Johan Huizinga presents a very defined definition of play in “Homo Ludens: A study of the play element in culture.” Huizinga gives specific elements that are necessary for an activity to be considered play, such as the activity having designated rules and material gain cannot be received from the activity. There are many more classifications, but you get the idea here. I disagree with not only Huizinga’s definition of play, but also the way he approaches defining play.
So let’s tackle this head on. (Too soon for that picture?) Anyway, I would like to first address the weaknesses of Huizinga’s definition of play and then provide a better metric to define play. Huizinga’s definition includes the stipulation that there must be set rules for an acitivity to be considered play. I would argue to the contrary. For example, think of a group of children playing together. Their creative young minds can enjoy an activity in which one domineering kid is constantly creating new rules and expanding the scope of their game. Surely any person would look at the group of children and say that they are playing. Another issue with Huizinga’s definition arises from professional sports. If a professional athlete loves the sport he is playing, why should it not be considered play? Furthermore, even in casual pickup games, players have separate motives for participating. Some compete simply because they want to win while others play sports for the enjoyment they receive. So if we take the first group, it would not be considered play because they are receiving a material gain. But if we take the second group, it would be considered play because the game itself is the end result. Huizinga’s argument fails to address such a dilemma.
Alright now I am about to rain threes on Huizinga like I am Nik Stauskas and he’s Aaron Craft. Look at those rosy cheeks. The concept of play is a leisurely activity. So I propose that the manner in which we define play should also be done in a leisurely fashion. Play is such an innate part of human nature. For example, children easily grasp the concept of playing. So why would we try to complicate such a simple activity. I propose the following simplified definition of play: play is any leisurely activity in which that specific individual receives enjoyment. Short, simple, to the point, and all-encompassing. My definition provides a basic understanding of play, as well as, clarifying disputes between individuals who perform the same activity for different motives. A professional athlete who is participating in a sport simply for the paycheck is not playing. On the other hand, a professional athlete who is playing a sport because of his love for the game is playing. Sometimes less is more.
Photo credit: Clowney- gamecocksonline.com, Stauskas- standingosports.com, Craft- borntocompete.com