(Re)Defining Play

In my undergraduate thesis, I explored the topic of play at length. The fact that I was allowed to conduct a research thesis (rather than a design thesis) is arguably responsible for my current status as a grad student, but I admit I did not anticipate that I would ultimately repeat (and expand) the very same topic. But after a year of taking classes across various departments at MIT – Architecture, Media Arts and Sciences, Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science – I have not found anything that interested me quite so much as our ability as designers (and tendency as humans) to play.

I have found play to be an excellent lens through which to study the variety of topics I wish to write about for my thesis. In preparation for that work, I will attempt to organize my thoughts here. Since play is the real focus of the work, it seems best to start by revisiting my definition of it.

By “play” I don’t refer to an observable external event (social play, games, etc.) so much as the very core, theoretical definition of the term – the idea that forms the foundation from which all forms of play develop. I wish to outline the nature of play, and why it is worth setting apart from other activities. To this end, I strive to use only the most neutral derivatives of the word from within its family. For instance, the nouns “play” and “player” draw attention to a definite thing without tying it to a particular context or attitude. In contrast, adjectives and verbs like “playful” and “playing” too readily call to mind images of games and children – thus I have largely avoided them.

This topic has already been studied by writers and theorists from numerous fields, for hundreds of years. As such, many definitions already exist. In researching these, I’ve found that authors approach the topic from several different vantage points. Some describe the BEHAVIOR of the typical player. Some list the notable CHARACTERISTICS of the play activity. Some attempt to crystallize the INTENTIONS of those at play. And finally, many note what they believe to be the true VALUE of play. [note: as I am trying to get to the very core of the topic, TYPES of play are categorized as if they were separate authors]

To help consider these categories, I’ve framed them in terms of the following questions:

  • BEHAVIOR: What do players do?
  • CHARACTERISTICS: What is play like?
  • INTENTIONS: Why do we play?
  • VALUE: What is play for?

Below is an in-progress chart of major play writers and their contributions to these four categories. This is by no means an exhaustive list (notable to-be-added exceptions include Brian Upton, Brian Sutton-Smith, Roger Caillois, and Donald Winnicott), but it does, I think, outline the extents of the field. I will continue adding to this framework as I continue reading, but I do not expect to come across any major shifts in thinking – judging by the repetition and cross-sourcing I’ve noticed from these authors, I believe that most writers on the subject largely stay within the confines of the traits listed here.


Obviously, there are many ways to draw a picture of play. In my undergraduate research, my definition mixed the aforementioned categories together into a list of five qualities (the pursuit of possibility, the pursuit of resistance, inner-directedness, immersion, and development). While these began to get at the essence of what play is, they did not properly distinguish play from player, and I now believe some of the ideas can be combined – or even left out altogether. From my ongoing research, I believe an improved definition of play is one that answers the four questions as follows:

BEHAVIOR: What do players do?

The player engages in internally-driven, iterative, nonlinear, exploratory behavior. The player is sometimes spontaneous, sometimes improvisational, and always curious. The player actively engages a particular set of rules or restrictions (of any format – physical, emotional, cognitive, etc.), but is free to add to, remove, or change them.

CHARACTERISTICS: What is play like?

Play is an immersive, self-fulfilling, irrational activity. It is a temporary space, limited in both space and time. Although it is irrational, it is nonetheless rule-based and orderly. This makes it “unreal” in the sense that its rules (the so-called “play-ground”) pose an alternative to reality. Its strict separation from reality frees the player from external constraint, making possible the behavior mentioned previously.

INTENTIONS: Why do we play?

The player can play for a variety of reasons – to escape reality, to cope with ambiguity, or even to satisfy some external objective. Much play is pleasurable, though it needn’t be. Additionally, much of the pleasure in play lies not in its outcome, but in its engagement: in setting up rules and seeking new possibilities, in engaging alternate realities, and in suspending rational constraints. This pursuit of play for play’s sake may seem in opposition to notions of play as developmental and useful – but there is an important distinction to be made between the purpose of the player (intention) and the purpose of play itself (value), which brings us to our final category.

VALUE: What is play for?

Play is for play, and nothing more. Since it is entirely self-fulfilling, it cannot be connected to external expectations. While it may prove useful to a host of cultural, social, and developmental functions, these results rely on play for their explanation, and not the reverse. Indeed, “to value [play] for its possible consequences is a denial of its essence.” (Hilde Hein, Play as an Aesthetic Concept).

Attempting to come up with a core, concrete definition of play becomes a tricky process. Defining it solely in terms of either play’s characteristics or the player’s behavior can be untrustworthy, as these traits are not all present all the time, nor are they restricted solely to play. Questioning the player in terms of his or her intention reveals little more, as this can also be quite variable, if its even consciously known at all. While these traits are important and can certainly clue an observer to the presence of play, there is more needed to the definition.

The only consistent characteristic we are left with is play’s self-fulfilling value. At first, this characteristic seems especially slippery, as it annuls our ability to reliably explain play in terms of anything external to itself. Play’s value ends in the process, remaining completely agnostic of any particular result; and yet, it is this anti-predictive nature that is perhaps the best way to ground our definition of play. If play is framed as a self-fulfilling attitude – as a disposition that guides behavior, activity, and decision-making in-the-moment without determining success or value from any external source – then its structure is maintained. This description of play aligns closely with the “magic circle” referenced by Huizinga; whereas in his definition this represented an actual physical space in which real-world issues become fantastical, symbolic, transformative experiences, here the magic circle becomes the binary condition that either preserves or dissolves play. The magic circle can be framed as the query: From what source is value determined? In breaking ties between play’s value and external sources, the magic circle of play permits the player to adjust the value of everything else as well. Inside the circle, value is generated from within; it is assigned by the player as she explores possible realities, realizing Bruner’s notion of “inner-directedness.” Outside the circle, we are no longer playing; even when we engage all of the aforementioned behaviors and characteristics, we are simply searching for a value we assume is already established.

To summarize, play is an activity typically defined by some set of rules that structure an immersive environment, usually engaged by a curious, exploratory agent, and absolutely self-fulfilling in value. To play is to create the circle around you (using rules to simulate an alternate reality and bringing with you any particular questions, objectives, and biases you may have); roam freely (exploring many possible options, and even adjusting rules as desired); and make your own decisions about the value of things.

I find great potential in this, as I believe that play lies within a very important overlap of what is computable and yet unpredictable. We know how to play and can easily do it, but it yields no real insight to us (aside from a historical record) when modeled retroactively. To play is to explore for exploration’s sake; to question for questioning’s sake; to break rules for breaking rules’ sake. Whether you get anywhere or not is irrelevant. Play is thus structured, but unpredictable. Its ability to be invoked but not externally controlled makes it a black box of sorts. While we can inch closer and closer to defining how a black box works, it is always either a black box or it isn’t; as soon as we figure it out entirely, the box no longer exists. The same is true of the magic circle of play.

If play only exists in-the-moment and is entirely unpredictable, then how does it relate to computation? How can it be studied? True, perhaps the inherent inability to retroactively isolate or evaluate play seems somewhat anti-science: But perhaps also that is why it interests me so much. For years I have been unable to ignore the belief that computation – in the algorithmic sense of a rational, externally-programmed set of instructions for processing and evaluating information – just couldn’t provide a complete picture of human intelligence. Play begins to complete the picture, as I hope to explain in the coming weeks and months.


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