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ISSUE:  Autumn 1942

After work, play is the most universal method of safely disposing of our aggressions. One of the oldest theories about play is that it is a method of “blowing off steam.” Schiller described it as the “aimless expenditure of exuberant energy.” Even William James, who was wise enough to propose work as a moral equivalent for war, did not see that play also is a moral equivalent for war, and joined Schiller in writing of the expenditure of energy as if in some way or other the human being were an over-fueled engine. If this were true, jumping up and down in the center of a room would be just as useful as any form of play.

The curious thing is that so many people tacitly accept the notion of play as something “aimless” and hence unnecessary—a luxury available chiefly to children and to prosperous adults. Not so long ago it was condemned even for children. Harry Emerson Fosdick quotes from the rules of an American school in “1784 as follows: “We prohibit play in the strongest terms. . . . The students shall rise at five o’clock in the morning, summer and winter. . . . The students shall be indulged with nothing which the world calls play. Let this rule be observed with strictest nicety; for those who play when they are young will play when they are old.”

Popular attitudes have changed to some extent since then, but that play actually serves some useful function is still not subscribed to whole-heartedly by most people. For evidence of this, one need only observe the reactions of the public to the information that in certain penitentiaries prisoners are permitted to play; there is likely to be a general outcry that such prisoners are being “pampered.” Those who do not join in this protest are often deterred by humane and sympathetic motives rather than by any scientific convictions that it is important for these prisoners to play if their lives are to be reconstructed and society further protected.

Yet John Eisele Davis, who has devoted his working life to the use of play as a therapeutic device in the treatment of the mentally ill, declares that it “enhances the sense of self-respect and personality worthwhileness, produces readjustment upon a higher reality level, establishes a foundation in skills upon which more constructive psychic adjustments may be made, assists in the substitution of wholesome objective activities in place of morbid subjective creations . . .” He quotes Carr as saying, “Play is a better stimulant to growth and development than work because it meets nature’s demands in a natural and timely way,”

To be sure, there have been scientific voices raised in support of the theory that play is a necessity! Over two hundred years ago Lord Karnes, a Scottish philosopher, declared that “play is necessary for man in order to refresh himself after labor.” Professor Lazarus of the University of Berlin declared that play was more restful than complete idleness and served to recuperate and restore the fatigued individual, which seems trite enough now but which is, of course, the exact opposite of the surplus-energy theory held by Schiller, Spencer, James, and others, which has had and still has wide vogue. Some scientists have gone so far as to declare that play is necessary for the development of higher intelligence.

The nearest approximation to a psychoanalytic theory of play was first proposed by Aristotle, although neglected by most writers since then. He said that in play the emotions “become purified of a great deal of the distasteful and dangerous properties which adhere to them.”

It was Freud’s theory that this “purification” of the emotions takes place when an unpleasant or dreaded course of behavior is rehearsed or re-enacted in a form or situation lacking the dangerous elements. In this way we obtain a mastery of the situation and get revenge against external reality for its threats against us.

It might seem desirable to attempt a definition of play— not a dictionary definition but one that takes into account the psychological principles involved. We might define it as pleasurable activity in which the means is more important than the ostensible end. This clearly differentiates it from work, and is in line with the hypothesis that, like work, play is an end in itself, an opportunity for the discharge of aggressive energy in not only painless but actually pleasurable forms, energy which would otherwise be repressed at a definite psychological expense or else expressed in harmful ways. Play acts out timelessly in pantomime, symbol, and gesture the unfulfillable aggressive and erotic wishes of the players. I say unfulfillable, although the fantasies of some play are actually realized later, as, for example, in the little girl’s play with her doll.

Play differs from work in four respects. In play the means rather than the end is the important thing so far as the player’s avowed and conscious purposes are concerned; pleasure in the activity is more regularly conscious; the activity is consciously dissociated from the restrictions of reality; and the aggressive motives are more obvious. I should like to discuss each of these. I do not say that these are the only respects in which play differs from work, but they seem to me to be the four most important ones.

That play activity has no important ultimate objective differentiates it sharply from work. A man plows a field with the conscious intention of planting grain which will yield him bread upon which he may subsist; he plays golf not for the purpose of transporting a ball from one point to the other, but for the satisfaction of mastering and exhibiting the peculiar and difficult process by which he does it. According to our own theory, this difference is more apparent than real, because we have already assumed that work actually does have a psychological function quite apart from its ultimate product. In some forms of play there are important ends in view; for example, in collecting postage stamps or art treasures. Nevertheless, in the main this is a distinction tacitly but clearly recognized by everyone. It is acknowledged when we use the word “play” reproachfully; when, for example, we say that someone is making work out of play or play out of work, we mean that he is putting the wr ong emphasis on the question of means versus ends.

It is the general assumption that one enjoys play more than one enjoys work. This is not always or necessarily true. Many people appear to enjoy work more than they do play, but they are regarded as neurotics, eccentrics, or geniuses. I have seen all three, but it is my impression that they most often enjoy work so much just because they cannot enjoy play. On the other hand, it is true that some people are so normal, so to speak—so free from the necessity of retreat from reality and the temporary surrender of repressive efforts—that they can and actually do find almost complete satisfaction in work, and need relatively little play.

Rut for the average person it is certainly true that play is more pleasurable than work, and the question why this is so is not hard to answer. In the first place, play enables one to return to those pleasurable intervals of childhood when one could do just as one pleased. For the time, one is free from the dominance, the restriction, the surveillance, and the command of the parents or their representatives in adult life (although, of course, he must—even in play—adhere to the rules of the game). Furthermore, in play one can let down his disguises. He docs not have to wear the dress-up clothes of polite society. He does not have to assume a friendliness he does not feel or maintain a maturity and dignity that put some strain on his self-control. He does not have to obey either the time-clock or the traffic lights.

If he wants to take a piece of wood and call it a king and ascribe to it great authority and move it about on a chessboard he may do so, and he will find others who will make the same assumption and indulge in the same fantasies. If he wants to take a somewhat larger piece of wood, whittle it into the semblance of an airplane, and imagine himself a manufacturer, he may do so. If he wants to take a still larger piece of wood and use it to strike with all his might a quite innocent ball, he can do so with the consciousness that the harder and more viciously he strikes the ball, the more he will be applauded by some of his playmates and feared by others who are playing against him. There is no necessity for pulling punches, no necessity for being hypocritical.

Furthermore, play permits the opportunity for many miniature victories in compensation for the injuries inflicted by the daily wear and tear of life. This is a comfort which some egos sorely need. In competitive play there are also defeats, to be sure, but the saving grace of play is that a victory is a victory and a defeat is not defeat—-for, after all, “it was only play.” The way that men who arc only moderately successful in their business become highly proficient golfers is ordinarily interpreted as an example of the way in which the impulse to play undermines business success; but sometimes it may rather be an example of the necessary assuagement of a sensitive ego injured by the defeats of business life and restored by great victories in the play life.

This element of reality denial can be seen in every form of play. Much play is timeless, and time is the greatest tyrant of all realities. The very word play has come to mean make-believe, a temporary assumption made for the purpose of the game—an actor, a symbol.

In play we can fall back upon those principles of magic for which there is an eternal longing in the human heart. Persons and substances take on miraculous powers and virtues. They may be made to vanish, to reappear, or to be transmuted. By a touch of the hand, the utterance of a single word or the contact with a pre-established “base,” fundamental changes in status are accomplished. With the aid of magic all the dreams of fairy tales can be realized in play: giants slain, treasures discovered, kingdoms acquired, distance annihilated, dragons destroyed. The laws of the prosaic workaday world are replaced by an entirely new order.

It will occur to scarcely anyone to question why it is so necessary for us to abandon temporarily our strict loyalty to reality and fall back upon magic and make-believe. Life is hard; reality is stern; civilization has added heavy burdens to the already great difficulties of living and loving. For this reason we can assume that the more complicated civilization becomes, and the more intense and elaborate the machinery of living is made, the more necessary it will he to create that temporary retreat from reality which we call play.

The most important value of this unrealistic nature of play is the opportunities that it affords for the relief of repressed aggressions. It enables us to express aggression without reality consequences: we can hurt people without really hurting them; we can even kill them without really killing them. “It is all in play.” We say that we do not really mean it, although this is not quite true. We do mean it, but we know and our victim knows that it has no dangerous consequences and he can therefore tolerate it and (usually) forgive us. Of course, if be is very intuitive and very sensitive, he will know too much for his own comfort, and we call him “a poor sport.” He may only be too good a psychologist, like Pagliacci and Hamlet.

There seems to be some moralistic feeling that hobbies and recreation do us “more good” if we “work” at them (that is, expend energy and endure some pain, danger, or fatigue). This may be due, in part, to the conscience restriction that pleasure must be earned; but it may also be an intuitive recognition of the valuable function of play in releasing pent-up aggression harmlessly. People who do not play are potentially dangerous. Spectator sports have been used by political dictators as a means of unifying great masses of people and inflaming them for a common purpose. But in defense of the spectator role it should be said that many people are almost entirely debarred from active competition of any sort because they feel weak or inferior, or fear retaliation. Such feelings are usually inculcated by drastic prohibition of all aggressive impulses in early childhood and are therefore difficult or impossible to overcome in later life. Passive participation is the only outlet which such people can permit themselves and it is for that reason all the more necessary to them. They would like to dance or to swing a bat, but they feel unable to do so and become “balletomanes” or “fans.” Sometimes these inhibited persons do play games, but they cannot be successful at them. In any competitive sport they almost invariably lose, though they are quite unaware that what defeats them is their fear of losing love by overcoming an opponent. Since the need to achieve active aims by passive means is considered typical of the feminine role in life, the onlooker may be described as temporarily accepting a feminine attitude.

Thus far we have been somewhat vague in defining the reciprocal relationship of work and play. I doubt if this can be done arbitrarily on a psychological basis alone; too many economic and sociological and physiological factors enter into it. But the psychological values of both work and play cannot be omitted from consideration by those who do social planning. They should not be neglected, they cannot be— but they constantly are. For example, if it were economically possible, beginning tomorrow, to relieve every man in the United States of half his present work requirements (or, rather, his work opportunities) without decrease of income, the nation would be in peril. It would be absolutely impossible for the great majority of these people to utilize the suddenly acquired leisure in any psychologically satisfactory way, i.e., in play. Some of the energy thus released would undoubtedly be taken up with play, but most of it would be expressed in direct aggressiveness or in some form of self-destructiveness. People would begin fighting, drinking, and killing themselves and one another.

Some of those who advocate more and more leisure for everyone recognize the danger entailed in leisure unprofit-ably occupied They point to the fact that our public playgrounds, public swimming pools, local and national park facilities, our high school music education programs, and numerous other new phenomena of American life are encouraging developments in this direction.

Our Puritan tradition has been blamed as a deterrent to the frank enjoyment of recreation, but behind this and much more powerful is the fact that play is so strongly determined by the pleasure principle, which actuates children and which is controlled with difficulty by the disciplined adult personality, that there is a sense of guilt attached to it. In play we are more truly our natural selves than in our work; yet for this very reason we feel a threat to the civilized superstructure of the personality in the act of play. It is too tempting, too unrealistic. And of this sense of guilt, the larger part comes from the voice of the conscience, an echo of parental prohibitions which are displaced to society, the government, and the voice of science. If, therefore, those who stand in the position of parental figures to society formally sanction the indulgence, it loses a part of its burden of guilt.

Hence it was very wise of counselors on civilian morale to include among the earliest exhortations that they addressed to the American public the advice that we should work as hard as we can, but hold on to our hobbies. For such advice is, in the light of psychiatric experience, very sound. If the proper direction and encouragement of play can be therapeutically useful, it can also be prophylactically useful. If it is good for sick people, it is even better for well people. We are all subject and liable to the disease of disturbed morale—demoralization—and one of the best antidotes against this is to be found in recreation.

There seems to be a general idea that recreation is all right if one doesn’t take it too seriously. My belief is that much the greater danger lies in not taking it seriously enough. If people do not take it seriously enough, the reason may lie not so much in prejudice as in ignorance. The question just what play docs for the individual is not yet fully answered; neither is the question why some people learn to play and some do not. These and many other questions relating to the psychology of play deserve the attention of the best scientific minds. Work is necessary for the integrity of the human spirit, and play, which we speak of so tenderly as recreation, really recreates. Work and play make it possible for us to live and to love, because they help to absorb the aggressive energy which would otherwise overwhelm us.

Originally, as we have seen, there was no distinction between work and play because each man did what he felt to he necessary. Today what one pleases to do and what one feels it necessary to do are so largely determined by what economics and organized society will permit him to do that the distinction becomes increasingly sharp. Perhaps some of the best work in the world today is done by people who make little distinction between work and play, people for whom all work is play. Among the ancient Hindus the Cosmos is called “Lila”—”a play of the creator for whom work and play are identical.” But people who can be completely independent of conventional attitudes are rare, and we cannot hope that any such attitude will become universal. We can only hope that both work and play will achieve increased dignity at a time when the principal preoccupation of men’s thought and activities seems to be not work nor play nor the love of one another which work and play would facilitate, but, instead, fighting and destruction.


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