Talking Points: Play and freedom

In the context of a culture that trivialises fun, games and play, it’s easy to forget that play has some important foundations. We’ve already touched on what Huizinga calls the “play element in culture”, the way play is woven through even very serious and solemn institutions and aspects of social life. But essential to the notion of play is the core value of freedom.

As a confirmed word-nerd, I arrived at this conclusion by considering the many uses of the word “play” – and the underlying unity of them all.

There’s the obvious playing as both an intransitive verb (what are the kids doing? They’re playing) and a transitive one – playing a game or a sport. (You can also “play an opponent” or play against someone, but these are clear derivatives of these senses – though it’s interesting that in some sense the opponent becomes the game.)

There’s play as creative expression: playing a theatrical part, a musical instrument, or a musical composition.

Playing a particular position in a game or sport combines the two – you’re fulfilling a function (like playing a scripted role or composed work) but also playing the game in which the position arises.

There’s playing with people or things – in a positive, mutual sense, playing in ways that explores and expresses both your nature and theirs, and the interaction of the two; in the less-positive, predatory sense, treating them like toys, i.e. using them purely according to one’s own nature and with no respect for theirs.

There’s playing at something – pretending, mimicking, mocking or simply behaving with inappropriate levity. This is similar to the sense above, except that the toy is the function you’re inhabiting, and therefore you’re not manipulating an external thing (more appropriate for the preposition “with”).

There’s letting things play out – allowing them to develop or unfold according to their nature.

And there’s liquids, light, objects or abstractions playing over a surface or object – again, behaving according to their nature without outside interference or obstruction.

There are numerous other uses of the word “play” (playing on things/words, being at play, being in play…) but I think the common element has been sufficiently outlined here.

In all cases, the implication is one of acting and interacting freely according to the agent’s nature. Sometimes that freedom is one-sided – a wilful ignorance of consequences, especially consequences for others – and other times it’s mutual. But the common element in all these meanings is the people or objects playing are acting unconstrained, as prompted by their nature in that moment.

When looked at in this light, the connection between the concepts of play and freedom is inescapable. But there are practical connections to political freedom too. Time unconstrained by the needs of survival – time to play – is “free time”. Unsupervised, unstructured activity is a primary opportunity for people to discuss the circumstances of their lives and how they might wish to improve them. As we saw in the previous post, the free imagination of play is the best way to explore new ideas in search of an optimal solution – system definitely has its place in ensuring those explorations are thorough, but the bold leap of intuition or inspiration is as important in discovering the new territory to explore in the first place.

None of which to say that play is the only – or even the most meaningful – freedom. But even people who profoundly disagree with Emma Goldman’s anarchism – or aren’t much for getting their groove on – can recognise the point she was making when she refused any revolution in which she couldn’t dance. Any system so totalitarian as to reserve to itself the right to determine whether people should dance, or otherwise express themselves in playful ways, is clearly unlikely to respect other, more immediately political freedoms.

There’s an important distinction here: fascists (and other political bullies) could, and by all reports often did, have fun – at the expense of others. Fun that derives from – or is indifferent to – some participants not having fun is the harmful kind of play alluded to above, and comes from the same basic toxic political relationship: that one person or group’s priorities completely eclipse another’s. But genuine, hurts-nobody, upwelling-of-joy fun is only threatening to those to whom the human spirit is fundamentally something to be squeezed, bruised and broken into some predetermined pattern. (This is not to say that some behaviours which deny or impinge upon others’ freedom don’t need to be moderated or regulated; but any system that has a problem with harmless expressions of happiness clearly needs close scrutiny.)

Given that, the existence of room for the human spirit to grow unconstrained, according to its own nature, without external influences pushing or pulling it too hard in any particular direction, seems to me to be an essential indicator of a political system that is worth inhabiting. That is to say – to the extent we can play freely, it seems more likely that we’re free in other important ways; and to the extent that we’re not, play gives us somewhere to start.

(Click here to read the next post in the series: Play, happiness and health.)

P.S. – Bonus TED videos, added 11 May 2016: