«Integral Play AN EXPLORATION OF THE PLAYGROUND AND THE EVOLUTION OF THE PLAYER Gwen Gordon and Sean Esbjörn-Hargens In an effort to understand the ...»
AN EXPLORATION OF THE PLAYGROUND AND THE EVOLUTION OF
Gwen Gordon and Sean Esbjörn-Hargens
In an effort to understand the transformative potential of adult play, this article defines and maps the
widely varied adult play forms onto the Integral model, thus providing a coherent sense of the
domains and levels of experience they occupy. In part 1, we explore the challenge of defining play so
that our understanding is robust and precise enough to lend itself to an Integral analysis. In part 2, we organize play's myriad modes within an Integral framework, revealing the dimensions of the playground. Part 3 offers a developmental model for adult play that provides an understanding of the unfolding complexity of play in light of he evolution of consciousness. And part 4 shows how play is not only an epiphenomenon but also an instigator of transformation, offering examples of transformative adult play and outlining how characteristics intrinsic to play support the evolution of consciousness.
The universe created our sense of adventurous play as the latest extravagance in a long history of advancing play. By enhancing it we work with the grain of cosmic dynamics.
—Brian Swimme, mathematical cosmologist1 Introduction Let us play a little mind game. Imagine a world without play. All boundaries are rigid, and all activity is purposeful, lawful, and prescribed. There are no games, no fantasies, no jokes, and certainly no thought experiments. Can you see the landscape? What else disappears with the absence of play? Would there even be a world?
Thinking lucidly about the ludic (from the Latin ludens, meaning “play”) promises to open our imaginations and broaden our understanding of the world. But before we even get started, we trip on a small problem: what exactly do we mean by play? We all think we know what play is. We certainly know it when we are doing it. But when we try to pin down a definition, things start to get slippery. After all, we play defined rule-bound games that we plan in advance, but play also erupts spontaneously and breaks the rules. Play can be lighthearted and exuberant, but also serious and intense. It is real but not real, safe but risky. It involves strategy, will, and skill, but can also hedge its bets on fate. Whole civilizations form out of play. Then play rips off the civilized facades, topples structures, and levels the playing field. Play invents a teacup then turns it into a hat. It organizes then randomizes, sets the rhythm then skips a beat. Play is irreducible, infinitely variable, and utterly essential to life. But what is it?
Despite many attempts to explain its nature and function, and the hundreds of definitions available (there are no fewer than 34 definitions for play listed in the Oxford English Dictionary), the play concept remains as elusive today as it was 2,500 years ago, when prerational Dionysian play began to give way to rational Apollonian play.2 Still, much of the Integral Play Fall 2007, Vol. 2, No. 3 confusion and ambiguity around play is less a function of its inherent nature than it is a failure to map its forms in a way that provides a coherent sense of the domains and levels of experience they occupy. With an Integral map we have an opportunity to gain an understanding of the depth and complexity of play that has eluded previous attempts.
We do not claim that the Integral perspective has ultimate legitimacy. Every approach is inherently limited in light of the infinite complexity and variability—dare we say—the play of reality itself. We do think, however, that the Integral model currently provides the most comprehensive and nuanced framework available with which to understand play and its transformative potential. Our hope is that instead of pressing play into the service of our Integral worldview we might use this perspective in the service of play, enhancing our appreciation of its variable, elusive, and paradoxical nature.
The History There are few subjects that have been poked and prodded by as many disciplines as play has.
Biology, psychology, education, anthropology, sociology, history, cosmology, physics, leisure studies, literary theory, art history, animal behavior, philosophy, and religious studies have all aimed their methodologies at the play phenomenon, and, like the famous blind men describing their limited section of the elephant, each discipline has come to a different conclusion about the nature of play. The entertainment examined by scholars of leisure studies seems to be in an entirely different universe from the imaginative play studied by developmental psychologists.
While each discipline that studies play is searching for the truth, it inadvertently drafts the concept into the service of its own perspective at the expense of a full understanding and appreciation of play.4 For decades starting in the late 18th century, evolutionary biologists and psychologists proposed only deterministic and utilitarian definitions of play. In 1938, the Dutch anthropologist, John Huizinga presented a radically new understanding. According to Huizinga, an activity is play if it is fully absorbing, includes elements of uncertainty, involves a sense of illusion or exaggeration, and, most importantly, exists outside of ordinary life and only for its own sake. That is, even though absorbed by the activity, the player is always conscious of the fact that the play is not real and that its consequences will not affect their lives outside the play.5 While Huizinga’s views have been significantly modified since 1938, most researchers still agree that play is intrinsically motivated and occurs in a “space” distinct from “reality.” The tendency to narrowly circumscribe our notion of play around only those “meta-activities” that lie outside of “ordinary” life is unique to the West. In Hinduism, for example, play is an essential part of the cosmology, the play of Shakti and Shiva constituting and permeating all of existence. In such cultures, anthropologist David Handelman tells us, “Qualities of play are integral to the operation of the cosmos. To be in play is to reproduce the time and again the very premises that inform the existence of this kind of cosmos.”6 Integral Play Fall 2007, Vol. 2, No. 3 The worldview from which contemporary play theories have emerged does not tolerate the notion of playfulness—nor consciousness, for that matter—existing anywhere except in the minds of complex organisms. This perspective is the result of a 2,500 year battle between a prerational Dionysian understanding of play as the random, raw agonistic whim of the Gods, and a rational, orderly Appollonian view of play that sees it in service of evolution.7 Philosopher Mihai Spariasu provides a brilliant rendering of the interplay of these two schools of thought throughout Western history in his book Dionysus Reborn, warning that, though many philosophers have tried, we cannot have it both ways. Dionysus and Apollo will never play nicely together.
But just as recent discoveries in physics have revealed a secret alliance between chaos and order from the broader perspective of complexity science, we might also find rational and prerational perspectives reconciled from a broader transrational perspective. Like play itself, a trans-rational perspective dwells in paradox. It is not, as one might suppose, a thinly veiled rational Hegelian synthesis, but the recognition of the validity of both non-rational and rational worldviews simultaneously.
For our understanding of play to encompass the full transrational paradox and variability of play, it must be as protean and flexible as play itself. It must articulate the structures underlying the full range of forms conventionally understood as play, including both competitive and cooperative games, solo and social play, skill based and fate based games, introverted and extroverted play, intrinsically and extrinsically motivated play, as well as rule based and rule breaking play. But it cannot stop there. It must also encompass the play from the scale of atoms to that of the cosmos as a whole, without collapsing into generalities that fail to illuminate the central features that make games a special and heightened case.
Defining Play As the preeminent contemporary play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith warns us, an absolute definition for play at the level of cosmology and physics can never be proven scientifically. And so we are searching instead for the metaphors that will open our imaginations to the full depth and breadth of the play concept. Sutton-Smith finds that the dynamics that give rise to the enormous variability of play are rooted in the biological processes that give rise to the same kind of variability in nature. He cites the work of evolution biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who claims that evolution is determined by adaptive variability, characterized by “sloppiness, broad potential, quirkiness, unpredictability, and, above all, massive redundancy. The key is flexibility, not admirable precision.”8 Sutton-Smith finds a correspondence between the characteristics of play and each of Gould’s principles, stating that “if quirkiness, redundancy, and flexibility are keys to evolution, then finding play to be itself quirky, redundant, and flexible certainly suggests that play may have a similar biological base.”9 Sutton-Smith finds another biological correlation between the high potentiality with which play begins and that which distinguishes the early stages of the development of the human brain. Play as novel adaptation corresponds to the evolutionary process itself. He defines play as a facsimilization of the “struggle for survival.” This facsimilization, claims Sutton-Smith, “increases the organism’s variability in the face of rigidifications.”10 While these correlations between play and fundamental biological processes do a great service in broadening our appreciation of play, they are both too vague and too restricted to provide a full appreciation of play. Adaptive variability may be a product of play, but we then wonder what Integral Play Fall 2007, Vol. 2, No. 3 transpires in play that creates this variability? In addition, Sutton-Smith limits play to the behavior of “higher animals.” Instead of seeing mammalian play as derivative of core evolutionary processes, perhaps it is an extension of these processes? Instead of a “survival strategy,” animal play may be the articulation and enhancement of the play that exists at the core of reality and human play may be its hominization, not its facsimilization. Enacting the fundamental dynamics of existence certainly is conducive to survival but that does not necessarily mean it is a survival strategy any more than growth or communication is.
Playfulness We need a deeper understanding of play to account for its evolutionary nature and that sheds light on its sense of freedom and delight; in other words, the sheer playfulness of play when play is at its best. Susanna Millar, in her classic The Psychology of Play, goes as far as to suggest that “perhaps play is best used as an adverb; not as a name of a class of activities, nor as distinguished by the accompanying mood, but to describe how and under what conditions an action is performed.”11 This is not to project the capacity for attitude or intention onto subatomic particles but to apply the insights we gain by understanding playfulness to the universe as a whole.
What is central to playfulness, says Millar, is “an attitude of throwing off constraint.”12 These constraints might be physical, emotional, social, or intellectual. Play sometimes detaches messages, experiences, or objects from their context of origin, creating a new frame that allows for greater freedom, interactivity, and creative possibilities. When we throw off the constraints of a given context, we are free to move, to engage with new contexts as well as to engage the context of our recent experience as an object of play.
Most work on play characterizes it as a set of features that shift the frame of activity from one domain to another through the meta-message that “this is play.”13 Generally, this is meant as the shift from reality to a new play-specific space/time with its own rules of procedure. Playfulness is the attitude that makes this shift possible. By bracketing experience, it enables us to step outside of and manipulate interpretive frames from the perspective of another frame.
We certainly know positive forms of playfulness when we see them—a lightness of heart, a glint in the eye, alertness, enthusiasm, and readiness for surprise. There is a sense of involvement and detachment, self-expression and self-transcendence, individuality and cooperation. Boundaries become fluid, defenses dissolve, and physical, emotional, or mental movements become spontaneous, expanded, and well-coordinated. The considerable research on playfulness tells us that the traits of the playful include physical, cognitive, and social spontaneity, manifest joy, and a sense of humor.14 Playfulness carries the presence, flexibility, and openness needed to improvise with and expand the stream of possibilities as they emerge in each moment.15 Freedom is a hallmark of play. While the concept of freedom has a divergent and contradictory philosophical history, it remains a condition for play. As boundaries soften, not only does adaptive variability and potentiation increase, but the parts of the player become coordinated into spontaneous action. The autonomy of the parts is balanced by their integration with the play community. Playfulness entails spontaneous, free, and harmonious movement within and among the parts of the player, whether the player is a chimpanzee, an amoeba, or a symphony orchestra.
For “higher animals,” playfulness entails spontaneous, free movement within and among the parts of the self. It is the freedom of the total self to move as a whole in relationship to the total environment.