How Much of Play is Actually Play?

In Johann Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, play is defined in part as disinterested, unproductive, and autotelic.  According to Huizinga, play is something that only holds intrinsic value and perceives its value only from itself, and nothing else.  While this is a noble idea, I choose to reject it.  Drawing from personal experience, I played baseball for the majority of my life but when I started playing in High School I began to resent it.  Regardless, I continued playing because most of my friends were still on the team, and it was a good piece of my college resume since I did not have an absurd amount of extracurriculars.  At this point, one might argue that it was simply a means to an end and that it could no longer be defined as play.  Most of the time this would be true, but there were still moments where I was captured in Huizinga’s “magic circle”, where seemingly pointless actions such as throwing a ball or swinging a bat came to mean so much more.

Drawing on a more concrete example, I examined Lebron James’ recent signingwith the Cleveland Cavaliers.  In an article recently posted by Business Insider, it is shown that James’ decision to go for a two-year, $42.1 million contract instead of a four-year, $94.5 million contract was actually extremely economical; James will be a free agent when the NBA’s new TV deal will begin, increasing his earning potential in the long run by a whopping $43 million.  It is safe to assume that James plays for the love of the game, but according to this article, he also plays for the money.  James’ entire life has been dedicated to play, yet his actions hardly seem disinterested, unproductive, or autotelic.  Accumulating massive amounts of money as such is hardly a demonstration of dedication to intrinsic values, yet it would be a crime to claim that James’ exploits and career fall out of the definition of play. While on the court, he is engrossed in Huizinga’s magic circle, this make-believe world where the only object is to finish the game.

I then took a look at the highly ritualistic Mayan ball game, where the losers of the game were severely punished and were sometimes even sentenced to death (click here to watch reenactment of game).  On the outside it really is just a game that seems to fit Huizinga’s definition of play; it is governed by space and time and holds a great deal of intrinsic value as it is a deeply religious and ritualistic game.  However, it has extremely real consequences.  When the game ends, the teams don’t simply go their separate ways: the winners are showered with riches and the losers are sentenced to death.  The same can be said for Lebron James: after games, play continues to dominate his life as he deals with public relations, advertising and training, among other things.

I propose to change Huizinga’s definition of play.  Why should something be excluded from the definition of play just because there is monetary compensation? Why should play have to be completely separate from real life? Why place so many restrictions on something that is supposed to be free? I think that if you can still obtain Huizinga’s magic circle, that for at least a moment the player is playing simply for the enjoyment of the game, then it can be defined as play.