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Threatening Play

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Grace Chung

ESEM Paper 6

October 11, 2014

Threatening Play

Play, according to President of the National Institute for Play Stuart Brown is “as fundamental as any other aspect of life, including sleep and dreams.” There are many different types of play from destructive, hedonistic, and artistic, to adventurous. Play allows people to explore their physicality or individuality all while having fun.

            Though play is something that adults like to fondly remember about their childhood, there are negative aspects to play. In play, there can be a power struggle and many times play is characterized by differences in power. For example, in the game House, it is usually the girl with the most power who gets the role of Mommy. The girl next in line will get the role of Daddy and the omega of the group will be forced to play Baby where the other two girls can easily exclude her. In Sydney’s posting, she describes her childhood play experiences of playing in the woods. The woods were like her own industrial ruin where she had access to a plethora of differing materials such as old tires, rusted scrap metal, and broken glass bottles where she would, “[further damage] them in order to create something totally new”. Despite her multiple play experiences, some of her experiences were hindered when children disagreed with each other, “Some kids fought verbally or physically, causing someone to run home crying.” From her posting, Sydney implicitly acknowledges that play involves power. The people running home crying were not able to further play with the group while the people who fought and won got to stay and continue to play. Mark Powell provides a similar example of the power aspects to play when he writes about the war started by a six year old dictator referred to as the General in the sub-fort culture in the Lexington Montessori School in Massachusetts, “the fantasy war play had become a reality with daily raids and counterattacks, yelling, the occasional physical scrape and lots of hurt feelings.”

            Sydney concludes her posting, “I think that if everyone is happy in a situation, then play can take on any form. Once someone becomes upset, play has reached its limit in that moment.” In a sense, Teju Cole and Stuart’s experience with the ravens disagree. In regards to the White Savior Complex, whites “play” with people who are less fortunate and even when the less fortunate become upset, the whites continue to play with them. Play has an element of power with the more dominant figure in play ultimately deciding what to do. In regards to the White Savior Complex, it is the white Americans who come overseas to help out of sentimentality that carry the power. With Stuart and the ravens, it is the ravens that ultimately hold the power to continue on play.

            The White Saviors come to less fortunate countries like Africa with the romanticized idea of helping. White Saviors and Deb are similar in that they both feel called to help out of their own selfishness. It is really for personal gain more than it is to help the locals. The term ‘voluntourism’ was created in order criticize the actions of the White Saviors. Voluntourism suggests that the people who are voluntourists do not really help and are in fact tourists under the guise and gilded idea of helping. Some voluntourists do not realize their hypocrisy of their actions, “We can participate in the economic destruction of Haiti over long years, but when the earthquakes strikes it feels good to spend $10 each to the rescue fund.” The voluntourists do not see that they are really not helping anyone but themselves. The game that they play with the locals is a sad and one-sided game where even if the locals do not want the voluntourists’ help, the voluntourists still come.

            The whites continue their game by interfering with the less fortunate people’s politics.  Under the pretense of ‘American interests’, the American government will aid corrupt and tyrannical governments. Cole gives the example of the Honduran government, “…in the past three years: an American backed coup and American militarization of that country have contributed to a conflict in which hundreds of activits and journalists have already been murdered.” The ‘game’ that whites play between the less fortunate continues through the American intervention of politics in foreign less advantaged countries. While the less advantaged countries may not want American intervention, because the Americans have the power, the Americans get a say in how things are done. In response to Sydney’s assertion that play is limited once there is hurt feelings, the American play with the less affluent and powerful countries continues and is not limited due to the power the Americans have.

            The ravens in Stuart’s experiences parallel the White Saviors. Stuart comes in contact with the two ravens that are aggravating the two dogs by perching near a locked car. The “raven’s awareness of the strength of steel and glass…allowed them to stand less than a meter from the two large dogs without fearing for their safety.” Whites are able to go into dangerous countries like Nigeria and can rely on their safety due to their skin color, government, and understanding that they can leave the country whenever they wish. They could be exposed to danger with being a safe distance away. Going back to the White Saviors, while the locals are forced to live and cannot escape from the dangers in their homeland, whites can get up and leave at any time.

In Stuart’s experience, the ravens got to say when and how long they got to play. Even when Stuart got into his car and started driving with his friends, the ravens continued to follow him to keep playing their game. Stuart stopped playing; however, the ravens were not limited in their playing. While there were no hurt feelings, there was a clear intention to stop playing by one of the parties, but instead of limiting the play between the ravens and Stuart, the play continued because the ravens, who had the power, did not want the play to end.

Sydney’s experience of stopping play was because “because [she and her friends] saw someone in distress, [they] realized that [their] play was no longer purely enjoyable.” However, Cole’s observation with the whites in relation to the less advantaged locals of other countries is that despite the distress of the locals, whites remain in their ways with foreign policy and only help the locals out of sentimental reasons. The whites play is not limited when they see the negative outcomes of their actions. The whites continue their play by going abroad to ‘help’ the less fortunate, even if their actions are not exactly needed or wanted. Their play is dependent on the constant power that the whites wield. Play and power go hand in hand and this relationship is prevalent even in interspecies play. Both Cole and the writers of Ravens at Play suggest that not doing anything is the best option to help the less advantaged. However, not doing anything would only serve to limit the play for both whites and other species, which would only threaten the power aspects of play—a threat that is not wanted.




Cole, Teju. "The White-Savior Industrial Complex." The Atlantic. The Atlantic, 21 Mar. 2012. Web. <>.


Evans, Bethan, Julian Holloway, Steve Millington, and Jon Binnie. "Playing in Industrial Ruins." By Tim Edensor. Print.


Henig, Robin M. "Taking Play Seriously." The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 Feb. 2008. Web. <>.


Rose, Deborah B., Stuart Cooke, and Thom Van Dooren. "Ravens at Play." Cultural Studies Review 17 (2011): 326-43. Web. <>.