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«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 ...»

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Integral Play Fall 2007, Vol. 2, No. 3 As theater luminary Viola Spolin explains, In spontaneity, personal freedom is released, and the total person, physically, intellectually, and intuitively, is awakened. This causes enough excitation for the student to transcend himself or herself—he or she is freed to go out into the environment, to explore, adventure, and face all dangers unafraid…. Every part of the person functions together as a working unit, one small organic whole within the larger organic whole of the agreed environment which is the game structure.16 Spolin captures the main elements of playfulness: its spontaneity, participation, intimacy, delight, flexibility, freedom, risk, and harmonious relationship of the parts with the whole. The spontaneity arises when we throw off the constraints both internally and externally that separate and suppress players.

The Parts and the Whole Play’s impulse toward both freedom and connection makes transformations possible. The transformations of play occur through interactions across boundaries in the back and forth movement of encounter and exchange that characterizes most of life, but which is heightened in play. Philosopher James Hans offers a description of play derived from Martin Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle that builds on this theme.17 Along with Hans-Georg Gadamer, Hans tells us that the key move of the player is the leap out of the conventional frame of the self.18 The full absorption of a player in the play loosens the burden of being a discrete subject split from object, and, in this “ecstatic self-forgetfulness” or self-transcendence, both “subject” and “object” are inevitably changed. The players integrate these transformations in ways that expand and further their differentiation so they can once again act on and open into the playground. Both the players and the playground, the parts and the whole, are transformed, that is to say further differentiated and integrated through the communion of play.

Hans’ assertion raises many important questions: While play is generally characterized by the players’ full absorption in the activity, is it quite the metaphysical salve for the subject/object split that Hans suggests? Does the subject have to dissolve entirely into the play for play to occur? What is the nature of the relationship among players? How is the absorption of play different from that of work or survival strategies? These questions suggest that there may be a more complex dynamic between the parts and the whole than for which Hans’ model accounts.

In his luminous and comprehensive work, The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler explores the nature of the creative act in ways that shed light on this dynamic.19 He sees the central activity of creativity to be the meeting of previously separated associative frames and calls this encounter bisociation. According to Koestler, there are three ways in which bisociation can occur, each with a different effect. Associative frames can collide as in the case of comedy. They can temporarily unite in an aesthetic experience as they do with art. Or they can fit together into a new more comprehensive frame as they do with scientific discovery.

Koestler believed that each mode of boundary play expresses a different relationship between the parts and the whole. In the comedic mode, the part asserts itself over the whole with a laugh.

Aesthetic innovation, on the other hand, is a self-transcending encounter between frames that creates a deep participation of the part with the whole such that the unity of the whole is revealed to the part (even if the part takes credit for the artwork). In scientific discovery, the “aha!” or “Eureka!” of discovery is part-centered, while the integration of the new knowledge affirms a Integral Play Fall 2007, Vol. 2, No. 3 new level of coherence between the parts and the whole. The bisociative act depends in various degrees on unconscious processes and imaginative leaps beyond the boundaries of routine thought. Bisociation, as Koestler defines it, is fundamental to play. Mammalian play bisociates between everyday life and the play space, whereas simpler forms of play bisociate solely between physical frames or, as Hans would call them, “centers of play.” Play then involves the dance between parts and the whole where the part can assert itself over the whole (e.g., comedy), the whole can assert itself over the part (e.g., aesthetics), or the part and whole can strike a balance—a creative tension (e.g., scientific discover). Play in its best moments serves to transform both the parts and the whole in a participatory embrace that enacts new worlds and creates new boundaries and play spaces.

In its worst moments, the player assimilates the world to fit into their developmental frame in ways that not only reduce the complexity of the world but also violate the subjectivity of other players. This play does not actually bisociate, it absorbs objects into a single associative frame that serves the narcissistic needs of the player. Piaget, the Swiss psychologist and one of the first theorists to explore childhood play, wrote extensively about the assimilative function of play in children.

The Leap Since Plato first observed children and animals playing, the “leap” has been a central metaphor used to describe play.20 The image emphasizes the sense of exuberance and freedom at the center of play as well as its boundary crossing nature. We leap out of constraints in order to obtain freedom, we leap for joy to celebrate achieving freedom, and we leap across frames because we are free to explore. This exploratory drive is as fundamental to “higher animals” as the survival instinct.21 In fact, play is defined physically as the ability “to move or operate freely in a bounded space.”22 Most play is characterized as a particular kind of leap across boundaries into and between new frames, or to and fro between opposites. We even talk metaphorically about the play of opposites.

The space in between poles is the playground. Preeminent psychologist D. W. Winnicott, in his classic, Playing and Reality, characterizes play in humans as the vital connection between self and world that involves full imaginative engagement between inner and outer life.23 Inhabiting this in-between space of play, which Winnicott calls the potential or transitional space, is, according to the psychologist, the source of all creativity and health.

We cannot leap without a place to land. There would be no levity without gravity, no freedom without boundaries. The play leap is not merely the escape from bondage, but, as Hans suggests, the freedom to participate fully in, to transform and be transformed by the world. In this way, play is far from being a break from reality but rather the nature of reality itself in constant transformative engagement with itself. When we play, we feel the intrinsic joy and vitality of participating in reality on its own terms, instead of trying to control and manipulate it to serve our needs. This participation may or may not give rise to innovations (it may just be a good romp), but it always generates more potential for play.

Toward a Definition As our exploration illustrates, play has many irreducible features, some of which have been highlighted by different theorists. In light of this, a rich and full understanding of play needs to consider the quirkiness, redundancies, and flexibility that lead to adaptive variability and high potentiation. It needs to consider the to and fro movement of the hermeneutic circle in which the Integral Play Fall 2007, Vol. 2, No. 3 center of play is absorbed in the field of play and both are transformed. It must consider the nature of bisociative encounters which are either part-centered, whole-centered, or balanced between the two. It must appreciate the “in-between” play space in which play encounters take place. It must also consider the inviting, attentive, disarming attitude of playfulness, its intrinsic pleasure, as well as the freedom and cooperation essential to play.

We retain much of the understanding that contemporary researchers have had regarding play’s absorbing, voluntary, and pleasurable nature. However, unlike the conventional understanding, we do not define play to be outside of “real life” nor to be of purposeless intent. Instead, play is central to real life, even if it does provide a break for “higher players” from the habits and rigidities of ordinary consciousness. It is also highly purposeful, though usually not toward any explicit goals held by the players. Play’s purpose is to generate more possibilities for play.

This definition of play and the examples we use might also be true for the creative process in general. However, the core difference between creativity and play is that, while creativity produces artifacts, play produces possibilities. Play makes creativity possible while creativity manifests possibility into actuality. In other words, while creativity is based on play, play is not necessarily creative. Most games, for instance, entail far more redundancy than creativity.

Children seem to enact the same make-believe tea party or vengeful monster scenes endlessly. It is, however, often from redundancy that novelty (eventually) emerges.

Obstacles to Play The most immediately distinctive features of play are the freedom it expresses, its spontaneity, the bracketing of frames or contexts, and the agreements and cooperation among playmates. Play stops when participants are not free to play, become objects of play, or are unaware that they are involved in play. War, violent crime, and practical jokes may be play for the perpetrators, but it certainly is not for the victims. In this case, the consensual nature of play is lacking. What might be a playmate is instead an object of play. Here we start to see the need for a developmental model for adult play that can account for the capacity for intersubjectivity as a function of maturity and increasing play capacity. For now, we need only understand that if we are not free to play, we are not playing.

The freedom of play is absent in any activity that has become rigid, unconscious, habitual, or compulsive, even if it started out as play. We often see this with television watching, video game playing, gambling, or drug use. We also see it with the repetitive, regressive “play” of trauma survivors, which is either the routinized reenactments of the trauma or the play of the developmental stage arrested when the trauma occurred. The restless play of the forty year-old Puer Eterne is less an expression of the freedom associated with youth than the resistance to playing at new levels of development and complexity. The “kidults” or “rejuveniles,” who visit Disneyland regularly, collect Care Bears, and attend children’s concerts, may be asserting their freedom by casting off the constraints of a work-obsessed culture. But they may also be holding onto the forms of play of an earlier stage of development, which was never played out. Play does not have to disappear with adulthood. It only diminishes when we resist adulthood and confuse our development with the increase in seriousness instead of the increase in dimensions of play.

The focus on accomplishing immediate, instrumental objectives also blocks play. An activity stops being play when it is driven by goals and inhibited by the fear of real life consequences.

With all these examples, the freedom of play is lacking. Play occurs when the player is free from

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Cosmic Play Play is integral to an evolving cosmos. After all, no change can occur without the crossing of boundaries and the opening of players and playground to mutual influence. And while some of these boundary crossings may appear rigidly rule-bound and mechanical—especially at the atomic, chemical, molecular, and genetic level—the degree of freedom, spontaneity, and playfulness increases with the increase in the complexity of the organism. The forms of play evolve in complexity in tandem with the forms at play. What we think of as playfulness in animals is actually the articulation and enhancement of the intrinsic playfulness of the cosmos.

While this is, indeed, a rule-bound universe, within the rules, as within any game, the play ensues. If the rules and order become too restrictive, trickster chaos stirs things up, disrupting the status quo and revitalizing the play. Play requires both boundaries (order) and the impulse to cross them (chaos). When chaos and order are balanced, we find highly sensitive, flexible, cosmic, erogenous zones filled with exquisite play—dynamic spiral galaxies that give birth to planets and planets where liquid water offers the universal play bow to life, which responds by bursting into a billion forms of play. By deepening our understanding of play, we hope to not only expand our vision of the cosmos but also provide the basis for understanding the transformative powers of play at all scales of the universe.

Having stretched a definitional canvas for play, we can now explore the eclectic heap of human play forms and theories to make sense of how they relate to each other. By doing so, we take a step closer to an Integral understanding of play.

Part 2: The Integral Model As a quirky, boundary crosser, play’s domain is by nature paradoxical. Still, much of the 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. In the pluralistic spirit of play, many theorists are content to identify a range of categories for play and simply list them without fully examining their relationship to each other.

But if play is integral to the evolutionary process, then its forms not only demonstrate a range of diversity (horizontal) but also a range of complexity (vertical). Using both vertical and horizontal dimensions, we can better see if play forms are different from each other in kind (form) or degree (perspective) and if so, degrees of what?

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