Game as Cultural Form, Play as Disposition

[Note: This post originally appeared on both Terra Nova and]

February 7, 2009

I’ve just posted a piece to SSRN about play. In the past I have focused on games as a culturally-shaped activity (what we anthropologists would call a cultural form), and in the course of that I have made explicit efforts to decouple games from the concept of play (see here, for example). I argued that it is not very useful to see play as an activity, with games as a subset of it, and suggested that play more usefully denotes a disposition, a way of approaching the world.

In doing that I wasnt trying to argue that games and play are not related to each other, but rather that we need to move beyond seeing them as intrinsically linked (where the question of, for example, whether something is a game boils down to whether it brings about a playful experience). The primary motivation was to make room for an approach to games on their own terms, but the issue of play has been simmering with me for a long time. The posted essay is the result – a long-planned attempt to articulate play as a disposition.

In the piece I look at how anthropology as a discipline stumbled a bit in thinking about play, but simultaneously managed to develop a useful approach to ritual. This approach avoided making the litmus test of a ritual whether it brought about religious experience, and therein is a lesson for those of us studying games and play. Pushing further in this direction, I assert that the ideas of William James and the pragmatist philosophers in general may hold the key to moving forward in our understanding of games and play.

Here is an excerpt (the many footnotes excised here, for convenience):

Huizinga set the tone for much of the inquiry into games and society in the latter half of the twentieth century with his book Homo Ludens. This book bears much responsibility for fostering the unfortunate view, developed more rigidly still by Caillois, that games are culturally sequestered and consequence-free activities. Still, here as in many such midcentury works of cultural history, illuminating contradictions abound. As Huizinga’s argument develops, near the end of his text he focuses on something quite different: “Civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play…it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.” Huizinga is much more enlightening when he speaks of the “play-element” (just the type of experience or disposition that interests us here), rather than of “play” as a (separable, safe) activity. For him the play-element marked by an interest in uncertainty and the challenge to perform that arises in competition, by the legitimacy of improvisation and innovation that the premise of indeterminate circumstances encourages is opposed above all to utilitarianism and the drive for efficiency. Caillois likewise, despite his misleading claim that games are occasions of “pure waste,” recognizes the centrality of contingency in games. Huizinga felt that the play element had been on the wane in western civilization since the eighteenth century, threatened by the drive for efficiency and the routinization of experience it brought.

These tantalizing recognitions of the contingent nature of experience in the world direct us to sources and analogues in philosophical thought. American pragmatist philosophers broke from the Western tradition in their rejection of an ultimately ordered universe: for them the universe was, as Louis Menand put it, “shot through with contingency.” The pragmatists were not alone in this insight. The phenomenologists also gestured toward it, notably in Martin Heidegger’s concept of “thrownness” (which was developed in anthropology by Michael Jackson). The ideas of “practice theory,” as Ortner described it, are also consistent with this picture of the world as an ongoing and open-ended process: Pierre Bourdieu, Marshall Sahlins, Michel DeCerteau, and Anthony Giddens each have sought in different ways to overcome determinative pictures of the world. Although the scope of this essay allows only a broad description of these connections, I suggest that we are at a point where, in recognizing these commonalities, we can begin to forge a useful concept of play that will inform our understanding of experience in a uncertain world.

What are the features of play as a disposition toward the world in all its possibility? First, it is an attitude that is totalizing in the sense that it reflects an acknowledgment of how events, however seemingly patterned or routinized, can never be cordoned off from contingency entirely. As the scientist James Clerk Maxwell put it, the “metaphysical doctrine that from the same antecedents follow the same consequents is not of much use in a world like this, in which the same antecedents never again concur, and nothing ever happens twice.” The earthier popular sentiment in American English, “Shit happens,” signals the same conviction. Second, the disposition of play is marked by a readiness to improvise, a quality captured by Bourdieu in his development of Mauss’ concept of the habitus. To be practically equipped to act, successfully or not, amid novel circumstances is the condition of being a social actor at all, Bourdieu argues. One can also note Dewey’s argument that uncertainty is inherent in practice, and that it is in contrast to this practical open-endedness that theoretical claims to certainty seek to marginalize and denigrate practical knowledge. Finally, play is a disposition that makes the actor an agent within social processes, albeit in an importantly restrained way; the actor may affect events, but this agency is not confined to the actor’s intent, or measured by it. Rather, it allows for unintended consequences of action. This is consistent with Oliver Wendell Holmes “bettabilitarianism,” his answer to utilitarianism; every time we act, we effectively make a bet with the universe which may or may not pay off.

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