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Related: action - actor - behaviour - cinema - game - laughter - theatre

Contrast: seriousness

"Only animals who are below civilization and the angels who are beyond it can be sincere. Human beings are, necessarily, actors who cannot become something before they have first pretended to be it; and they can be divided, not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane who know they are acting and the mad do not." --W.H. Auden

Pollice Verso (1872) - Jean-Léon Gérôme


Play might be described as unrestrained, amusing interaction with people, animals, or things, often in the context of learning.

As a theoretical concept Play is notoriously difficult to tightly define. Rather than having a single meaning play is best seen as descriptive of a range of activities that can be ascribed to humans and non-humans. Unspecialized people use the word "play" as a contrast to other parts of their lives: sleep, eating, washing, work, rituals, etc. Each type of specialist also may use the word "play" in their own particular way. For example "Play therapists" may use the term for self-absorbed individuals who cannot benefit from more formal work-type of therapies.

Sociologist David Reisman has come to the conclusion that play is a quality (opposed to an activity) that we can only vaguely describe. Mark Twain commented that play and work are words used to describe the same activity under different circumstances. This viewpoint is reflected in the work of anthropologists who attempt to distinguish "play" and "nonplay" in different cultures.

Attempts have been made to identify the qualities of play, but this task is not without its ambiguities. For example, play is defined as nonserious activity; yet when watching children at play, one is impressed at the seriousness with which they engage in it. Other criteria of play include a relaxed pace and freedom versus compulsion. Yet play seems to have its intrinsic constraints as in, "You're not playing fair."

When play is structured and goal orientated it is often done as a game. Play can also be seen as the activity of rehearsing life events in a safe context e.g. young animals play fighting. These and other concepts or rhetorics of play are discussed at length by Brian Sutton-Smith in the book The Ambiguity of Play.

The seminal text in play studies is Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga. This work popularised the notion of the Magic Circle as a conceptual space in which play occurs. That is, the state in which the various actions in play have meaning e.g. kicking (and only kicking) a ball in one direction or another, using physical force to impede another player (in a way which might be illegal outside the context of the game).

The second ‘great work’ in play theory is Man, Play and Games by Roger Caillois. This work extends and in large parts disputes the theories put forward by Huizinga.

A notable contemporary play theorist is Jesper Juul who works on both pure play theory and the application of this theory to Computer game studies. The theory of play and its relationship with rules and game design is also extensively discussed by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman in their book: Rules of Play : Game Design Fundamentals.

In computer games the word game play is often used to describe the concept of play. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Play_%28activity%29 [Jan 2006]

Homo ludens;: A study of the play-element in culture (1938) - Johan Huizinga

Homo ludens;: A study of the play-element in culture (1938) - Johan Huizinga [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Homo Ludens, or "Man as Player," was a book written in 1938 by Dutch Historian and Professor Johan Huizinga. It discusses the importance of the play-element in culture and society.

Now in myth and ritual the great instinctive forces of civilized life have their origin: law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom and science. All are rooted in the primaeval soil of play.
Play Theory
Term used by play theorist Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens to define the conceptual space in which play occurs. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_Ludens [Jan 2006]

See also: Netherlands - behaviour - play - 1938

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