Anthropology Of Play Research Paper

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Malleable, flexible, fluid, uncertain, changeable—all are adjectives that are used to describe play, whether as a medium of cognition, practice, or communication. Play refers to a complex of universal phenomena among human beings that also are found among numerous animal species (Fagen 1981). All peoples, though they may not distinguish in semantic terms between play and other behavior, likely engage in playing as they shift into a conditional or subjunctive sense of being, one that opens toward a multiplicity of possibility. The mathematician and the theoretical physicist play during the process of shaping their ideas no less than children imagine, practice, and repeat their inventions in their play. Useful overviews of play phenomena are given in Spariosu (1989), Schwartzman (1978), and Sutton-Smith (1997).

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Despite its pervasive presence, play is perhaps the least concrete of phenomena and therefore one of the most difficult to define. Any useful definition of play highlights its multiplicity of potential experiences. The anthropologist, Bateson (1972) perceives play as paradoxical, in that it is and is not what it seems to be. The classicist Spariosu (1989) terms play, amphibolous, or going in two directions at once. In a succinct manner, the anthropologist, Droogers (1996) defines play as, ‘the capacity to deal simultaneously and subjunctively with two or more ways of classifying reality.’

1. Play And Reality

There is an intimate relationship between play and reality because play is first and foremost experiential, whether personal or social, and reality does not exist without its experiencing. In the creation and practice of realities of play, the imagination is crucial. Without the cognitive, the capacity to imagine realities, there is no play, just as, without the practice of experience there is no reality.

Play raises to the fore issues of alternative realities, the role of these and other multiplicities in social and personal life, and their consequences for human cognition and practice. The cognitive perceptions of play enable persons to enter into alternative realities, and perhaps into the simultaneity of multiplicity. Cognition is related intrinsically to how realities of play are imagined and framed differently from other realities. The practice of play entails the sensuous embodiment of these alternative realities; and, so, the subjective experiencing of play from within these imagined contexts that offer a sense of release, freedom, exploration, and perhaps exhiliration. The communicative component suggests that these specialized contexts of play are able to comment on the social orders from which they arise, and to send these messages back as the participants in play return to the reality of nonplay. Therefore contexts of play are metacommunicative in their relationships to social order: play communicates to its participants not only how to play but how such playing relates to social order. That play is framed as imaginative and malleable, and that through these qualities it generates and conveys metamessages informing players as to how to relate to aspects of social order, makes play perhaps the most fruitful of contexts of socialization, both for children (Briggs 1998) and for adults.

2. Framing Play

Given that play constitutes domains that cognize, practice, and communicate the shaping of imagination, are these domains to be conceptualized as incisively distinct from domains of serious reality, of not-play? This is the implication of Bateson’s highly influential theory of the framing of play which separates play lineally from the serious, or not-play. According to Bateson, the cognitive metamessage, ‘This is play,’ brings into existence the play frame which cleaves between the seriousness of everyday reality and the imaginings which are practiced within the frame. One may adduce from this not only that play comes into existence as a corollary of its framing but also that play, and the practice of its imaginative multiplicities of possibility, is located within the restrictions of its framing. Viewed from outside the frame, play is make-believe activity that in fact does not exist. Experienced from within the frame, play may well be utterly engrossing in the embracing reality of its presence. These views accord well with Johann Huizinga’s (1970) classic study of how civilization emerged through the plastic premises of play; although in the process, play itself became a temporary sphere of make-believe activity, secluded, limited, and bounded in time and space. Once play is framed through lineal cognition, it becomes a world unto itself, one of temporary limited perfection with its own internal teleologies (Gadamer 1988). Within itself the practice of play may well proceed in deadly earnest.

2.1 Play And The Playful

Sutton-Smith (1997) offers a useful modification to the binarism of a reality either of play or of not-play, of make-believe or of serious reality. Sutton-Smith distinguishes between play and the playful. To build on his argument that the playful plays with the very framing of play itself, one can add that the playful is a mood, an attitude, that may permeate both serious reality and play, or that suddenly may surge into presence within the mundane. In either instance, the playful is full of the impulse to perceive and feel in ways other than those offered by the immediacy of a given reality. The abrupt presence of playfulness disrupts the most routine of expectations. Playfulness injects speedy uncertainty into the most expected of social practices.

The playful attitude within mundane reality may be integral to the existence and organization of the latter; while play itself may be more ‘distant,’ as it were, from mundane reality. Playfulness and play complement one another. The eruption of playful feeling and perception are a significant key to establishing the play frame in relationship to mundane reality. But the play frame itself directs the kinds of ludic or make-believe activities that take shape within it, relatively separated from mundane reality.

2.2 Play And Foundation-For-Form

In order for a play frame to come into existence there seems to be a need for a form of reference, a foundation-for-form or organic model that can be altered in systematic ways and turned into someone or something else. Nonetheless, whatever is changed retains crucial similarities to the form of its foundation and so remains intimately related to it. For example, The medieval European Feast of Fools which mocked the traditional Christian Mass needed the latter so that this could be inverted and altered. The play-mass, performed in church by priests, would have had no significance for participants were it not derived from and contrasted with its everyday analogue, the sacred Mass.

To take a more mundane example, when one little American girl, aged seven, turns to her sister, aged five, and says: ‘Let’s play sisters,’ she is establishing a play frame within which these girls can play the foundational form of their sisterhood, imaginatively and perhaps with novelty. Play changes the known signs of form into something else by altering the reified boundaries that define and characterize the phenomenon. These girls will still be sisters, but they will be able to explore, practice, and experience their sisterhood with a difference, with license, in ways perhaps closed or unimagined within their usual relationship. They can play with the strangeness of being sisters. In turn, they may carry the messages of their experience back into their ongoing relationship as sisters, changing this in minute but additive ways. Hypothetically, they playfully may enter into play-sisterhood whenever they desire.

3. Attributes Of Play

Play is a way of organizing activity, rather than any particular set or content of activities (Miller 1973). Any activity may be altered playfully, and played at. But in order to do this the everyday, instrumental perception of how means lead to and produce ends must be loosened, stretched, or perhaps uncoupled entirely. Goals exist in play, but the means to attain them are given degrees of autonomy. This is why play behavior can be endlessly repetitive or follow a crooked line around artificial obstacles. The patterning for play may be suggested by how the foundations for-form that are used in playing function in the everyday. Say that the two little sisters and their friends place chairs in a row, the back of each facing the seat of the next, and that these children imagine these chairs to be a train. The children practice playing train, until they decide that the train is a plane, and the row sprouts wings, carrying its passengers, but then is turned into a bird flying off with children on its back, becoming a row of chairs in school and kindergarten that is also a plane. In each instance, one foundation for form (train, plane, bird) is imagined to take the place of another. Each such organic model is voluntarily turned into a foundation for imaginative practice that plays in turn with the multiplicity of these organic models, one after the other or as hybrids of one another (a row of chairs that with near simultaneity is train, plane, bird).

The perception and practice of play brings into being something that had not existed before in quite the same way. This is done by changing the shape and positioning of boundaries that categorize phenomena, thereby altering their meaning. Each shift by sisters into playing sisters seems like a repetition, yet is instead a different beginning since it imagines anew and plays with the very possibilities of sisterhood. Even a slight change in the boundaries that give shape and significance to phenomena involves some degree of destruction and recreation. In its cognition and feeling, play is associated closely with creativity, creation, and destruction.

Play is frequently implicated in the making of change. Change is the making of difference, even if this difference seems to mimic or eventually to reproduce an earlier state. Play introduces malleability into social and cultural life, taking apart the given and perhaps offering alternative visions and practices. Play often is involved in learning something new, through open-ended repetition, variation, exaggeration, and experimentation. Play is not unusual in the liminal phases of initiation rituals (Turner 1969), healing rituals (Kapferer 1983), and mortuary rituals of tribal peoples, when initiates, the ill, or the dead undergo profound transformations of being. Playfulness, in a more postmodern idiom is central to the practice of certain neo-shamanic rituals whose goal is the transformation of consciousness (Lindquist 1997). These and many other changing conditions involve shifts of cognition, practice, and communication. More significantly, change (creative or reproductive) usually involves fragmentation, destruction, or transformation of some sort, whether temporary or permanent, and these processes are often violent. The violence of change and change through play are often closely related. Some form of destruction and violence (to cognition, feeling, body and being) is involved in the shattering suddenness of the playful and in play.

4. The Truth Values Of Play

The relationship between play and violence relates to how play has been conceived, and to the truth-values accorded to play. In his survey of philosophical ideas of play, Spariosu (1989) finds two trends, one that stresses the practice of play as prerational (with its roots in ancient Greek thought and poetry), and the other that emphasizes play as rational activity. In prerational thinking, play is full of violent agon and power, strongly and pleasurably emotional, arbitrary in its appearance, experienced perhaps as ecstatic, and opening toward unlimited freedom. In rational thinking, the naked, enjoyable forces of chaos and disorder, of irrational power and violence, are suppressed in favor of play as rationally framed activity that is set apart from serious reality. Here play is irreal in its irrationality, and therefore controlled, nonviolent, and limited in its freedom. To expand on Spariosu, one may add that the eruption of pre-rational play (akin to playfulness) into everyday life is full of its own unsuppressed truth-value. The truth-value of prerational play is integral to living within realities that overlap and that are continuous with one another— realities that relate to one another as multiplicities of possibility. By contrast, the make-believe status of rational play, framed and contained in special times and places (as Huizinga, Bateson, and others argue) denies any direct or immediate truth-value to play, enabling its practice to be treated as fictive, as ‘just play,’ ‘mere play,’ ‘done only in play,’ and so forth.

4.1 Play And Cosmology

The organization of cosmology demonstrates from another perspective the importance of the truth-values attributed to play. For example, in Indian cosmogenesis, play (or more accurately, playfulness) is implicated in the very creation of cosmos. Thus, varieties of Hindu cosmology and religion embed premises of play—malleability, multiplicity, ongoing change—at a very high level of cosmic organization. In consequence, these self-same premises of play resonate throughout the levels of cosmos. The entirety of cosmos is influenced by premises of play. In this kind of cosmology, play is a top-down idea, responsible in no small degree for the multiplicities of reality that constitute Hindu cosmos and religions (Handelman 1992, Handelman and Shulman 1997).

Here play has high degrees of truth-value and is rarely referred to as make-believe. By contrast, main- stream monotheistic cosmologies, if they pay any attention at all to ideas of play, embed these at a low level of cosmic organization, distant from cosmogenesis and the ordering of religion and society. In monotheistic cosmologies, play is more of a bottom- up idea, lineally framed, rationally contained, and separated from serious reality. Bottom-up play enters cosmology and religion from their conceptual and emotional undergrowth, and therefore is perceived as threatening. Here the messages of play are often positioned in opposition to or as a negation of the order of things; and play is perceived as fantasy, illusion, and ephemeral; yet also as subversive and as resisting the order of things. But here the practice of play has low truth-value. Thus, the truth-value of top-down play is openly full of power and violence, while these qualities are veiled, hidden, and denatured in the low truth-values accorded to bottom-up play.

5. Game And Play

The idea and practice of game is closely related to that of play and may be understood as a variation of the latter, in the following senses. Game, like play, is a way of organizing activity. Game, too, loosens the relationship between means and ends. But the existence of game depends on relatively enduring rules, rather than on foundations-for-form that are easily changeable. Therefore games constitute distinct, autonomous realities, virtualities, given their internal, rule-based organization which to a high degree determines how they are practiced. Playfulness has less of a role in the practice of games. Games are less malleable and harder to alter than play.

Yet it is precisely because of their ruledness that games can be organized to make directed change through their practice. Levi-Strauss (1966) comments that game is a systematic way of creating inequality. Game begins with equality between its sides and produces differences which are perceived as significant. The logics of game, in fact, are often close to those of ritual which is intended to generate change through its operations. Traditional Mesoamerican ball-games had game-like aspects, yet they were ritual-like in their relationship between means and ends, perhaps ends of cosmic renewal that their practice was intended to accomplish. More generally, the presence of play and game within rites seem to contribute to the attainment of ritual goals. (This is powerfully exemplified in the roles of clowns in Native-American Pueblo rituals.)

Perhaps in more systemic ways than play, game may awaken interpretive, reflexive feelings about aspects of social and moral order. The highly agonistic Native American Kwakiutl potlatch, a ritual full of conflict that both demonstrated and reordered social status, produced the ‘play potlatch’ (Codere 1956) in which participants laughed at their own strivings for power and hierarchy. The rigid gender divisions in traditional Iranian society produced games practiced by women in which these distinctions were called into question, mocked, and played with (Safa-Isfahani 1980).

The twentieth century has seen tremendous growth in the use of game as a metaphor for living and social order (Minnema 1998)—Wittgenstein’s language games, Von Neumann’s game theory, war games, educational games, the game of intelligence testing, games people play, the play of quantum mechanics, chaos theory, virtual realities, and so forth. In postmodernist terms, these visions are of life organized as interpenetrating games, none of which give any total or complete vision of reality, and no certainty about the stability of forms of living. The game metaphor reflects more fluid and mobile social orders that are perceived, correctly or incorrectly, as the creations of individual agency. Television as spectacle has contributed greatly to this growth by telecasting existing competitive game forms and aiding in the invention of new ones. Sports are at the front of these developments. These multitudes of contest (in which violence is close to the social surface if not on it) continuously rank and re-rank participants over and again in hierarchies that are more kaleidoscopic, fragile, and ephemeral than they are enduring. Play as the multiplicities of possibility, and the playful as the eruption of these possibilities in the everyday, are competing with more unitary monotheistic ethoses, at least in the visions of the middle-class Western world.

Current thinking on play is reconceptualizing the problem of framing—the problem of relationships among realities, social and cognitive—to open alternatives to the ongoing rupture between play as rational and as irrational. Research on Internet chat groups plays into questions of framing (Danet et al. 1998). Issues of power in and through the practice of play are also related to questions of framing. Thus, ideas of ‘dark play’ (Schechner 1988), when players do not know that they are playing, and ‘evil play,’ when the manipulator of the frame positions herself outside it and plays others, yet pretends to be within the frame and controlled by it, relate to issues of play and power. They echo Bateson’s still enduring thought that a more complex question to ask of a play phenomenon is whether it is indeed this, or whether it is pretending to be so. Imagining the pretense of play is even more powerful than play imagined as such.


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