Friday, October 24, 2014

Food, Sleep, Sex, & Play

Welcome to my latest thought experiment. Play is natural, work is not.

I have decided that play is a natural positive activity for humans and this can be shown in part by comparing it with the other natural positive activities of humans, of which I have come up with four. These four are based on what I can think of as the only things humans want to do and enjoy doing - beyond the fact that they contribute to a healthy life. These four are eating, sleeping, having sex, and playing. 

For the sake of brevity, I'm going to gloss over some this by linking to other studies. Eating and sleeping are basic needs of individual humans. Sex is needed for the species to continue and has been shown to be beneficial to individuals as well. Play is no different. Yet, play is the only one that is consistently seen as superfluous. (Sex sometimes also has this problem, but that often gets couched in moral arguments about the contexts in which sex is appropriate or not. This is categorically different from ideas about play. Even religions/cultures with strict codes surrounding sex more often than not still acknowledge the usefulness of sex - babies - whereas play is sometimes set up as useless by definition.)

For a couple of weeks now I have been rolling around the idea of what exactly is a game or play. I am not the only one to contemplate such things and you can find various definitions all over the games/play literature. One idea that was popular for a while - and still discussed at conferences - is that of the magic circle. It came up again for me at the Meaningful Play Conference at MSU last week during the discussion period after my panel and the audience got two new takes on it - the internal magic circle and the mundane circle.   

For those of you not in game studies, the magic circle is the idea that games and play exist in some kind of special space set apart from the everyday mundane world. This term "mundane circle" came from Sean Duncan who was also on my panel. I'm fairly certain he coined the term, but I'm interpreting it here to fit my theory because the phrase is so perfect.

I'd like to note here that I didn't include work on my list of the natural positive activities despite the fact that most people work and it is necessary for survival in modern society. This is because, as noted, I am defining the natural positive activities of humans as those things that are beneficial to a person's health (mental and physical) and that people enjoy doing. Most people wouldn't work if they didn't have to and work is often detrimental to a person's health and so work doesn't make my list. 

Starting from this premise, that work is not a natural positive activity, then it stands to reason that work spaces would need to be contrived and set apart in order to get people to work - the mundane circle. Now before anyone starts crying - what about people who work from home? - let me explain quickly that in this article I use the word "space" to mean both physical space and mental space (a mental state if you will) and so someone working from home can be in a work space mentally, even if not physically. 

This is very different from play. Play space doesn't need to be contrived - it may be contrived (like games - following Thomas Malaby's definition) but it doesn't need to be. For a very simple example think of all the small jokes strangers tell each other while waiting in lines. This is verbal play done without preparation and the internal magic circle (the state of understanding the joke as a joke) is, without effort, slipped into by both parties. By contrast, it is much harder to get into the mood to work. 

At this point I'd like to clarify a couple of semantic points. First, I'm using the term "play" here rather broadly. Daydreaming, joking, gaming, pretending, sports and other activities, more than I can list in 1 post, are all examples of play. (For more on this idea see Sutton-Smith from whom I borrow a bit.) Also, although I use the phrase "natural positive activity" I do not mean for this to contradict the idea of play as a disposition as discussed by Malaby (hence my defining space as both physical and mental).

I mentioned above that the internal magic circle was a new take on play. This is partially true, in that I've never heard "internal magic circle" used, but the idea it represents is not new. Daydreaming and fantasy are both mental play activities - internal magic circles. How this came up during the panel was that someone asked about magic circles and in trying to explain that I feel we need a better idea than that I admitted to the whole room that I carry my magic circle with me everywhere I go. Why not? It's fun and engaging and way more interesting than mindlessly being pushed through life. 

In fact, I sometimes play and work at the same time. As I write this - arguably a "work" action - I am also daydreaming - a "play" action. Yet, although I would describe my current state as being a playful one, if someone were to walk in my room right now I'm sure they would beg to differ. Of course this is because most people still think of work and play as a dichotomy (who am I kidding - people seem to think of everything as a dichotomy these days) incorrectly so I might add. Work, as an activity, may be that which I have to do to survive, but that doesn't mean I have to see it as work or that I can't play while accomplishing some task.

Many people, however, disagree with me. Play is seen by some as the antithesis to work, as wasteful, and unproductive. This is due to the capitalist mentality that has taken over humanity and not because of any fundamental aspect of play - or work for that matter. Weber had some thoughts on these constructs too. Given such ideas the idea of a magic circle makes sense, because the everyday of life and work is set up as the norm/natural state. 

I argue the opposite. The state of being at play is the norm/natural state. It is a natural positive activity for humans - something humans want to do, enjoy doing, and contributes to a healthy life. Most people, given a choice, would choose play over work if money wasn't an issue ... but if this is so, then why should it be called magical? It's not. It's the norm, but some still think of it as magical because they have buried that part of their humanity - their creativity. Play is natural. That which has come to be known as mundane, should be the "mundane circle" because it is special, unnatural. It is that which must be forced and contrived. 

Play, like sex, food, and sleep. Is what keeps us humans going.

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