OnWords: Play

Mar 3, 2020

The word “play” comes up when accessing music, on streaming services, and, constantly, with video games.

Play is pervasive: an actor plays a role; the ump yells “Play ball!”; a golfer plays through.

We even apply “play” to sex: a “playa’” plays the field, looking not for love and commitment but to score. If we object, we’re reminded to “hate the playa’, not the game.”

Play, which we associate with entertainment, is very serious business, with the video game market alone expected to top $20 billion this year, according to business analysis company Statista.

We also use the word “play” to refer to something loose. A worn steering rack on a car, for example, would have a lot of play.

Think back to the first set of examples in this commentary. They all have one thing in common: they are highly structured—even the “play” of the pick-up artist has guidelines and goals.

This is play as it is controlled by others: by designers or sanctioning bodies, by people who have a vested interest in our outcomes.

In the classic comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, the eponymous child and his pet toy tiger developed what they called “Calvinball,” a game with an ever-changing set of arcane rules, a game that came from nothing, accomplished no goals, and inevitably devolved into anarchy.   

But it was fun—and that was the point: unstructured play leading inevitably to pure joy, the way play should be.

For KMUW, I’m Lael Ewy