Play (Anthropology)

Play is a type of ‘free’ activity, familiar in the lives not only of humans, but also of certain animal species, that takes place ‘within its own proper boundaries of time and space’ (Huizinga 1950: 13). This activity is particularly characteristic of the young of any relevant species, who use special playful, and immediately recognizable expressions to indicate that they are engaged in it. This signal shows that the ostensible character of the activity, for instance, combat, does not reveal its true nature as understood by its participants. In other words, play has something of the character of acting, or make-believe.

In human society, the growing child soon discovers that play has its own characteristic instrumentality. Sometimes this is provided by improving upon nature, as when trees are used for playing hide-and-seek, but more often, balls, tops, boards, dice, cards and any number of different kinds of sticks, darts and bats, often carrying special symbols, together with lines and other markings drawn on the ground or on walls, clearly and unequivocally define the context of a game.

Games also have a pronounced social dimension. Lacrosse, a game first played by the Plains Indians, is defined not only by the stick and ball with which (and the field on which) it is played, but by the division of the players into two sides. Furthermore, within each side the prevailing ethic is cooperation, whereas between them it is competition. What goes for lacrosse goes for any number of other games, belonging to countless different cultures.


The result is that play, as an adult activity, is no longer recognizable by the facial expressions of the participants (which can reflect a wide range of emotions), but, instead, by the imposition of elaborate rules establishing in detail not only the number of players, the size of the arena, the duration of the contest, but also such apparently extraneous matters as the clothes to be worn and the appropriate season of the year. In many familiar cases, the rules are necessary to constitute the game, which could not exist in any form without them: this is particularly true of such intellectual pursuits as chess, backgammon, or card-games, including solitaire.

This latter case is also exemplified by a game known in different parts of Africa as oware (Ghana), omweso (Uganda), soro (Tanzania) (Zaslavsky 1979: 116f.), but also played as far afield as the Phillipines and Suriname. This is a board game for two opposing players, who score by moving counters around two rows of holes, one for each side. Although there are local variants in the number of holes, and of the counters to fill them, there is only one underlying principle. At the same time there is considerable local variation in the game’s cultural attributes: in the old kingdom of Baganda, a new king, or Kabaka, picked brown seeds from a local tree, for use on the omweso board kept in the royal hall. In Sur-iname the game is played at funerals. This illustrates a point, characteristic of play, that each separate type, whether it is oware or lacrosse, can be diffused over a very wide area, but in such a way that every local instance has its own distinctive social and cultural niche. Just consider the difference between lacrosse, as it was played by Lakota warriors in the mid-nineteenth century, and its present-day manifestation in English girls’ schools.

The human player, in the process of growing up in society, moves from a type of innocent, solitary play, characteristic of the very young child, and defined by Caillois (1979: 27) as paidia, to serious adult games, with intricate rules creating obstacles to be overcome, which are defined as ludus. At an early stage, according to Victor Turner, ‘the rules of a game provide a framework of action within which anything that does not properly belong … is screened out as irrelevant. This enables the players to enter into an altered state of consciousness called ‘flow’, in which their action and their awareness become one and their skills and the tasks confronting them are precisely matched’ (Turner 1982: 98).

In this process play becomes increasingly a matter of competition, in principle between equal sides, generally two in number. This symmetrical case, although extremely common, and exemplified by such diverse games as oware and lacrosse (to take examples already given), is by no means inherent in the rules of all competitive games. In some special cases, such as casino gambling, there is no question of equal chances, if only because the rules are designed to ensure that one side, in this case the ‘bank’, has a privileged status.

This is just one type of case in which winning or losing are matters of pure chance: any such case is defined by Caillois (1979: 17f.) as alea, but nothing in this definition requires unequal chances. The alternative case, where the players’ skill counts in determining their chance of winning, is agon (1979: 14f.). The two can combine, in games such as poker, where the hands dealt and the cards drawn, are determined by alea, but the choice of any card actually played, by agon. In all such cases, the more skilful players, in the long run, always win, however great the element of chance.

Finally, the cultural domain of play can extend far outside ‘the framework of action’, to involve non-players such as spectators, bet-takers, trainers and promoters, each with their own distinctive role. "Geertz’s study (1973: 412— 53) of the Balinese cockfight shows how this can happen, at different levels of society, in a contest in which the ostensible protagonists, the fighting cocks, are not even human. But then, ‘it is only apparently cocks that are fighting … Actually, it is men’ (1973: 417).

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