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?
19 thoughts on “Readings: Play”
Both authors seem to situate play at the center of this weird notion of what it is to be human, suggesting that play allows for a sort of structured challenge of conventions and expectations. This is kind of strange, because it puts play somewhat at odds with society — which is bizarre, since society is made up of people and play is crucial to who people are.
Setting that aside, though, this concept of play operating on rules, but rules that can be broken or shifted depending on context, is really interesting and sort of hits at the core of what games can accomplish if allowed to do so.
Both of these authors end up describing play as a fundamental part of the experience of living, but each approaches their argument in a slightly different way. Graeber speaks from a more evolutionary perspective, describing how the play of animals confounds our continually attempts at “rational” scientific explanations, and proposes that play is simply a foundational component of the physical world. Sicart on the other hand, describes play as a form of expressions, that playing affords our minds freedom and allows us to “be” ourselves.
Though they arrive at the same point, Sicant’s description ends up describing play more as a means to an end, even though that end is a fundamental psychological need. Though that answer feels more satisfying than Graeber’s, it doesn’t quite address the reasons why animals play, unless animals have the same sorts of existential and psychological dreads that humans experience (which they might!)
Graeber attempted to explain why humans and animals play through purely biological and evolutionary reasons while Sicart explained play in terms of individuality and freedom. However, it was interesting to see them agree that whatever it is that makes us play is just part of nature and ‘being’.
Sicart pointed out that play cannot be thought about in an instrumental way because the way someone thinks as well as the context someone is in can largely affect what causes play. For example, the way soccer, a very standard and popular game, is played can still change based on what neighborhood it is played in or what resources are available. I would agree because play cannot always be forced; sometimes children have to find the optimal spot for an imagined adventure and sometimes people don’t feel like playing certain video games at certain times. In fact, a person’s idea of fun and play can and probably will change over time.
Both authors are similar in their views of what defines “fun”, and what type of activities constitute “play”. The two authors agree that these terms are very subjective and individual, never really having any solid definition. Graeber tries to explain this phenomenon through a philosophical viewpoint, suggesting that perhaps what is fun and playful to an individual depends on their nature. On the other hand, Sicart analyzes the aspects of something that makes it fun and uses psychology to support his argument.
Sicart uses the game “Ninja” as an example of ‘appropriative play’. Another similar game to this is the notorious game “Assasin”, where individuals would go about their day to day lives normally until they see each other, and then they would have to “assassinate” (draw a mark with a sharpie on the victim’s throat) the other individual without them realizing. The game is often played in a school setting, so that kids could turn the mundane setting of school and transform it into a vicious free for all warzone.
Both authors work to elevate the concept of ‘play’ from a trivial pursuit to one that is more all-encompassing and definitive of humanity, but also one that is potentially dangerous and serious. While Sicart focuses almost entirely on the relationship between playing and being human, Graeber takes it further, examining how important playing is on an evolutionary scale throughout all forms of sentient, animal life. What I really liked was his comparison between the standard Darwinism views towards evolution and the very different Russian ideas.
Play can ‘appropriate’ objects by changing their literal definitions or warping spaces into something their not, for example a child pretending a stick is a gun or a box is a time machine.
I don’t think we know enough about our own nature to be drawing such conclusions about play. Graeber’s cites a Taoist story, and concludes that “Our minds are just a part of nature”, which doesn’t speak to the possibility that we could formalize play, given the proper context. While studying evolution might provide valuable insights into why play is so endemic to life, we might find it more difficult to apply those ideals to the practice of game development.
Sicart’s attempts to loosely categorize the building blocks of play are more satisfying. Conceptualizing the structure of play is a critically important exercise for a game developer: it lends meaning and organization to our interpretation of games, and with that understanding, we can begin to develop an intuition about how to emulate such playful experiences ourselves.
Graeber and Sicart both agree that there is no right definition for play. Graeber states that fun is fun because people cannot explain and define “fun” while Sicart thinks that there is a relationship between play and being human. As Sicart says, play is pleasurable but could not necessarily be fun. Play could sometimes be pleasurable or intimidating; therefore, work and games can both be play.
Both authors agree that play is an abstract and mysterious phenomenon. Graeber focuses more on the biological and evolutionary aspects of play, bringing in observations in animals and scientific evidences. On the other hand, Sicart focuses on the human experience of play and the reasons to why play is so appealing and pleasurable to humans.
In Play is, Sicart describes the “appropriative” nature of play to be able to create further meaning of the game or toy to things that were involved in the playing process, beyond the game’s original intentions. Another example is Pokemon GO. Beyond trying to catch em’ all, players also found pleasure and fun in socializing with other players, while having a common interest (Pokemon GO) to talk about in a certain setting/environment. Depending on the different environments and situations of each player, the interpretation of the game will vary as well.
Both passages offer insightful commentary on the topic of play and why play is important in our daily life. Graeber applies biological analysis from an evolutionary standpoint, drawing analogies between playfulness in animals and microorganisms to playfulness in humans. Sicart on the other hand highlights the experience of playing and the effect it has on humans. Both arrive at an agreement that play is existentially important to human beings, and allow us a means of freedom and self-expression.
Sicart uses the game Joust as an example of “appropriative” play, noting that the aesthetic design of Joust’s controllers as well as the fact that it is a music game, meant to be played in a social settings with others, allow the game to take over the context in which it is played and be reinterpreted as choreographic performance.
Graeber and Sicart both discussed “play” with their own varying definitions and they also both point out that there is no real definite definition of play. While Graeber focuses on the differences between play among animals and human beings, or if play even exists within other species, Sicart focuses more upon his own theories on play. Although Sicart did point out that play can be both fun and entertaining, there are also dangerous forms of play. I most enjoyed the segment where he discusses laughter as the result of carnivals. He states that laughter requires freedom but also creates freedom, and that it is critical and hurting and deeply-embodied. Laughter may stem from many things, and I’d never thought about how often we tend to laugh at unpleasant and rather violent things. This made me ponder about our very own human nature and where to draw the line in the sense of which things are acceptable to laugh at and “enjoy.”
When Sicart declares that play is appropriative, he says that “[play] takes over the context in which
it exists and cannot be totally predetermined by such context.” He gives one example of the physical game “Ninja,” where players transform the space around them due to the large circle that is made as they play, and also the fact that the game is often played in non-play contexts like at work or at school. Perhaps Pokemon Go is a more recent example of appropriative play. Through the lens of virtual reality, real-world locations such as buildings and memorials are transformed into Gyms where players fight, or areas where they catch Pokemon. Players will meet up at certain locations with the exclusive interest of catching a rare Pokemon, completely transforming whatever the original context of the location was, which I think is really interesting.
I found both perspectives to the nature of play interesting and valid, despite the differences between Graeber’s evolutionary approach to play that encompasses all animals and Sicart’s main focus on play as a form of human expression. Graeber’s discussion of electrons’ unpredictability was especially thought-provoking when put into context of animals playing and enjoying their abilities for the sake of being, which implies we are all inherently driven by nature to play. Then in human society, rules and strategies are introduced into different forms of play, which ties into the balance between order and chaos that Sicart described as the carnivalesque nature of play itself.
Although Sicart approached his analysis of play through a philosophical view point and Graeber analyzed play through a scientific lens, both authors can agree that play is “pleasurable.”
I would certainly have to agree. But what intrigued me more than the concept of play was Graeber’s discussion of play and play-like actions committed by non human animals. The idea of a worm wriggling in happiness, rather than with a goal of pure survival in mind, is an interesting one I’ve never considered. The concept of play being at the basis “of all physical reality” would help to explain playful actions by humans, and reinforce the idea that play is and social intelligence is not a trait solely inherited by humans and “highly intelligent” animals.
Both authors attempt to explain the phenomenon of “play” and what it means to have “fun”. While Sicart focuses on the role play has in the human experience, Graeber challenges the idea that having fun is limited to the human species. It is interesting how Graeber addresses our human-centric perspective of the universe, because we tend to see ourselves as unique in our emotional and intellectual development, and measure other beings using ourselves as the ideal standard.
Sicart’s piece is more about his own personal ideas and definitions of play, ultimately arguing that through play, human beings are able to achieve a variety of goals. Not all of these goals are benign, either. This aligns with what Graeber says about play being self-serving, and how we are able to assign agency to our own DNA, but not, say, an electron. They both discuss the idea of how play is a selfish act in pursuit of an end goal, i.e. there is a rational explanation for it.
Graeber and Sicart seem to approach the ideas of play very differently however they seem to come to the same conclusion: play is necessary for humans and playing is what truly makes us human. Graeber seems to look the idea of play through a scientific lens, by first observing life forms such as animals and even things that we generally view as non-sentient (like a table). Sicart on the other hand, takes a more philosophical view explaining that he views play as “a dance between creation and destruction”(3) Sicart’s piece resonated with me much more strongly than Graeber’s more scientific view. I really enjoyed reading about Dark Play. Although I knew that some people found Dark Play to be enjoyable, it is interesting to reconcile that with children playing with blocks or other harmless pleasurable activities. I had never really thought of it as a balance between dark and light play. I also really enjoyed reading his descriptions of disruptive play as I believe that is where art truly comes in.
In relation to this class, my perspective on “play” and what goes into a “game” has widened from what we learned in readings from EMS. Previously there was a stronger emphasis on the input-output, having what qualifies something as fun or play be based in the feeling/illusion of accomplishment/status. From these two authors play can be seen as something pleasurable if only because they are inherent parts of not only us but the all living things, and in turn we are part of nature because of this. That enjoyment of being, opens up a lot of ideas about how to amplify and take new approaches to casual gaming, putting extreme emphasis on the casual element and opening opportunities to just be that we don’t get outside of “sandbox” styled games.
The two others tackle the idea of game and play in very different ways. Sicart describes play as the action achieved through games, and expands our idea of what play can be, stating it is always pleasurable yet occasionally destructive and dangerous. He encapsulates play to be all activity devoid of functionality– actions free of a purpose or responsibility, actions that cannot be qualified as work. Graeber on the other hand describes play as inherent activity that exists amongst all species, tackling the idea of play from a more biological stance. His definition of play is much more broad in the sense that he begins discussing just how “fun” fuels almost everything we do as humans. According to Sicart, games can never be work-like, because play exists as the counterpart to work. Graeber argues the opposite, that the two go hand-in-hand, and the same reasons why we work are the same reasons why we play; for birds to have fun while flocking or to have fun while doing anything is in itself simply a form of play.
I found myself considering a line from Sicart’s writing, ” It [play] takes place in a context as a balance between creation and destruction,” very much throughout the reading and subsequent rereading of these texts. That line lends itself well to becoming a framework for considering both texts. Sicart’s text considers play, and the enjoyment that comes from play, as the result of a human desire to explore the relationship between creation and destruction, as it can be seen as an allegory for our own existence. Play then becomes a framework for simulating instances of existence, and therefore is deeply personal and subject to the complexity of human existence. Graeber seems to lean towards a more immersive approach to this idea, seeing play as the foundation of one’s (or something’s) lifespan between creation and destruction – the nature of existence when all other motivations and driving forces are stripped away.
Both authors present differing views and explanations for “play” and why we take part in it. Sicart argues that play is our way of understanding how we exist; exploring what we can do, which Graeber somewhat parallels in his writing by stating: “Life is an end in itself. And if what being alive actually consists of is having powers—to run, jump, fight, fly through the air—then surely the exercise of such powers as an end in itself does not have to be explained either. It’s just an extension of the same principle.” Perhaps play can’t truly be explained, since it can’t be attributed to a wholly economic purpose, and neither can it be attributed to a singular purpose in the human experience.