by Asim Jalis
Here are some more thoughts on the difference between play and
Initially I thought that play was more unstructured than work.
But that is not true. Play can be both highly structured
(marathon running, tetris, tennis, chess) and highly unstructured
(surfing, ice skating).
Is play physical? Not necessarily. Video games, chess, go, are
examples of mental playing. But it is interesting than in each
case there is a physical element, especially in chess and go.
Even in video games there is a representation of physical reality
on the screen.
Games always contain an element of chaos. This is obvious in
surfing. In more structured games like tennis and basketball the
chaos is provided by the reactions of the other team. Playing
tennis against a wall is not as much fun as playing it with
someone else because it is too predictable. Of course, even there
there is some chaos. It is fun to see how long you can keep
hitting the ball without missing.
In golf the chaos comes in through the variations in the golf
course, and the wind conditions.
In most video games the chaos comes in because (a) the player
does not understand what the game designer was thinking, so there
is an element of uncertainty produced by lack of knowledge, and
(b) there is an element of randomness in most games.
But there are counter-examples to this also. The counter-example
is Rico Medellin. Virginia Postrel writes about it quoting Mihaly
Csikszentmihalyi (cf. Google):
Csikszentmihalyi tells the story of Rico Medellin, an assembly
line worker who does the same task almost 600 times a day. He
writes that "Rico has been at this job for over five years, and
he still enjoys it. The reason is that he approaches his task
in the same way an Olympic athlete approaches his event: How
can I beat my record? . . . When he is working at top
performance the experience is so enthralling that it is almost
painful for him to slow down. "It's better than anything else,"
Rico is able to introduce challenge into his work by measuring
how long it takes him to perform his assembly line task. There
are other sports also in which the element of chaos is limited:
running and swimming are both fairly predictable.
Play must contain an element of challenge. Especially in
non-chaotic games, the element of time is important.
In ice skating, juggling the challenge comes from the desire to
produce elegance. There is also some chaos that arises from
engaging with reality.
Play always contains an element of competition. Competition
frequently defines the challenge. One can compete with one's own
previous record, or one can compete with an adversary who is
another player, or one can compete with the chaos of nature, as a
Play is also structured. By this I mean that success and failure
are clearly defined. Without this clear definition play turns
into work. Notice how exercise is called "work"-out, and not
play-out. Running on a treadmill is work, it's not play.
In summary, there is truly no one way to play. Each circumstance
creates different opportunities for play.
Nevertheless there is a difference between play and work. While
play can be almost anything, it is clearly distinct from work.