Tuesday, April 12, 2011

An Exploratory Model of Play

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Bennett, S. (1971, February). An Exploratory Model of
Play. American Anthropologist, 73(1), 45-58.


The article begins with a quotation by the authors describing and defining play in terms of a relationship between challenge and skill. They go on to distinguish play from anxiety in that in anxiety, challenges exceed skill, and boredom, in which skill exceeds the challenges.

The authors continue with a discussion of play and talk about how play is grounded in the concept of possibility. This is an intriguing early view of flow and precedes the formulation of flow theory by several decades. The authors talk about possibilities and compare play to everyday life. The authors state that much of everyday life is consumed by worry, and talk about how many people experience a problem of how they will accomplish their projects within the boundaries they must respect.

Interestingly, the authors define both anxiety and boredom as being on a continuum of possiblities and actions. This formulation has considerable resonance for teaching.

The authors then go on to define play in more detail, as the interplay between action and environment, where feedback provides possibilities for action. This again has considerable implications for education.

Amazingly, the authors present one of the conditions of the flow experience in an earlier form-- they talk about the lack of self-consciousness associated with these experiences. They go on to cite an accomplished rock climber who comments on this lack of self-consciousness. The authors then go on to talk about how games arise out of merged awareness and action. They go on to define games as having three characteristics: first, a limitation of the realm of stimuli players must attend to; second, by limiting the choices of the player through rules; and third, by limiting the time in which the player has to act, by clearly setting starting/ending times. The authors postulate that these conditions lead to a player abandoning him/herself to the game and allowing the player to act without self-consciousness.

The authors then undertake an exploration of different forms of games, including games of chance, games of strategy, and games of physical skill. This is an extensive portion of this article.

Afterward, the authors discuss the implications of their analysis of games and the structure of play, and they talk about play as a set of limitations that shield players from the anxiety of everyday life. This provides a theoretical background for the loss of self that occurs in play and in flow experiences as well.

Discussion of Value:
For educators interested in flow theory, play, motivation, and the role of the self in all these experiences, this is an immensely valuable article. First, for those interested in flow theory, this early work in Csikszentmihalyi’s career provides tremendous insight into how flow theory developed and the theoretical underpinnings of his later work. As accessible as flow theory is, this is both a lighter and more arcane/complex work. It is, however, fascinating and contains many implications for teaching in terms of our conception of work, the way we conceive of boredom and anxiety, and why play might just be the most important thing we can offer students in our classes.

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“Play is defined as a state of experience in which the actor's ability to act matches the requirements for action in his environment. It differs from anxiety, in which the requirements outnumber the ability, and from boredom, in which the require- ments are too few for the ability level of the actor.”

“Play is going. It is what happensafter all the decisions are made-when "let's go" is the last thing one remembers.Play is action generatingaction: a unifiedexperienceflow- ing from one moment to the next in contra- distinction to our otherwise disjoint "every- day" experiences.”

““Play is grounded in the concept of possi- bility. We assume that in general individuals have the ability to assess what actions are humanly possible within the bounds of a given situation. The point is that in "everyday," non-play situations the number of things that can happen is always more than the one series of events that does happen. Of all the possibilities for action that we perceive, only a few become ongoing projects: we can only do "one thing at a time."”

“The question becomes one of choice: "which of these possible actions will I attempt to turn into my action?" Our "everyday" lives consist of matching a large stock of projects we know we can actualize with the possibilities that can be seen in the situation at hand. Almost everyone is sure that he can speak or eat or move about. Every day we depend on the control of people over a large assortment of projects-a control which includes the ability to synchronize "starts"and "stops" with their social environment to produce interaction.”

“This operational volition or decision for immediate action will be referred to as the "voluntary fiat.””


“For the most part the human condition can be described as the experience of "worry." A multitude of boundaries constrain our projects at every moment, and talking about what to do and how to do it crowds the time for doing it to the extent that a full consideration of the potential frustrations of any project leads to hopeless anxiety.”

“At other times our relationship with the environment tends to produce another kind of experience: boredom. A wearing tedium or dullness can pervade action that has become routinized, making it hard to tell present action from past actions, since monotony lacks change or variety. Boredom is experienced when the projects available to the actor...far outnumber the assessed possibilities in a situation. The fewer opportunities for action we perceive, the more bored we become.”

“Now we are able to conceptualize the experience of play. When there is a "balanced" state of affairs, when we can make each action by voluntary fiat, but still do not exhaust possible actions, the necessary conditions for play are established.The play experience is invoked when our action "resonates"with the environment; when "feedback" provides sufficient possibilities for an uninterrupted flow of action.”

“Awareness merges with action,and a play episode is begun. A most outstanding quality of this state of ambience or participation with the environment is the actor's lack of ananalytic or"outside"viewpoint on his conduct: a lack of self-consciousness.”

“That this state of oneness with one's action precludes anxiety is well illustrated by a statement of Chris Bonington, one of the best-known contemporary British rock- climbers (Unsworth1969a [our italics]).
"At the start of any big climb I feel afraid, dread the discomfort and danger I shall have to undergo. It's like standing on the edge of a cold swimming-pool trying to nerve yourself to take the plunge; yet once in, it's not nearly as bad as you have feared; in fact it's enjoyable. Once I start climbing, all my misgivings are forgotten. The very harshness of the surroundings, the treacherous layer of verglas covering every hold, even the high- pitched whine of falling stones, all help to build up the tension and excitement that are ingredients of mountaineering."’”

“If one accepts the postulate that the essential aspect of the play-experience is a state of merged awareness and action, then the requirementof a good game, that is of an institutionalized play-form, is that it should allow the player to sustain this ex- perience throughout a relatively long span of time.”

“In order to accomplish this, games must limit by convention the realm of stimuli that the player need pay attention to: by establishing a playing field or board, by defining what are the relevant objects of the game. The game also has to limit the choices of action open to the player: by establishing the rules of the game. And finally the game has to limit the time within which the player can act: by clearly setting the starting and finishing times of the process. Within this limited spatio-temporal unit the player can abandon himself to the process, acting without self-consciousness.”

“We have been most concerned with the concept of "self": of how it is forgotten when action is plentiful, and perhaps of what the experience of "self- lessness" is like. In addition we have, for this brief introduction to the play concept, attempted to define play without developing a complicated set of theoretical under-pinnings and special terms, but relying heavily on examples of activities people engage in as play. It is our contention that the full theoretical significance of the "self" concept does not unfold until the possibility of playing is considered.”

“Any concept of "self" relies on the ability of an actor to share perspectives of "others" who see him. Interaction is grounded in the "self" as integrator of one person's actions with another, and therefore as the continual negotiator of social reality.”

“But in the play situa- tion social reality is not up for negotiation: the actors are absolutely bound to a limited set of actions and to identical accounts of those actions; play is a social system with no deviance. Given a manageable number of options for action and an unambiguous symbol system, no viewpoint other than the player's viewpoint is necessary-the social self becomes superfluous, and the player can
merge with the process in a state of monistic awareness. This is our explanation of the
play experience-with one added feature: play stops when it becomes boredom.”

“play emerges out of the context of everyday life whenever the latter becomes too worrisome, and slips back into everyday life whenever the play experience becomes boring. The play experience is constructed by means of negotiation involving awareness of the dualistic social skills of language, categorization, and roles.”

“We have the ability to flip back and forth from worry to play to boredom, and sometimes these changes are very swift.”

“What is important here for social theory is that a negotiable reality which is subject to varying interpretations and requires a "self" (everyday life) coexists with a voluntarily structured reality with no referential require- ments (play). In other words, the traditional theoretical conflict between individual and society (or monism and dualism) is irrelevant for a man at play. As a pitcher steps up to the plate, it is useless to ask him for an opinion on the Vietnam war. His world at this point is limited to the batting box, and the whole network of social pressures and expectations has fallen away.”

“To understand play is important precisely because it combines in an experiential unity both social constraints and spontaneous behavior.”

“They are questions of the utmost seriousness in that they deal with one of the most rewarding and creative experiences that man is capable of feeling.”

1 comment:

Stacey said...

Wow! Now that's an annotation! There is so much great stuff here for you to pull from when you write your understandings! I was especially intrigued by the quote about games, and how having boundaries (of time, of extent, etc.) create the conditions for play to happen and for people to abandon themselves. Fascinating, and not entirely intuitive, but it makes sense. It's similar to how the best PBL happens when people are given a simple structure to work within - it's hard to create in absolute chaos, but when given a few simple guidelines, people can get going and lose themselves in their ideas!

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