How Do You Play?

How to Cite

Farley, R. (1998). How Do You Play?. M/C Journal, 1(5).
Vol. 1 No. 5 (1998): Play
Published 1998-12-01

At a small suburban dinner party, the hostess asks a guest if he would like some more. Bunging on a silly accent, he grunts, "no, look. I couldn't eat another thing, I'm absolutely stuffed." Everyone at the table smiles. The host, who has no ear for accents, says, "oh, go on monsieur, wouldn't you like an after-dinner mint?" Smiles widen.

"No. Bugger off," says the first guest. "O go on sir, it's only wafer-thin." "No, no," cry the other guests. "You're supposed to say, 'just one?'" "Sorry," says the host, much abashed. The first guest, however, picks up his cue and says, "oh alright, just one." Then he puts up his hand. "No really," he says, in his normal voice. "Unless you want me to explode." This causes the remaining guests to fall about laughing. "What," wonders the American at the table, aloud, "was that?!"

Was it play? Certainly, it bears most of the elements prescribed by Huizinga as characteristic of play. It occurred spontaneously, according to pre-arranged rules which the participants all knew (except the American, but exclusivity too is a characteristic of play). It had a beginning and a clear end. It was not productive but rather was performed for its own sake. That is, it did not perform any work, such as helping to close the meal or providing information, but merely made the players happy. It was accompanied by the requisite feeling of joy and there was an element of tension (getting the script right). Further, the event incorporated two of the social practices which Huizinga identified as amongst the most playful -- performance and ritual.

But there are two elements that Huizinga identified as being characteristic of play which do not quite fit the above scenario. Interestingly, they are the two characteristics about which Huizinga is most adamant. The first is the stricture regarding place. Huizinga argues that all play occurs in a specific, often dedicated, playspace. The dining room table, however, is hardly a defined play-space; indeed many mothers would argue it was precisely not a play-space. Perhaps it was a play-space in that the child in the back bedroom was not "playing", while everyone in the dining room was "included". The second question regards Huizinga's assertion that play happens in a "time apart". The performance described above, however, happened during dinner -- again, a time which many would regard as designated "not play-time". Perhaps the little ritual might be regarded as "time apart" -- a diversionary loop in linear time, if you like -- in that it did not progress the course of the meal.

Huizinga, of course, wrote as a social philosopher. His work goes on to categorize the play element in cultural activities such as politics, art, music, games, and so on. If it is not limited to sport or the make-believe activities of children, what is play? How is it (if this is not entirely the wrong word) practised? If, for example, we went back to the dinner party, would the people there be able to identify what they had just done as play?

Nor do my recollections of work, either as a secretary or later as a postgrad, bear out the complete separate-ness of play which Huizinga proposed. Rather, while the diversionary element is retained, for adults at least, play seems to be largely embedded in the stream of work, often occuring in a workspace, during worktime. Play for adults is a quick game of solitaire while answering a phone enquiry, netsurfing while the photocopier runs, or a bitchy (but fortunately silent) IRC chat with another worker, even in the same office. It is far more like de Certeau's notion of la perruque, though necessarily less productive. Kirsty Leishman's article about working in a convenience store bears out my initial feeling that most people's experience of play -- in their day-to-day lives at least, rather than on holidays (another can of worms entirely) -- consists of playful acts or moments, rather than Huizinga's "acts apart".

Play, however, is consistently discursively constructed as the opposite of work. As such, it has a place in our thinking about creativity, but there remains a degree of suspicion with which we regard creative work, and even creative work-places. For example, Pixar, the company who (with Disney) created the computer-animated features Toy Story (1995) and A Bug's Life (1998), is described thus: "at Pixar, Steve Jobs' animation house in nearby Richmond, the mood is quirky and relentlessly upbeat ... . On a typical workday, employees' kids and pets roam the halls. 'Work hard and play hard, and in between time you're flying down the hall on a scooter,' says Pixar's head recruiter, Rachel Hannah." A number of significant elements appear to emerge from this description. The first is the description of Pixar as an animation "house", relating it back to the domestic, the realm of the private, the realm of play (as opposed to the public realm of work). This is underlined by the association with children (who are free to play) and pets (more domesticity -- and of course, what you do with your pet, usually, is to play with it). Working at Pixar (especially compared to work in university admin, or a convenience store) can hardly amount to work at all. It's too much fun.

Clearly, in mobilising this kind of discourse, Pixar seeks to enhance its reputation for creativity. In that particular industry, such a discourse has two functions. One is to enhance the "fun" and child-appropriate-ness of the films in a marketing arena. The other, however, disguises the very real, very mundane and very tedious work that actually goes into computer animation (not to mention Disney's well-known corporate bastardry), which, objectively, is far more like factory production than we would like to think. The technology of these productions is always discussed; the work of production is never mentioned. For example, another review of Toy Story claims that rendering the film took "800,000 computer hours", but makes no mention of how many people worked for how long to operate those computers. Thus, descriptions of animation workplaces as playgrounds feed into the "magic" discourses which are traditionally associated with animation. One's first instinct is to disbelieve the above type of description of a workplace as mere "publicity", as a lie constructed to perpetuate the conditions of production. As Smoodin points out, the technological and creative discourses around animation embody one of the "paradoxes of capitalist mythology: industry becomes a wonderland and work turns into fun, while at the same time workers disappear" (96).

Academic use of the notion of play picks up on this suspicion, and propagates the discursive division between work and play. Our good leftist assessments of power structures would suggest that there is no room for play in the workplace. There is even less room, presumably, for fun. Fun is a notion fairly effectively erased from academic discourse, as Rutsky has pointed out. Rather, academic use of "play" to describe the structure and nature of texts such as IRC chat, or animated films, turns play into a kind of legitimated "not-work". Unfortunately, it becomes not-fun as well.

The problem is that the above descriptions of "work" in an animation studio may be more or less accurate. Certainly, there is a lot of tedious work in animation, but the animation houses I have visited (including Disney Studios in Sydney) are playful places. They do involve loud music, people who dress funny, visiting dogs and an abundance of what can only be described as toys. (Admittedly, some of these 'toys' are very big, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and are produced by Silicon Graphics.) Similarly, my work as an academic pretty well fits Huizinga's definition of play, with the exception, again, of a separateness in time and space (I am, after all, writing at home on a console still Tetris-warm). And, while the kind of play performed by secretaries and convenience-store clerks in their workplaces might be a fairly desultory kind of play, with a somewhat subdued sense of "fun", it is play nonetheless.

It seems that the divide between work and play is perhaps less clear in our lived experiences than it is in our writings. The fuzziness of the divide -- and the determination to maintain its existence, if only academically -- is something deserving of further attention.

Author Biography

Rebecca Farley