Play, the Supreme State of Being


Play is a concept of much debate in the philosophy of sport.  Normal diction dictates that we “play” games and sports, but most of us would agree that just because we are “playing” a sport does not necessarily mean we are at play.  Though we can see play takes on different definitions based on how it is used, there is likely a reason the English language decided to make it common to say we play a sport rather than do a sport.  It is hard to define sport without mentioning play, but their connection can still be difficult to address.   Professor Allen Guttman developed a diagram (as seen below) that demonstrates sports and games being derived from play.  Though logical, this chart only begins to capture the connection of play, games, and sport, and really says little as to what play really is.

Guttman Model of Play and Sport

The late sport philosopher, Bernard Suits, logically broke down and defined play in his work, Words on Play, and came to the conclusion that play is basically the opposite of work.  He goes on to say that play could be defined as an autotelic (done for its own sake) activity that temporarily reallocates resources, like time, toward its doing.  By this definition, he draws a clear line between professional sports and play.  Since athletes get paid to do sports, they are not considered at play; as sport to an athlete is neither an autotelic action nor a temporary reallocation of resources.  This definition, though capturing some key elements as to what play is, contradicts Professor Guttman’s model of sport being a derivative of play.  This leads to the question: aren’t there moments in sport in which athletes can be at play while also working? 

With such a pressing question other philosophers, like Heather Reid, have attempted to define play in broader terms.  Reid, in her chapter, “Sport and Play,” draws on several philosophers’ definitions, and attempts to synthesize the external and internal aspects of play.  She starts with one of the original philosophers of play, the late historian, Johan Huizinga, who in 1944 defined sport as a “form of play.”  In his book, Homo Ludens (Man the Player), he focuses on play’s external qualities, saying it consists of six attributes: it is free, separate, uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, and make believe.  Though these give a basis for what play may look like—especially in sports—modern philosophers have begun to focus on the internal aspects of play.  Reid mentions that David Roochnik defines play as a “mode of being” or “stance,” and Angela Schneider describes play as being “a mode of performing actions, rather than [being] a type of action.”  Reid goes on to blend these various views and suggests play could be characterized as being voluntary, extraordinary, autotelic, fun, and absorbing. 

Though I find Reid’s categories of play logical, I felt compelled to create a model of play that defines it specifically as state of being or consciousness.  In doing so I have drawn on the various philosophies of play mentioned in conjunction with my own logical reasoning to reduce Reid’s five points into three basic building blocks—engagement, freedom, and joy—and will define play as a state of being realized when all three are achieved.  I call these components building blocks because I believe they create different states of consciousness, depending on which ones are realized by an individual.  Together they build play, but in pairs they create three middle states of being: entertainment, performance, and study.  Individually, they create three lower states of being: work, apathy, and ignorance.  Through analysis and definition of these terms, I shall attempt to define play and assert why it is the supreme state of being one can achieve.   In reference to the works of Reid and other philosophers of play, I intend to expand on their points, and develop a model that gives a further tangible view on play and addresses the earlier question: can one be working and also at play, as a professional athlete in sport? 

First, I suggest there are three building blocks—engagement, freedom, and joy—that individually or in various combinations create different states of being.  Engagement will be defined as an all-engrossing focus and pursuit in an activity.  It is very similar to Reid’s defining play as being “absorbing.”  Freedom will be defined as a choice to openly express oneself in an autotelic activity.  Reid’s points of play being “voluntary” and “autotelic” could be expressed by this point.  Finally joy will be defined as happiness and pleasure brought about by an activity.  This relates to Reid’s point of play being “fun.”  I have decided to leave out Reid’s point of play being “extraordinary” because I feel play can be a state of being both in and outside ordinary life.  In fact, I intend to present evidence in favor of play being a state of consciousness we should strive for in all parts of life.  Similar to other modern philosophers, I define play internally as a mode or state of being/consciousness much like Roochnik and Schneider have defined it.   

When the three building blocks are realized together, we achieve play.  However, if one component is missing, then I propose three middle states of being will be formed, depending on the missing component.  These are entertainment, performance, and study.  An entertainment state means we have freedom and joy, but no engagement.  For example, if one is watching a musical at a theater, they are likely to enter a state of entertainment as they are freely choosing to go to the theater and derive joy from that experience.  However, since they are not putting any other kind of effort into the show—other than watching—they are not engaging.  The performance state means we have engagement and joy, but no freedom.  By itself, performance is not free because it requires one to create a spectacle for the others outside oneself.  Many athletes are in a performance state of being because they are engaged and typically enjoy the sport, but they are chained to the feedback of the coach and crowd.  Lastly, the study state means we have engagement and freedom, but no joy.  This state could also be labeled as practice or exercise.  It is the preparation and grunt work needed in pursuit of knowledge or other personal benefit.  I termed these as the middle states because I feel they are the middle-ground to reaching play.  All three middle states can become play once the missing component is achieved, or could fall to a lower state if they lose another component. 

Entertainment, performance and study are all gateways to attaining play.  To use the earlier examples, if one becomes very engaged in the whole theater performance, losing track of time and perhaps even singing along, then they enter a state of play.  For performance, if an athlete is able to block out the crowd and trust his own feelings in the game, freely expressing himself with an autotelic love of the game, then he too will enter a state of play.   Lastly, even the state of study can become play if one finds joy in pursuit of his findings in research or developments in exercise.  Entertainment, Performance, Study and Play are all states of being, thus, I would assert that every person shifts through all of them on a regular basis.  Play, incorporating all three components, is the supreme state of being that allows for true success, expression, and happiness.  

To conclude my model of states of being, there are three other of being created when the building blocks are isolated.  These lesser states of being are often the default for many of us, and are the farthest away from being at play.  Due to their lacking nature in reaching play, I will term them the lower states of being.  The state of being for just engagement could be called work, as we are engaged but not joyful or free.  Studying for a test because you feel you have to would likely put one in a state of work rather than “study.”  The state of just freedom could be called apathy, as we are free to do anything, but do not engage in anything and are joyless.  The state of just joy could be called ignorance, as we are joyful but neither engaged in anything nor free—like the saying goes: ignorance is bliss.  Typically the lower states are associated with an unproductive approach, whereas the middle states are associated with a productive mindset, and a play state entails a high success mentality. 

My model for the Seven States of Being created with engagement, joy, and freedom.

My model for the Seven States of Being created with engagement, joy, and freedom.

To conclude, this States of Being model allows one to see play being a beneficial state for anyone at any time.  In fact, I would maintain that all true success comes from people at play.  Play is all-consuming, allows for free expression and direction, and brings about true happiness.  This combination of engagement, freedom, and joy generate the supreme state of being of play.  In many ways play is what we see when observing a master working his trade, and it is what we experience when we perform with no limits.  There is a saying in Tai Chi Chuan, that when one has truly mastered the art, they become transparent; no longer do others just see just your body moving, but your whole spirit.  This, is play.