Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Getting into the Literature on Play (Part 4)

I made my way through Play= Learning, which concentrates on education and children. From the Introduction:

In sum, treating children like empty vessels whose heads can be filled with knowledge because we select what they will learn and teach it directly leads to problems in two domains. First, studies show that children in these programs often learn less academically than their peers who are not being taught concepts directly but in a more playful manner. Second, these programs have the unintended social consequences of creating students who are less likely to experience empathy with their peers, more likely to show evidence of stress-induced hyperactivity, and more likely to engage in delinquent acts. (10).

I am now making my way through two older books on play- Huizinga's Homo Ludens (which means "Man the Player"). H. focuses on understanding play not as a biological phenomenon, but rather as a cultural phenomenon. His definition of play emphasizes its voluntary nature, that it is not "ordinary" or "real life", its secludedness (contains its own course and meaning) and tension (uncertainty, chanciness). All play has rules, argues H. His formal definition of play is:

Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside "ordinary" life as being "not serious", but at the same time absorbing the player intensively and utterly. It is activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means. (13)

H. then dedicates chapters to play and law, war, philosophy, art, etc. The central idea I want to appropriate from H. is the notion of making Homo Ludens (and contrasting that with homo economicus) central to my political theory. I want to detail a realistic utopia for the playful species that we are.

In Man, Play and Games, Caillois argues that H's definition is at the same time too broad and too narrow (4). Games of chance played for money, for example, don't fit H's definition. C. defines play as follows:
1. Free: in which playing is not obligatory; if it were, it would at once lose its attractive and joyous quality as diversion;

2. Separate: circumscribed within limits of space and time, defined and fixed in advance;

3. Uncertain: the course of which cannot be determined, nor the result attained beforehand, and some latitude for innovations being left to the player's initiative.

4. Unproductive: creating neither goods, nor wealth, nor new elements of any kind; and, except for the exchange of property among the players, ending in a situation identical to that prevailing at the beginning of the game.

5. Governed by rules: under conventions that suspend ordinary laws, and for the moment establish new legislation, which alone counts;

6. Make-believe: accompanied by a special awareness of a second reality or a free unreality, as against real life. (10)

C. then divides play into four main rubrics depending on which elements of play is most dominant- competition, chance, simulation, or vertigo. He calls these agón, alea, mimicry, and ilinex, respectively (12).

Some examples of the groups would be: agón (football, chess); alea (roulette, lotteries); mimicry (pirate, or Hamlet); and ilinex (falling movement, state of dizziness and disorder).

C. places all games on a continuum between two opposite poles of what he calls "paidia" and "ludus". The former refers to a state where free improvisation and carefree gaiety is dominant, and with the latter our impulsive exuberance is absorbed or disciplined by imperative, tedious conventions.

A few more excellent descriptions of the categories of play:

agón "A whole group of games would seem to be competition, that is to say, like a combat in which equality of chances is artificially created, in order that the adversaries should confront each other under ideal conditions, susceptible of giving precise and incontestable value to the winner's triumph. It is therefore always a question of a rivalry which hinges on a single quality (speed, endurance, strength, memory, skill, ingenuity, etc.), exercised within defined limits and without outside assistance, in such a way that the winner appears to be better than the loser in a certain category of exploits" (14).

"The point of the game is for each player to have his superiority in a given area recognized. That is why the practice of agón presupposes sustained attention, appropriate training, assiduous application, and the desire to win. It implies discipline and perseverance." (15)

alea [latin for game of dice]

""destiny is the sole artisan of victory, and where there is rivalry, what is meant is that the winner has been more favored by fortune than the loser.... player is entirely passive. ... "In contrast to agón, aleanegates work, patience, experience, and qualifications. Professionalization, application, and training are eliminated." (17)

"agón is a vindication of personal responsibility; alea is a negation of will, a surrender to destiny." (18)

And this is one of my favorite quotes, with profound insight from Caillois:

agón and alea imply opposite and somewhat complementary attitudes; but they both obey the same law- the creation for the players of conditions of pure equality denied them in real life. For nothing in life is clear, since everything is confused from the very beginning, luck and merit too. Play, whether agón or alea, is thus an attempt to substitute perfect situations for the normal confusion of contemporary life. In games, the role of merit or chance is clear and indisputable. It is also implied that all must play with exactly the same possibility of proving their superiority or, on another scale, exactly the same chances of winning. In one way or another, one escapes the real world and creates another. One can also escape himself and become another. This is mimicry." (19)

With respect to play that is a form of mimicry, C. describes it as play where one "forgets, disguises, or temporarily sheds his personality in order to feign another" (19). Mimicry possesses all the characteristics of play (liberty, convention, suspension of reality, and delimitation of space and time) except that the submission to imperative and precise rules cannot be observed. C. claims that the rule of the game in mimicry is unique: "it consists in the actor's fascinating the spectator, while avoiding an error that might lead the spectator to break the spell" (231).

The fourth type of play Ilinx temporarily destroy our perception of reality. C. gives the example of voladores as an example of this type of play. Watching the linked video of this activity I will admit this would not an enjoyable type of play for me!!