults”. To play is not take the world serious and that is a grievous act.

    I don’t really agree with these “adults”. At the same time Sicart and Graeber seem to be a bit radical and I don’t completely agree with them. I do agree that play should be more of a central aspect to life and that when possible we should do things playfully. How much a person can play depends on who they are and what they do. A video game developer will probably play a lot while at work, but a surgeon not as much (I certainly would prefer my surgeon to not be thinking of operation as he cuts me open).

  13. In “Play is” Sicart makes puts play, art, and literature on the same categorical level, ” Like literature, art, song, and dance; like politics and love and math, play is a way of engaging and expressing our being in the world. ” I think this is incorrect. I think that literature and art can be approached through play. I think play is to all encompassing of the others items to be listed on the same level as the rest.

  14. Both authors look at play as all encompassing, a larger picture, a way to frame all of our actions and interactions. Graeber goes as far as to suggest that the underlying laws of physics are governed by the play and its rules, or rather that making such a suggestion is not as ludicrous as suggesting all animals are machines with inputs and outputs, in particularly when attempting to explain how humans can be poets, artists, and musicians. Play is a set of rules, play is bigger than games, play is a system or a way to connect systems and question things. Play allows for competition and collaboration, to play is to be. Life could be explained not through only the lens of Darwinistic urges to succeed, but rather the ability to express your powers of flight, running, or singing and simply to play with them. It can be creative and destructive, and it certainly doesn’t need to have a greater purpose than simply to play, to live, to experience, to enjoy play itself.

    In Sicart’s piece it mentioned Ninja and Johannes Sebastian Joust as two very similar games which define their own context, both spacially and socially, and are appropriative as such. Chinese Fire Drills, the Penis game (in which you and your friend shout “Penis” louder and louder until one person chickens out), protests, drinking games, and sports are all examples of appropriative play. Taking a space be it virtual, physical, or social and claiming it as a game space in itself is a process of play.

  15. Both Graeber and Sicart regard “play” as a state of being, and as the gear that moves all living beings. The difference is how they approach and explain play. Graeber seemed to be more concerned with stripping down living beings down to their most fundamental part to explain where play comes from whereas Sicart is more concerned with how play enriches life.

    Graeber suggests a paradigm shift: from rational thought and survivalist approach to play at its most fundamental level. He claims that play is the basis of free will, even in the atoms that make up all living things. He insists on separating rationalization from play, and seems to be engaged in some sort of invisible play vs science, even though the two are not necessarily enemies. The most problematic nature of this argument is in how he makes this argument: grossly generalizing other modes of thought and scientific theories in order to serve his own agenda. I’m severely uninformed in the majority of the things he mentioned (philosophers, quantum physics, selfish gene, etc.) so I cannot judge him in how he uses these topics, but due to the tone of the article and the nature of foregone conclusion from the very beginning, I won’t be surprised if Graeber himself was misinformed in the specifics of the material (as noted by Tess and Ralph).

    Sicart, on the other hand, seeks to explain just what play is without romanticizing it and painting it as if science is against it. In fact, it seems it is more of play vs institution/society. He is more technical in his explanation even without citing science or philosophy; he explains “play” in its historical and cultural and emotional context, and with multiple instances of play in action, not just in games but also in other expression of living. My problem with Sicart, however, lies in how he seemed to be decently defining “play” in specifics and then just generalizes it all in the end with “Playing is freedom. Play is being in the world, through objects, toward others.” And by quoting Sartre, did any of what Sicart say actually matter then?

    Our Intro to Print Media class just recently played a game on Wednesday right outside the Carnegie Museum while waiting for it to open. Michelle was actually the one to suggest it: Two Truths and a Lie, in which one person says two truths and one lie in whatever order and others have two chances to guess which one is which. The game took over the context of the place we were waiting at: couple tables In the back of the museum, set up for those who just want to rest and talk while the fountain is going on and off. There were also a few kids who ran around occasionally—further appropriative play, though it is often expected of kids to do that.

    Instrumentation is pretty apparent at schools, especially in elementary school. There is a structured time for playing (recess or breaks), and the child is punished or frowned upon when he or she “plays” during an unassigned time for playing (during class). Work can be playful, as seen in how many people make playful situations out of seemingly dull work. Just a few days ago, we cleaned the kitchen of the new (old) house: it was incredibly dirty, and some questionable things were scattered in various areas (an entire box of toothpicks in the baking cabinet?!). For such a laborious process, it was pleasurable in a way because of the absurdities we found during work and the problems we encountered in repetition (why are there so many cups?? Why is it so sticky everywhere?? TOOTHPICKS??). Needless to say we were tired afterwards but there was much laughter in the kitchen, which, by one of Sicart’s definitions, is play. Games can be work-like; an example is level-grinding. A lot of MMOs have the infamous level-grinding system, where you spend hours upon hours gaining experience and generally not having fun or laughing along the way. Gamefreak actually addressed this in the most recent Pokemon games by significantly decreasing the amount of time you would spend level grinding, which interestingly turned off certain people from having fun with the game. It seems some people grind levels aka do work in games for the eventual reward aka pleasurable: the more you work, the more rewarding the result is.

  16. Graeber and Sicart both view play as something inextricable from our experience of the environment and the world, from our very being and existence and motivations. Both reject viewing play in a formalized or economic way, as some sort of activity that one can simply choose to exercise or not exercise. It is an end in itself, not a means to maximize some other aspect of life. By being, we are playing, is the essential idea that both authors are trying to communicate, albeit in different ways. While Sicart focuses mainly on carefully redefining play as it relates to and interacts with the moral, social, and cultural fabric of our surroundings, as well as analyzing the many different dimensions of play (its disruptive/creative/autotelic/etc. nature), Graeber spends less time exploring the evident qualities and outward effects of play itself and more time using his notion of play to fill in those less evident and inexplicable gaps in our ideas of free will and consciousness. Graeber believes our reason for playing does not need to be explained. Rather, play is what explains life itself, all the way from the free will exhibited on a subatomic particle level in electron movements to our higher level physical behaviors and choices. At face level, it seems to be a rather ridiculous claim, but I think he intended his meta-essay to be read with a playful and light heart anyway. As he says himself, “I don’t deny that what I’ve presented so far is a savage simplification of very complicated issues. I’m not even saying that the position I’m suggesting here—that there is a play principle at the basis of all physical reality—is necessarily true. I would just insist that such a perspective is at least as plausible as the weirdly inconsistent speculations that currently pass for orthodoxy, in which a mindless, robotic universe suddenly produces poets and philosophers out of nowhere.” The point he is making is not that play is the indisputable, definitive basis of all physical reality, but rather that it is okay to think about serious scientific topics in this experimental, playful manner, for after all, “Our minds are just a part of nature. We can understand the happiness of fishes—or ants, or inchworms—because what drives us to think and argue about such matters is, ultimately, exactly the same thing.” The way he draws these romantic parallels between electron, animal, and human play reads almost poetically to me. He quips at the end, “Now wasn’t that fun?” In the act of even entertaining this thought, we are exhibiting exactly what play is all about and how humanizing and essential of a thing it is.

  17. In both readings, the authors seem to consider play as a means of engaging the world. While this is true in many ways, for me, play has always been a way for me to engage myself and my own thoughts. While I am at play, I am letting my mind wander at its freest. I am using the world around me to delve into much deeper thought than I can access while actively doing work or other daily responsibilities. Through play, your mind is able to relax and enjoy the activity of play without really trying, which can lead to a higher level of thought and, even in some cases, spiritual revelations or expanded consciousness.

    An interesting video I saw on Youtube a few months ago titled “Can Video Games Be A Spiritual Experience?” got me to thinking about the concepts of human transcendence through play. While the video focuses solely on video games, the video does make a lot of solid points. The host refers to how playing video games can completely absorb all of your thoughts, saying “When every other part of life all just slips away and you’re totally engrossed. Spiritual experience is just the next level. It takes what you’ve already given over to the power of play and intensifies those feelings.” Also according to the host in the video, Sociologist Robert Bellah, in his book Religion in Human Evolution from the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, says “Prehuman mammalian play may have prepared the cognitive space for us to have spiritual concepts.” The video can be found here:

    I do see play as a way of engaging the world, but I think play is MORE a means of engaging our own higher levels of thought. Through video games, sports, any “fun” or “pleasurable” activity (crocheting is my form of play and I’ve -definitely- had some weird meditative experiences while crocheting), one can completely lose themselves in their own thoughts in a positive manner and experience higher consciousness.

Comments are closed.