The Labyrinth: Play according to Social Scientists

          Among the behavioural sciences, psychology is clearly a play advocate. Certain thinkers in developmental psychology in particular (among the most eminent thinkers are Erikson 1950; Piaget 1962; and Vygotsky 1967) play a prominent role in promoting play as a “natural” learning behaviour for children to acquire certain skills, to practice with the self, and, essentially, to develop. Therefore, play is a life stage in which the players rehearse the characters they would like to be, or would become, without “real” consequences. As Lobman and O’Neill (2011:x) claims that: “in their everyday lives, children perform who they are becoming”. Similar are the studies of Boal (1993[1974]), Bailey (2011), and Heidemann and Hewitt (2009). They are among others who suggest that play is a transformative stage in which players perform the roles of what they might – or in some studies they really do – become in the future.

It is also a work of social scientists to unbundle the complexities of play within particular contexts in relations to other aspects of human life.

Framing play in this particular tradition of developmental psychology risks to overlook the “becoming” part of a person. It is of no argument that play is important to human, both adults and children equally. However, relating play in early age to the later characters one might (or might not) become is rather too labelling or stigmatising. Identity formation or becoming, as many social  scientists have argued, is a process that takes more various factors than only childhood experiences. Furthermore, despite its overdeterministic character, framing play in this way has its foundation in separating play from other spheres of human activities because of its non-productive – and, thus, consequence-free – appearance. Therefore, it is also a work of social scientists to unbundle the complexities of play within particular contexts in relations to other aspects of human life.

To begin with, in contrast to examining play separately as a distinct form human interaction, the sociologist Thomas Henricks (2006; 2012; 2015) begins his exploration by comparing play to other “behavioural patterns” – namely, “work”, “ritual”, and “communitas”. Henricks employs the thought of Jacques Derrida (1981) who suggests that we look at the world’s appearance by observing contrasts and differences. We understand certain things’ presence by what is absent. In other words, we come to understand things by what it is not. In this manner, Henricks starts approaching “play” by what it is not. He shows that the four “frames” (Goffman 1974) have their distinctions which function to familiarise people to the “nature” of particular event – of what will happen, and what will come after. Once the participants are familiar with such pattern, they find their “self-locations” (2012:229) in the event and experience it in a unique way.

“The playful nip denotes the bite, but it does not denote what would be denoted by the bite” (Bateson 1972:186).

Along this line of thought, anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1972) publishes his “Theory of Play and Fantasy”. Bateson argues that in differentiating “play” from “non-play”, we should follow the (originally mathematical) notion of “frame”. Frame for him is the class or set of messages or meaningful actions shared among the participants. Therefore, play frame refers to sets of metacommunication – or the communication of exchanging signals, not the “objective” reality – understood among the players. Bateson gives his famous example: “The playful nip denotes the bite, but it does not denote what would be denoted by the bite” (1972:186). In such ways, when a person signals that “this is play” while performing a certain activity, it implicates that such action should not be regarded strictly as what it would normally be regarded.Not only describing how what he calls “patterns of behaviour” differ from one another, Henricks also narrates the area where these four patterns overlap. In communitas – which Henricks gives examples of parade, fair, and festivals – is where there is a relative lack of control and is unpredictable. This is similar to play. Communitas and play both generate the sense that the experience is completed at the time of the action. However, Henricks argues that play is more contestive while communitas focuses more on an  acceptance of the descending meaning – the meaning directed by others (2012:241-242). In addition, Henricks finds considering the characteristics of the four patterns of behaviour beneficial in understanding the actors’“self-locations” while engaging in these different spheres of activities. According to him, there are four types of self-locations – namely, privilege, engagement, subordination, and marginality – which I will not go in details here. However, engagements in different self-locations takes different standings, which, or course, overlaps one another. Furthermore, Henricks also believes that these different self-locations enhance different emotions produced during the time of activity.

Certainly, in many occasions, playful behaviour of some people may not be considered as “playful” by other people. Bateson explains that “denotative communication” (1972:186) is only possible after a process of learning certain rules that links particular sets of words and actions with another particular set of denotations. Here emerges what Bateson calls “peculiarities of play” (1972:188); the signals conveyed in play are, to a certain extent, untrue or not meant; while at the same time, what is denoted by such signals are non-existent. However, according to Bateson, “play” is still possible despite the paradox because “play” is a primary process of activity – that is, it is a non-cognisant or a non-reflexive action.

Under the theoretical influence of symbolic interactionism, Clifford Geertz (1973) writes his ethnography on the Balinese cockfight. In what he calls “deep play” – borrowing the term from Jeremy Bentham (1931) but in a much less utilitarian manner – in conceptualising the depth of the play at stake, the Balinese people reflect their own society. Geertz sees “play” in a much wider sense than just the activity within itself. Despite its clear boundaries in terms of duration and location – of time and space – this “deep play” osmoses into other spheres of life and vice versa. In other words, in contrast to Henricks and Bateson, Geertz sees the realm of play as an integration of the outside realities within the rule-bounded activity of play itself. Play, according to Geertz, thus, cannot be separated from other sphere of life because it is where life itself is “at play”.

Despite its clear boundaries in terms of duration and location – of time and space – this “deep play” osmoses into other spheres of life and vice versa.

For Geertz, play of the cockfights is actually the Balinese society at play. The cocks are the symbolic expressions of the owners. And what makes this play “deep” in the Balinese society is not completely about the money that one bets, but rather what the money is involved: the hierarchical Balinese society which the cockfights embody (1973:436). Therefore, in understanding the cockfight as a text we shall not see it only as serving a cognitive end (as in releasing emotional tensions), but rather how a society is actually built of these emotions. Seeing the cockfight this way does not mean that it depicts how things literally are for the participants in a communicative sense. Instead, it shows how the actors imaginatively are according to particular hierarchy. In other words, the cockfights are “not merely reflections of pre-existing sensibility”, but instead they are “positive agents in the creation and maintenance of such a sensibility” (1973:451).

The approach of Geertz is partly comparable to what Thomas Malaby (2007:101) calls the narratologists’ approach in which the ethnographers focus deeply on the construction of meanings. The cockfight with which Geertz concerns is a form of activity which becomes an object for reflection and interpretation. However, in the context of the playful experience lies another side of the phenomenon, the play practice itself and the lived experiences of the participants. This issue is a major concern for anthropologists who focus on the performative aspects of play.

Goldman finds that on the verge of the dichotomy between real and pretend lies another dichotomy of temporary and permanent. Understanding play in this way helps him see that the difference within these dichotomies are not the types of the worlds they are, but rather the distinction in the way they exist within a world. Interestingly, Goldman shows that there exists a “double-play” in the Huli society. “Double-play” refers to a form of play in which the children use the story-telling language to overlay their play. In other words, within the play frame of pretend play of the Huli children, there are two sub-frames – namely, the frame of the characters at play, and the narrator’s. Within the frame of play for Goldman, therefore, lies the sub-frames that make the bigger play frame a “play”.In this manner, Laurence R. Goldman (1998) studies the Huli children. His aim is to understand “how fantasy is spoken” (1998:100). In this linguistic approach, Goldman discovers that play moves between “mimesis” and “mythos” – between imitation and creativity. Accordingly, “play” for Goldman is “social poetry in the making” (1998:11-12).

So does it mean that the tireless (which is still ongoing nowadays) attempts to define “play” have not been at all useful? And, more importantly, keeping in mind the above-mentioned theories’ strengths and weaknesses, how should we study “play”?Coming this far in this labyrinth of play, we see that many authors use the concept of “play” in framing several things. For example, when Bateson talks about the frame of a “playful” nip, does his “play” mean the same as Goldman’s “play” of the Huli children? Or, to what extent can Henricks’ idea on self-locations enhanced by “behavioural pattern” of play apply to Geertz’ Balinese people’s interactions in the “deep play”? Play theorists use the concept very super-diversely that it becomes an umbrella term and loses its analytical power eventually. According to Derrida (2001[1967]), this is due to the fact that the nature of what he calls “freeplay” is a “disruption of presence” (369). Play emerges as a counteraction to structure. It goes against the coherence of structure and is formless. Furthermore, “play” is impossible to universally define for the applications in any given context.


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Bateson, Gregory 1972 Steps to an Ecology of Mind. California: Chandler Pub. Co.

Bentham, Jeremy 1981 Theory of Legislation. Richard Hildreth, trans. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd.

Boal, Augusto 1992[1974] Theatre of the Oppressed. Charles Leal McBride, and Maria-Odilia Leal McBride, trans. London: Pluto Press.

Derrida, Jacques 1981 Positions. Alan Bass, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———- 2001[1967] Writing and Difference. Alan Bass, trans. London: Routledge.

Erikson, Erik 1950 Childhood and Society. New York: Norton.

Geertz, Clifford 1973 The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Goffman, Erving 1974 Frame Analysis. New York: Harper & Row.

Goldman, Laurence 1998 Child’s Play: Myth, Mimesis, and Make-Believe. Oxford: Berg.

Heidemann, Sandra, and Debbie Hewitt 2009 Play: The Pathway from Theory to Practice. St. Paul: Redleaf.

Henricks, Thomas 2006 Play Reconsidered: Sociological Perspectives on Human Expression. Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

———- 2012 Play as a Pathway of Behaviour. American Journal of Play 4(2):225-253.

———- 2015 Play and the Human Condition. Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Lobman, Carrie, and Barbara E. O’ Neill  2011 Play and Performance. Lanham: University Press of America.

Malaby, Thomas M. 2007 Beyond Play: A New Approach to Games. Games and Culture 2(2):95-113.

Piaget, Jean 1962 Play, Dreams, and Imitation in Childhood. New York: Norton.

Vygotsky, Lev 1967 Play and Its Role in the Mental Development of the Child. Journal Russian and East European Psychology 5(3):6-18.