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Differentiating between Play and Critical Play

Claire Romaine's picture

Maybe the best place to start when talking about play is not in the context of a scholarly article, but rather to discover what differentiates play from the work that people do every day of their lives.  To start with the obvious, work is obligatory whereas play is a voluntary activity.  Work seems to be strenuous either physically or mentally, while play, although oftentimes the same, must also include some form of entertainment or else no one have incentive to participate. For all intents and purposes, our differentiation between work and play agrees with Flanagan’s explanation with one key addition:  “In play, the aim is play itself not success or interaction in ordinary life” (Mary Flanagan 5).

Obviously, when Flanagan introduces the concept of critical play, there are bound to be some objections based on this definition.  All of the sudden she’s supposing that critical play can have a different intention than simply enjoying play.  For Flanagan, play can also be “activities that represent one or more questions about aspects of human life” (6) or a “platform of rules by which to examine a specific issue” (6).  The contradiction between play and critical play is clear, but what is less clear is by which definition we should abide.  Emotionally it seems easy to understand the concept of critical play:  I can enjoy myself in an activity that stimulates my interest and asks probing questions.  But analytically the definitions clash irreconcilably.  Critical play requires intent while play on its own necessitates a lack of outside purpose.

Take for instance an experience that I had in the city this weekend.  In the Old City I noticed the juxtaposition between the age old buildings and the metallic, glassy shop-fronts.  Sometimes old Greek pillars seemed to rest atop the bright lights of the modern shops.  I delighted in noting each of these as we passed by even as I began to question what it meant about the merge between history and modernity.  Would history continue to be slowly taken over by office building and stores and slowly succumb to the passage of time?  Or would little remnants always remain as testament to past events?  I both enjoyed the sights for the sake of seeing them, which suggests play, yet I was also purposely trying to discern what they represent, which suggests critical play and an intent that is contrary to the basic definition of play.

The nest of contradictions grows when you add in the inevitable reactions of people to new situations.  What happens when someone is uncomfortable?  I, for one, was with just one other person in a completely new part of town on Friday night as it began to grow darker.  We walked along and passed fewer and fewer streetlights before we ducked into an empty SEPTA concourse in a drawn-out attempt to find a train to take us back to the campus.  I was anything but at ease in an environment that my mother always warned me to avoid.  In the basic definition of play as something which “offers pleasure in its own right” (5), I was precluded from playing by my circumstances; the late-night wandering was anything but pleasurable.  However, critical play does not follow these same strictures, in fact quite the opposite:  Social critiques, of which critical play is a part, are often capable of making people uncomfortable because they force them to think outside of the normal parameters of their awareness.  If they do not push people outside of their normal state of being then they cannot possible engage in “careful examination of social, cultural, political or even personal” issues.

Flanagan’s article suggests a clear-cut answer in which both play and critical play can exist as two cohesive non-contradictory activities, but the definitions are not that simple.  They contradict each other both explicitly and through practical examples.  Since Flanagan’s definition of play seems the most natural and instinctive, it is tempting to rule out completely the idea of critical play. Yet to do so would raise the question of why we are studying play at all if the only point of play is play itself.


Works Cited

Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play. London: The MIT Press, n.d. Web. 6 Oct. 2013.


Mindy Lu's picture

In the first paragraph,

In the first paragraph, Claire sited the sentence from Flanagan's text, and defined the difference among play, critical play and work. When I read this paragraph, I am curious about how she will combine her trip to Philadelphia with the content in Flanagan's book content. She played with thinking about the information she read from the book and trying to understand more and feel more about that.

Muni's picture

Claire plays the game of

Claire plays the game of playful indeciciveness, using "maybe" as her first word. It immediately caught my attention and made me want to read further. Claire uses her first paragraph as a means to set up the background information from Flanagan, defining as much as possible play, work, and critical play. She doesn't give much away about how she'll discuss these topics, leaving a bit of mystery for the reader to latch onto.