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The Play’s the Thing
The Play’s the Thing

While walking with a fellow physicist who had declared space a mere ‘field of linear operations,’ Nobel Laureate Werner Heisenberg, one of the giants of his field, quipped, ‘Nonsense. Space is blue and birds fly through it’ (Bloch, 1976).

The anecdote, recounted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of quantum mechanics, reveals a playful side of the famous scientist, a down-to-earth persona many might easily relate to. Why is it that a moment of jest exchanged between people tends to expose our humanity? For that matter, what is it about play that makes us all want to participate in it?

Sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, political scientists and economists have used experiments, calculations, and theories to address questions like these. PSU’s Professor Michael Clark of the Department of English, who also directs PSU’s Portland Center for Public Humanities, recently joined the ranks of those seeking answers. Drawing from many disciplines, Clark is shaping a unique dialogue about how modern society may be affecting play.

Clark’s examination began serendipitously while he attended a 2014 National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar at the University of Virginia with the theme ‘problems in the study of religion.’ Clark, who is a J.D. as well as a Ph.D., was there to explore constitutional issues related to the First Amendment’s establishment clause. His inquiries into play, however, began while reading one of the Seminar’s assigned texts, Robert Bellah’s gargantuan Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age.  As Clark described it, his interest was piqued by a postulation proposed by Bellah.

“Bellah’s fundamental premise,” said Clark, “is that formalized play can be transformed into ritual, which can give rise to religion. And for Bellah, this idea of religious belief is crucial to the human condition in a number of ways, including how it facilitates our ability to form the social groups we exist in.”

Clark, who had not previously studied Bellah’s works, nonetheless recognized intersections between Bellah’s argument and the work Theodore Adorno, who critiqued leisure and free time in capitalist societies.  These intersections sparked a series of conversations among the seminar’s attendees and formed the core of Clark’s ongoing research thrust. Among the far-reaching questions that emerged was: if play can give rise to important social constructs (e.g. religion), what happens when play is commodified and harnessed for capitalistic ends?

Grasping the major implications of such questions to the human condition requires an understanding of what play is. In his research, Clark turned to scholars ranging from Plato to renowned 20th century theorists including Johan Huizinga and Brian Sutton-Smith. These writers all related play to culture and the self.  In synthesizing that earlier work, Clark highlighted several characteristics of play including that it is free and out of the ordinary, in contrast to work, which is regimented by factors like time, place, and duties. Further, play is secluded from reality and marked off by time—a stepping out of reality and into a temporary sphere where as an unbound act it creates its own meaning and order.

“Given these characteristics,” Clark said, “one begins to see the connections between play and the sacred. And I think Bellah’s ideas, when put into the context of Adrono’s work, raise some serious questions. Adorno, who I’ve been a scholar of my whole career, noted that play had become so commodified, so polluted by commercial forces that we don’t really know when we’re playing anymore or when we’re consuming products. So given the idea that play has the potential to transform activities into rituals, which then over time might manifest as religion, what happens when we don’t know if we’re playing or not because the field of play has been colonized by the products of capitalism?”

We may well be on our way to finding out. Over the past few decades, play has (arguably) entered a paradigm shift. As wealth in developed and developing nations has risen around the world, toys and games have become increasingly expensive consumer products. Families are paying more and more for children to participate in little leagues and school athletic programs (Sullivan, 2015). Technologies such as video games as well as social networks and other digital communities are increasingly transforming the nature of play. Academics have identified changes in play habits over generations (Clements, 2004) and the media has reported on the decline of outdoor play as well as participation in organized sports (Wallerson, 2014). All these factors indicate seismic shifts that may be reshaping cultural views and practices related to play.

“There are fundamental transformations going on in what it means to play,” Clark said. “Do these changes invoke classical motifs of play? Play as a form of adaption, play as fate, power, or identity? Play as a break from reality? Play as a form of creativity? To what extent have we been indoctrinated into the idea that we need to “pay to play”? And has that indoctrination been so skillfully carried out that we don’t even notice it anymore? These are questions we need to start asking again.”

Many of PSU’s faculty, students, and staff move to Portland because of its ready access to outstanding recreational and entertainment activities. As we engage in biking, skiing, Ultimate Frisbee, “Grand Theft Auto,” or “Call of Duty,” it’s encouraging to know that our own Michael Clark is exploring the broader significance of these playful pursuits.

Bloch, F. (1976). Heisenberg and the early days of quantum mechanics. Physics Today, 23-27.
Clements, R. (2004). An Investigation of the Status of Outdoor Play. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 68-80.
D'Angour, A. (13). Plato and Play: Taking Education Seriously in Ancient Greece. The American Journal of Play, 293-307.
Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. (1972). Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Herder and Herder.
Sullivan, P. (2015, January 17). The Rising Costs of Youth Sports, in Money and Emotion. The New York Times, p. B4.
Wallerson, R. (2014, Jan. 31). Youth Participation Weakens in Basketball, Football, Baseball, Soccer. The Wall Street Journal.
Wolfe, A. (2011, September 30). The Origins of Religion, Beginning With the Big Bang. The New York Times, p. BR23. Retrieved from The New York Times.

i Robert Bellah (Feb. 23, 1927 – July 30, 2013) was a noted American sociologist known for his work on the sociology of religion. His ‘magnum opus’ Religion in Human Evolution was published in 2011 to nearly universal acclaim, as a review in the New York Times noted: “Bellah stands in the tradition of such stalwarts of the sociological imagination as Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. Only one word is appropriate to characterize this book’s subject as well as its substance, and that is ‘magisterial’” (Wolfe, 2011). 

ii Theodore Adorno (Sept. 11, 1903 – Aug. 6, 1969) was an influential mid-20th century German sociologist of the Frankfurt School and a critical theorist well-known for his works on aesthetics, philosophy, music and the seminal Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), co-authored by Max Horkheimer, in which the two coined the phrase ‘culture industry,’ an idea that casts the products (films, radio, magazines, etc.) of popular culture as what might be described as religion’s replacement as the modern opiate of the masses (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1972).

iii i.e. Plato’s Symposium, The Republic, and Laws; Huizinga’s Homo Ludens; and Sutton-Smith’s The Ambiguity of Play