The Superior Experience: Play

Play is an ambiguous term often described as some non-serious, unproductive activity done freely, often for enjoyment. Put short, play is generally regarded as autotelic, or done for its own sake. These descriptions are most commonly thought of in regard to children, games, and sports. However,  it could be argued that play is applicable in all facets of life. For instance, a professor enthusiastically engaging his class may very well consider himself playing. I believe any experience—whether professional or leisure—may be played.

We can all acknowledge and respect play for more than just the enjoyment it may bring. It is something very much connected with what it means to be human. Play in early life enables the child to engage the world freely, letting his imagination flow, and discovering new knowledge. A boy playing with Legos is able to create his own world and learn the nature of its elements (in this case the Lego pieces). In sport, play is most obvious when we see athletes in the zone, accomplishing amazing feats through physical skills and interaction with the game. We might see a similar creativity to the child and his Legos, as the athlete enthusiastically explores the possibilities within the game. Play in sport allows us to see the extremes of human potential, and arguably, without play, sport would cease to be interesting or meaningful. Further, if play exists in professional work, as with the example of a college professor, than it must surely make that experience all the more meaningful and enjoyable. Though these examples seem drastically different, I would suggest the same play exists within each of them, and potentially any other experience.

My argument consists of three points: one, play may best be understood as a combined perceptual mode and experience; two, it may be reduced to three elements: freedom, joy, and engagement; and three, when these elements are not realized in their entirety, we drop into shallow play and non-play. The purpose of this presentation is to offer a new means to broadly interpret play, explore its depths of existence in the “lived experience,” and emphasize its importance to the “good life.”

Defining Play

    The definition of play has evolved from Huizinga’s early cultural examination of play in Homo Ludens, to modern understandings of play rooted in phenomenological inquiry. Play has commonly been defined through series of observations, often in regards to commonly accepted play activities, like games.  Huizinga, for instance, described play as “a free activity ...proceed[ing] within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules,” and “…promot[ing] the formation of social groupings” (2010, p.32). In contrast, modern philosophers have begun to look at more internal aspects of play, inspired by the phenomenological notion of the lived experience.

    Throughout time, models and diagrams have helped at attempting to bring some clarity as to what play is. Guttmann offered a diagram demonstrating how sports are ultimately derived out of play (1978, p. 9). His model highlights why some, like Kretchmar (“Normative”, p. 1, 2007), have referred to play as “primitive,” as it preceded games and sports. However, though this model seems to make visually logical sense, it says little as to what play really is or how specifically it relates to games and sports.

Figure   1  : Allen Guttmann's model of play, games, contests, and sports

Figure 1: Allen Guttmann's model of play, games, contests, and sports


Suits attempted to offer a more concise analytic definition of play itself, defining play as a temporary reallocation of otherwise productive resources toward an autotelic activity (1977, p. 124). This definition, of course has limitations—particularly barring professional athletes from playing—so he later suggested games to be a form of “sophisticated play,” and thus superior to play outside of games (1988, p. 3).

Kretchmar agreed with Suits’ notion of the superiority of games over play (“Normative,” 2007, p.1), but suggested athletes could be raised to their greatest potential if they cultivated play on a metaphoric personal “playground”(“Ethics,” 2007, p. 68). This notion not only implied that athletes could in fact play—given an effective playground—but suggested that play may have varying levels of depth and intimacy with its player.

Suits attempted to offer a more concise analytic definition of play itself, defining play as a temporary reallocation of otherwise productive resources toward an autotelic activity (1977, p. 124). This definition, of course has limitations—particularly barring professional athletes from playing—so he later suggested games to be a form of “sophisticated play,” and thus superior to play outside of games (1988, p. 3).

Kretchmar agreed with Suits’ notion of the superiority of games over play (“Normative,” 2007, p.1), but suggested athletes could be raised to their greatest potential if they cultivated play on a metaphoric personal “playground”(“Ethics,” 2007, p. 68). This notion not only implied that athletes could in fact play—given an effective playground—but suggested that play may have varying levels of depth and intimacy with its player.

Play and Non-play

    Despite multiple—often contradictory—definitions of play, we can all agree play exists, and occurs at varying times in our lives, given the appropriate circumstance.  Often described as “fragile,” play frequently and easily drops into “non-play” when play conditions are not met (2013, p.). As might be intuitively grasped, Carlson has suggested play is “more intimate and meaningful… and deeper than the non-play we experience” (2013, p.353).

Work is a commonly associated form of non-play, and often considered necessary to lead a productive life. Some like Kretchmar have suggested that ideally play and work cycle between each other in what he calls “play rhythms” (“Ethics,” 2007, p. 76). This balance of work and play is a common philosophical notion, but It only highlights the extremes with little thought as to the levels of play. Should a seemingly mindless activity such as playing an app on your phone belongs in the same realm of play as an athlete playing their sport, or a child playing some imaginary game.

    Hence, philosophers , like Kretchmar, have used the terms “deep” and “shallow play,” suggesting play exists in degrees throughout life. Understanding these “depths of play” (Kretchmar, 2007, and Carlson, 2013) is necessary to adequately understand it and its effect in our lives. An athlete may at brief moments be engaged in a “deep play” moment in his sport, while at other times drop into shallow play, or worse, non-play. In order to distinguish these perceptions of an experience, it is important to understand the elements that generate play at its deepest level.

The Elements of Play

In order to examine the varying degrees of play, I follow Carlson’s suggestion that play may be better understood from a phenomenological perspective(). Husserl might suggest that a concept like play is best examined through phenomenological “bracketing,” or reducing it to its most essential essences (2012, p. 59). If play is always preferable to non-play, then it must be composed of elements we universally accept as good. In examination of past definitions, personal experience, and observations, I suggest all play may be reduced to three essential elements: Freedom, Joy, and Engagement.

    Freedom:  Huizinga first referred to play as a “free activity ...connected with no material interest, and no profit gained by it” (2010, p. 30). Freedom might be most  associated with autotelicity, innocence, and creativity. I would assert that autotelicity—doing something for its own sake— may only be realized as a result of freedom. It enables one to do, think, or say anything without coercion or fear of judgment. A truly innocent perspective of the world also entails freedom, as it is unblemished by societal rules and dogma. Further, creativity could not be realized without a sense of freedom.

    Joy: It is not difficult to suggest we engage in play for the joy it brings. As you may have already considered, freedom alone does not necessitate joy. Joy entails a sense of fulfillment, pleasure, and fun.  Each of us may have a different requirement in realizing joy. For some, it may be attained merely from fulfilling the “appetitive processes,” or natural needs (Huizinga, p.30). For others, it may be found aesthetically in what is perceived as beautiful or pure. At a higher level, joy might be achieved in the discovery of meaning and purpose. Joy keeps one content and satisfied with his place in the world.

    Engagement: Huizinga stated all play is “utterly absorbing” and “outside ordinary life,” (2010, p. 30). Engagement highlights a sense of intimacy, productivity, and focused attention. Kretchmar’s playgrounds might relate to this very intimate connection between the individual and engaged experience (“Ethics,” 2007, p. 68), and as Carlson has stated, play is “a means in which we engage in the world” (2013, p. 343). Engagement is realized when we are so completely engrossed, we lose all sense of time and space. Naturally, engagement may be considered productive in terms of being undistracted by anything else.

    I found these elements to be essential and existent in all examples of play. Play—in its deepest form—may be defined as a perceptual mode created when a sense of freedom, joy, and engagement are realized, thus creating a play experience. Using these elements as building blocks, we can potentially create seven other modes of play and non-play, based on various combinations or isolation of the elements. (SLIDE)

Eight Perceptual Modes

    As we have discussed, play may be experienced in all facets of human life. Therefore, it may not be surprising to suggest that the elements used to create play may actually create most spectrums of the human lived experience. Using light as a metaphor, deep play might be compared to white light composed of the three primary colors, shallow play would relate to the secondary colors, and non-play might be the isolated primary colors. The absence of these play elements altogether, might then relate to the lowest level of non-play, I call despair.

These “perceptual modes,” as I have defined them, are complex in nature. The term, “mode,” was chosen as it relates to a disposition or attitude toward something, and describing it as “perceptual” relates to the individual’s conscious awareness of it. We may be aware of some level of joy, but unless we adopt a joyful disposition, we will not realize the complete element of joy. Play consists of the active awareness and acceptance of the three elements in any given experience.

It should also be noted that these modes are temporary and “fragile,” (2014, p. 345). We undoubtedly have, and will continue to experience, all of these modes on a regular basis in a complex “play rhythm” (Kretchmar). This diagram highlights how the play elements create each mode, and we can intuitively see how deep play is the most ideal of these modes.

Figure 2: Perceptual Modes created from the Play Elements    

Figure 2: Perceptual Modes created from the Play Elements



Mode and Experience

    From a phenomenological perspective, play might be split into both a noesis and noema, or an intentional act and intentional object (Husserl, p. 182). Carlson effectively utilized this notion when demonstrating the relationship between play and games. He suggested that a play attitude was the noetic phase applied to the noematic phase of the play activity, and similarly, a lusory attitude is applied to a game activity (2012, p.79).

Figure 3: Carlson's model of relationships between games and play

Figure 3: Carlson's model of relationships between games and play

I have adopted this approach in my own analysis of play, inserting the perceptual mode as the noetic phase, and the experience as the noematic phase. As this is a phenomenological model, both mode and experience are only truly ascertained by the individual in the experience. For example, though two athletes are observed playing a game, neither one is necessarily in a play mode-experience. In fact, each may be experiencing a very different game based on his or her individual perceptual modes.

Not only play, but all the perceptual modes, have an accompanying experience. To differentiate the two, I have used separate names for each experience from each mode. However, the word choice is only to better grasp the experience as a physical realization of the individual, and does not necessitate the literal definitions seen by the observer. For example, I use the terms, “education” and “games,” but this does not mean all students going to school for an education, or  athletes playing a physical game, are instantly propelled into  the modes of “inquiry” or “performance.” As mentioned, it is impossible to tell with certainty what an individual is experiencing; only the individual can know from their perceptual mode.  Like play, all of these mode-experiences are fragile, and may easily transition into one another from moment to moment.  To conclude, I will briefly highlight each of these mode-experiences, with the goal of establishing some distinction between what we may call “deep play” and “shallow play.”

Figure 4: Perceptual Modes and their corresponding experience

Figure 4: Perceptual Modes and their corresponding experience

Deep Play

The Superior Mode-Experience: As the the realization of all three elements of  freedom, joy, and engagement, deep play may be considered the superior perceptual mode-experience.  Deep play is always associated with some profound human activity, and gives the individual the greatest fulfillment and ability to impact the world.  Contrary to popular notions of play, deep play allows for great productivity, in addition to generating passion and creativity.

Moments of deep play may most commonly occur in children and masters. The innocence of children easily leads to their sense of freedom, and a novel exciting world may lead to their frequent excitement and joy. Additionally, we commonly see children engrossed in imaginary games with toys and friends. Similarly, masters easily find deep play as they realize the freedom to explore and expand the very limits of their craft. The years of experience mastering their craft may lead to purpose and fulfillment as experienced by joy. Further, masters easily engage and focus on their craft, as such practice has been the foundation of developing their mastery. Deep play may of course be experienced by anyone, even on a daily basis, and it is in these moments we realize the very best parts of our human nature.

Shallow Play

    Shallow play is composed of two of the three play elements, making it a step away from realizing the superior deep play. However, the three shallow play mode-experiences are generally positive, and are commonly realized by people in transitional stages in their life—essentially the teenage and young adult chapters of our lives.

Performance/ Games: Joy and engagement create the performance mode and its game experience. The term, “performance” highlights one’s tendency to adopt a lusory attitude, accepting the rules, and facilitating a game experience. Performance lacks the element of freedom. This may be due to perceived rules, expectation from a coach, or some other fear preventing one from acting on their own terms. However, freedom may be achieved when the subject no longer recognizes rules, expectations or fear as a barrier, but a challenge and means of exploring the infinite potential within the perceived barriers. Even though sports have rules, part of the reason we watch them again and again is because the athletes inevitably find new ways of playing the game.   

Inquiry/ Education: Freedom and engagement generate the inquiry mode and education experience. In some ways we may think of this as a sense of curiosity. Freedom allows us to recognize the potential knowledge to be gained, or direction we may take something, and engagement allows us to focus solely upon it. The experience is termed as “education,” implying the active learning and exploring of new things.  As with performance, inquiry may easily jump into deep play if the third element is perceived—in this case, joy. Rather than viewing her research as monotonous work, a student may derive joy in discovering new knowledge in her studies. In turn, her research may become a play experience, and her classroom, her “playground.”  

Inspiration/ Sublime: Freedom and joy compose the inspiration mode. I choose to relate it to a sublime experience as it accompanies those moments of wonder and awe. Sublime is often the element thrill-seekers strive for when pursuing a dangerous activity like base-jumping or free-soloing a cliff. For myself, seeing a new mountain in the distance often generates a sublime experience. Freedom is realized as I think of the infinite possibilities in scaling such a peak—from the weather and natural encounters, to the unique view on top—and joy stems from the aesthetic pleasure and fulfillment I derive from seeing the mountain. I have been climbing mountains most my life, and so seeing any mountain brings a sense of joy and meaning to my life. If my mode of inspiration instigates engagement—for instance, I become so inspired that I pull over and attempt to climb the mountain—I may transition into deep play.


    The emphasis of this paper is to highlight the degrees of play. However, as we have discovered, isolated forms of freedom, joy, and engagement may in fact lead to their own mode-experiences. Thus, I shall briefly suggest the four modes of non-play that we all likely fall into at times.

Freedom, alone, creates the mode of “apathy” and an experience of “laziness.” One in this predicament may see the unlimited potential with no risk of judgement, but lacks inspiration or curiosity. They end up doing nothing or feel too overwhelmed to the point of inaction. On its own, joy creates the mode of “delusion” and the experience of “ignorance.” If all our needs are met, pleasure may blind us from being productive or noticing our lack of freedom, and hence we are ignorant to our true potential. This is a very common mode for drug addicts, as they become slaves to the drug, engaged in little else than its use. Finally, a sense of engagement without joy or freedom implies the mode of “toil” and experience of “labor”. One may substitute labor with the common perception of work. Few want to work, but view it as necessary to survive.  Toil is the most common view of non-play, as we often view work as opposite to play.  

It should be noted that a lack of any of the play elements could be called “despair,” the lowest form of non-play. Despair is hitting rock bottom. The experience of despair is like living without light; one is lost, and ultimately cannot survive in this mode indefinitely. However, after experiencing this very dark state, everything after seems all the brighter.     


To conclude, this analysis offers a new direction in which we may refer to play and other perceptual modes engaged on a regular basis. It explains play’s varied occurrence in all facets of our lives from childhood onward. Further, we can see how play brings meaning creativity, and productivity into our lives

Though we are sport philosophers, we might reconsider the hierarchy of games and play. As I demonstrated, the game experience serves an equal place among the education and sublime experiences as forms of shallow play. As previous philosophers have demonstrated, games and play often overlap, and I have expanded this notion, demonstrating it as transition from shallow to deep play in our lived experience.

Finally, I have offered evidence as to why play is superior to all other perceptual modes and experience. If we engage in a game, why wouldn’t we want to be play the game? Play is arguably the primary source of goodness in our human experience. Hence, whether it is our job, sports, schooling, or research, we should all strive to play.

Works Cited

Carlson, C. (2012). The “Playing” Field: Attitudes, Activities, and the Conflation of Play and Games. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 38(1), 74-87.

Carlson, C. (2013). Exploring the depths of play: re-calibrating metaphysical descriptions and re-conceptualizing sources of value. Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, 7(3), 342-355.

Guttmann, A. (1978). From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports. New York: Columbia University Press.

Huizinga, J. (2010). “Nature and significance of play a cultural phenomenon.” Excerpt from Homo Ludens. New York: Routledge.

Husserl, E. (2012). Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. (W. R. B. Gibson, Trans.) New York, NY: Routledge Classics. (Original work published 1931)

Kretchmar, R. S. (2007). The Ethics of Growing Playgrounds. Athens, Greece: International Olympic Academy.

Kretchmar, R. S. (2007). The Normative Heights and Depths of Play, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 34(1), 1-12.

Suits, B. (1977). Words on Play. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 4, 117-131.

Suits, B. (1988). Tricky triad: games, play, and sport. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 15, 1-9.