The Dark Side of Play

"Man is made God's plaything, and that is the best part of him. Therefore every man and woman should live life accordingly, and play the noblest games... Life must be lived as play, playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing..." Plato, The Laws.

Words are such slippery things; they never quite serve their function with the simplicity and clarity we expect of them. We constantly play with them, stretching their meaning through metaphor to lend clarity to our expressions. Yet the artful application of a word to a new context dilutes the precision of the word even as it brings greater precision to our immediate expression. When I say that I 'sharpen' my tongue prior to a difficult meeting, I convey greater meaning to my expression, but have I not simultaneously assaulted the precision of the term 'sharpen'?

Such is the problem we face with two monumentally important terms for Lilan: 'play' and 'game'. These two terms, so fundamental to human experience, have been applied with such catholicity that they are now verbal mishmosh. My Webster's Unabridged Dictionary requires 21 column-inches to define all the variations of the word 'play'. The elementary verbs 'go', 'eat', and 'do' require only 18 column-inches, 5 column-inches, and 8 column-inches, respectively. Nouns generally require less space than verbs, but even 'game' requires 10 column-inches. For some reason, these two words are guilty of some kind of semantic imperialism, arrogating to themselves vast tracts of semantic territory.

This makes life harder for those of us who seek to grasp the concepts of play and game. It's sorta like finding somebody whose address is "Oregon". We could sure use more precise terminology.

Actually, our problem isn't new; every field of human intellectual endeavor spawns its own argot. My veterinarian doesn't talk about fat build-up in the liver; he uses the term 'hepatic lipidosis'. My financial advisor doesn't talk about how much money I have; he uses the term 'assets'. My lawyer doesn't talk about legal risks; he uses the term 'liabilities'. Each of these specialists relies on a precisely-defined set of terms to further his efforts; it is part of the intellectual heritage of his profession.

But pity the poor 'game-ologist' ('Doctor of Playology'?) who seeks to understand this vital human behavior. We have just two lousy, overused terms to work with, and both terms have too much play in them for precision work.

Fortunately, we have some help from Greek, courtesy of Johan Huizinga, author of "Homo Ludens: a study of the play element of culture". This is an important book that I strongly urge all readers to study. In it, Huizinga notes that Greek differentiated play into two forms: agon and paidia. The first term refers to play as a competitive activity, a deadly serious pursuit within some constraining rules; the second emphasizes play as a joyful activity. Thus, agon is the term weuse to describe the activity of a runner at the Olympic Games, while paidia applies to a child throwing a ball. In the quote from Plato at the beginning of this essay, the Greek word that he used, translated into English as 'play', was 'paidia'.

Thus we have two aspects of play: the ferociously competitive and the childishly joyful. These two aspects have nothing in common; how can they be joined in play? The catalyst that welds these two strangers together is interactivity. All play requires interaction of some sort. In the simpler kinds of play, the interaction need not be complex: the child throws the ball and it bounces back -- from the child's point of view, this is surprising and interesting behavior on the part of the ball. But as we grow, bouncing balls lose their fascination, and we seek out interactive partners capable of richer behavior. Some of us, mostly adolescent males, get sidetracked and fixate on computers as interactive partners. Computers are such colorful and interestingly bouncy balls, and they are risk-free; they never hurt our feelings. But most of us seek out other people as interactive partners, for the equality of interaction of human intercourse provides the most challenging and complete form of play.

Interaction can only take place where there is a perceived discrepancy of volition. The child throws the ball, declaring, "You go away!" The ball bounces back; in the child's view, the ball answers, "No, I'll come back!" The various angles, energies, and spins with which the ball bounces back are perceived by the child as manifestations of its volition. After much experimentation, the child induces the laws of physics that determine the ball's behavior. This triggers a fundamental shift in the child's perception of the ball. It is no longer an agent with free will, capable of interacting with the child, but instead an inanimate object reacting according to understandable rules. The ball is left lying on the floor as the child seeks out new agents with which to interact.

Let us now leap ahead to the mature adult interacting with another mature adult; this interaction represents the culmination of the long process that started with the ball. Let us imagine their discrepancies of volition in simplistic geometric terms. Where they are in perfect agreement, their volitions are parallel; where they disagree most intensely, their volitions collide head-on; and there are many intermediate cases where their volitions are at angles with each other. Where their volitions are parallel, there is no surprise, nothing to learn. They nod their heads in boring agreement. There is no information content in a field of gray. No power emerges from a hydroelectric dam whose reservoir is no higher than its discharge level. Sameness yields nothing.

Only where we have some perceived discrepancy of volition do we have a basis for interaction. How many times does a heated arguement end with the realization that it was all a misunderstanding, that the perceived discrepancy of volition was not real -- and now there is no longer anything to say, any basis for interaction? How many times does a child initiate interaction with parent by fabricating a perceived discrepancy of volition (being naughty to get attention)?

This explains the ancient and continuing failure to design successful "cooperative games". Play thrives on the non-cooperative elements, and withers where there is no discrepancy of volition. The child retains interest in the ball only so long as it appears to manifest discrepancies of volition -- to go where it "wants" to go. As soon as the ball appears to obey laws of physics, the child loses interest.

This "blood and iron" philosophy of play may strike one as cynical, but I see no pessimism about human nature in it. The ugliness arises from two derived phenomena. The first is the unwarranted extrapolation of the basic principle to absurd extremes. If discrepancy of volition is necessary to interaction, then greater discrepancy of volition yields greater interaction. This leads us to the dark, intensely violent, ugly game designs, in which the interaction takes its starkest form: kill or be killed. Is this the ultimate or highest expression of play?

No. The error lies in confusing a one-sided boolean relationship with a general proportionality. This truth:

The absence of discrepancy of volition destroys interaction.

Does not logically lead to this conclusion:

Greater discrepancy of volition yields greater interaction.

The only legitimate conclusion we can draw is that greater discrepancy of volition yields more intense interaction. Intensity is not the same thing as richness. Amplitude does not make music pleasurable; greater sweetness does not make food more tasty; brightness of color does not make a painting pretty.

But the focal point of this essay concerns a much more subtle error, one that pervades our civilization. It is the justification of agon through paidia.

I shall refer to our justice system to demonstrate this poisonous phenomenon. Do not think that the problem is confined to the justice system -- it pervades our political system, our business culture, and our educational system. But I shall not waste your time with a tedious catalog of proof; the example of the justice system should suffice to show the principle.

One of the greatest trends in the history of civilization is the substitution of play -- in its agonistic form -- for conflict. For example, consider the evolution of systems of justice. Early justice systems were nothing more than socially tolerated vendettas. A clan would respond to a transgression against one of its members with an attack against the offending clan. Each individual looked to his own clan for justice. A gigantic step forward came with the substitution of state authority for the execution of justice. Thus was born the "trial". But the earliest forms of trial took the character of bloodthirsty games. There was trial by ordeal or trial by combat. From our twentieth-century perspective, trial by combat is indistinguishable from simple vendetta, but in fact it represents a great leap forward, for vendetta is open-ended, while trial by combat provides closure to the conflict. The rule of the game is that the outcome of the combat determines the outcome of the conflict. Two knights thundering down the lists with lances levelled towards each other represent the subtle shift of blood conflict into agon, and agon into paidia. The points of the lances are the blood conflict; the rules of the joust are the agon; the pennants and cheering crowd are the paidia.

After an English king was killed in such a joust, Western civilization shifted the balance even further away from blood conflict, but the element of agon remained unchanged. Within a century of that royal death, lawyers had so completely taken over the field of combat that Shakespeare was to write, "First, we kill all the lawyers!" The key observation here is that the legal system remained adversarial at its core. Instead of two knights charging down the lists in front of the king, we had two lawyers verbally jousting in front of a judge. The confrontation had been moved from the tourney-field to the courtroom, and the blood had been cleansed from it, but the agonistic nature of the interaction remained unchanged.

There is no intrinsic reason why any system of justice need be adversarial in nature. Our system is adversarial because it evolved from earlier systems, such as trial by combat, that were adversarial.

Consider how poorly this adversarial system serves our need for justice. Consider the recent celebrated criminal case of the British au pair girl in Massachusetts. Whatever your own opinions on this case, there are a few things that I think we can all agree on. The prosecution, with its blood-curdling demands for conviction for murder and a life sentence, was surely overdoing things: clearly, this girl did not willfully kill the infant in her charge. At the same time, the defense demand for acquittal was also excessive: it's just as clear that this girl overstepped the bounds of civilized behavior. So here we have the farce of two adversaries matching absurdities against each other. How can we believe that justice will emerge from the collision of absurd extremes? The logical guarantee that, if we set our extremes far enough apart, then we can be certain that justice will lie between them, provides no assurance that justice will be found. Knowing that I live on planet Earth does not help locate me.

Would not a better approximation of justice been obtained if we replaced our adversarial model with a less agonistic model? I am not suggesting that we embrace the inquisitorial model of the Napoleonic code; instead, I am suggesting a refinement of the adversarial model that replaces the presumption of head-on collision with an expectation of constrained difference of opinion. What if the prosecution had argued only that the girl had lost her temper and been unacceptably rough with the infant? What if the defense had conceded some rough handling on her part, but argued that it was at the gray edge of acceptable behavior, and the death was caused by pre-existing conditions? Then we would have had a more subtle, and I think more accurate examination of the fine points of this case. Instead, justice was applied with a blunt instrument.

Has anybody noticed that we are achieving convergent approximations of justice through serial methods? The Rodney King case yields an acquittal, followed by conviction on different charges at the federal level. The O. J. Simpson criminal trial ends in an acquittal, followed by a negative verdict in the civil trial. The Massachusetts au pair case generates a conviction, followed by a lowering of the conviction and the sentence to time served. We just can't seem to get it right the first time, can we?

Why must divorce cases pit husband against wife? Why must contract disputes end with one side "prevailing" and the other side "losing"? The defense of such exaggerated agonism is that society does not possess the wisdom to set limits on the claims of the adversaries; each side must be free to make whatever claims it wishes, and society can only adjudicate those claims. But we have already established the principle that society can constrain the claims of the adversaries; you can't ask for the death penalty in a civil case. Why can we not continue to civilize our justice system by toning down the agonism, the adversariality with which it operates? Judges are already free to constrain lawyers from inflammatory language; should they not extend their definition of civilized behavior in the courtroom to forbid egregiously competitive behavior?

And here is where we encounter the dark side of play. Somehow, agon gets mixed up with paidia. Lawyers think that they are playing. They're not in it for the richness of the interaction, they're in it for the joy of victory. No lawyer has ever told me about a fascinating case that he lost. This agonistic element of their work is socially corrosive, yet they sweep it under the rug of paidia and rationalize it as a necessary element of a healthy justice system.

By acquiescing to an egregiously adversarial mentality on the part of our lawyers, we do for justice what Doom does for play. The richness -- and therefore the educational or revelatory value -- of the interaction is lost in the intensity of the confrontation. Yet the lawyer flashes his boyish grin and confesses, "Aw, shucks, I just like to win", and we indulge him his paidia -- and what we get is agon.

The term "play" is a Trojan horse of paidia concealing a deadly cargo of agon. The rapist advises his victim, "You might as well just play along."