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Deep Play

lksmith's picture

            As I walked through the cell blocks and out in the prison yard at Eastern State Penitentiary last weekend, I could feel the weight of the prison’s past coming down on me. Being inside those walls felt like being in a whole different universe, I felt disconnected from not only the immediate surroundings of the prison, but also from my own life and experiences. With every step I took I distanced myself farther and farther from myself and moved closer and closer to a timeless state of contemplation and inner peace. Standing inside the cell I felt trapped initially thinking of the hole in the wall where the door would once was as if the door still remained and I truly was contained in the cell. However, as time went on I no longer felt this sense of being trapped in the cell in the same sense, I was able to spend the time with myself and my surroundings. The walls whispered stories to me through the cracks and the dust on the floor filling the silence with the sounds of their past and mine. Looking out the narrow window in the back of the cell I was transported back in time it seemed, able to feel the prison as it was back when it’s cells were still filled.

            The afternoon I spent at Eastern State Penitentiary and, in particular, the half hour I spent alone in a cell was an experience of deep play for me. Although wandering an old, out of use prison may not be a traditional form of play, I was put in a position where I took on the role of the different people that inhabited Eastern State. In the cell I found myself seeing things through the point of view of prisoner there, trapped in the cell with no company beyond my own thoughts. In this experience I lost all sense of time and space, I was living fully in the moment I was in while simultaneously experiencing the past of the place I was in and the future of my own being. I was removed completely from the city that hid just beyond the great outer walls and from my life outside. I felt deeply connected to the cell and the prison in general while I was there as if during my time there I had actually become a part of it. When I finally did leave the outer walls and rejoin the world again, I felt a relief from the intense weight of the prison and its past. Everything that I had left behind when I entered the prison came rushing back to me along with my sense of reality and time.

            Deep play is not play in the way that it is most often experienced. It is a more intense form of play and it comes in many more unexpected situations. Ackerman describes deep play as entering “an alternate reality with its own rules, values, and expectations.” (Ackerman) Along with this she says that deep play is “timeless,” “distractedness,” and “sacred.” (Ackerman) Under this description, the experience that I had at Eastern State would definitely fall under the category of deep play. When I stepped into the walled enclosure of the prison, I let the world that had once been created within it to take over me and consume my attention. Through this I had recreated the alternate reality that the prison was deigned to be and I looked at my entire experience through the lens of that reality. Throughout my experience there, I felt as if time did not exist in the traditional sense. I shuffled through not only the moment I was in, but also some of the various layers of the past that embody the current spirit of the prison. As for distractedness, I was distracted from the world I normally live in and from my life while I was in the prison. Through that distraction I was able to see the prison in ways that would not have been possible otherwise. Finally, a sacred experience is one that holds great significance and value in the eyes of the beholder. This means that the person experiences some alteration of their perspective on themselves or some event or idea, even if only for a moment. For me, this happened when I looked out the window of my cell at Eastern State. In that moment I saw the prison and myself in a new way that made me feel more connected to it. One final aspect of deep play is that it creates some form of connection between the person and themself, their surroundings, another person, or just an idea. This connection can redefine their perspective or shift it to allow them to appreciate something in a new way.

            Deep play is not something you would expect to find in something as rigid and structured as critical writing. Critical writing works off of expectations and a level of seriousness that allows the writer to dive deeper into their subject and find new meaning trough analysis. Deep play is not something that can be deigned or cultivated, it is found, and in that action the experience is enhanced and deepened because in scarcity it has more value. However, if it were to be found in critical writing, deep play would present itself as a more relaxed free-form type of critical writing. Rather than making analysis the focus of the writing, the experience and knowledge gained through the process would be the central focus. The writer would begin writing without a clear direction or objective in the writing and find a path to follow through the writing process. The reader would feel the difference between deep play writing and traditional critical writing because they would be able to see the organic thought process of the writer rather than the organized, formulated writing that is more commonly seen. The reader would be able to experience the discoveries the author makes as they are made rather than reading a summarized reasoning of the thought process.

            In my own writing I tend to stay away from deep play and staying more in favor of traditional critical writing. The essay I wrote about defining critical play in relation to Mary Flanagan’s essay was almost completely void of deep play. When I write I generally follow a strict, structured format that is planned out ahead of time so that one idea will flow easily into the next. If I were to write this using deep play, I would have gone into the essay knowing how to start the essay without a clear idea of where it would take me and what ideas would come out of it. My essay would reflect the development of my ideas as opposed to the finished product of earlier thought and planning. Introducing deep play into my writing would allow me to experience these ideas and many more on a deeper level and through a new perspective.



Works Cited

Ackerman, Diane. Chapter One. Deep Play. New York: Random House, 1999.