PAST IS PROLOGUE

How to Think More Deeply About Play

Play is a serious business. But seriousness does not exclude fun.

Will Buckingham
Published in
12 min readJun 24, 2021

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Image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder: Children’s Games. 1560. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I sit down to write something about play, and its importance for human life. And as I write, I ask myself: Am I working? Or am I playing? Sometimes, it is hard to tell.

In a previous piece, I wrote about how to think more deeply about work. In that piece, I talked about how philosophy can help us understand our relationship with work more deeply. But the more I think about work, the more I find the boundaries between work and non-work, between work and play, become blurred and fuzzy.

So if we want to understand human activity better, we need to think better not only about work, but also about play.

Homo Ludens, or how we are made for play

Much of our lives is spent playing. We joke with our friends. We play games and sports. When nobody else is around, we try to balance tennis balls on our noses just for the sheer thrill of it. At a quiet bus stop, when nobody else is around, we wonder how long we can stand on one leg.

But philosophical accounts of human life often overlook play. A good example of this is Hannah Arendt’s famous book The Human Condition (1958). Arendt divides human activity into three broad categories: labor, or meeting our basic needs; work, or producing new stuff; and action, which covers how we engage in the transformation of our shared world.

Arendt’s is a powerful account. But what is striking is that, throughout her detailed and careful account of human activity, Arendt gives very little attention to play. And yet, any account of human activity that doesn’t take play into account is going to end up giving us a curiously skewed vision of human existence.

When you start to look for play, it is everywhere. As I write this, I look down into the square where I live in Sofia, Bulgaria. Two musicians are playing music—one on the guitar and one on the violin. A teenager is weaving through the crowd on a scooter, enjoying the arcs and the curves of their trajectory. Sitting on a bench, a woman is playing on her phone. Outside the library, as I watch, a child turns a sudden cartwheel and…

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Will Buckingham
Human Parts

Writer & philosopher. PhD. Stories & ideas to make the world a better place. HELLO, STRANGER (Granta 2021): BBC R4 Book of the Week. Twitter @willbuckingham