The Philosophy of Play

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Once upon a Central Park, 1969, Richard Dattner of Dattner Architects set forth a manifesto called ‘Design for Play.’ Not long ago, I posted similar sentiments that as designers we are beholden to the imperative to design for play – not how to play. Dattner’s book of the same substance is one I am currently pouring over. Dattner’s words have coaxed forth numerous questions in me concerning the essence and meaning of play.

A recent professor of mine, to whom I owe a great many things – not least of which the inspiration and encouragement to pursue the design of ludic environments – used to run an exercise with our class on definitions of key words and concepts. Rather than regurgitate the (albeit considered) dictionary’s laundry list of popular uses, he recognized the process underlying the construction of definitions: experience. A friend of mine once described dictionaries as historical documents useful as starting points, but not to be referenced as instruction manuals. The importance of experience in defining anything is fundamental and essential. The exercise our professor ran us through was not unlike the exercises I imagine dictionary authors must also engage in.

With a concept like play, simple definitions are contentious and its philosophical variations rather divided. Dattner attempts a definition of play in his first chapter, and outlines his philosophy of it immediately. For him, work and play are opposite ends of a dichotomy. He writes that it is the ‘reason’ for acting, rather than the ‘activity’ itself, that determines whether someone is working or playing. This is one philosophy of play which I think is important to earmark, because I encounter it often.

In his elaborations of this philosophy I found that Dattner defined and redefined play frequently. In the spirit of my former professor’s exercises I challenged myself to indulge the author’s philosophy and play at extracting his definitions of play. In this way, I took on the role of my professor, observing and recording, and Dattner became my subject positing his experience as definition. Here are Dattner’s definitions of play, extracted for you from his chapter on the philosophy of play:

Play is:

  • supremely voluntary
  • doing what you want to do when you want to do it
  • a manifestation of internal needs and wishes
  • a necessity we require of ourselves
  • a full expression of personal freedom
  • exercise or action for amusement
  • freedom, room or scope for action
  • similar to magic
  • extraordinary
  • a process of mastering
  • concerned with the achievement of goals
  • about process not product
  • its own reward
  • freedom or abstinence from work
  • re-creation of ourselves
  • engaging in freely chosen activities that restore our sense of completeness
  • impossible to “do” – it is an end in itself
  • a manifestation of choice; [choice manifestation]
  • freedom
  • theatrical

Dattner also briefly defines what play is not.

Play is not:

  • professional athletics
  • bound by reality
  • deprived of freedom of action or expression
  • restricted or hampered

Reading this chapter certainly fanned the flames of my pursuit of play theories, and had me filling the margins with notes. Rather than agreeing or disagreeing with Dattner, I observe that these are some of the many definitions and negative definitions of play, and hope to discover many more from you and other readings.

If this post had you considering your own definitions of play I encourage you to post your thoughts below. I also gratefully welcome recommendations for further reading.


 “Work can be forced, but play, like love, is a supremely voluntary undertaking.”

–Richard Dattner


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