Work and play

Because I just made a “to-do” list, and because I’m running an Intro to Games Studies class this semester, so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about play, angles of definition, what the opposite of play might be—the quick answer is “work,” but saying work is the opposite of play is “cheap,” as J. Huizenga put it. He also said:

“Since the reality of play extends beyond the sphere of human life it cannot have its foundations in any rational nexus, because this would limit it to mankind. The incidence of play is not associated with any particular stage of civilization or view of the universe. Any thinking person can see at a glance that play is a thing on its own, even if his language possesses no general concept to express it. Play cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.”

For Huizenga, play is always voluntary. Work is voluntary, though it might not seem so. We are all free to not work, in the sense of a job that produces income, and in the sense of an avocation as well, something we work at without desiring profit. I could, if I chose, stop working and live in public shelters or the woods, eat from soup kitchens and dumpsters, and refuse to write or make music or do anything that might be construed as productive, but the physical and emotional cost this would exact is daunting. So, most of us choose to work, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, the contract we enter to obtain our income excludes play, explicitly or implicitly. One must do what one is told to do, or at least produce what one is told to produce. Of course, everyone plays at work, and often enough one must play to get work done, because play is freedom, it is the unconstrained thing, that which the unprepared-for contingency calls into being. That’s why the recent trend in corporate culture to make work more like play is so grotesque—the terms of the work-for-income contract, the one we enter into when we take a job, are underwritten by the undesirable outcome of not working. Work is voluntary, but only in the slightest sense; it’s as close to compulsory as one can get without becoming outright slavery. So, this is deal offered: within the terms of this near-compulsory contract, you are free to “play” as long as you fulfill the contract. That is not voluntary, it’s a parody of play; play’s voluntary essence makes enforced play ugly and unnatural, like persons made to dance like puppets. Still, I’m sure the work-as-play model will take off, given the popularity of video games. The amount of money made by the video game industry is something folks steeped in corporate culture are trained to notice, and the number of people entering the work force whose skills have been shaped by playing video games—hand-to-eye coordination, visual thinking, goal-oriented puzzle solving, etc—is exploding, thus managers will increasingly make work more like playing Far Cry 3, because it will make workers more productive, and then every workplace will do it, because they are birds on a wire, those MBAs. The fact that earning level-ups for upselling and getting badges for improving workflow is just a new iteration of the 37 pieces of flair means it won’t work in the long run, and people will quickly grow weary of “play,” as defined by the workplace. I still think play is the key to getting past corporate culture, and the old industrial definition of “work” that it rests on, but I’m not sure how.