For next week 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?
17 thoughts on “Readings: Play”
I think that both authors would agree that play is a way of being in the world. I enjoy the description of Sicart about playing “through objects, toward others.”
The question of whether work can be playful is a complex one, given the reading of David Graeber. If work is about productivity and is Capitalist in nature, then how can it be play – which is frivolous in nature. I don’t think David agrees with play being frivolous, though he does see play as being an end in itself – “cooperation for pleasure.” Sicart describes a difference between “fun” and “pleasure,” and that pleasure can be painful, dangerous, etc. So play can be dangerous, destructive, mean, etc. This is certainly true in many contexts, from the playground to a violent video game. I’m interested in the idea of play as disruptive, and the difference between destructive play vs. world building.
More generally, I also enjoy the idea that “play articulates time,” as found in Sicart’s reading. In my career as a theatre projection designer, I often was challenged to create situations to “articulate time” in many ways. New media is often associated with “time-based art.” A theatre show is often called “a play.” Plays often act out life on a stage. Play is “an end in itself” and about “being in the world.” Though I don’t have a conclusion to these things, I’m interested in the possible connections between them.
Now I’m just thinking about lobsters holding rocks.
Though the two authors approach talking about, and defining, what it means to play, they share some similarities. Mainly, that playing is our way of existing, of “being in the world,” as Sicart says, and it is “action carried out for the sheer pleasure of acting,” as Salvos says. Both seem united in their point of view and appreciation of play as a living creature’s way of appreciating its own existence.
Some examples of play being “appropriative” are games like tag, which can be played anywhere. It takes over whatever context it can be played in, locations become simply “bases” or “safe places to run” and have different qualities depending on how they are incorporated into the game – but lose whatever contextual qualities they had outside the game. The location and context of wherever it is played doesn’t predetermine whether tag will be played here, tag determines what new qualities are given to these spaces. Many of the games that kids will play during recess share this. Most of these popular recess games hinge on the fact that they can be played anywhere, with little to no tools, and with however many players. Because of this, the original context of the space never matters, and no place is too sacred, or too hazardous, for kids to start up a game of tag.
After reading both article, I think the second reading provides an option, or an explanation to the question which is raised in the first one. The author of ‘Play Is’ attempted to create a systematic theory to analysis the basic elements of play. He tried to find some examples from diverse time periods to prove his thought about the same specifications which exist in all plays.
I am very inspired by the part about the tension between creation and destruction. I’ve worked on a ancient greek play, The Bacchus(Dionysus), few years ago. It’s a tragedy, and like Nietzsche’s saying, the story is based on the colliding tension between these two power. How should we confront the temptation from Dionysus? Because the play was written for the performance in Bacchanalia, it provides a interesting direction that people have to follow Dionysus without any disobedience. That is to say, from ancient Greeks’ perspective, destruction is necessary, and they lived in the balance between creation and destruction. It’s really a new idea for me to think about where does ‘fun’ come from.
The two authors talk about play in different ways with Graeber largely speaking about how play impacts human nature and why we play while Sicart speaks more about the technicality in different forms of play and how we play. That said they both discuss the importance of play to our health and well being. Play lets people explore the world around them, exploring both social boundaries and interactions. Sicart emphasizes this when he says “Play frees us from
moral conventions but makes them still present, so we are aware
of their weight, presence, and importance,” while Graeber states that play “gives us ground to unthink the world around us.”
Instrumentation in play comes in treating play as something that can be efficiently produced, regulated, and cranked out in the form of games. Sicart addresses this outright when he says that games “don’t matter that much” and that “they are a manifestation, a form of and for play, just not the only one.” Graeber references this idea in talking about the “orthodoxy” of current theories of why people play and pursue their curiosity and creativity. This view on play suggests that games are a way to express and codify play and therefore playing for the sake of play, or simply to have fun, is the best way to explain why people play. In other words, the existence of mass produced games does not strictly mean they are more fun than older games or that they are directly influencing people to play any more than they used to. For a recent example, games that are always functioning and can demand attention at any point in time (like Farmville, clicker games, etc.) tend to be fads while games like hide-and-seek or tag are still played today. These games which try to force people to adapt their lifestyles around the game tend to be the type of instrumentation that essentially turns games into work. On the other hand many popular playground/children’s games have not changed significantly in centuries while requiring few to no outside props or life changes to enter into their playspace.
Games that are work-like can still feel play well and be fun if they maintain a players interest and essentially gamifies the work they are forcing on the players. In other words, a clicker game that does not have any rewards for reaching certain milestones or a high score table would feel like work because there are no small goals to work towards or any easy way to compare scores for competition or self-motivation. On the other hand, rewarding yourself for completing work can help make the work more fun and go by faster by helping with motivation. Many aspects of games that are like work tend to be overlooked or not processed as work by players due to the work occurring in a playspace where the rewards are immediate, significant, and appealing as well, such as fetch-quests or achievements that require collecting or repeating some action several times. In that same vein people who are interested and passionate about their work, especially those in creative fields, tend to work in a social / mental space where progress on their work matters to them and finishing even tedious or frustrating work can be incredibly rewarding.
I think the biggest distinctions between work and play come not from the actions involved but more from the willingness to suspend disbelief (for boring, difficult, or other work-like tasks) and from working in a space or mood where the rewards are satisfying and worth struggling for.
These two pieces went in rather different directions with their definition of “play” as a concept, but their main similarity is that they both attempted to expand the definition of “play” beyond what we might define it as in a casual context. To truly explore the meaning of playing is important, because better knowledge of what makes things play and what makes things fun ultimately allows us to heighten the experiences that fall under those categories. Whether this exploration and furthering of the concept of play is done within the context of games or not, it presents a valuable exercise for us as game developers. We are often encouraged to think outside the box, but aimless mental wandering can lead to an unproductive or inhibitory line of thought just as easily as it can lead to new and exciting ones. Thinking about the bigger concept of what we are trying to accomplish with our games and how people interact and “play” with them, however, will likely lead to broadening our horizons as game designers and lead us to ideas that redefine what it means to play.
Aristotle once argued that every moral virtue was a means to a higher purpose. You brush your teeth because you want to be healthy, you want to be healthy so you can live longer, etc. No matter which virtue you climb up the chain with, however, he believed that happiness was the highest, ultimate end to which we all work towards. Why? Because happiness is desired for happiness’ sake, not as a means to something else.
Both David Graeber and Miguel Sicart believe something very similar to this: that play is done for the sake of play. David Graeber talks about a principle of ludic freedom, where “the free exercise of an entity’s most complex powers or capacities will tend to become an end in itself”. The mystic was right in his argument with his logician friend because he knew that the logician already knew he would win an argument with his friend but he argued anyways. Doing what we do best for the sake of doing it, Graeber says, is play, and a means for an end in itself.
Miguel Sicart does not mention the nature of consciousness, but he also has a principle of freedom. Play is a balance between adherence to a structure and the pleasures of destruction, and through this balance comes freedom. “Playing is freedom”, and as such, “we play not to entertain ourselves or to learn or be alienated: we play to be”.
I find it somehow surprising that scientists studying animals have such a hard time ascribing them personalities. From Graeber’s article, it seems as if anything that doesn’t have a concrete biological “purpose” is seen as unimportant and irrelevant to the animal kingdom. But Graeber and Sicart both refer to the fact that play is a critical aspect of being human.
Sicart said it well:
“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. Play is the force that pulls us together.
It is a way of explaining the world, others, and ourselves. Play is
expressing ourselves-who we want to be, or who we don’t want
to be. Play is what we do when we are human. ”
If we play because we are human, why can’t lobsters play because they are lobsters?
My action item for myself after reading this is to make sure that I remember to engage in play and don’t take life too seriously. Playing is a huge aspect of not only being a human, but of being, and existing, and being a part of the world.
Both the authors view the notion of play as a mean to express and appreciate one’s own existence. People play for the sake of playing and in return they experience pleasure. On the other hand, Sicart made a good point by saying that “play is not isolated in our eventful lives, in fact, it is a sting with which we tie our memories and out friendships together”. These words are especially inspiring because they reminds me that play cannot be captured in a single instance, but rather, it is a continuous action that brings us forward in life. When we think about play, more than often we connect the dots directly to game, and yet games are just one simply manifestation of play. Thus, in designing a game, I believe it is important to take into consideration the physical/social/political environment that players will be in. If we think of play as a bowl of ice-cream, then games should be the toppings that invite people to continue enjoying the contents that are yet to come.
The appropriative nature of play can be found almost anywhere in games. Most of the time, games come with a set of predetermined instructions and rules that the players should follow. However, people always find ways to avoid completely following the rules by either reinterpret the rules or even come up with ways of playing for different given situations. Even in online computer games where the rules are rigorously enforced by automated systems, is it not rare to see players hack into the system to make certain features more easily accessible to them depending on the needs.
Both authors seem to posit play as a way of being in the world, but I am drawn especially to Sicart’s identification of play as a very personal and conscious tool of active presence and of challenge to problematic infrastructures, regimes, social spaces, etc – and particularly to play as a means of (re)appropriating spaces (geographic or digital). This reminds me of the work of many land artists, who often attempt to reconfigure the utilitarian purpose or psychic energy of a space with their work. I feel strongly that play and art are inextricably linked – they are both tools of examination, of confrontation, and – as Sicart notes – of toeing the line between destruction and creation.
Toeing such a line reminds me of the goals of the first Expressionists, who also believed in a necessary relationship between destruction and creation and also held their art as a means of being in the world. I am interested in this relationship between art and play and I look forward to testing and pursuing it.
I love that Sicart notes how “[i]t is not the same to play pickup games of soccer in poor neighborhoods as it is in more affluent ones: the materiality of the game changes, and so do the interpretations of the rules and even the play styles.” It seems to me that play has great potential to productively illuminate similarities and differences between peoples with an aim toward fostering greater unity between populations – and perhaps this use of play extends to the animal kingdom, as well, and so, too, is worth exploring within the context of Graeber’s investigations.
Sicart articulates a theory for play grounded in our desire for pleasure. I feel that in his writing the term ‘play’ stands for any experience we choose to try to have. I really like his notions of context and appropriativeness — how a game of football played in a poor neighbourhood is different from one played in more affluent one, how that affects the “materiality of the game”. He further expresses this in his references of middle-age carnivals — in which under the guise of ‘play’ (as defined conventionally as ‘frivolous activity’) subversive, appropriative, critical activities — the emergence of the “ambivalent wholeness” against the institutions around us. It feels like play is a way for us to very directly grab at the invisible contexts of our world and pull and push and play with them.
Graeber theorises on the emergence/existence of play, stating that play exists because it is a natural way for systems to exist — effectively he articulates that play exists in the systems we ascribe as living in the world because it is the only way for those systems to exist in the way they do. As DNA can only be the way it is because if it was any other way we wouldn’t be here, play exists in systems we deing as living as our way of ascribing calculating behaviour to them is incorrect — instead, their actions are an emergent property of the conditions needed for them to exist. It seems that we don’t have the scientific knowledge yet to propose a causal theory (i.e, how did these systems come to be from the great cloud of gas that collapsed into our sun), so we’ll have to do with this retrocausal theory for now. I feel like my thinking has very often gone down the routes that Graebers’ has, so it is nice to see it out there in the world.
Overall, the two readings seemed to take very different approaches, the first talking more about the omnipresence of play, and the second going more into what defines play.
When the first reading talked about how all animals play, I agreed with it. It reminds me of how crows often fly into my backyard at home, and spin this pinwheel in my backyard around. Usually people only think of mammals and domesticated animals playing, so it was interesting to see crows appear to play. Once the article moved on to the random movements of electrons as play, I started to get skeptical. I don’t think we know enough about the quantum world yet to make such generalizations about it, and certainly not enough to draw such big conclusions about how it affects the macroscopic world.
The second article seemed to generalize play a lot, which reminded me of the definition of play that was along the lines of “play is overcoming unnecessary obstacles,” which infuriated Jesse Schell so much, and then I brought up how bondage breaks that pattern, which Jesse Schell didn’t seem to know how to respond to very well, but I’m pretty sure Miguel Sicart would consider bondage a form of play. Overall I agreed with a lot of his arguments, but not the conclusion that playing is simply existing in the world. I think that’s a bit gratuitous.
Both Graeber and Sicart address play as a way of being – Graeber focuses on how play is embedded in even the simplest form of an organism (i.e. – electrons and molecules) and Sicart goes on to explain that play is a way of communicating and leaving our mark on the world.
Regarding the “appropriative” nature of play, examples of this are evident when a group of people decides to play Ninja. The space in which they are in is appropriated to a battleground – everyone is aiming to knock their opponent out of the game. When people play The Floor is Lava, the space is appropriated into a danger-zone – any missed step could end in a fatal ending (losing the game).
Sicart’s view on the appropriative nature of play, in which play results in the appropriation of a context, contrasts a bit with Graeber’s view, as he argues that everything is already made of play – all molecules contain the potential to explore play, therefore the context of a space is already within the realm of play.
Something I never really focused on before was the concept that expending effort and engaging in certain abilities for the sake of being able to do so can be considered play. This concept made me think over my personal life and look at the moments in which I’ve done something for the sake of being able to do it (i.e. – lifting heavy weight at the gym, screaming to awesome music, jumping over walls when I could have just walked around them, etc.). Looking back on it now, I realize these were some of the happiest moments of my life and were all a result of play.
Both Graeber and Sicart explain that play is a way of being. That play is integrated into how we live and think. Graeber explains it as a driving force for behavior in all life. His theory is about play being fun, but more importantly play being fun for no reason. He theorizes that our core motivation does not come from “gangster” DNA, but from “dancing” electrons. Sicart in contrast, explains that play is rules with creative agency in between them. Explaining that the context and rules of games are a way for us to interact with and understand the world. He even describes it as a language in itself. While they both reach the same point, they have contrasting views on play.
I find Sicart’s explanation interesting in relation to early childhood development. In early childhood research, play is understood as a way for children to work through their experiences and their world. Similarly to how Sicart describes it. Before children can have the proper vocabulary or understanding to work things out verbally, they do it though play. For example child therapist play with their clients to understand them, because the child will almost certainly indirectly act out what is going on in their life through play. In this way of understanding play, play is secondary to logic and verbal understanding. That it’s only a temporary fix till we develop more sophisticated techniques. However, Sicart describes play as being contextual in a way that other forms or logic or communication aren’t.
Both authors view play as something special and refuse a straightforward explanation. Graeber presents a lot of scientific and philosophical ideas around the topic, while Sicart tries to list every characteristic of play he can think of.
One example of “appropriative” nature of play that comes to my mind is when I was in middle school, my friends and I liked a game of chasing each other. One student is selected to chase while the others are given a few seconds to run before the chase begins. It turns out that utilizing the terrain is much more important than running fast. Some woods becomes the shortcut, some stadiums becomes the lookout station, some corners becomes secret places to hide.
Another example is during a brawl, people appropriate chairs, bottles, broomsticks to be weapons.
There are many examples of instrumental play. Some teachers try to wrap lessons in games, and by playing the game, students might happily and unconsciously learns the knowledge. Sometimes work can be playful without this wrapping, if one can be convinced to think certain way. Games can also be work-like. Sometimes when I’m addicted to a game for too long, I no longer feel the fun, but I still played as if I’m required to do so. This can be particularly laboring which resembles work.
Both Sicart and Graeber understand play to be a starting point of existence. Sicart finds play to be a driving force of life- everything between moments of play merely a means to get to point A to point B. Graeber takes play as a fundamental part of being alive. Graeber approaches the topic logically, using playful behaviors in animals that are considered less complex to argue his point. Sicart examines why we play less scientifically. He explores how play is a means of expression and of living.
Play is appropriative in the way that it transforms spaces and behaviors. The play space is taken out of context, as well as the many instruments we use for it. Most spaces and times during the day are not specifically designed for play. Play breaks the ordinary, and the ways in which it’s unordinary is appropriative. Playing in a classroom breaks up our routine, and appropriates the classroom space.
Sicart opposes that play is a mere matter of fun, and Graeber opposes the belief that beings act merely as coded in their genes. Rather play is a means of pleasure, and a fundamental part of having free will and existing. Play is also a means of expression, but expressing oneself is not always fun or kind. Work can be expressive, it can be playful, and it can be grueling. Games can become addicting and perhaps not fun, but the satisfaction that comes with playing them can still bring pleasure.
I think both writers have very compelling arguments for what they think play can be defined as, or what it represents. They both agree that play is a form of “being in the world” however they differ in the significance of play throughout a lifetime. Graeber claims it’s sourceless, reasonless fun while Sicar believes play to be a driving force in our lives, aiding and changing our learning and maturing throughout childhood development, and beyond.
There is one point, however, where I disagree with Sicar. He mentions how play is a human thing, because we use it to make sense of the world and our place in it, and as much as I agree with how play helps us humans, I also know many other animals engage in play, for many other reasons, such as birds, monkeys, cats and countless others.
And it’s an interesting concept to think of games being work-like, or work being playful. Surely, small harmless competitions within a workplace can make work playful, and I know for a fact games that require repetitive and mundane tasks to get to a certain state, like gathering resources in minecraft, or farming for gold in other games, can at times (or often) feel like work.I like the idea of blending the two however, having play be incorporated into all aspects of life.
I think both authors agree that play is something that exists somewhere between following the rules of our world and breaking them because there is a choice to do so. All forms of life have this choice to be playful because the play is in the nature of life itself as Graeber would claim. In the lives of humans, we have ample opportunity to play because we’ve developed for ourselves a structured world with all its societal standards and social rules that are constantly being playfully bent and pushed.
Children appropriate the world as their playground when coaches and chairs meant for sitting become areas of refuge from a dangerous lava floor meant for walking. And in the decision to stand on the couch, a child might wonder why everyone doesn’t stand on their couches. As play becomes more complex, it allows us to question the world we’ve created and see alternate possibilities because the limit of what is acceptable becomes blurred. As Sicart would agree, we gain a better understanding of our world through play and how it can change.