The Nature of Play

I've been thinking about the nature of play lately. It seems to me that we are entirely too narrow in our thinking about play. Computer games are especially guilty here, confining play to either indulgence in bloodlust or exercise of sterile intellectuality. But play spans such a wider range of human behavior! One of the most profound books I have read is Homo Ludens, by Johann Huizinga, in which he discusses the role of play in human culture. The quickie synopsis: it's everywhere! Many of our most serious activities are permeated with an element of play. Law is one such activity: it has a playing field (the courtroom), a set of rules voluntarily accepted by society, places for each of the players to sit, its own custom language ("Objection!" and "May I approach the bench?" being analogous to "Check!", "Atari!", and "Personal foul!"). Indeed, the legal system even has its own costumes for the participants to wear.

Play is a vital component of human mentation. We too often see play as idle self-indulgence, countering it in our standard phrases with "work", as if play were the antithesis of work. The implication that play is unworthy, or perhaps simply lazy, is horridly unhealthy. It's rather like suggesting that the only good medicine is medicine that tastes awful. Play is not an act of self-indulgence, a waste of time, or a decadent sin. If it were any of these things, why would social evolution have permitted it to persist in so many cultures?

Another factor here is the intertwining of play and human creativity. The relationship is too close to be written off as coincidence. Somehow, when we allow our minds the free play of ideas, we achieve heights of creation that simply cannot be obtained by plodding deduction. Yes, that plodding deduction is a necessary followup, a kind of gathering together of loose ends, but the big step, the creative step, is almost always associated with something like "play".

What really impresses me, though, is the growing suspicion that there's something much more profound in the role of play. I study Erasmus every night, and everything he says makes me wonder. This guy was about as heavy as they come -- some of his points require vast erudition to appreciate, and many re-readings on my part. Yet he was also such a wisecracker! Even more striking is his mind-boggling conclusion to The Praise of Folly, in which he presents a thesis that I am still struggling to understand. The basic notion seems to be that the most profound mysteries can never be understood by the intellect, and so we must give ourselves over to a kind of playful folly, an ecstasy of foolishness that is the only means by which we can unite with God. As I said, this is really heavy stuff, and although I am atheist, I am certain that Erasmus has put his finger on something profoundly important.

The contrast between this line of thinking about play and the latest products at E3 should give us all pause to think. Interactive entertainment is a big field, and we have not yet begun to explore its possibilities. Someday, we'll be using this medium for some REAL play, and it sure as hell won't be kid stuff.