I think I’m a Calvinist at heart. My work ethic is well-developed and honed, my ability to play, less so. At the moment, I’m waving not drowning when it comes to work and squeezing in the time to read about play felt somewhat ironic. However, Kane’s passionate exploration of and defence of the importance of play in its multifarious forms was heartening and enlightening. Kane’s essay is a rallying cry is that ‘play and only play that makes man complete.’ (Eigen and Winkler)
Kane distinguishes between the modern and the ancient visions of play; the former ‘sees players as the ultimate embodiment of human freedom’, the latter ‘sees players as determined by forces largely beyond their control.’ (p.39)
In terms of the modern rhetoric of play, Kane identifies three core visions of play (summarised here in a playful (and, due to time constraints, necessary) stream of consciousness…
- Play as progress: play as necessity; powers of childhood play (as argued for in Rousseau’s ‘Emile’); play as a counter to ‘factory schools, producing factory minds’ (p.43) (this came to mind when I read that); Froebel’s concept of ‘play gifts’ – to enable children ‘to externalise concepts in their minds rather than have ‘the facts’ imprinted on their brains’ (p.41); Motessori; ‘play makes you live longer’ (p.44) (at the moment, it looks like I might dies young(ish))…
- Play as imagination: ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up’ – Pablo Picasso; play as a transforming human process; play as imaginary; ‘the great instrument of moral good is the imagination’ – Shelley; ‘Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays’ – Schiller; ‘Play, like imagination, could mend the broken soul’ (p.46); ‘…the imagination, the only thing that protects our freedom.’ – Buñuel; play as imagination should subvert play as progress…
- Play as selfhood: ‘Play is an attitude before it is anything else.’ (p.48); the ludic, playful self as self-determining.
Kane posits that ‘Modern play in all three of its definitions – as progress, as imagination, as self – can become an unlimited fuel supply of human dynamism.’ (p.49). He cites Howard Gardner: ‘We play to master our self, our anxiety and the world.’ (p.49).
With regard to ancient notions of play, what is acknowledged is that we are ‘often played with’ (p.50); we are ‘sport to the gods…’ (p.50):
- Play as fate and chaos: ‘Fateful play is a largely passive, not active practice…’ (p.51).
- Play as identity: ‘…we are players because others expect us to play.’ (p.52); Kane proposes that ‘collective play is the festival’ (p.52) and modern entertainment spaces aim to deliver the ‘collective tingle’ (p.53) to us as players in a ludic society.
- Play as contest: ‘While playing to win, they raise standards and levels of achievement in human society.’ (p.53). Our sports culture manifests the play ethic most overtly. However, arguably the flip side of this contest culture is the ‘playa’ which Kane characterises as being dominated by a ‘vicious agonism’ (p.55).
Kane goes on to examine what play might prescribe for us, for the way in which we lead our lives:
- ‘Living as a player is precisely about embracing ambiguity, revelling in paradox, yet being energized by that knowledge.’ (p.55)
- ‘…play (is) the fruitful, novelty-generating energy that sustains the vibrancy of a system…’ (p.56)
In terms of non-zero-sum games (such as life), there are rewards for those who commit to the long game and commit to being sociable and to extending the complexity and reach of their networks. A passion for the new, for novelty, is also key. Miller claims that all successful animals must be ‘neophiliacs’.
In order to succeed, I have to play more.
Other quotable quotes
‘…initial playful activity is an essential prerequisite of the final act of understanding…’
– Paul Feyerabend, Conquest of Abundance, 1999
‘To be a player is to try and live and thrive between freedom and determinism, chance and necessity.’ (p.40)
‘…play is a deep, natural and lasting resource for modern humans.’ (p.40)
‘Players needs to be energetic, imaginative and confident in the face of an unpredictable, contestive, emergent world. Players also accept the complex relationship between all forms of play whether ancient or modern.’ (p.41)
‘Play is about freedom. But it is also about the freedom to get it wrong; to imagine a future, and then have it tumble down around us in reality…’ (p.50)
‘Under complexity, our individual interactions – no matter how vigorous, singular and inventive they may seem to us – are merely part of the massive carnival, the implicate order, of the universe. The complexists’ player needs to radically temper his or her egoism – to accept that they are only a player in the ‘team game’ of life, co-evolving with others.’ (p.61)
‘A network is a possibility factory’ (Kelly)
‘For us nor to be daunted, crushed or demoralised by the complexities of the worlds, we have to reduce its burden upon us: we have to learn to create spaces to dream of alternatives, try out scenarios, give ourselves room to experiment, allow ourselves to say ‘maybe’ or ‘as if’ to our dilemmas, rather than always a definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no’. To invert the title of Milan Kundera’s famous novel we have to embrace ‘the bearable lightness of being’. We have to be able to transform the uncertainties and risks that our increasingly complex, twenty-first world presents us with – that is, we have to become players. And we have to believe that this activity is necessary and worthwhile – ethical, in other words.’ (p.63)
Kane, P., (2005) “A general theory of play” from Kane, P., The play ethic: a manifesto for a different way of living pp.35-64