Sean Scoltock: Play and the Good Life


You’re just playing around. The rebuke is heard often enough. Play, in our culture, is thought to be rightly confined to the ungrateful young, the gated elderly, and the gratingly affluent. Grow up. Get a job. Do some work. It’s certainly necessary for many things and for most people; but should we work as much as we do? Isn’t play just as important, if not more so?

Play for children does not lack champions. Recent proposed educational reforms have met with complaints from parents and teachers that longer school days and shorter holidays would threaten that essential component of a happy childhood. There is a thriving Right to Play movement – it recently secured a clarification by a United Nations Committee of the ‘forgotten’ Article 31 of the UN Convention, which “recognise[s] the right of the child…to engage in play and recreational activities”. Nostalgica such as The Dangerous Book for Boys are safe bets for publishers. Academic Journals of Play – International, American, and British – proliferate, accumulating evidence in support of the cause.

But the phrase ‘a playful adult’ has something oxymoronic about it. Play is on occasion derided: David Cameron’s penchant for the ‘Angry Birds’ game app has ensured its position as a recurrent satirical trope. But if the benefits of play are undeniable in childhood, surely they also obtain later in life?

From this thought, an entire research programme has sprouted over the past two decades. As Stuart Brown, a prominent psychiatrist, explains in his bestseller Play, adults need play to exercise core cognitive abilities such as problem-solving, managing social situations, and adopting accurate expectations. Far from a frivolous luxury, Brown argues, play is an indispensable feature of a healthy adult life. And the message is spreading: his TEDx talk¹ has had over half a million views.

Play is useful, then, for adults as well as children. And accordingly, academia at large has progressively broadened its conception of play over the past few years. But is this the right way to look at it, that is, as merely useful? Children don’t play because of the cognitive benefits – they don’t play for any particular reason at all. Indeed, inducing a child to play by promising rewards would most likely undermine its very purpose. Play seems to lose some of its appeal once it becomes merely a means to an end.

We should play, but we shouldn’t play for a reason – or, perhaps, we shouldn’t justify playing to ourselves in terms of an external benefit: so says Mark Rowlands, a British philosopher based in Miami – one of a growing band of philosophers entering the debate. Self-consciously striking a discordant note with the prevailing American ethos, he offers, in his book Running With the Pack, a re-definition of ‘work’ and ‘play’ – work is done for the sake of something else, play simply for its own sake – and urges more of the latter.

Meeting student interviewers also falls within the remit, apparently. As this year’s Writer-In-Residence at the Oxford Literary Festival, Rowlands relays over a drink in The White Horse that he formerly read for DPhil in Philosophy at Oxford. He goes on to explain the thrust of his book: “We get intrinsic value from those activities which we do for their own sake. Play is something else. Running, for example: I run simply to run”. We should strive to live a life full of play, as “work is not inherently ennobling at all: to work when you do not have to is stupid rather than ennobling…nothing good comes of work”. As a philosopher and a writer, Rowlands is to some degree living his philosophy. He avoids “pointless meetings and filling out forms…[At Miami University] my duties are clearly identified and circumscribed, I teach and that’s pretty much it…What’s valuable in life are other people and things you do for their own sake. And, when I’m writing, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing”.

What about those who aren’t lucky enough to find a job they value for its own sake? Some companies strive to provide play in the work environment: Google, famously. But, of course, not everyone can work for Google (at the time of writing). Most have to put up with the antithesis of a ludic pursuit. Rowlands admits that “it’s unfortunate that the world is set up in this way: not everyone can play”. As another philosopher engaged in the debate, Alisdair MacIntyre, has said, in our modern society “work…has been expelled from the realm of practices with goods internal to themselves”. Indeed, we can see Rowlands’s work as itself a manifestation of this phenomenon: he defines ‘work’ as that which is only instrumentally valuable.

He demurs, though – value can be found even in the dullest of occupations: “when we don’t play, what can make it worthwhile is the intrinsically valuing of other people. We work to support the people we love…It’s unfortunate that we can’t obtain [material goods] through the push of a button. That’s why we have to work. But to do so is to recognise intrinsic value in the other place that it lies”. However, even if one is in position to seek playful work, the prospects are inauspicious. With the decline of newspapers, writers, for instance, find it increasingly difficult to survive as journalists; even academics are suffering: recent studies have shown that the changing status of higher education – especially that of the Humanities – means that academia is no longer as Jürgen Enders, Director of the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, puts it, “characterised by contentment and serenity”.

Still, Rowlands’s thesis is compelling; indeed, one hypothesis for the disappearance of serenity might be precisely that which Rowlands avers: the more academia is seen as a job, rather than as a vocation, the lower the average job satisfaction. And, regardless, the adoptive Miamian bucks the trend: ‘content’ couldn’t better characterise the figure across the table. He himself embodies the redemptive possibility of work being – in one sense – play: of doing a job that one finds intrinsically valuable.

The debate over play can appear under a different guise, one more prominent in contemporary political discourse: namely, the ‘work-life balance’. The ratio on the Continent – more heavily weighted in favour of ‘life’ – has been both advocated as a model to emulate and blamed for the economic troubles of Greece and Spain. Changing how we measure prosperity to take leisure time into account – from Gross Domestic Product to Gross National Happiness – is a cause célèbre amongst politicians and academics alike, and policy is shaped accordingly: the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills now conducts annual Work-Life Balance Employee Surveys.

Perhaps, though, one important lesson to be taken from the recent academic debates over play is that the focus of policy debates should not be solely on the ‘work-life balance’. Work can be playful – it can be both intrinsically and relevantly instrumentally valuable; and not all leisure is equal – to use an example of Stuart Brown’s, staring at a computer screen is far less rewarding than kicking a ball around in the park.

Those who study play as an activity might highlight a defect in Rowlands’s account. Play, in the latter’s sense, encompasses any intrinsically valuable activity; yet Brown and others have shown that playful activities – as the term is commonly understood – have distinctive benefits not to be found in, for instance, running.

But perhaps we should understand Rowlands as gesturing towards a deeper point: namely, that play in the ordinary sense can form only a part of our lives. Having completed his DPhil, Rowlands’s first job was at the University of Alabama, where he confesses that he spent his time trying to prolong his youth – much of it drinking with the rugby team. He was playing, but “there was a growing sense that whatever I was doing I had been doing a bit too long. I decided that that I should get down and start writing”. A pursuit that demands application and foresight is required, then, if the benefits of play are to be enjoyed: the all-too-public travails of those in our society – footballers, singers, models – who do spend their time just ‘playing’ shows that play is not worth much without work alongside.

Grow up. Get a job. Do some work. Certainly, all three – but there’s a growing consensus that play is essential to a flourishing human life. At the very least it’s an efficacious way to train the mind; and pursued in a certain fashion, play might even be partly constitutive of a meaningful life. Whether by working less, working differently, or simply better spending the time not working, there is much to be said for a ludic shift in the modern life. Let’s hope, then, to hear more often, and not as a rebuke, the phrase: you’re just playing around. •

Sean Scoltock is studying for a BPhil in Philosophy at Worcester College, Oxford.

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