Practicing Play

Germaine Koh

League is a project I launched in 2012, which gathers community members to practice play as a process of creative problem solving.[1] It was conceived as a forum for playing invented games and sports, while communicating the serious belief that, through their play, participants might actually be pursuing some of humankind’s loftiest ideals.

Several to-my-mind interconnected principles were behind League. One was the argument for valuing play in and of itself. Another was the ancient, but still unevenly embodied, idea about the value of integrating mental and physical practices. The third was to draw out parallels between athletic and creative processes.

I. Why Play?

Why play, you ask? Some assume that play is a frivolous pursuit, and the reaction isn’t unexpected. On the one hand, play is dismissed as a useless luxury or inconsequential trifle, and on the other, it could be characterized as petty because of its concern with rules. Yet on the contrary, thinkers from the realms of psychology, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, education, and theology have argued that play is a fundamental human impulse, even one of our highest achievements. Their varied defenses of play don’t deny the contradictory characterizations of play as both luxuriously free and rule-bound, and in fact, many argue that these apparently contradictory properties contribute to making play one of the great human achievements.

Play is fundamentally tied to human culture.
In an important early definition of play, Johan Huizinga identified play as free and set apart from ordinary life, a sacred activity that unfolds within a delimited sphere — the ‘magic circle’ of play. Play creates and respects order, is utterly absorbing for players, and is unrelated to material interest.[2] With these characteristics of freedom and order, play precedes — and indeed is one of the conditions that generates—human culture. ‘Civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play(…) it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.’[3]

Anthropologist Roger Caillois built on Huizinga’s work, describing play as ‘an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often of money.’[4] Yet play is an essential component of human society; many social structures and behaviors can be viewed as forms of play. Caillois outlined fundamental forms of play, each of which range between structured and spontaneous: games of chance, role-playing, competition, and vertigo (altered perception). These forms of play tend to be institutionalized within societies; for instance, games of chance take cultural form in lotteries, institutional form as the stock market, or appear corrupted in the form of superstitions. Play is embedded within human culture.

Play is an ultimate human goal.
Some might wish to dismiss play as inconsequential because it is constrained by rules. Yet in the philosophical work The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, Bernard Suits undertakes to define what a game is, and finally concludes that play is central to human ideals, and thus to any conception of Utopia. Suits provides the very useful definition that ‘playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’[5] and a ‘lusory attitude’ as a psychological will to accept rules in order to enter a state of play. It is the voluntary acceptance of limitations — the uncoerced freedom of play — that marks its exalted nature. In Utopia, we would be free to play.

Play is central to a meaningful life.
Is luxury really the best way to characterize play? Since Aristotle, happiness has often been thought of as an ultimate goal of humans. However, as Mihály Csíkszentmihályi elaborates, it is not material luxuries that produce happiness or satisfaction, but rather the cultivation of conditions of ‘optimal experience.’

In his primary work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi describes states of flow in the realms of physical activity, ritual, thought, creative play, and work. These are all activities that, like games, involve action within rules. ‘What makes these activities conducive to flow is that they were designed to make optimal experience easier to achieve. They have rules that require the learning of skills, they set up goals, they provide feedback, they make control possible. They facilitate concentration and involvement by making the activity as distinct as possible from(…) everyday existence.’[6] Certainly, these activities can also be pursued without attaining a state of flow, but the implications of Csíkszentmihályi’s arguments are that flow is important for these activities to feel meaningful.

A psychologist largely concerned with questions of creativity and joy, Csíkszentmihályi outlines flow as a satisfying state of concentration, engagement and absorption in an activity. Importantly, to achieve a state of flow requires a balance — play, in other words — between challenge and skill: ‘a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous.’[7]

Play is transformative.
Poet Diane Ackerman builds on Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow. Ackerman sees the possibility of ‘deep play’ in myriad human endeavors, including experiences in face of nature, during extreme pursuits, in dramatically isolated situations, and working with language. ‘Deep play arises in such moments of intense enjoyment, focus, control, creativity, timelessness, confidence, volition, lack of self-awareness (hence transcendence), while doing things intrinsically worthwhile, rewarding for their own sake, following certain rules (they may include the rules of gravity and balance), on a limited playing field. Deep play requires one’s full attention.’[8]

An important distinction is that these activities are not categorically playful, as deep play is a state of absorption in a situation regardless of its character. It is rapturous experience. ‘Deep play is the ecstatic form of play. In its thrall, all the play elements are visible, but they’re taken to intense and transcendent heights. Thus deep play should really be classified by mood, not activity. It testifies to how something happens, not what happens. Games don’t guarantee deep play, but some activities are prone to it: art, religion, risk-taking, and some sports.’[9]

Ackerman describes deep play in near religious terms, while making it clear that the transformative experiences to which she refers have neither significant relation to — nor impediment by — the proscribed habits of religion, though ritual delimitation is part of what creates the sacred space of play. ‘For humans, play is a refuge from ordinary life, a sanctuary of the mind, where one is exempt from life’s customs, methods, and decrees. Play always has a sacred place — some version of a playground — in which it happens. The hallowed ground is usually outlined, so that it’s clearly set off from the rest of reality. This place may be a classroom, a sports stadium, a stage, a courtroom, a coral reef, a workbench in a garage, a church or temple, a field where people clasp hands in a circle under the new moon. Play has a time limit, which may be an intense but fleeting moment, the flexible innings of a baseball game, or the exact span of a psychotherapy session.’[10]

Play connects us with great ideas.
Theologian Michael Novak has also written of the great passions that we are willingly drawn into when engaged with sports in particular. Novak explains the impulse to play and follow sports in terms of their conversation with ritual. ‘Even in our own secular age and for quite sophisticated and agnostic persons, the rituals of sports really work. They do serve a religious function: they feed a deep human hunger, place humans in touch with certain dimly perceived features of human life within this cosmos, and provide an experience of at least a pagan sense of godliness.’[11]

Novak’s classic The Joy of Sports is a convincing exposition on the religious character of sports that is reminiscent of early definitions of play as foundational to culture. ‘Play is the most human activity. It is the first act of freedom.(…) Play is not tied to necessity, except the necessity of the human spirit to exercise its freedom, to enjoy something that is not practical, or productive, or required for gaining food and shelter. Play is human intelligence, and intuition, and love of challenge and contest and struggle; it is respect for limits and laws and rules, and high animal spirits, and a lust to develop the art of doing things perfectly. Play is what only humans truly develop.’[12]

Novak notes that only certain ideologies privilege work over play, and provides an alternate view of play as the ultimate ideal. ‘Play, not work, is the end of life. To participate in the rites of play is to dwell in the Kingdom of Ends. To participate in work, career, and the making of history is to Labor in the Kingdom of Means.(…) Work, of course, must be done. But we should be wise enough to distinguish necessity from reality. Play is reality. Work is diversion and escape.’[13]

Play is a survival skill.
Within Abraham Maslow’s 1943 hierarchy of needs — which describes physiological and safety needs as more fundamental than questions of self-esteem — play is one of the concerns that are attended to once basic needs are secured.[14] Yet one could argue that strategic thinking and competition are important survival skills, as we see in the branch of economics known as Game Theory. Problem-solving, socialization and learning through play are also recurrent themes of childhood development theories. Indeed, as Caillois described, play extends to many aspects of human activity.

Tellingly, animals also play. ‘Evolutionary psychologists believe that there must be an important benefit of play, since there are so many reasons to avoid it. Animals are often injured during play, become distracted from predators, and expend valuable energy.’ The evolving theory is that play helps animals prepare to survive in their own particular environments.[15] The parallel to children developing motor and social skills seems obvious.

Play is pervasive.
As computer gaming becomes ubiquitous, as video games become the dominant form of entertainment in contemporary society, and as game design has become big business, it seems ever more pressing to understand the compulsions and potential of play. Experimental game designer Frank Lantz succinctly summarizes the promise of games: ‘Games can inspire the loftiest form of cerebral cognition and engage the most primal physical response, often simultaneously.(…) Games are capable of addressing the most profound themes of human existence in a manner unlike any other form of communication — open-ended, procedural, collaborative; they can be infinitely detailed, richly rendered, and yet always responsive to the choices and actions of the player.’[16]

Games are approaching ubiquity, a point where businesses are looking to ‘gameify’ their offerings in order to attract consumers and cash in on those compulsions.[17] Given the pervasiveness of gaming, Lantz states simply why it is important to take play seriously, to push for the best that play can be: ‘If enough people believe that games are meant to be mindless fun, then this is what they will become. If enough people believe that games are capable of greater things, then they will inevitably evolve and advance.’[18]

Play can do good.
We see, then, that there is a long tradition of believing in the good of games and play. Understanding the power of games, there is also an emerging domain of critical game design that takes the social practices of gaming seriously. Game designer Jane McGonigal is concerned with alternate-reality games intended to improve real life, with ‘pervasive games’ that use game imagery to disrupt the conventions of public space, and with ubiquitous computing that imagines game-like interactivity in the real world. She has argued for the collective intelligence of online computer gaming as a powerful engine for solving problems, human evolution, co-operation and trust, producing optimism, and creating meaning. McGonigal goes so far as to say that ‘playing games is the single most productive way we can spend our time.’ In Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World she argues that game mechanics, particularly in massively collaborative projects, can be harnessed to make the real world a better place.[19]

It is uncertain whether the types of game dynamics that McGonigal proposes will ultimately prove compelling enough to generate a movement, and as play practices evolve and the social stakes are raised, we certainly should ask what games can accomplish, what good they might bring about. But fundamentally, play in and of itself is good. Why do we play? Because it is part of what makes us human.

II. Mens sana in corpore sano

‘A sound mind in a sound body’ — the Roman poet Juvenal’s phrase expresses another of the founding principles behind League. The idea that mental and physical fitness are fundamentally linked, while passed down as aphoristic wisdom, isn’t fully incorporated in Western social traditions. Rather, conventional cultural divisions of labor between physical activity and pursuits of the mind continue to be more aligned with a Platonic or Cartesian view of mind and body as separate entities.

Physical training certainly seems to be one of Western culture’s new religions, but sometimes the ritualistic practices of organized athletics exclude the critical mind, let alone seek to couple it with bodily practice. On the other side of the Cartesian divide, fields that privilege mental activities may hold themselves aloof from physical activity, aligning with deep-seated class divisions. To reconcile the divide, the argument for embodied cognition — the integration of the physical and mental — should consider the question in the round.

With respect to the question of how physical activity affects mental functioning, there is a growing mountain of scientific studies pointing to the role of physical activity in mental development and maintaining neurological health. These reinforce best practices of integrating play into child development and recommending physical fitness as a means to maintain mental acuity. Some even suggest that physical activity produces thought. For instance, recent Stanford University experiments concluded that the pace of walking may promote creative thought (defined as ‘the production of appropriate novelty’).[20] These studies give credence to the tradition within the disciplines of philosophy and writing, of walking as an engine for ideation — a practice reaching back to the habits of Aristotle, who purportedly lectured while walking the colonnades of the Lyceum of Athens, and whose followers came to be known as the Peripatetic School.

Arguing from the other side of the mind-body divide — and with clarity about the class-based assumptions attached to it — Matt Hern has written convincingly about the value of athletic pursuit as a critical tool and a field of radical possibility. He argues passionately for sports as a legitimate site for political struggle, for embodying challenging ideas. Besides social movements such as gender identity, class equality and race politics that have been significantly furthered by their enactment within the field of sports, Hern sees the cultural and intellectual potential of athletics more broadly in, for example, the comradeship that arises in the vulnerable bodily contact of a fight, or the sportsmanship of a well-played game that stands as ‘an everyday performance of trust and neighborliness.’ He values the collaborative creativity and the ‘clarity of consequence’ that arise in sports. As viewed by Hern, sports are a kind of thought, a creative conversation between embodied beings. ‘Competition should have nothing to do with domination. Instead, it can and should push the boundaries between singularity and plurality, making permeable the thresholds between discrete bodies, and concretizing solidarity. Understanding competition as mutual aid is so common — athletes of every skill level know the feeling, an intimacy that has nothing to do with the score, but everything to do with commonality … or friendship.[…] The sporting world offers a sweet, powerful, and perhaps irreplaceable avenue for rethinking and remaking this world in which we live.’[21] Sports are an arena appropriate to the grandest of ideas.

Athletics as the practice of ideas, and physicality as a generator of thought: this reciprocal relationship is in itself a dangerous idea because it breaks down some of the separations upon which cultural conventions are staked.

III. Play as a Creative Practice

When proposing the use of sports and play as tools for creative thinking, I have often fielded the question of what play, sports, and creativity have to do with each other. At the risk of explaining away the magic, it is worth outlining some of the dynamics of how “innovation” happens in different fields.

As we move into a knowledge economy, creativity and innovation have come to be prized above other skills. Understanding the value of creative thinking, many universities now offer Creative Process courses within their general curricula. But what is creativity? The Stanford research mentioned above quantified it in terms of novel ideas generated in response to a given problem. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s descriptions of what happens in flow — the production of rich experience and progression through a combination of challenge and skill — could also serve as a provisional outline of creative process. Albert Einstein, in response to questions about his mental process, ventured that the key to innovative thought is a vague, pre-linguistic, associative play that aims to be ‘analogous to certain logical connections.’ To Einstein, ‘combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”[22] Other attempts to analyze creativity have produced formulae aligned with Einstein’s: for example, ad man James Webb Young’s five-step Technique for Producing Ideas begins with gathering materials and sources, mentally chewing them over, and then putting the masticated mixture of ideas out of mind, which eventually — with apparent ease following the groundwork — germinates new ideas.[23]

What all these theories of creativity have in common is that they share a fundamental view of disciplined practice and play as the means to innovation: not innate skill but thoughtful practice that accepts the indeterminacy of play and its unknown results. The famous ’10 Rules for Students and Teachers’ of creative disciplines (compiled by Sister Corita Kent and popularized by John Cage) addresses both practice and play, stating that ‘The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It is the people who do all the work all the time who eventually catch on to things…’ while also recommending openness to uncertainty that is one hallmark of play.[24] Indeed, these examinations of creativity also have in common a recognition of the inexplicable, intangible, spark that fuses effort and practice into something new and original.

Importantly, none of these theories venture to define what exactly that magical element is, but rather accept the not-knowing as a crucial part of the process. The most one can say, it seems, is that the conditions for producing that spark, whatever it might end up being, are disciplined practice that develops relevant skill, combined with a playful attitude, and brought to bear upon a field of effort. In my experience, this happens not only in the studio but also on the sports field, and beyond. A musician’s skillful improvisation, grounded in practice and self-challenge, is very like the synergy that can develop on the sports field when teamwork and preparation (practice) meet opportunity (the magic circle of play) to create a beautifully spontaneous play.

Even more conceptually and socially disruptive are the occasions when creative play spills out of the defined field. Going even further than the notion of play as a process of problem-solving within a given discipline, Einstein’s view of combinatory play suggests that the most creative thought has less to do with solving a defined problem, than with finding and setting new ones: the idea, studied by Csíkszentmihályi and Jacob Getzels that ‘it is in fact the discovery and creation of problems rather than any superior knowledge, technical skill, or craftsmanship that often sets the creative person apart from others in his field.’[25] What seems key is Bernard Suits’ ‘lusory attitude’: the mindset that guided practice leading to the not-yet-known is a pursuit of the highest order. That ‘voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’ — play within, and maybe with, convention and limits — is akin to the disciplined uncertainty that is the engine for greatness in both athletics and more conventionally recognized creative fields. Across disciplinary conventions, play is creative and creative practice is grounded in play.[26]


[1] League, a community-based project conceived by Germaine Koh, ongoing since 2012. http://league-league.org.
[2] Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: a study of the play element in culture, original Dutch 1938. (Boston: Beacon, 1955), 8-13.
[3] Ibid., 173.
[4] Caillois, Roger. Man, Play and Games, original French 1958. Trans. 1961 (Chicago: University of Illinois, 2001), 5-6.
[5] Suits, Bernard. The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. Original 1978 (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2005), 55.
[6] Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), 72.
[7] Ibid., 71.
[8] Ackerman, Diane. Deep Play (New York: Vintage, 1999), 188.
[9] Ibid., 12.
[10] Ibid., 6.
[11] Novak, Michael. The Joy of Sports: End Zones, Bases, Baskets, Balls, and the Consecration of the American Spirit (New York: Basic Books, 1976), 20.
[12] Ibid., 32-33.
[13] Ibid., 40.
[14] ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’. Wikipedia. Accessed 28 December 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs.
[15] ‘Play and Animals’ in ‘Play (activity)’. Wikipedia. Accessed 28 December 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_play#Play_and_animals.
[16] Lantz, Frank, ‘Foreword’. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), x.
[17] Wingfield, Nick. ‘All the World’s a Game, and Business Is a Player’. New York Times, 23 December 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/24/technology/all-the-worlds-a-game-and-business-is-a-player.html?hp&_r=0.
[18] Lantz, xi.
[19] McGonigal, Jane. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Penguin, 2011.
[20] Oppezzo Marily and Schwartz, Daniel L. ‘Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking’. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40:4, 2014, 1142–1152. Accessed 20 March 2015 at http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/xlm-a0036577.pdf.
[21] Hern, Matt. One Game at a Time: Why Sports Matter (Oakland: AK Press, 2013), 130-131.
[22] Einstein, Albert. ‘A Mathematician’s Mind’, 1945. Reprinted in Ideas and Opinions (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1954), 25-26.
[23] Young, James Webb. A Technique for Producing Ideas. Original 1940. McGraw-Hill, 2003.
[24] ’10 Rules for Students and Teachers.’ Immaculate Heart Convent, 1967-68.
[25] Summarized in Dan Pink. To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. New York: Riverhead, 2012.
[26] A portion of this text was published as ‘Why Play?’ League website. 29 December 2012. http://league-league.org/?p=863.


Germaine Koh is a Canadian visual artist based in Vancouver BC. Her work is concerned with the significance of everyday exchanges, familiar objects and common places. Her exhibition history includes the BALTIC Centre, De Appel, Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, Para/Site Art Space, Frankfurter Kunstverein, The Power Plant, The British Museum, the Contemporary Art Gallery, Plug In ICA, Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Liverpool, Sydney and Montreal biennials. Koh was a recipient of the 2010 Shadbolt Foundation VIVA Award, and a finalist for the 2004 Sobey Art Award. She is also an independent curator and partner in the independent record label weewerk. Current projects include League, which gathers people to play invented sports and games, and Home Made Home, an enterprise for building small dwellings. germainekoh.com