Play is a moving target. We may know it when we see it, but pinning play down is quite another thing. And no wonder, if chess is play, jai alai is play, and stand-up comedy is play, then it’s a challenge to come up with a common thread let alone a definition. If you read a stack of scholarly books on the subject, you’ll find that a good number of them begin ruefully with a variant of this sentence: play is problematic of definition.

When faced with defining a wandering term, philosophers sometimes resort to the correlative—you can’t have one without the other. You wouldn’t know a coward if you had no prior concept of a hero. Lexicographers, for their part, search for an antonym. Thinkers and writers of dictionaries who have furrowed their brows since the dawn of time looking for “the good” often have found the concept easier to examine in the reflected light of what’s clearly bad or evil. You know the thing by the thing it’s not.

Jim Summaria/Wikipedia Commons
Source: Jim Summaria/Wikipedia Commons

How does this help us narrow play toward a definition? “Work,” for example, is often claimed as both a correlative and an opposite of play. Are we on to something here? Could we content ourselves with saying, as many have, that play is above all something that is frivolous and non-productive? The opposite of work? Alas, no. Fill in your own recollections of those times when you were deeply in the zone creating something new and you were deeply enjoying yourself. And in those instances, play was neither frivolous nor non-productive.

So, if theory comes up short here, let’s see if considering concrete examples will help. Reflect on two activities that might be play: marching and games of chance. Can marching, a military-style exercise, qualify as play? Miss Frances, the schoolmarm on early television’s Romper Room, thought so as she set her students tramping along. Will we believe that her dutiful charges agreed? Is marching too regimented to qualify as play? Well then, what about inner-city drill-teams that turn marching into a form of dance? Aren’t they at play? By yielding contradictory tendencies, this example rewards us mostly with ambiguity. Next though, consider games of chance. Buying a five dollar lottery ticket might constitute play. But losing the family paycheck at the nearby downtown casino smacks of compulsion. And if the event is involuntary, it’s not play. Here, again, ambiguity frustrates dividing play from something else. So when we’re delineating play, where should we draw the line?

In fact, play is so multifarious that the real problem may lie in trying to draw a single line. A quick personal story illustrates this.

At the end of my usual 30-mile bike ride alongside the blue Niagara River, the path leaves the natural scenery and enters a brick and steel post-industrial landscape of forsaken factories. The bike path passes through a fenced stretch that also features an abandoned driving range and a disused miniature golf course. Wildlife finds a way in, and deer munch delicious nose-high wildflowers. The space attracts kids, too—city kids who crave wild and secret spaces like this.

One time here, at the bottom of a small hill, I spotted three boys between 8 and 11 accompanied by their large red dog. Though the dog looked too keen too keen to go on the attack for my comfort zone, I decided to pass by anyway and regretted this when I saw the dog’s green eyes glaze over to fix me with that target-acquired gaze. He wanted a piece of me, literally. As Rover turned into the Hound of the Baskervilles, one of the boys cried, “Oh! Shhii.….” I took the boy’s cry to mean “here we go again,” and so I stood on the pedals.

To the dog the incline ahead meant nothing; this fleeing object rewarded his all out sprint. He caught up of course, jaws snapping audibly at my calves. Luckily I remembered that weeds at the left obscured a smooth restraining wall that angled like a snow plow in the direction of travel. I took a gulp and a gamble and, with reserves dwindling, I moved toward my pursuer so as to edge him farther into the dense verge. Still keeping pace menacingly, he could see the juicy object on his right, but couldn’t see ahead or to his left. Then, at last, I heard the “areeeghkt!” that indicated he’d bounced off. When I looked back to find my pursuer comically stumbling foot over foot, but not much the worse for wear—dogs are amazingly tough—I thought, “Man 1/Fierce Dog 0,” and laughed right out loud.

Sunil060902/Wikipedia Commons
Source: Sunil060902/Wikipedia Commons

Where did play lie in this event? And what does the answer say about the difficulty in defining play? Where should we draw the line above which all is play and below which there’s something else that’s not? Or is it more to the point to ask if we should we draw several lines of demarcation for the several actors involved? And then should we expect play itself to both oscillate above and disappear below the lines as an event progresses forward and over another dimension, time?

First, there’s my trajectory up the river that lies above the line, more than leisure or exercise I regard a pleasant bike ride as play. Then, there are the boys exploring their secret, reverting garden in clearly idyllic play territory. Consider the more complex case of their dog which had spotted a warm-blooded plaything worth chasing. For a dog chasing is often play, yet from my point of view the domesticated wolf wasn’t called canis lupus familiaris for nothing. The predatory gaze said all I needed to know. Then there’s me on two wheels, already tired, heading uphill, losing ground, and feeling for the moment justifiably like prey. If play is an emotion, fearfulness may be the defining antonym we were looking for at the beginning. You know the thing by the thing it is not.

Fear played a role in this question, and I was playing this dangerous game involuntarily. This raises two problems—I was both compelled and fearful. But by purposely calculating the relative speeds, the proximity to the teeth, the distance to the rescuing wall, and approaching breathlessness, I was, nevertheless, as deeply in the zone as ever I have been.

Extreme skiers and stock car drivers will describe their version of this edgy feeling. When it comes to play, apparently, competition and risk may be the correlatives for fun. You can’t have the one without the others. So finally, was I at play in this desperate ride? Afterward, with the memory of fear receding, and with victory happily in hand, it surely seemed like it.

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