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The Elements of Play

Eberle, S. G. (2014). The Elements of Play Toward a Philosophy and a Definition of Play. Journal of Play, 6(2), 214-233

In this article Eberle draws of linguistic structures to help to define play and playfulness. In the first sections of the article the author helps to illustrate the limitations of language to define the complex social and cultural uses of the term play and the role of play in society. The ‘usefulness’ of this article is in its deployment of diagrams to build a linguistic taxonomy and lexicon of play. The article breaks down play into Anticipation, Surprise, Pleasure, Understanding, Strength, and Poise producing a linguistic gradient of the categories drawn from the Museum of Play’s categorization.

The article then builds a spiraling 3D diagram that tries to time-series the diagram of play to understand that these elements are entangled and interplay across time and the player interacts with the context through play.

Useful Quotes

“Play, as a unique form of adaptive variability, instigates an imagined but equilibrial reality within which disequilibrial exigencies can be paradoxically simulated and give rise to the pleasurable effects of excitement and optimism. The genres of such play are humor, skill, pretense, fantasy, risk, contest, and celebrations, all of which are selective simulations of paradoxical variability.” – from Sutton-Smith (1997)

“References to ‘adaptive variability’ and ‘selective simulations’ at the beginning and end suggest that it is best not to think of play as a thing, at all—like a car that speeds or a rose that smells sweet—but as a series of connected events. In this respect, play resembles a revolution, or a journey, or growth, or acceleration, or other processes that unfold and move along at varying rate.” (p. 220)

“Play begins in anticipation, in an imaginative, predictive, pleasurable tension. We usually sidle into play after having looked forward to it, after having prepared ourselves for” (p. 222)

“Picturing play as an emergent self-feeding process where causes and effects are linked shows how anticipation leads to the kind of surprise that gives rise to pleasure which enlarges understanding, which in turn builds strength (of mind, body, or character), which contributes to the poise that again enables our anticipation. It is as if a play event sits on a platform, where each element spins on its own axis as the whole corkscrews through time” (p. 230)

“Play is hard to parse also because playing holds a fractal quality. To look at each element is to examine the pieces of a broken holograph that contain the others curled up within; each smithereen holds in itself the capacity to reconstruct the whole.” (p. 231)

“Play has resisted definition mainly because it is difficult to render dynamic
relationships into language.” (p. 231)

Further Reading

Sutton-Smith, B. (1999) “Evolving a Consilience of Play Definitions: Playfully,” in ed. Stuart Reifel Play Contexts Revisited, Play & Culture Studies, Vol. 2, , 25

Marks-Tarlow, T. (2010) “The Fractal Self at Play,” American Journal of Play 3: 32

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