My long-term partner in research Jaakko Stenros defended his Ph.D. thesis in May this year. The thesis is named ‘Playfulness, play, and Games: A constructionist ludology approach’ which must be one of the more bold thesis titles I have seen. While almost every thesis in the game studies field contains some attempt at a game definition, making the general concepts of games and play the core topic of a thesis means that the author is tackling, heads on, a philosophical and scientific problem that has haunted scholars since ancient Greece.
Jaakko belongs to an emerging collective of researchers to which I guess I should count myself, that primarily aim to understand play rather than games. A common trait is that these researchers investigate play and game phenomena that include, but are not restricted to, computer games. These are researchers that refer to Caillois and Huizinga, and very often also Goffman, to emphasise the nature of play as voluntary and socially constructed. Jaakko goes beyond these well-established sources to explore just about every single text written about play during the twentieth century, to construct a complex and many-faceted perspective on play that is consistent with this basic social constructionist perspective. Games are not left out of the thesis: Jaakko devotes a thorough discussion to the relationship between play and game constructs, distinguishing between playing ‘the game’ and ‘the system’, the latter presenting opportunities for subversion and creative play. His constructionist approach also gives him a good tool for analysing forms of play that are not voluntary and socially agreed upon, he investigates the work of play in sports and online games as well as grief play.
One way to read Jaakko’s thesis is as a successor of Sutton-Smith’s ‘Ambiguity of Play’. Where Sutton-Smith successfully teased out the complexity of the concept of play, he was less successful in establishing synthesis. Jaakko manages to at the same time accept this complexity complexity and consistently argue a coherent perspective. A bit arbitrarily chosen, the following citation is from the chapter on games (page 142 in the thesis). Here Jaakko summarises the relationship between playfulness, play and games as such:
“Playfulness is a brute fact rooted in biology, something that is expressed in the paratelic metamotivational state of doing things for their own sake. Although it has its uses and functions, it cannot be reduced to other processes such as resignification or learning. The playful mindset is expressed in a personal boundary, a psychological bubble, which is related to a feeling of safety. Play(ing) is a socially negotiated activity (and thus a social fact) that is often engaged in under a playful mindset, but which can sever that connection. The negotiation sets up a magic circle of play, which is a separating porous boundary that allows for traffic, although usually anything that crosses the boundary is resignified. When the playing becomes more structured and rule-bound, it is referred to as a game, although game-activity would be a more precise term. Once the social negotiation is formalised, on the spot, due to historical processes, through an acquired designed artefact, or a combination thereof, and this form achieves a modicum of stability, a game-artefact appears. This game-artefact can be used to enact game-activity. As the rules become complete and clear, the game becomes an institutional fact. The game-artefact implies the boundary of arena and game space. When used, a magic circle of play aligns with the arena. Although analytically separated here, these processes are deeply intertwined.”
While I basically think that Jaakko has nailed the constructivist perspective and agree with it, I have some problems with the citation. For me as a design scholar, the most problematic part is the sense of “emergence” implied by Jaakko’s wording. The deliberate act of design, by designers as well as players, is left out of the discussion and since I believe that design and play are deeply intertwined I think that this may be a serious oversight.
But here is an idea: I have started to toy with the idea that play is difficult to define because it is primary. The very small child makes no distinction between play and work but toys with everything, and nothing is real until it’s been thoroughly explored over and over again. Everything is purposeless to be manipulated for the pleasure of senses: the hands, mouths, ears and eyes. The five year old has learned that things can be done for a purpose, but still toys with reality through resignification: the stick becomes a horse so that you can ride when you want to. The process of reaching adulthood is a continuous process of figuring out and artificially constructing work and reality, as opposed to play and fiction that we understand intuitively.
Needless to say, Jaakko’s thesis is a must-read. It is downloadable here.