Archive: December 16th, 2008

Brian Sutton-Smith: The Ambiguity of Play

[Readings] (12.16.08, 1:29 pm)

Play is an inherently and deliberately ambiguous concept. Brian Sutton-Smith attempts in this book to conduct a review of studies of play. He is interested in defining play, but such a definition is unlikely to capture the full scope and meaning of the term. Instead, he explores play from the perspective of several rhetorics. These rhetorics are each culturally derived, and each has a certain intrinsic ambiguity. Understanding play is, for obvious reasons, integral to understanding games. However, literature and other works are also playful. I would argue that a certain degree of play is required in building models (creatively), so the rhetorics of play will go a long way in bridging games and literature.

Play and Ambiguity

This section primarily introduces the ambiguities of play and attempts to understand what play is. It explores the question of what the levels of play are, the kinds of play there are, and so on. A substantial list of examples is given here, which is very useful in interpreting the scope and flexibility of both play as a concept, as well as Sutton-Smith’s analysis. These topics are so diverse that it is challenging to imagine what sort of theory would tie them all together. In the following list, I have enumerated Sutton-Smith’s categories, and given a smattering of the examples he gives. (p. 4-5)

  • Mind or subjective play: dreams, daydreams, fantasy, imagination, Dungeons and Dragons, playing with metaphors.
  • Solitary play: hobbies, collections, listening to music, art projects, pets, reading, yoga, collecting and building cars, Civil War reenactments, bird watching, crosswords.
  • Playful behaviors: playing tricks, playing around, playing up to someone, playing a part, putting something into play, playing fair, playing by the rules.
  • Informal social play: joking, parties, travel, leisure, dancing, getting laid, potlucks, malls, babysitting, creative anachronism, intimacy, bars and taverns, amusement parks.
  • Vicarious audience play: television, films, cartoons, spectator sports, theater, jazz, rock music, parades, comic books, Renaissance festivals, museums.
  • Performance play: playing the piano, playing music, being a play actor, playing the fishes, playing the horses, play voices, playhouses.
  • Celebrations and festivals: birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, Halloween, gifting, banquets, balls, weddings, carnivals, balls, Mardi Gras.
  • Contests (games and sports): athletics, gambling, casinos, lotteries, pool, golf, parlor games, drinking, the Olympics, cockfights, poker, chance, board games, card games.
  • Risky or deep play: caving, hang gliding, kayaking, bungee jumping, skateboarding, windsurfing.

There are seven rhetorics of play. The rhetorics of fate, power, identity, and frivolity are described as the ancient rhetorics, having a much stronger standing in classical literature. The modern rhetorics are progress, self, imaginary, and the self. These all emerged with changing philosophical and psychological trends dating within the past 200 years. The rhetorics are described: (p. 10-11)

  1. The rhetoric of play as progress. Progress has dominated studies of the play of children. This rhetoric poses play as a developmental arena wherein players learn and practice for adulthood. This was developed partially because of the characteristic imitation of adults by children. This is something that Sutton-Smith is interested in challenging.
  2. The rhetoric of play as fate. This rhetoric is older than the rest, going back to mythologies in which human lives are controlled by destiny, gods, or luck.
  3. The rhetoric of play as power. Power is at the heart of competitions, and this poses that play is the expression of conflict. It emphasizes that those who control the play are its heroes. This rhetoric is strongly opposed to modern theories around leisure and progress.
  4. The rhetoric of play as identity. Sutton-Smith’s use of identity is tricky in this space. What is meant here is cultural identity. This emphasizes social and cultural roles and structures. There is a focus on communal identity rather than individual. The individually focused complement to this is the rhetoric of the self.
  5. The rhetoric of play as the imaginary. The imaginary ties into creativity and flexibility. “This rhetoric is sustained by modern positive attitudes toward creativity and innovation.”
  6. The rhetoric of the self. The rhetoric of the self is usually applied toward solitary activities, but can be characterized by other ideas such as fun, relaxation, and escape. The central focus is in the experience of the player. This rhetoric is arguably the most modern because of its appealingness to individuality and consumerism.
  7. The rhetoric of play as frivolous. Frivolity is difficult to characterize: it applies to absurdity and the historical roles of tricksters and fools.

Rhetorics of Animal Progress

It is important to remember that scholarly study of play has existed around animal play in addition to human play. A comprehensive theory of play would need to account for the play of animals. Here, Sutton-Smith compares animal play with the rhetoric of progress. Progress distinguishes between child play and adult play. Child play is open and creative, while adult play is closed and recreative. Progress argues for development and learning (progress to adult life. This is compared to animal play, specifically as studied by Robert Fagen.

Fagen describes five categories of animal play (p. 21-24):

  1. Isolated, brief jerky movements performed repeatedly without defense or counterattack by others: typical of rodents.
  2. Noncontact solo play and the social play of moving bodies through space, running and jumping ina  variety of patterns; characteristic of hoofed mammals, some rodents, and some birds.
  3. Social play, some with no contact, like chasing, and some with contact, like sparring and wrestling; characteristic of most primates and carnivores, many ungulates, pinnipeds, and marsupials, and some birds.
  4. Complex social play, which involves games with objects and features of the landscape. This form of play is enacted by adults as well as young animals, whereas most play of the former kinds is enacted only by juveniles or by parents with their young; typical of social carnivores, primates, elephants, some whales, dolphins, and porpoises.
  5. Mother-infant games, such as peekaboo, as well as object construction and play with pebbles, sticks, flowers, feathers, and bones, and play with snow, water, and trees.

Approaches to animal play as relate to other rhetorics:

  • Skill training (progress): this is challenged because things like play fighting is an inverse of rehearsal for the real thing.
  • Play fighting (power): under the rhetoric of power, play fighting would establish heirarchies, but juvenile play does not lead to future roles. (I would contest, though, because actual contests have a ceremonial element which resembles play fighting more. Play fighting can be a sort of practice or indoctrination to these ritual forms.)
  • Bonding (identity): This is common to power- that play would cement social relationships, but young frequently separate and do not maintain social relationships established from play partners.
  • Flexibility (imaginary): Animal play is repetitive. There is not evidence to suggest that the purpose of play is flexibility.
  • Emotional experience (self): This seems the most compelling so far, the animals play for their own happiness. The net conclusion of all of this is that no one is making progress to demonstrate that adaptation is play’s main function. (p. 34)

Rhetorics of Power

Consideration of power is highly relevant to modern gaming culture. Power ties into cultural establishment and social building. The discussion of play as empowerment emphasizes compensation and wish fulfillment, and the dynamics of these contests are reminiscent of Geertz on cockfighting. The cockfighting is a much more complex example that delves into other elements of social discourse. Huizinga strongly encouraged the rhetoric of power, claiming that there is a parallel between play contests and real events: “His definition of play primarily as contest reflects the widespread male rhetoric that favors the exaltation of combative power instead of speaking comprehensively about play itself. Combat may be widespread but it is hardly a universal truth about all play forms.” (p. 80)

The rhetoric of power is inherently about rationality. It is ordered. Power misses the forms of disordered and irrational play, of which there are many, even around contests: chance, symbolic inversion, playfighting, play therapy, and so on. Power demands a certain order and is deeply upset by the chaos of chance or frivolity. One challenge to play as power comes from Spariosu, who observes that the western perception oscillates between order and chaos. The rhetoric of progress and rationality gives way to game theory in the mathematical sense, which emphasizes utility.

Rhetorics of Identity

Identity here is cultural identity (not individual). This also fits in with institutions. The study of collective play observes who is controlling the situation and what they are getting out of it. The rhetoric of identity lends itself to a play of cultural power. A great deal of identity play involves developing cultural identity in opposition to other cultures. However, identity formation does not need to be competitive, it can be cooperative. Sutton-Smith cites Bernie De Koven on well played games. “When the game is played only for the good of the larger community that plays it, then it can be well played. If not so subordinated, games may run away with their players and cause friction and conflict.” (p. 100)

Noncontestive identity play can involve situations within a cultural context. This can involve a breaking down of established boundaries, which leads to a reincorporation within a larger community. Examples of these are celebrations such as Mardi Gras, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and so on. All of these involve a breaking down of conventional social barriers, such as those of family and friends, the celebration incorporates a wider community and strengthens these secondary or weaker bonds. Festivals have a seemingly contradictory relationship, though. A festival might create a strong feeling of identity in the participants, but festivals can also encourage ambiguity within the participants.

Rhetorics of the Imaginary

Imagination is an elaborate category. Transformation is at the core of this rhetoric, and it is thus somewhat semiotic and representative in nature. Other terms for this rhetoric might be creativity or flexibility. It represents an interaction of the factual and the imaginary. A key scholar in this literature is Bakhtin. A useful citation point referencing Geertz: “This rhetoric seems not so much concerned with play as an intellectual contest, a competitive bout, or a parade; rather , play and games are presented as ways of thinking about culture or as texts to be interpreted.” (p. 128) This comparison is very resonant with Daniel Mackay’s work on role-playing games, which are aesthetic products in of themselves.

Imagination connects play to art. Art ties into performance and enactment. Sutton-Smith references the use of play in literature. Writing is a kind of play, but, so is reading. In writing fiction, play relates to play of simulation, in the sense of playing the fictional world in the author’s imagination.

Referencing Bateson (1972): play is not just play, but it is a message about itself, and it is of the world and not of the world. This perception of play is relevant for digital games and worlds, where the inside and outsides are complex. There are several senses of play in games: playing in a world, playing with things in the world, and so on. Sutton-Smith connects this sense of complexity and layers to Boccaccio’s Decameron. This story has many layers, and play exists within and between the layers.

Play is important in literature and everyday life, especially the media. Sutton-Smith explains: “Derrida is only one of a number of postmodern or poststructuralist writes who have expressed discontent with earlier ways of looking at the fundamental character of knowledge, and have suggested that life is much more generally play- or game-like than has generally been acknowledge in the earlier, more deterministic scenarios of a functional kind, such as are still found in abundance in the social sciences.” (p. 145) Additionally, William Stephenson has argued in The Play Theory of Mass Communication, that “all media constitute play forms, and that when we are watching or receiving them we are essentially at play (in the broader sense).” (p. 145) This provides a good theoretical point from which to argue for the commonality between literature and games.

The ambiguity in the rhetoric of the imaginary is of the frames involved. The ambiguity of frames resembles Goffman’s take on frame analysis. Framing and navigation between frames is thus a form of play. Situational identification, however, is thus inherently ambiguous. This observation sheds some light on why it is so difficult to form a comprehensive social model of situated activities.

Rhetorics of Self

The rhetoric of the self has to do with freedom primarily. It also focuses on individualism rather than community. Self has to do with fun, experience, psychology, and intrinsic motivation. Self connects to identity in the sense of personal identity. Sutton-Smith mentions Turkle (1995), who wrote of people’s identity and gender play in chatrooms. Even though this is social, the play has primarily to do with individual play and self discovery. This sort of activity resembles masked play as found in German festivals, and countless other situations. “There can be no doubt that virtual worlds are a new play form allowing adults to play almost as amorphously as children.” (p. 178)

The rhetoric of self borrows from the phenomenological tradition with its heavy emphasis on personal experience. Gadamer specifically investigated play within the context of phenomenology. This has much to do with subjectivity, and the relationship between perception and understanding the self. Sutton-Smith references Csikszentmihalyi on the psychology of flow and peak experience. Sutton-Smith also references Rubin, Fein, and Vandenberg on characteristics of children’s play. These are emblematic of the rhetoric of self. (p. 188-189)

  1. Play is intrinsically motivated. (That is it is fun). This can be challenged though, as historically play has often been extrinsically motivated by social and cultural customs.
  2. Play is characterized by attention to means rather than ends.
  3. Play is guided by organism-dominated questions, rather than context-dominated questions.
  4. Play behaviors are not instrumental. This argues that play is nonproductive and does not have serious consequences.
  5. Freedom from externally imposed rules is necessary. This position is problematic because of the use of rules which may be imposed in organized games or improvised.
  6. Players are actively engaged in their activity. This is at odds with daydreams and vicarious play.

Play of self is seen as a kind of performance. Play by itself, for itself. It is about enactment. Also involves language and framing, which is reminiscent of Goffman. This involves meaning construction and deconstruction.

Rhetorics of Frivolity

Frivolity as discussed is reminiscent of game players who subvert mechanics and break rules in effort to create nonsense (or irritate other players). It is antagonistically motivated, but also aimed at deconstructing and mocking cultural order, as is common with festival tomfoolery. The practice however lacks the cultural support given to the frivolous as discussed in this section. Even though the frivolous is antagonistic to cultural orders, it operates in specially accomodated contexts. Attention to the important role of the actively frivolous would be important to account for in design of game worlds.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorSutton-Smith, Brian
TitleThe Ambiguity of Play
Tagsspecials, media traditions, games
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon