What is play?

What is play anyway?

Questor asks Arbiter what play is and Arbiter begins an answer.


Questor: What is play anyway?

Arbiter: Play is a human activity, one of many.

Q: Can you be more specific?

A: Not unless the question is more specific.

Q: What is play in terms of means and ends?

A: Good question. Viewed through the lens of means and ends, play can be distinguished from work. Work is activity undertaken as means to an end. In work, the means are for the sake of ends. Play, on the other hand, is not like that. Play comes in at least two varieties. The first variety flips the means-ends relationship. This kind of play, which I call *gameful play*, is the adoption of an end (e.g. kicking a ball into a net) for the sake of the means (e.g. playing soccer). When you play a game you adopt arbitrary goals in order to have something to do - in order to play.

Q: But there's another kind of play?

A: Yes. Rather than adopting an end for the sake of a means, as with gameful play, you take actions without regard for, but sometimes leading to, an end This is distinct from work where an end is already available and you act to bring it about. Instead, you act in order to find a purpose for the "style" of action you are taking, an activity I call toyful play.

Q: So toyful play is what I do when I want to do something, but don't know what to do?

A: Not necessarily. The distinguishing characteristic of toyful play is its spontaneity. It isn't exclusively the case that you "want to find an end" - that is, that your purpose is to discover a purpose - a situation one might term aspiration. Toyful play can, and usually does, happen without thinking about it. It is action that leads to thought rather than thought that leads to action.

Q: But toyful play can be engaged with on purpose?

A: Oh certainly. Some idea-generating activities might qualify as toyful play. More generally, intentional toyful play is sometimes called "experimentation", and specifically, it is experimentation undertaken in the context of an uncertain telos.

Q: A telos? Like an end or purpose?

A: Correct. In the opening chapter of Jacques Monod's Chance and Necessity, a thought experiment is suggested. How do you tell the difference between a "natural" and an "artificial" object? It seems intuitively clear to us: rocks, mountains, rivers - these are natural objects. Knives, hang gliders, hooded sweatshirts - these are artificial. But why? One way to think about it is that part of the easiest explanation for "artificial" objects involves their telos, their purpose; i.e. the reason they were made.

But what do you do when you don't know? What if you're an alien and you encounter some strange object, say, a pair of eyeglasses. You want to explain how the eyeglasses came to exist.

Assuming you have vision, you might just play with the object and see what happens. You notice that a lot of creatures on the planet have two eyes, and you yourself have twelve eyes. So you start fiddling with the glasses until you happen to pass them in front of your eyes. Once you do, you notice that the glasses bend and shape the light that passes through them. "Ahah!" you think. "Now I'm on to something". Eventually your thoughts come back to these two eyed creatures. Finally you say: oh I see, they made this thing because sometimes they can't see clearly. That's why this thing exists.

This is an example of intentional toyful play. You're not sure what something is for, but you can play with it to see how it behaves and what it is like in different contexts. Maybe you'll discover information about its purpose.

Q: But toyful play doesn't have to be about experimentation?

A: Well no, not in the above sense. Sometimes it is, like I said before, just a totally spontaneous activity that sometimes results in the invention of a purpose, rather than the discovery of one.