Play to order is no longer play: it could at best be but a forcible imitation of it.

Johan Huizinga

I once read a brief story about a little boy who was pretending to be a train.

In his living room, the boy sets up a line of chairs facing the same direction. He sits in the first one. He makes choo-choo noises, leading the imaginary train cars around an imaginary track.

At some point the boy’s father walks into the room and bends down to kiss the boy’s head. The boy turns to his father, conspiratorially, and says: “Don’t kiss the engine, daddy, or the carriages won’t think it’s real.”

Of course, the dad says, and goes about his day. The trains, we’re left to imagine, continued along their fictive course.

Do you remember this feeling? From your childhood? Of being deeply involved in an imaginary world, but still being consciousness of “only pretending”?

It’s that feeling, according to Johan Huizinga, author of Homo Ludens (and that anecdote about make-believe choo-choos), that is one of the defining characteristics of play: the absorption inside a separately bounded fun and fictive experience, while retaining full awareness of the outside world and, somehow, understanding that your acquaintance with both worlds was the better for it. Play, in other words, as reference point.

And play is not just for children. Huizinga believed that play creates order, and that all myth and rituals — religion, the courts, commerce, poetry, science — are rooted in play. That play is one of the bases of civilization. Something non-serious, but pursued both happily (that boy, those choo-choo chairs) and in earnest (the charming focus of Ron Artest comes to mind). Something, too, that lays outside the antithesis of wisdom or folly and outside the categories of good and evil. Something that has no moral function whatsoever. Play is “simply” something nature has created for us to do, something that is older than culture itself: “[F]or culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them playing.”

Happily enough, Huizinga developed a framework that defined the characteristics of play. He settled on five:

  1. Play is free, is in fact freedom.
  2. Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.
  3. Play has a locality and duration.
  4. Play creates order, is order.
  5. Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it.

In other words, you can’t be forced to play. And, in order to play, you must “step out of” real life into a circumscribed place — physical, imagined, whatever — in which another disposition reigns. That place has a location. It has a time boundary. Within it, there is an order separate from the everyday. Most importantly, to truly be play, an activity must not have a profit motive.

It’s that last bit that we especially seem to have a problem with.

Wanna come over and almost play?

Spend too much time in the hashtagged canyons of over-earnest adulthood and you’ll quickly notice two things:

  1. Games are everywhere *makes large, helicopterish encompassing motion with his hands*
  2. Very few of those game have anything to do with the concept of play.

Somehow, in our rush to make everything we do gamified and “fun” we haven’t left ourselves any room to truly play.

Here’s how it basically is. On the one hand: Weight Watchers for eating, Nike Plus for running, AchieveMint for money. Tinder. Todoist. Fitocracy. Also: That first-person shooter created by the U.S. Army. Also: salespeople, sitting in some coastal skyscraper right now, being trained on CRMs via cartoons, treasure maps, and achievement scores. Work-like activities that offer play-like game mechanics — progress meters and points, badges and bonuses, levels, leaderboards, achievement unlocks — to provide the semblance of diversion, if not the frisson of delight. All work has become games.

On the other hand: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Kickstarter, Patreon, et al. Play-like diversions (talking to friends! sharing things! art!) that offer work-like game mechanics (how many shares, tweets, hearts, whatever can you get) to make what should be fun seem less like play and more like, I dunno, paying really close attention to an odometer. All games have become work.

Hence things like WeWork, where office space performs in dressage.

Hence things like Slack, which seems more interested in being your friend than helping you actually get work done.

Hence, well, Burning Man, which has its own locality, its own order, its own duration. Inside its circle there is no money. But if you feel like the only place you’re genuinely free to play is in a desert, something back home has gone terribly wrong.

This used to be my playground

Of course what’s sigh-and-slouch unsatisfactory about all of this is that this place, the internet — this overmonitized attentional panopticon of riotous, A/B tested bunkum—once felt like play. Point of fact, by Huizinga’s definition, the internet was play:

The internet was free, was in fact freedom
Accessed freely. Absent restriction. Information available about anything. Connection was a choice.

The internet was not “ordinary” or “real” life
Separately bounded. Tucked away. Secret. It wasn’t a given that other people used it at all. You didn’t know who was a fellow traveler. It was something you snuck peeks at during work, or logged onto at night. The internet and all its rooms existed outside of real life.

The internet had a locality and a duration
Shared computer at the coffee shop, anyone?

The internet created order
The physical network of the internet is, itself, a form of order. But what, even, was Facebook but a method of organizing the otherwise chaotic socio-academic experience?

The internet was connected to no material interest
I can attest that I received absolutely no monetary compensation for my time on Compuserve.

I suppose what I’m really talking about here is two separate but connected feelings of loss. The places we once played are no longer places to play. That’s Feeling of Loss One. The clubhouse of the internet became a polis of the world.

Feeling of Loss Two: the secondary mechanics of play have been foisted onto our everyday, waking lives. That attempt to make everything fun — whether of office space or software, whether of hookup or meditation apps — has created an uncanny valley of not-quite-work, never-quite-play.

This is neither good or bad, I suppose. It just is. We can always take solace in the fact that little boys will always have their imagined choo-choos, and our kids will always find new ways to play.

Point of fact, while I was writing this a friend of mine called and told me a story about his daughter. He said they were relaxing on the beach when the daughter, a precocious redhead, turned to her dad and said, “Let’s pretend to be YouTubers.”

Ok, the dad said, what are we doing on YouTube?

We’re reviewing this beach, she said.

Ok, so we’re on a real beach, he said … but we’re pretending to be on YouTube … reviewing this beach?

Absolutely, she said.

She then proceeded to give the waves five stars.