Watching kids play can be remarkable for many reasons, but the most impressive facet is just how joyful play is. Laughter and whoops of delight form play’s soundtrack. There is a profound freedom, a dynamism and a sense of exploration that is achieved by playing that is unlike that of almost all other human activities. Play breaks down and reforms ideas of identity, ideas of the world, and allows us to bond with others in a unique way.
Playing in the mind
The definition of play falls into a fun definitional void as discussed in quite an approachable way in this 2014 essay. At the risk of either angering or delighting you, depending on your comfort with definitional ambiguity, play has very much a ‘I know it when I see it’ quality to it. One can instantly recognise someone engaged in play; it is behaviour that mirrors, to a degree, the behaviour of everyday life, yet exaggerates it, distorts it, and turns it into the wonderful freedom that is play.
For our purposes figuring out an exhaustive definition of play is mostly pointless. That said, there are some elements of play that are useful to hold in our minds throughout the rest of this essay. I borrow a useful summary from the above essay: “[play is something that is] … purposeless, voluntary, outside the ordinary, fun, and defined by rules.”
Of these components the purposelessness and ‘outside the ordinary’ have special significance as I am most interested in the mental side of play. Why? My contention is that when we play we show our truest and most uninhibited selves. Play is then a sort of perfect state of being. If you accept that play has real benefit, then why would we let something so special be the sole province of snotty-nosed monsters who don’t even have the right to vote or credit cards? It’s on us to reclaim the joy of play.
Play is a state of temporarily suspending the formal rules that bind our behaviour, actions, and thoughts. We do this by creating a soap bubble reality wherein the play occurs: a space that is a new world, with its own distinct rules, approaches and behaviours. The rules needn’t be formally defined, instead they develop and are perceived almost without conscious thought. Children, with their impressively plastic brains, can enter and create these worlds freely. We older beings cannot.1Our dæmons are firmly set, you might say. And yet, without this ability to shift our mental state, it becomes very difficult to genuinely play. If you cannot—temporarily—enter a reality where the boring carpet has been replaced by toffee-thick bubbling lava, with only various pieces of furniture offering respite from doom, can you actually be said to be playing? At most, you’re doing a ham-fisted imitation of play: you’re just pretending.
To play sincerely you must be able to hold two contradictory truths in your mind and accept that both of them are true, even if just for now. If you cannot accept the superposition of the floor being lava and simultaneously not being lava, or indeed accept the rules of whatever you are playing, then the distance this lack of acceptance produces kills play dead. You can see it whenever a clueless adult is trying to play with a child: the lack of commitment stymies play, which means no one really has a lovely time, and even worse, no one is really playing, for the child in the scenario is expecting a simpatico and committed partner.2I hasten to add, you certainly can play by yourself, but in this scenario, if both players do not actually feel the scorching heat of the lava as doom creeps e’er closer, it cannot be true play.
As we age and grow tediously old it is the mental side of play that most withers on the vine. Sure we can go through the motions, but it becomes hollow and unconvincing and almost patronising in a way, try as we might.
Like much of ageing, it is quite terrifying when you wake up one day and realise you simply cannot see the lava anymore, let alone feel its heat, or the pile of branches that was once a beloved fortress home to countless adventures is now simply untidy junk, possibly home to vermin, and at the very least, a real eyesore that might damage real estate prices.
It needn’t be that way, although unless we take conscious and deliberate action, the bully that is objective reality will always win by virtue of our inactivity and passivity. We needn’t permanently cut ourselves off from the sublime world of play, that which not only nourishes us, but compels us to imagine and inhabit different worlds, opinions, and reality. We can jolt those dormant parts of the brain back, but it’s not easy, and requires practice and commitment.
How to play for adults
The first step is the most difficult: admitting you cannot play anymore. Until I began thinking about this essay, I naïvely assumed I could play with the best of them. The more I thought about this topic, though, I realised I was lying to myself. So to steal a line from AA, the first step really is admitting you have a problem. The next related step is finding a way to quiet that internal voice that will scold you for trying to play, that constantly shouts that you are being silly and you should stop at once once and again be serious. This voice is informed by many things, but it is ultimately the voice of a bully and we will not make space for him here.
The next step is to create opportunities in your daily life to play. I’m not suggesting you jump immediately on the nearest chair in fear of that dreaded floor-lava, although well done if you reach for that first; but rather find small little chances where you can create just a moment of play. A New York Times piece calls these “micro-moments of play.” For instance, how much sugar can you balance on a teaspoon before you spill it? Or can you spin around in the elevator ten times before you reach your floor? Or go for a walk and avoid the cracks, for stepping on them has very serious consequences indeed. Start little, and as you get better at ignoring your inner critic, you’ll start to hear the voice of your inner sense of play: what types of play make that voice sing loudly? Lean into your natural reactions as to what is fun.
Ideally, the little moments of play we devise for ourselves in this stage each have a kernel of something imaginative, or something that is suggestive of play’s ability to redefine our reality. It should be self-directed, which is why I hesitate to give too many examples above: telling a kid to play after all can be deeply counterproductive. Just as we each have a learning style, we all have a play style, and so what appeals to us will be quite different.
Here I want to be very clear: playing video games, board games, or card games is not the type of play I am referring to in this essay. While these things are marvellous pursuits nonetheless, they are a parallel adjacent to true play. I like the distinction in Japanese: one ‘does’ a video game (ゲームをします) which is distinct from one plays around/has fun (遊んでます). Perhaps one of the reasons our sense of play becomes mute as we age is that we turn play into playing (video) games rather than play (qua imaginative, self-directed act)?
Once you have started to rediscover play and redevelop your atrophied play muscles, through many at-first furtive, but growingly confident attempts, you are ready to bring others into the fold. Here we face another barrier imposed by the seriousness of ageing; finding others to play with as an adult is difficult and fraught with danger, as well as very important questions of consent. It is no wonder we as boring adults resort to intoxicating ourselves in an attempt to reconnect with our sense of play. But to succeed in fully bringing back play we need to be able to play again with others.3I couldn’t mention playing as an adult without mentioning sex. Sex is one of the few ways we have of approaching play as an adult but it is not, nor should be, our only way of playing, either with ourselves or with others. There are interesting parallels to be drawn between play and fetish or kink play, but that may be another essay for another day.
Start slowly and test the waters with those you are closest to, first. I find simple word-play or imagination-play to be the best way to start playing with someone. It establishes a play-based rapport and can provide the fertile ground from which other forms of play can sprout. But there is also a chaotic case for the unexpected depths of other’s ability to play. Still waters run deeply playful sometimes, so we must occasionally be brave and bold (while, of course, always honouring others’ consent.)4We also need to acknowledge our privilege and bias; the sort of play I might gravitate towards may be quite different from another’s preferred play. A key part of play is being sensitive and responsive to our interactions with others—in fact, in many respects, that is what makes play fun, as it involves the fusion and negotiation between different identities and wants and needs. The end result of play is not just me, and it’s not just you: it’s something more than the sum of its parts.
Over time you’ll simply become better at playing; your imagination and your body will more easily respond to the delights and pleasures of play. There may be rocky moments, but remember part of the reason why play is fun (especially playing with others) is that there is a sense of risk and unpredictability. You might avoid the lava most times, but what happens if a strategic push at the last minute from your supposed comrade sends you into the fiery abyss?
Avoiding a world without play
This all leads to the question of why play, especially if it can be a bit of work to reconnect with the concept, and doubly especially if it can take one out of one’s wonderfully comfortable comfort zone.
I could tempt you with all the academic research about the benefit of play as an adult, and how it benefits your creativity and intelligence and stress levels, or how it might make you better in the workplace or in the home, but I’m not going to, partially because it’s secondary to the main point: when I think about the sort of life I want to live, it’s a life of play, of joy and delight and imagination. Rediscovering how to play is one of the few things we can do actively defy the strictures of late-stage capitalism, of commodification of our bodies, time and our thoughts.
Finding your last love for play is thus both a radical act, one deeply aligned with my values—and perhaps yours—and also is a deeply necessary rebellion. Young Chinese have 躺平 as their rallying cry; perhaps ours can be “Let’s play!”
As the world becomes more and more serious, with such existential threats around every corner, remembering to play, and the flow-on benefits, may yet save us from ourselves.
- 1Our dæmons are firmly set, you might say.
- 2I hasten to add, you certainly can play by yourself, but in this scenario, if both players do not actually feel the scorching heat of the lava as doom creeps e’er closer, it cannot be true play.
- 3I couldn’t mention playing as an adult without mentioning sex. Sex is one of the few ways we have of approaching play as an adult but it is not, nor should be, our only way of playing, either with ourselves or with others. There are interesting parallels to be drawn between play and fetish or kink play, but that may be another essay for another day.
- 4We also need to acknowledge our privilege and bias; the sort of play I might gravitate towards may be quite different from another’s preferred play.