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Students: Chapter 4. Play

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When animals and humans play, they exaggerate and show off in order to impress playmates as well as non-players who are watching. In most kinds of play, in order to play successfully, all the players must agree to play. Players send messages that say, “We are playing.” In some ways, play is very much like ritual and theatre. Play is often an orderly sequence of actions performed in specified places for known durations of time. Much playing is narrational, with winners and losers, conflict, and the arousal and display of emotion. But there is also playing that is less formal – bursts of microplay that can lessen the tensions in a room or relieve the boredom of routinized work. Some play is “dark,” making fun of people, deceiving them, or leading them on. One group of play theorists sees playing as the foundation of human culture, art, and religion . Others regard play as an ambivalent activity both supporting and subverting social structures and agreements . However one looks at it, play and playing are fundamentally performative.

Classroom Activities


  1. Teach a group from the class how to play a game you used to play as a child. Don’t theorize, but rather convey only what’s required to play the game. After playing, discuss the structure of the game. Does it have a beginning, middle, and end? How do you know when to stop? Are the rules stable? Or are they obscure and subject to change? What signals are used to send the message “this is play”? Did the group find the game enjoyable? Why or why not?
  2. Using Augusto Boal’s Invisible Theatre technique, prepare a brief scene. Perform your scene in a public place without letting on that it is theatre. Have a designated observer or observers note how the scene is received by people. Afterwards, discuss the reactions. Was what you performed theatre? If not, why not? What was it if not theatre?
  3. Attend two sports events. In one, try to get as involved as possible, e.g., wear team colors, paint your face, bring a team flag, wear a clown wig in the color of your team, learn and sing the team’s song, comment on the action from the stand, start a wave, etc. In the other, just observe. Which stance was more enjoyable for you, and which was more a learning experience? Why? What’s the difference between PARTICIPANT-observation and participant-OBSERVATION?
  4. Gamers spend enormous amounts of time in play worlds. Find a virtual world (Xbox Live, Wii, CAVE, Second Life, etc.) and play in it. Who did you become in your virtual world? e tc. Were you in flow? If so, why? If not, why not?” 


  1. If you have a pet, observe its behavior. Describe your pet’s activities with attention to the ethological approach to play. Does your pet metacommunicate its intention to play?
  2. Find an example of deep play, describe it, and analyze it in Geertz’s terms. Ditto for dark play and Schechner’s definition.
  3. Compare James P. Carse’s idea of infinite games to the Indian philosophical concept of maya and lila. Compare these to Victor Turner’s theory of liminality and/or D.W. Winnicott’s theory of transitional objects and phenomena.
  4. Interview three people about flow as defined by Csikszentmihalyi. What were they doing that created flow? What were the similarities and differences among their experiences?

Sample Discussion Questions


  1. Anonymously write one of your dark-play experiences. Put the papers in the middle of a table and select several at random to read out loud. How do these examples fit the theories of Geertz and Bateson? What happens when the metamessage “this is play” is subverted?
  2. What is the relationship between flow, discussed in this chapter, and communitas, discussed in Chapter 2?
  3. Why is tragedy playful? Why are violent videogames playful? Can players keep the frame of play intact…or does violent play foster more violence? What about military training—or drone attacks—that use videogame technology? Why is war sometimes compared to a game?
  4. What are the similarities and differences between deep play and dark play?
  5. Have a discussion about the bias against play. Is the bias against play ever warranted? Should work have to be separated from play? Is play a distraction?



Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832)

English philosopher and social reformer whose theory of utilitarianism asserted that the best society was the one that provided “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Bentham proposed The Panopticon (1791), a plan for prisons, hospitals, insane asylums, and schools where all the inhabitants could be continuously and simultaneously observed. His most influential work, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), focused on the ethics of law, language, and government.

Gordon M. Burghardt (1941– )

American ethologist and psychologist, editor of the Journal of Comparative Psychology, and past president of the Animal Behavior Society. His books include: Foundations of Comparative Ethology (1985), The Cognitive Animal (2002, co-edited with Colin Allen and Marc Bekoff), and The Genesis of Animal Play (2005).

Confucius (551–479 BCE)

Chinese moral philosopher and poet. Confucianism – a code of conduct based on his teachings – was the official religion of China until 1911, and is still widely practiced.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1934– )

American psychologist, an expert on flow and its relation to experience and creativity. Author of Beyond Boredom and Anxiety (1975), Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), Creativity, Flow, and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (1996), and Good Business Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning (2003).

Albert Einstein (1879–1955)

German-born physicist who emigrated to the USA in 1933 after Hitler came to power. Winner in 1921 of the Nobel Prize in Physics, Einstein is best known for his special and general theories of relativity.

Clifford Geertz (1926–2006)

American anthropologist, innovator of interpretive anthropology, an approach that treats cultural activities as comprehensible texts. Author of many books, including The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth Century Bali (1980), Local Knowledge (1983), and Available Light (2000).

Johan Huizinga (1872–1945)

Dutch historian and play theorist. Author of one of the most enduringly influential treatises on play, Homo Ludens (1938, Eng. 1944).

Isaac Newton (1642–1727)

English mathematician and scientist, author of the Principia (1687) and inventor of calculus (independently devised by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, (1646–1716). Newton’s “laws” of gravity and thermodynamics went unchallenged until the advent of quantum mechanics in the twentieth century.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)

German philosopher whose ideas and writings continue to influence philosophical, political, and aesthetic theory. Among his many writings are The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883–85), and Beyond Good and Evil (1886).

J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904–67)

American nuclear physicist and director of the Manhattan Project, the team that developed and detonated the first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert on 16 July 1945. From 1947 to 1952, Oppenheimer was chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. Accused of being a Communist sympathizer, Oppenheimer lost his security clearance in 1953. In 1947 he became director of the Institute for Advanced Studies which he led until his retirement in 1966.

Pablo Picasso (1881–1973)

Spanish visual artist, inventor of the cubist style of painting, as illustrated by Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Picasso’s long artistic career spanned eight decades and featured innovations in a number of styles and media.

Brian Sutton-Smith (1924– )

New Zealand-born folklorist and play theorist. Author of numerous works on play, including Play and Learning (1979), Toys as Culture (1986), and The Ambiguity of Play (1997).

D. W. Winnicott (1896–1971)

English psychoanalyst and developmental psychologist specializing in the relationship between mother and child as the basis for culture, art, and religion. Works include The Child and the Family (1957) and Playing and Reality (1971).




Play ("Deep Play/Dark Play")