Friday, September 03, 2004

Differences Between Work and Play

by Asim Jalis

Here are some more thoughts on the difference between play and work. 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 says. 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 surfer does. 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.