The Ambiguity of Play

The Ambiguity of Play by Brian Sutton-Smith

The Ambiguity of Play was written by Brian Sutton-Smith and published by Harvard University Press in 1997. As a leading play theorist, Sutton-Smith considers the possible meanings of play as they have been debated and described in a range of disciplines including education, biology, psychology, and sociology.

Chapter 1 – Play and Ambiguity delves into some of the reasons there is ambiguity about the definition of play. Examples of play activities can be categorized as: mind or subjective play (daydreams, fantasy); solitary play (hobbies, reading); playful behaviors (playing tricks, playing upon words); informal social play (joking, rough and tumble play); vicarious audience play (television, concerts); performance play (playing music, being a play actor); celebrations and festivals (birthdays, weddings); contests (games, sports); and risky or deep play (hang gliding, mountain biking).

The chapter goes on to examine the seven rhetorics or narratives about play theory that are used to explain play, although they may not be adequately backed by scientific study. Rhetorics are described as having ideological values that those who believe them try to persuade others to believe in and live by as well. They are listed below.

  • The rhetoric of play as progress is usually applied to children’s play and advocates that children adapt and develop through their play.
  • The rhetoric of play as fate is usually applied to games of chance and gambling with the belief that human lives and play are controlled by destiny.
  • The rhetoric of play as power is usually applied to sports, athletics, and contests with the belief that play represents controlling conflict and becoming heroes.
  • The rhetoric of play as identity is usually applied to traditional and community celebrations and festivals which are seen as a means of confirming power and identity of the community of players.
  • The rhetoric of play as the imaginary is usually applied to playful improvisations of all kinds in literature and elsewhere which promote creativity and innovation.
  • The rhetoric of the self is usually applied to solitary activities where play is idealized by attention to the experiences of fun, relaxation, and escape.
  • The rhetoric of play as frivolous is usually applied to the activities of the idle or the foolish experienced as frivolity and playful protest against the established orders of the world.

The aim of the author is to determine to what extent ambiguity is an outcome of the seven rhetorics or if it must be attributed to the character of play itself.

Chapter 2 – Rhetorics of Animal Progress examines the play of animals and humans to determine whether it is evolutionary, adaptive, or constructive. Common theories are examined including animal play as skill training, as playfighting, as bonding, as flexibility, and as emotional experience.

Chapter 3 – Rhetorics of Child Play questions the validity of the popular theory that play is seen as a child developmental process and as a learning process. Differences in individuals’ abilities to play, how they play, their definitions of play, and their motivations for play add to the ambiguities in the study of play.

Chapter 4 – Rhetorics of Fate, having an ancient origin, are at the heart of most ancient religions with the idea of fate and the inescapable realities of life and death. Various forms of fate as play include the beliefs that the gods are at play, that the universe is at play, that our brains are at play, and that we are creatures of the play of fortune and luck as seen in games of chance.

Chapter 5 – Rhetorics of Power describes forms of play that include contests of physical skill and contests of intellectual strategy. Using Johan Huizinga’s ideas about playful contests as described in his book Homo Ludens, the author examines contrasting views of other theorists.

Chapter 6 – Rhetorics of Identity examines the identity of communities through play as a form of bonding, family interdependence, and cooperation. Festivals, celebrations, parades, and sporting successes result in a bonding communal experience of the participants. The Olympic games offer national identity, but not all play for identity must be in a form of a contest. Cooperative play can create feelings of identity within the group.

Chapter 7 – Child Power and Identity identifies how in play children arrange themselves in a hierarchy of leaders and followers to facilitate their play. This chapter also contrasts the identity of adults and children and the power struggle children feel with adults.

Chapter 8 – Rhetorics of the Imaginary includes concepts such as imagination, creativity, art, romanticism, flexibility, fancy, and phantasmagoria. The chapter looks at the origins of the rhetoric of the imaginary and how it correlates with romanticism, art, literature, and the study of signs and symbols as elements of communication. Distinctions between play and playfulness are described.

Chapter 9 – Child Phantasmagoria looks at children’s imagination and fantasy. Toys and television shows are assimilated into children’s play as they try to match their play behavior to what was modeled for them on television. Their fantasy play is usually solitary play as they daydream about their fantasy heroes, but it can also be acted out by a group of children in dramatic play. Children’s play fantasies often create another world that is more emotionally vivid than mundane reality and is sometimes used to feel safe in an otherwise disturbing environment. Children’s imaginative stories are discussed.

Chapter 10 – Rhetorics of Self seeks to define play through a number of sources: “in individualism, capitalism, secularization, phenomenological philosophy, ‘amateur’ sports metaphors, psychology, leisure theory, performance theory, narrative theory.”1

Chapter 11 – Rhetorics of Frivolity makes the distinction between work and play: work is obligatory, sober, serious, and not fun and play is the opposite of these. Defining play as frivolous and irrational leads to conflicts with the views of play as progress, fate, power, identity, the imaginary, and the self.

Chapter 12 – Conclusion shows that play is difficult to define, because it is ambiguous. The tendency of those who advocate for one view of the value of play is to focus on the definition of play that works for them. Each rhetoric has ambiguities of belief within its own study. The author concludes that play’s definition must be broad rather than narrow; should apply to animals as well as humans; should not be defined only in terms of modern Western values; is not just an attitude or an experience; can be momentary or lengthy in time; and is like a system of communication and expression. The amazing diversity and variability of play found in each form of play can be better described than defined.

  • 1. Sutton-Smith, Brian. The Ambiguity of Play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1997. p. 175.