Play anywhere

Computer games are undoubtedly big business. Currently 76% of children in Scotland (where I live) have a games console according to a recent Ofcom report, a figure that is surely on the increase. Does this trend constitute any kind of problem for health (DVT), domestic life or for society?

In the early days of the financial crisis commentators accused banks of playing roulette (a game of chance) with people’s money. War commentators drew parallels between computer games and televised images of bombs heading towards their targets in the Gulf War of 1990-91. War games and real wars blur into each other.

People playing a game with Coke bottles and fishing rodPerhaps digitally-connected societies have trouble separating play from reality. Kids (and kidults) are so absorbed in their computer gaming they think it’s ok to plough cars into pedestrians, burn and loot: Grand Theft Auto visits Peckham, Hackney, Birmingham, etc.

Reality tv turns dining, cooking, socialising, design, and gardening into contests, trivialising health, finance and learning, treating each as a game.

Many businesses and institutions seem to be re-modelling their formal systems of communication on digital social networks. Social networks blur into role play and operate as platforms for multi-user gaming (CityVille, Mafia Wars).

In spite of the popularity of the wii and Kinect that arguably introduce dynamic bodily movement, much computer gaming requires passive sitting, immobility, is highly mediated, and a distraction from outdoor “healthy” games. According to come critics, video games are mass market phenomena, and a preparation for rampant, unquestioning subjection to consumerism and capitalism (scoring, pricing, quantifying, competing).

But concern about games also derives from a concern about play itself. When people think of play it is generally as something separate from the serious business of work and making (homo faber).

The influential book by Johan Huizinga called Homo Ludens, man the player, provides the strongest antidote I know for the view that work comes ahead of play. For Huizinga, play is everywhere.

We are at our jobs the most when we are engaged in a play-like way. To put it more strongly, we are most at work when playing.

Play has several characteristics. Some scholars think it’s low risk preparation for encounters with high risk situations further down the line. It’s a means of exploring and developing trust. Courtship is a game. Play is a way of socialising and bonding. Sometimes play has rules (eg chess and tennis). Sometimes it’s just messing about, in solitude or in company. It can be competitive and/or collaborative.

One of the major characteristics of play is that players are absorbed in the game, a state known well to musicians and performers. We are most at play when unselfconsciously engaged. In a self-help book on adopting a playful attitude, psychologist Stuart Brown says,

When we are fully engaged in play, we lose a sense of the passage of time. We also experience diminished consciousness of self. We stop worrying about whether we look good or awkward, smart or stupid. We stop thinking about the fact that we are thinking. In imaginative play, we can even be a different self. We are fully in the moment, in the zone.

In this light, “serious” business is simply a condition where we momentarily emerge from our habitual state of play and think about accountability, responsibility, and contractual obligations. But for Huizinga these mercantile activities are also play in any case. He describes legal advocacy, diplomacy, war, ethics and education as manifestations of the play function in human societies.

The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer picks up on Huizinga’s characterisation of play to account for the two-and-fro movement of interpretation. Interpreting, appreciating, criticising or otherwise engaging with a story, a painting, a building or a piece of music, involves this free flow between what the work of art presents and our preconceptions.

The ability to interpret is part of what it is to be human, as is play. In this light the only real challenge posed by computer gaming is this: is this really play? Is it playing to the full?


  • Baudrillard, J., ‘The gulf war did not take place’, in M. Poster (ed.), Selected Writings, Cambridge: Polity, 2001, 231-253.
  • Brown, S. and C. Vaughan, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul [Kindle Edition], New York: Avery, 2009.
  • Brown, Stuart TED video on play
  • Gadamer, H.-G., Truth and Method, trans. J. Weinsheimer and D.G. Marshall, New York: Continuum, 2004.
  • Huizinga, J., Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.
  • Stallabras, J., ‘Just Gaming: Allegory and Economy in Computer Games’, New Left Review, 198, 1993, 83-106.
  • Winnicott, D.W., Playing and Reality, London: Routledge, 1991.

Here’s a good quote from Gadamer to conjure with.

The movement of play as such has, as it were, no substrate. It is the game that is played — it is irrelevant whether or not there is a subject who plays it.

Then he talks about the play of light. “Play is not to be understood as something a person does.” (p.104)


  1. Pier Daniel says:

    I don’t agree with the idea that there is a link between games like Grand theft Auto and actual violence happening in the streets. I think that when one plays a game like GTA he enjoys the game because it is unreal and far from what he usually does in his everyday life. GTA, for the average player, is an unreal world just like a fantasy or a science fiction videogame. If someone acts violently in the streets it might be because he has some kind of social or psychological problem. Otherwise someone sane might act violently because he feels so mistreated that he thinks that only this way will the media pay attention to how society treats him. Normal people can tell the difference between fact and fiction and if they say they emulated a game they are most certainly lying.

  2. Some of quietest and nicest people I know are hooked on tv detective shows, from Poirot to Wallander — a very grown up, genteel and middle class pastime. I wonder if such audiences are more likely to commit the devious and heinously violent crimes portrayed.

  3. Giacomo says:

    This article points out many different aspects of the act of playing that are in part embeded in our genes and in part in how the modern society is built.

    I quite agree with Huizinga’s point of view of “homo ludens”. In fact, in my humble opinion, the primary aim of life, obviously apart from surviving, is to play. Let me explain with some practical examples.

    Since we are born, and through all the process of growing up, we spend, or at least we try, most of our time playing either alone or in group. Playing is used by our brain to develope all the motion and logical skills we need in order to live. It also contributes in creating aggregation between children, therefore in social abilities.
    When this fundamental process is over, playing becomes a child regression which is in fact, as Freud pointed out many times in many different ways, a natural status of the human being. So, those primary needs of the infant are transfered into the adult life, and to play assumes slightly different connotations but always refered to its primary status.
    Therefore, when Huizinga says “play is everywhere”, he’s pointing out a great truth.
    Moreover, if we connotate to play with satisfaction, in its largest meaning, everything we aim for is to satisfy a need, of all sorts.
    In my personal experience, and i think most of the people could agree with me, i came accross with the idea that the ultimum goal of our lives, the key for happiness, is to make our passion(s) (game) our job (social construct).
    Is it not the reason why we (students) are here?

    Speaking of “social construct”, videogames, and most in general digital media, are definitely a result of modern society. The ability to create new worlds, parallel worlds and new identities has brought to the born of a new category of people and behaviours.
    Videogames, as an act of playing, have pushed this concept beyond its previous limits, letting the “child inside us” popping out in all new ways that were not possibile before.
    People uses videogames to estrange from reality and immerge themselves into a world where there are no more boundaries between real and unreal, where immagination and freedom can be everywhere (child status mind?)
    I remember the time when i was an hardcore gamer: i used to spend more than a half of my time in playing computer games. I was particularly interested in flight simulators because my child dream was to become a pilot. So videogames could offer me the opportunity to satisfy my need to, at least, pretend to be a pilot.

    (To conclude?) what is, then, the videogame industry nothing more than a massive production of child regression products for adults?

  4. Huang Hsiao Ying says:

    Play can be divided into several dimensions to discuss. It might be a word, an idea, an action or even a sort of attitude in philosophy. The article mentioned about Huizinga’s perspective of play as a function in societies but I think it’s too general and ambiguous to deem “play” as a function. I agree that, as a conception, play definitely provides certain functions such as children can learn from “playing”, or politicians use the manners of play to mediate conflicting interests between different parties. However, from functionalism’s point of view, everything can be regarded as a function and play might just be another “micro-” or “macro-” function in societies. Play, war, legal advocate, democracy or education all can be functions to sustain social operation and what kind of influences or impacts make them become functions in societies are deserved to discuss or put into clear definition.
    I would prefer to regard play as a circumstance than a function in operation of societies. When play combines with societies and culture, new topics always come out

  5. Danai Korre says:

    Piers comment – and especially the last sentence- made me recall some unfortunate events evolving people who put their health in risk because they were playing online games. I really can’t tell who is normal and who isn’t, but I do agree that people can tell the difference between reality and fiction. The point isn’t either they are aware that a game isn’t the reality or not but either they are addicted or not. For instance drug addicts know that the continuous use of drugs could most probably lead them to death but they continue using them because they are addicted to them.

    Over the past few years, several deaths have been recorded (mostly adolescents) of people who neglected their physical needs in order to play. In my opinion, it’s not irrelevant that the games that they were playing were in almost all of the cases “role-playing” games such as “World of warcraft”. In such games the player has the opportunity to reinvent himself and be someone else. Back in 2005 a young girl died after playing the on-line game “World of warcraft” for several continuous days. Her death triggered various on-line game communities to post announcements to alert their members to do the obvious, to pay attention to their health, isn’t that really sad? Furthermore as an outcome of this “on-line gaming obsession” several rehab facilities for video game addicts started to pop up in various locations around the world. That makes me wonder, should we take this addiction more seriously and consider the players as patients?


  6. Boteas Orfeas says:

    Nowadays the word ‘play’ involves two very essential factors that in a way rule our everyday life ; image and information. The fact that people often rely more on impersonal relationships than facing the reality depends on their character and the societies they live in. Generally people may understand the difference between quality and wasted time during a play but as time goes by more things tend to adopt a profile and not a personality (the major example is Facebook). As a result, games like world of warcraft lead people and especially young people in a kind of social isolation.
    The fact that certain rehab centers deal with ‘video game addicts’ can prove the strong connection of high technology with the human need to escape from reality. It seems like modern societies make us believe that we live in a world of many choices and opportunities that we can reject because we may prefer to create our own world. So for me the question is whether people tend to play video games regularly because they feel unsatisfied with their way of living, or the lifestyle of the 00’s suggests that our entertainment is a visualized reality, one utopia?

  7. yujia dong says:

    Let’s say that, if playing computer games is really going to threaten the development and function of society, should we legislate that “do not sell addictive computer games to children” so as to protect the young generation from further deterioration in the swamp? Same as what we normally do to the alcohol and smoking.

    As play is part of human’s desire, it could be, possibly, just as important and natural as the breathing and sleeping. You can’t get it off. And the more happiness you get from playing, the more you want. Greediness accumulates and thrives. While playing the game, we may notice that we have spent in more hours than we primarily planned. We just let the satisfaction of sensation goes before our rationality. I think that it is common sense for every girl that the saturate fat in pre-processed biscuit and ice-cream could lead to cancer. But girls are addicted to sweet as always they were. Is there any substitute for sweet? If someone could cook the carrots as tasty as chocolate cake, I will eat carrot every day. I just follow my distinct. So are the game players. I doubt that before the era of computer, there were some other kinds of games or “play” that fascinated human.

    And we should not forget the intuition of rejection to the unhappy reality we have. That could probably explain that why even the boring games or when we are tired of the games, they could still trap us for several hours. It is a way for us to consume the time and to delay the back to reality. We know that we have responsibility in the world we physically survive and act. But I am afraid that it feels so much better for me to ignore it for a while. Life needs break. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.

    From the ethical point of view, the game designers should aim higher at designing addictive games with education or training function. Honestly, I don’t count on that. But I really wonder what kind of game there will be 40 years from now.

    Finally,I got a question: are there levels of “play”? Is reading a book as a kind of “play” superior than playing computer games?

  8. In my opinion, videogames can, to a certain extent, be considered as dreams. When we dream, it is most of the time of things we wouldn’t allow ourselves to think or do in real life. Our subconscious mind uses dreams to express, and fulfill, those needs and desires that our conscious minds consider as wrong and immoral. It is a way to evacuate those ideas in order for them not to expand to things we could do in real life. I beleive people that play video games, such as GTA or FPS games are using the game for the same purpose as dreams. They decide, probably unconsciously, to be violent in an unreal environment in order to fulfill a possible urge for violence outside of the real world.

    Videogames are also used by some people to escape what they see as a sad reality and a boring and uninteresting life. In my opinion, it is an easy, but wrong way, to see life, and to see videogames. I beleive it is possible to find a good and interesting aspect to most things in life, and that the aim of everyone should be to transform every possible burden, responsibility or difficulty into challenges and quests. I beleive it is possible to transform most events, most obstacles or burden into fun, play, competition or achievment, and to transform the real life into a game. I have experienced depressions and sadness, and I have discovered tht with enough willigness and effort, it is possible to see most things positively and live in constant hapiness. Videogames just become another way of playing, and another way of expressing ourselves by creating stories, worlds, characters, or anther way to fulfill dreams, and needs, such as the urge to become a pilot.

  9. Jessica Ruiz says:

    ‘Violent’ video games have been continuously targeted a a contributing culprit to various criminal activity in recent media. A few months ago, I remember hearing about an elementary school student who brought an unloaded hand-gun to school and pulled it out of his backpack to play with his friends. This incident brought about discussion of blurring the lines between the ‘real’ and virtual world. I am not in any sense an advocate for violent video games like GTA or Call of Duty, but I think there are deeper rooted social and mental issues for why someone brings a gun to school or commits a violent crime. That said, I do believe age restrictions are rightly placed on certain video games, but the effectiveness of such parental controls is another issue itself.

    Concerning video games and physical health, I agree that playing video games is an inherently stationary pastime posing health concerns (i.e, you are doing a lot of sitting on the couch while eating junk food). Having three brothers who love their XBOX, I have seen them enter ‘game mode’ time after time, and like Stuart Brown’s claims, they are fully absorbed in the game, and their only focus IS the game. It’s easy to lose track of time when engaged and you most likely end up spending more time on the couch than planned. On the other hand, I think new game systems like the Wii and Kinect offer more opportunities and encouragement for movement in play. I have a Kinect and have played a few games that definitely got me moving. Though minimal, it’s a step in the right direction.

    I think it’s normal to have criticism for a new medium, but gaming seems to hold a negative connotation — whether that be it poses health problems, less socialization with friends, or too much violence. I don’t think we should dismiss virtual play as a mode for skill development, learning, and socialization. Henry Jenkins made an interesting point in Game Design as Narrative Architecture, that video games have become a platform for ‘boy culture’ which encompasses exploration, mapping, etc. Traditionally experienced in a backyard environment, which is seemingly fading and less accessible today. I think it’s important to examine gaming as part of social construction, which no doubt has opposing view points.

  10. Jesse Hurtado says:

    Richard, it’s interesting you would say that about genteel and middle class people possibly being more likely to commit crimes like those in detective novels, because a former teacher of mine at high school was convicted of plying young male students with drink and making sexual advances towards them. He eventually went to prison and years after he was released was murdered in a very quiet and expensive neighbourhood by an ex-convict who he befriended in prison.

    He taught history and usually gave us mysteries like the assassination of president Kennedy to solve in class. He always managed to show us the problems with committing crimes and how it was easy to be caught, but somehow I thought he would have known the loop-holes to escape with the perfect crime..

  11. Jesse, well there’s a salutary example … a story worthy of Henning Mankell, but tragically true its seems.

  12. Egle says:

    Aurélien, I like your idea of video games being just as dreams. I always consider video games to be a second reality. They allow users to create this completely new identity and life. Something that usually goes beyond what one could ever experience in real life. And I think this is the main appeal of video games. To experience something surreal, to be someone one would never be in a real life.
    In my opinion that is what make such games as lineage, world of war craft extremely popular. The opportunity to be a part of some fantasy world.

  13. Stephen Paterson says:

    It seems that there is a distinction to be made between play and games.

    It is interesting to note that most comments here were about video game violence and its effect on the user. This seems to be a contentious issue and one which rouses passions. The fact that games with such depictions in them surely appeal to part of our nature. Is this nature or nurture being the old question. It could be stated also as cultural or societal.

    It does not seem preposterous to presume that in a an imperialist society based on acquisition of territory and resources that these types of games might persist and proliferate. These aspects of human nature must be present for they are seen in reality, tribal considerations of protecting ones own at the expense of others. This question taken across species is also relevant.

    Here it seems we are approaching a definition of games and play. It could said that a game is that which is codified and rule based and takes part within a set of previously defined parameters whereas as play is more freely evolving. In the question of computer game violence we have another breaking of this definition in that yes these are games as the description above even though there may appear to be some freedom offered to the game player they are still playing within the parameters of the game. In GTA for example the music one can listen to in the car is selectable from a few tracks.

    But this is a game a not play and due to the “virtual world” of computer games people can live out fantasises no longer acceptable in the modern civilised world. What if we were to have a game where people would duel to the death in an arena, this of course has happened in history and I would hazard a guess that somewhere in the world certain activities still take place. Also the cross species argument comes in here again as in the case of bull fighting.

    Play though could be said to be the enactment of our imagination in the world and to some extent this is what computer games offer us. This is maybe more pronounced in second life or such similar scenarios. Also in the realm of social media where the game play can take on a sinister tone as in the case of Tom MacMaster, a student of this university I beleive, the Syrian Lesbian blogger.

    “One of life’s primal situations; the game of hide and seek. Oh, the delicious thrill of hiding while the others come looking for you, the delicious terror of being discovered, but what panic when, after a long search, the others abandon you! You mustn’t hide too well. You mustn’t be too good at the game. The player must never be bigger than the game itself.” Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories, (1987).

  14. wenjuan wang says:

    For some children,who can not distinguish right and wrong, the parent should give some advise and limit the time when the children playing the game. but the game for adults, sometime it is a good way to relax. Especially, in this society,which the people have the more stress, they are tied but also should have a smile in the whole day, sometime they have some stress,but no friend can tell,maybe they do not want to chat, at this moment,they are prefer to play game, it can forgot some terrible things. So,play game sometime is only evasion for far away the reality society. I think everyone has a weakness, but we do not want to find. In real life, we perhaps do not appreciate ourselves, the other way in the game world, we can find self-confidence and passion. It is not a bad thing. I agree that people should make a balance between confidence and self-abased. The game has been fascinating pace,which is we can enjoy the victory. Sometime go to game world, it is the good things, but we should be not immerse in game.

  15. Jonathan Pang says:

    The majority of research has demonstrated that violence and agression in video games are not to blame for violent crimes. In fact, research has shown “competition” (difficulty of games) showed greater influence on agressive behaviour than violent video games. I think games like GTA are being made a scapegoat because of the graphical content involved, but as some have said above, people enjoy these games because they are quite far from reality. I have played violent and aggressive video games for years, but not once have I thought about bringing a gun to school, commit grand theft auto, start fights with strangers for no reason, or kill anyone. Maybe its down to the person’s psychological state, which begs the question “would the culprit have committed the crimes anyway without playing games like GTA”. I guess its an unanswerable question, but it does make you think (also about the Matrix when Neo knocks over the vase when the Oracle told him to “watch out for the vase”).

  16. Owen Davian says:

    It’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for!

    I find the notion of play, work and being in the zone interesting. I would guess there is no difference between being in the zone when playing versus being in the zone when working. That state where everything falls away and one is totally absorbed would be the same. Traditionally we would have equated work with something we “have” to do versus play being something we “like” to do. The question then becomes: why are we playing?

    Like anything else, there seems to be good or productive play and then maybe play that is not as productive. I have to say though, that it does seem strange to use the word “productive” when commenting on play. As I think about it more, in my mind, play almost assumes being in the zone. When I think of myself “playing” I think of doing something where I am totally engaged and not thinking about work or other things. Play is in-and-of-itself a zone where you are not consciously working. I think work can be playful and you can work at play. The goal is to shrink the distance between the two as much as possible! I guess that is why they say “do what you love.”

    I think the business types got it right … there is a lot of work to be done on the golf course on Friday mornings!

  17. Samia Hussain says:

    In The Theory of Fun For Game Design, by Raph Koster, he talks about what makes games fun, and why we play them, and this can be applied to why we ‘play’ at all. As stated in a previous comment, play is an essential part of human life. It helps us evolve and grow as adults. A game, WHATEVER it is, always teaches us something. The whole point of us playing, from a very ‘down to basics’ point of view, is that we learn skills from doing so. According to Koster, games are teaching us to be ‘cavemen’. Take your stereotypical violent shooter, for example, you are learning kill an enemy for survival, the same way as a caveman you would have to hunt your prey. In your stereotypical MMO, you join a guild and you work together, here you are learning to socialize as well as work as part of a team. Take an RPG game, they typically involve a lot of ‘grinding’ or ‘farming’ (basically collecting stuff), this is essentially teaching gathering skills…

    So what is playing? It’s a way for humans and all other species of animals, from a very young age, to learn LIFE skills. In the case of humans, however, we don’t need to be ‘cavemen’ anymore, we live in a world, at least the majority that live within developed countries, where we no longer need to go out and gather or hunt our food, we simply order or collect from a shop. Life is a lot simpler for us in this modern era, but we still practice tasks that we would have learned in our primitive states.

    In context of violent video games discussed. I agree with Jon, that it’s difficult to assess whether a person committed a crime because he/she was mentally unstable to begin with, or whether it was a repercussion of playing violent video games. Personally, I don’t think video games are the cause of these acts of extreme violence, I think they can perhaps be a catalyst, or used an ‘excuse’, but in essence I would say there must definitely be a lack of mental stability as a foundation. I, for one, have been playing so-called violent games since I have been old enough to remember. I have watched movies that contain far more violent scenes (Irreversible anyone?) than ANY video game I’ve ever played and, no matter what the form of media, (and this could simply be due to my stable mind, who knows) none of these have ever made me feel like I want to lash out and kill someone or commit any form of violent crime or earn myself an ASBO. Of course, I can’t speak for everyone.

    Goggin wrote an essay on gaming and addiction, in this, she tells us, “game developers calculate the success or failure of a video game by it’s capacity to hook gamers.” When you take a successful MMORPG, such as World of Warcraft, it’s easy to say that the player is isolating themselves from society, or detaching themselves from the real world, by referring back to my initial point concerning the function of ‘play’, how can you say this is someone that is isolated when they are interacting with dozens of other players on a daily basis, learning to play as part of a team to kill a new raid or dungeon baddy, or developing friendships that may well, and in a lot of cases do(I know of a couple personally), blossom into real life relationships. The fact that the world is so digital is, what I think, scares many people into believing that gaming is bad. As someone said previously, gaming tends to have a negative connotation applied to it. My mother’s friend, who is completely computer illiterate, finds it bizarre that I communicate with my friends via text, she regularly questions my ‘excessive’ use of mobile phones, and often says things like ‘why don’t you just speak in person like normal people’. Quite frankly, some people just do not understand how much technology is enhancing our lifestyles.

  18. Evan says:

    I find the idea, mentioned above, of video games as being like dreams quite interesting. Personally I seem them as being more like a fantasy world than a dream where you are sleeping. The element of play and interaction takes away the pre-determined, uncontrollable feeling you have when in a dream. Although, arguably dreams are constructed from our sub-conscious, as Aurelien says, and therefore there is a close link between our fantasies and dreams.

    Perhaps a more fitting medium to compare to dreams is films; so much of a film, regardless of genre or setting, uses themes from real life that it seems to be closer to the melting pot of ideas and thoughts that our sub-conscious can throw into a dream. Also, sitting, watching a film motion-less in a dark cinema allows the mind to drift easier, I would say. However, the physical immersion of games, especially with a surround sound system, is probably greater than in films. Game environments are also more likely to be re-visited time and again. A recurring dream perhaps?

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