Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Play as Self-Realization: Toward a General Theory of Play

Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Play as Self-Realization: Toward a General Theory of Play

Article excerpt

In a wide-ranging essay that reviews the major theories of plays and relates them to significant notions of the self, the author addresses the question of why we play. He does so to argue that play is a biologically driven project of self-understanding and self-realization, one that humans-although they also share the experience with other creatures-have developed most fully as a part of their psychological and social life. Key words: play and self-realization; rhetorics of play; theories of play

In 1973 psychologist Michael Ellis wrote a book called Why People Play in which he addressed that very issue. Like other compendia of play theory before and since, Ellis's summaries manifest the view that there are many ways of thinking about play and many explanations for why it occurs (Millar 1968; Levy 1978; Spariosu 1989; Sutton-Smith 1997; Power 2005; Burghardt 2005; Carlisle 2009). Ellis's book focuses on this multiplicity of approaches before attempting to make them mesh in a few pages at the end.

Here, I hope to extend the integration of disparate approaches to play. My thesis is that play can be understood as a project of self-realization, a project humans share with other creatures who play. To develop my thesis effectively, I need first to present a vision of self expansive enough to accommodate various theories of play. I can then discuss the notion of realization in a way that shows how play constitutes a specific strategy for aligning orientations and actions. Play, I-like some others-argue, is a fundamental way creatures make coherent their possibilities for acting in the world. To begin, let me return to the theories of Ellis and the other commentators on play.

Play Theory: A Brief Summary

Ellis starts with a remembrance of some classic theories of play from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Like scholars of every age, those who produced such theories shared the fascinations of their times. They appreciated Charles Darwin and his ideas about the shared ancestries of living creatures and the ways differences emerged among species. These scholars linked their notions of biological development-at both the individual and species levels-to ideas about social and cultural development and focused especially on the new indus- trial societies then arising. Scholars pondered the mechanisms of stability and change, the prospect that history can be conceived as progress, and the energy needed to carry all these processes forward.

In this context, some of the classic theorists claimed that play is an expres- sion of surplus energy (Spencer 1896), a practicing of the instincts (Groos 1898), or a pattern of relaxation from the pressures of an industrial civilization (Patrick 1916). Others maintained the quite different (and, indeed, opposite) view that play is a form of energy restoration or re-creation (Lazarus 1883). Different, too, were the scholars who described play as a sort of recapitulation-in individual development-of earlier stages in the evolution of the species (Hall 1906). Taken as a whole, these classic explanations claim that play not only illustrates indi- viduals' connections to their animal heritage but also connotes their distinctive abilities as a species. In other words, play links us to what has gone before (and to our basic frameworks for acting-in-the-world) at the same time that it frees us from the grip of instinct and manufactures new possibilities of living.

During the twentieth century, scholars tried to specify more clearly the psychological and physiological processes inherent to play. They gave special attention to the conditions preceding the play moment. For example, some scholars like Menninger (1960) argued that play is a form of catharsis, a purging of undesired feelings and tensions by expressive action within socially approved formats. This thesis, related to energy build-up and discharge, owes much to Sigmund Freud and, before him, to Aristotle. …

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