Play’s a funny word.
It’s a verb. A noun. Add an ‘ful’ and it becomes an adjective. One of my favorite adjectives perhaps. It’s an adjective that can shine with so many different colors, ranging from the most basic explanation to the satisfyingly coy. One can be playful if they’re grabbing the handlebars of a jungle gym, or playful if they grab your shoulder and pull your ear close to their lips as they smile and you can sense the warmth of their bodies, hear the wetness of their mouth.
But Play. The core word, the noun, the one that refers to an act…that’s a funny word.
We use it for a lot of things. We use it to describe playing video games, playing sports, playing the violin, playing mind games, playing cards. These are all fundamentally different activities, some have rules, some have money on the line, some are just about interacting with other people.
Play. It’s a word weirdly associated with children. That pure version of playfulness evokes a carefree sense of enjoyment, a clambering and kaleidoscope imagery that you’re supposed to do when you’re a kid. Work is not play. (Not for most of us anyway.) Bills are not play. Exercise isn’t even necessarily play. Play is an exception to the adult life, and a mainstay of the child’s.
But that’s not true, is it? Adults play too. We play Quidditch, we play Humans Versus Zombies, even those of us who enjoy mainstream sports play soccer. Sometimes we just play hackey sack. We are as capable of play as children, we just choose to find excused to not experience it as often.
Maybe it’s because we have so many other emotions to choose from. Maybe because to open ourselves up to others we have other tools besides play. We have confession, and love, and death defying stunts, and all those other things we interpret and analyze and dig apart in search of meaning. Kids have a wide range of emotions to be sure, but supposedly they can snap into “play” just like that, just like it’s natural.
But something…feels off about that dichotomy.
I “played” for the first time in many years a few weeks ago. At the Indiecade festival. There was an outdoor game set up out there called The Church of Play. Simple outdoor games you might play at camp disguised with voiceless masks and pretend rituals. Symbols drawn from no prescribed text provided supposed meaning while we cast our dice and snapped our bodies into virile shapes. And as I spun and fell, a golden die slipped into my palm to show I’d passed some unknown test, all the barriers wore away and I felt—-strangely pure.
I speak of a temporal barrier since the last time I felt like this, and you may think that barrier to be childhood. But it’s more than childhood. It’s long into childhood’s past. For how can one feel like this when every game in childhood is built with loss conditions? How can one feel joyful and silly when the possibility of failure feels strangely engineered into one’s actions? As someone who grew up not winning the many games he stepped into, I think there was a gap between what everyone else thought I felt while at play and what I experienced. Goofballery could quickly turn to frustration or shame at the turn of a rule, physical strength or experience could mark the difference between play and humiliation.
But this isn’t the sore loser’s speech. Waste of time that would be. But spinning about that night at Indiecade—-letting my limbs lay loose and sliding into the poses of a golfer, a cello player, and even a dancer felt far safer then I’ve ever felt moving my body before.
Play. Play is supposed to be safe, right? Or at least, emotionally safe. It’s rules without consequences, war without death. We’ve turned sports into stakes but especially for children play is meant to be practice. Simulation.
…So why did it never feel this safe before?
We separate play from kids and adults in this weird conventional barrier right now. This digital world of ours is filled with people pontificating on how adults need to get back to play.
Perhaps. But before we can even wonder about adults, I wonder about the games we teach our children. About how we teach them about dominance and coping with pain.
We create an illusion of play then hide it behind false doors. We make a memory of a vague point in childhood then seek to seal it off as soon as possible.
I have memories of trying to play the way I did at Indiecade. To just make weird noises and turn my body into something it wasn’t. But there are shadows hanging over them. Shadows that grew more and more frequent as I got older. Until one day the shadows grew even brighter, and the walls began to rise up against them.
A part of me thinks how it was so strange that so many things in the world wanted me to stop what I was doing. But after a night of making people laugh and laughing with them, I wonder why doing the same thing as a kid didn’t do the same thing.
Only Adult Problems Are Capable of Making Me Do This
Two Roommates moving out at the end of November. 1 Big lease for me to take over. 4 people say they’re interested. 3 drop out before even seeing the place. Cue hyperventilating.
Obviously I’ve got a month and and plenty of resources to fill the room but God DAMN if that didn’t just trigger some minor anxiety.
There might be a lot I have to say on this subject. There’s a lot of different ways to lens it. Perhaps it might be better to say I’m interested in discussing a specific kind of selfishness. One that I find to cloud the mind and blur the issue. That shifts and misdirects, placing material elements in front of human need. It’s a strange kind of selfishneses, because it rarely has to do with the sharing of items. Rather it has to do with the direction of conversation, the alignment of rhetoric, and the appropriation of events for personal causes.
Those are some big fuckin’ words. So I guess I’d best start backing em up. So let’s start with video games.
Working in games writing, the number one lightning rod of conversation is the question of how violent video games influence people. It’s an old hat conversation by now. Violent event happens. Video games somehow tangentially (or directly) involved, and Corporate media starts spinning like a whirlpool to try and blame the games for turning people violent.
This was a lot more popular back in the 90’s, when these spin cycles lasted longer than the actual time it takes to beat your average video game. Now the total media produced by a “violent video games” debate tends to only be worth a couple of hours. Maybe a few angry blog posts.
I don’t care about any of that. After the 2012 Supreme Court Case, no legislative body can restrict the sale of video games based on content, so it’s not a concern. But recently, a judge did take away someone’s right to game. Or, at least, offered to. A 17 year old kid accused of assaulting his mother was ordered not to play video games after being charged as an adult for assault.
First off, the kid deserves every bit of the law that’s swinging his way for his actions. He’s responsible for them, he deserves it. But when the gaming community caught wind of this, they protested. Protested a judge taking away video games, protested the words “Government” and “taking away video games” even in the same sentence. And all the while, amidst the talk of free speech, amidst the protesting of our civil rights, a kid and his family are going through one of the greatest struggles you can imagine right now.
I was annoyed at the time because I thought this was an alternative punishment, but now it’s clear it’s a parole condition. Which doesn’t make it any easier. The legal backing is clear, judges are allowed to impose these kinds of conditions all the time. There’s no 1st Amendment question, no precedent being set, and yet the audience I was dealing with couldn’t stop talking about how the government was getting involved in our lives and how they shouldn’t touch our video games at all.
And I sat dumbfounded, because to me, none of this mattered. None of this mattered when a kid’s life and future were on the line. When this family was on the line. When a bad home and a bad situation were going worse, all people wanted to talk about was how it affected them. When it wasn’t about them. Not in any way other than vague principals and half-hearted grandstanding.
Then there’s the inevitable flareup whenever an article goes out about another K-8 school that’s reducing what kind of physical games they allow because of fear of injury. And how people while that kids aren’t “tough enough” because schools are trying to weaken them or make them soft. And all the while all I can think is “how does this affect you?”
Unless your kid’s in that school, or unless you’re involved in that situation, you don’t know all the variables. You’re becoming guilty of the same behavior News Anchors were when that poor kid accidentily shot his Grandmother after playing GTA IV. You’re taking a local, isolated issue with bigger, darker consequences hanging over them and trying to boil them down to simple slogans to make them easier to understand and complain about.
What makes me even more nervous is that often these rabble rousings wind up obscuring larger issues. Questions of class, race, mental health, and other structural issues are often looming over these matters, but they’re obscured by everyone going for the “Controversial” issue. What’s going on in this kid’s house that he was already at the point of rage? What’s going on in this school that they needed to impose this kind of ban? How does a young kid get access to a loaded handgun?
And we can’t have those conversations. Because instead of worrying how these broader questions affect the people directly involved in the scenarios, we wind up worrying about how these questions affect us.
I find a selfishness here I’m not entirely fond of. An ignorance and washing away of the real ongoing trauma and appropriation for personal causes.
A part of my brain wonders where I’ve been guilty of this. The gun debate on both sides can be quick to pull this trick, and when you get involved with that debate others’ pain can invariably wind up as one of your supporting arguments. Which makes me question if my frustration with this selfishness is merely a matter of disagreement.
In any case, when I find this in the case of games or guns, to be aligned around rapidly defending the need to possess material items instead of dealing with the consequences of human behavior, I am…immensely dissatisfied.
Finally Updated This Profile Pic
Guess it took me a while. There aren’t a lot of photos of me I’m overly fond of, and I had to engineer this one to even hope to get what I wanted.
I updated it on Facebook but busyness and laziness made me delay here. And the fact that I wanted to hold onto that old photo just a little while longer.
It’s nice when someone else can actually snap a photo of you that makes you feel like you’re the person in the frame. And it’s even nicer when it slides in with one of the happiest days of your life.
But….hey. New happy days moving ahead.