Could the way we play affect society? Could the rules-free version of US play lead to aggressive, a-social hyper-individuals fueling a “me-first” social Darwinism?
In relation to writing, though, I think play is important not only because it can invite engagement within the zone of proximal development, but because of its affordances (Gibson 1989). In this sense, I make a differentiation between “consequential” and “inconsequential” types of play (following Barab & Roth 2006, Barab, Sadler, Heiselt, Hickey, Zuiker 2006). For play to always afford engagement within a ZPD, the players must take their play as having real effects; their actions within the bounds of play must produce results that they perceive as having meaning. An outsider may see the play as all completely irrelevant, but that does not matter. What matters is the “-emic” perspective.
Take, for example, academics. Many students see the academic system and their daily classrooms as inconsequential. The school is a place different from “the real world,” grounded in abstract theory and idealism, not concrete problems and pragmatism. They thus do not fully engage with the problems and challenges presented to them, worrying more about how to “beat the system” of this artifice than actually accomplishing the tasks it has laid out for them. To this extent, we can say that learning does, indeed, occur. It may be very high level learning, indeed, but because it tries to step outside the realm of play, it is doomed to failure by the very system it seeks to figure out.
However, in consequential play, the player has a stake in the outcome of the game. She sees her actions as meaningful and may even see the rules as necessary, if not “natural.” This approximation of play and nature is important, since it is by this route that we often 1) devalue play in relation to academic or other forms of “work” and 2) fail to notice the ways play is socially organized. I will get to how consequential play affords engagement in a bit, First, though, let me elucidate this point about play and nature.
First, conventional play theory usually defines play as "not serious," opposed to "work," or a quality rather than a discrete activity. However, play theory and education have a long history. Playing is seen as a mode of learning, perhaps the mode by which we humans learn. However, there are some points to make here. First, defined as antithetical to work or other activities or qualities, play becomes a cultural construct. What is play in one culture or society is work in another. Even across individuals, this definition of play yields to relativism. Second, it is assumed that "play" is somehow a basic component of human development. This second point is potentially radical in its implications and I don't mean to disparage them. However, with this all too brief a sketch, we can see the naturalistic tendencies of the way "play" has been used in Western educational theory. Moreover, we can also see the problems this poses if we take play as a cultural construct.
So, do we need to revise play theory? Is play a strong basis for human development or just a weak one? Intuitively, I would say that play is, indeed, a fundamental attribute of learning and development in both humans and non-human animals. However, "play" might be redeemed as an activity is we put it in relation not to an objective set of criteria, but in relation to a surplus of meaning in an organism's environment. Thus, we arrive at Gibson's affordances: an environment always contains affordances for play, but those affordances are differential according to the organism's ability. A pen might contain affordances for grasping and marking surfaces, but if the organism has no appendage with which to grasp, the affordance is moot. Similarly, an optical illusion might contain affordances for tricking one's perception until one has seen the image enough to know the trick.
Once we are conscious of being played with, the game becomes inconsequential. What matters is the surplus of meaning -- the excess of meaning that we struggle to make sense of, yet must fail in our attempts. This is the real meaning of play and its real importance. With out such surplus, we react to a finite set rather than an infinite one. And a finite set can be manipulated and rigged.