Let's stay playful together

November 15, 2021

What does it mean to play?

One way to answer a question like that is to pose a definition and iterate, comparing it to our intuitions, testing it in specific contexts, and revising when appropriate.

This is an experiment in an opposite approach. Instead of trying to define play, I'll instead explore a variety of its connotations independently in an impressionistic un-taxonomy. These connotations might appear to overlap, contradict, be two sides of the same coin, or relate in any number of other ways, but I'll try to avoid acknowledging this at all. They are what they are, and they can suggest a composite view of play on their own.

The substance of these impressions are collected from and framed by several sources that are listed at the end but will not cited inline. Interpret this as a selective arrangement of their ideas.

Play as the opposite of working

Playing is leisure, aimlessness, free time, boredom. Playing as what blossoms in the back eddies of life. "All work and no play." We use "play" as a catch-all term for the mode we're in when we aren't trying to accomplish things. As kids, we're in this mode all the time. But as adults, we understand this version of playing is mostly in relation to what it's not. Play is the suspension of the responsibilities that structure most of our time, and the uncategorizable antics that ensue.

Play as sport

Playing? Playing what? We play chess, basketball, snakes and ladders, poker, badminton. Minesweeper, Halo 2. Wii golf, regular golf. Fencing.

When we see a cluster of words like "game", "sport", and "play", it's tempting to rush in and taxonomize them. But this would misrepresent the way language works - not as a formal structure but as a palette of connotations. "Sport" certainly suggests a physicality that "game" alone does not. And "play" is paired more often with "game" while something like "compete" is more strongly bound to "sport". But more might not need be said: these are the words that English affords us, just as they are.

Goals and rules are the essential aspect of this version of play. Far from being aimless, here it is perfectly specific: the aim is to win. Games are a micro-world of constraints and mechanics. To play is to voluntarily (one might even say gamely) adopt the constraints of the game and seek to win through strategy, craft, skill, power, or persistence, or whatever combinations are possible. The desire and drive to win - and the willingness to play by the rules to do so - are what Suit calls the "lusory attitude". But one must also exhibit "sportsmanlike conduct" and abide by an implicit "the spirit of the game". An overzealous lusory attitude will get you accused of gamesmanship.

Play as mischief

"A playful disregard", "playing tricks", "getting played". "I solemnly swear I am up to no good". This version of play is also related to structure and constraints, but rather than earnestly working within them, it delights in subverting them. "Playing with the form". To play is to break the rules.

Early computer hacking culture was steeped in this. The term "hack" originated as MIT campus slang for "prank" - it has since the beginning been inseparable from its darker undertones of breaking into places, peeking at secrets, making a fool out of the archetypically incompetent sysadmin, and so on. This is an edgy version of play: still good-natured, but not something that can be contained, controlled, or anticipated. You might cut yourself on it. It might bite you.

Play as invention

Playing is an act of creation, or an invitation to co-create with a partner or group. Improvisation. Games in which there are no rules, or in which the rules may change at any moment. Games that are processes of discovery. Mao, Calvinball, Questions. When children play together with dolls and action figures there's often an ongoing narrative that everyone contributes to, with no goal and no wrong answers but instead a steady flow of dream-logic plot twists. And then they ran away! And then the dragon got tired and went to bed! And then an earthquake destroyed the city! To play is to play along, to participate in making up the story.

Play as performance

Playing an instrument, playing a piece, playing a role, playing a character. To play is to breathe life into. It wouldn't be quite right to say that this version of play happen strictly in isolation, but the essential digram, at least in my head, is of a single subject (a person) and a single object. The object might be physical, like a piano, or abstract, like Hamlet. The object is animated by the performer but has identity and durability beyond any one performance.


  • How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell
  • The Grasshopper by Bernard Suits
  • Hackers & Painters by Paul Graham