The unwillingness of many of the (few) scholars of play to put forward a definition of play frustrates me a little. Perhaps this is because I studied philosophy at university – a subject that is pretty obsessed with definitions and their importance in shaping how we view the world. It’s also a subject that leaves me wholly unqualified to turn my attention to another practical application or career, and thus distract myself from this frustration!
Regardless, it certainly feels to me like we’ll be getting somewhere if we can pin down what play is. In order to do my 100 Days of Play challenge I must have had in mind some group of activities that I was willing to class as play. But so, presumably, do those scholars who refuse to define it – so a (rough) grouping doesn’t seem to require a solid definition.
One of the aims of my challenge was to understand more about play, so am I closer to a definition?
I’m certainly now clear that play must in part be defined in relation to a state of mind. Activities you can undertake as play with one mindset can easily fail to be play if that mindset is lacking. I may like to play tennis, but does someone who cares only about winning, or does it as a profession, still always play when they practise the game?
I talk, however, about play having its own gravity, and that there are play activities where the moment you go through the motions, the mindset follows. This doesn’t rule out mindset being a necessary precursor to calling an activity play, but it can’t be all that there is going on, if that mindset arrives automatically with some activities, and not with others.
I would suggest that play does need to be something that looks on the face of it to be lacking external justification. Paddling in a ball pool is play, whereas swimming to save your life probably isn’t. I think when you play, you know what your own aim is: to only touch red balls, to get to the other side, to hide under the surface and surprise your friend. But an outside observer wouldn’t recognise that goal as valuable. Hence the lack of an external justification – play is what academics call ‘autotelic’.
You also need to truly focus on achieving your internal goal and be enveloped by it. The play becomes your whole world. If you don’t care about, or aren’t absorbed by an activity, it isn’t play.
My definition of play, therefore, is ‘The application of an attitude of serious attention to an activity that others might consider trivial or nonsensical‘.
So if you’re seriously attentive to an activity that others wouldn’t explain as having normal value… then I think you might just be playing!