Sunday, July 11, 2010

Homo Ludens

Centering Thought from Plato: You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation
Reading from G. K. Chesterton’s “All Things Considered”: It is not only possible to say a great deal in praise of play; it is really possible to say the highest things in praise of it. It might reasonably be maintained that the true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground. To be at last in such secure innocence that one can juggle with the universe and the stars, to be so good that one can treat everything as a joke—that may be, perhaps, the real end and final holiday of human souls.
2010 Summer Reflection: “Homo Ludens” (thanks to Dad for that suggestion)

Gooooooal! If you’ve watch this year’s World Cup at all, you’ve probably watched it with an English soundtrack. But it’s also played on the Univision television station, with a Spanish-language soundtrack. And as I don’t speak a lick of Spanish, many find it surprising that I prefer watching the Univision broadcast, where the commentary sounds like this to me: gibberish, players names, gibberish, exited gibberish, gooooooal!

It doesn’t matter which team scores, the commentary sounds the same, and every score change ends with the same enthusiastic goooooal, and since in soccer, 90 minutes of play will often produce 1 or maybe 2 score changes, that Spanish commentary epitomises the concept of the perfect moment in spectator sports.

We all understand the concept of a perfect moment. There’s even a Greek word for it: Kairos. Special time. Momentary time. It’s different from “chronos”, or “ordinary” time. While chronos may represent last night’s dinner, kairos is that first bite of the best course, or of dessert. Or it’s the memory of your very first taste of mesquite grilled lobster from the Village Fish. But it’s not just the good moments -- it also represents that moment of horror when that call of “gooooal” in the last minute of the game was not for the team you wanted to win.

I stand in front of you today wearing a shirt from the 2006 World Cup. This is the French team Jersey, and the French and Italian teams played in the final game. For the world cup championship, a soccer game that happens only once every 4 years for national bragging rights in the world’s most popular spectator sport. Milo and I watched the game on City Hall Plaza, where the Italian-American mayor of Boston had arranged to provide a public viewing. And it was a good game. Both teams scored in regulation time, and neither team scored in the overtime period. But the moment from that game that I most remember did not come on either team’s score, or even from the penalty-kick shootout that followed. It came in the middle of the overtime. The French forward and most valuable player, Zinedine Zidane, frustrated by the Italian defense, turned and without apparent provocation, headbutted the Italian defense-man Marco Materazzi, who immediately dropped to the ground. We, along with the crowd, about 2/3rds fans of Italy, stopped and collectively went “did he just do that?”. Zidane was immediately ejected, and we fans of France suspected, then and there, that our team would not have bragging rights at the end of the day. We were right. And it is that moment, rather than anything else about that game, or even that day or week, that I remember vividly. That moment, standing on City Hall Plaza, accompanied by my son and some 1 or 2 thousand French and Italian fans, all stopping and saying “what the...?” That was the moment. Although nobody scored, and the commentators would not have said the word, it was undoubtedly the most pivotal point of the match.

One thing to remember about those moments. They rarely arrive when you are hard at work. Most of them come during the playing of games or watching people hard at play. They come not as you learn the technique of improving a jump shot, but as you actually shoot the shot perfectly, feel it leave your hand, knowing that the ball will touch nothing but net, and hearing the swish. They aren’t about the work of learning, they are the moments that come when we feel the results at play.

In college, I had a graduate course in Human Development, taught by a visiting professor, Brian Sutton-Smith, who used his book, called “How to Play With Your Children (and When Not To)” as a text. His teachings remain somewhat controversial, as he states that act of unstructured and informal play in childhood remains an essential part of normal human development, and he considers the removal of unstructured playtime, whether due to parental choice or lack of neighborhood spaces to be a practice that borders on abuse. In raising my own children, I think of his teachings often, especially as I watched the many parents who feared that their kids could “fall behind” if they didn’t develop the desirable resume that got them into the “best” schools. Childhood playtime would be replaced by childhood skill-development time. In fact, his book had a chapter title that summed up much of his parenting philosophy with respect to childhood development: “Mastery is not Play”.

Mastery is not play. To a 1-year old, learning to walk is not play. It’s mastery. To a 4 or 5 year old, learning to ride a bike or throw a ball is not play. That’s skill-development. And as almost any 10 year old will tell you, learning to play the piano, or guitar, or saxophone, is not fun. It’s parental torture. And even leisure activities like chess or poker or basketball are not play as they are learned. They’re work, especially if expect to improve at them. And for what? Regardless of the amount of effort and time we spend practicing, very few of us will ever engage in a game or sport to the level where we reap financial reward. And then if you’re good enough to be paid to play a game or an instrument, most of the time you’ll spend improving won’t involve much playtime. You’ll be working. You’ll be mastering. As any professional poker player will tell you, when you sit at the table, you work. You grind out the dollars from the others at the table who are just “playing for fun”. And away from the table, you study the game and the other players. You’re mastering the game, not playing it. And mastery is not play.

But play is what it’s all about! Especially play when we are active participants. Whether the activity involves the most intimate interaction between people making love or the most casually social interaction over a game of bananagrams, the moments of memory, of purity -- kairos -- come when you feel that moment of change, you participate in and know that you’re about to take control, but haven’t yet. And then it happens. And nothing else matters.

For several years, a favorite board game in our house is “The Settlers of Catan”. It’s a board game that involves obtaining resources, building roads, settlements and eventually cities. You can’t win unless you negotiate with others at the table -- by trading resources. But since most everything on the table is known quantity, you have a good sense of where your opponents stand at any moment. So you have to strike that right balance between cooperating with your opponents and at the same time finding a way to cut off their options so that they can’t actually win the game. My spouse could always tell when I was about to make a decisive move. I’d try to display a casual demeanor, but she’s notice my increased excitement, and she would warn others at the table then and there that I “was not to be trusted”. And it was true (the excitable part, not the trust part -- I can always be trusted). Those close moments -- when I could see the path to victory but not take comfort in the achievement just yet -- are moments of sacred presence, and no matter how much I’d try to “look casual”, my excitement, my focus, my awareness that I was about to change the game would be giveaways to the people who knew me well.

The world can be an ugly, cruel place. Reading first-person accounts often shows the world of the past as one filled with suffering and injustice. Today’s world, believe it or not, is probably less cruel, but our windows to it often display a world which seems harsh, and unforgiving. And most science fiction stories -- especially those that paint a world using the “present-day-reality- extension” brush -- show dystopian futures designed to make us wonder what kind of world our descendants will inhabit. But there is once constant in every world that’s been fundamental in the past of humanity, part of every human culture in the world, and will be part of any future that involves our species.

Play. We play. We invent games, we agree on rules, and we play. Or we watch others -- those with more skill than ourselves -- play the games we’ve invented. Historically, we know that people have played some form of spectator-sport football -- kicking some round object toward some goal with some form of score-counting -- for well over 3000 years, and I’d suspect that some form of playing a competitive sports is as old as our transformation from a hunter-gatherer society to an an agricultural one. And why is that? I think it has to do with a human need for social interaction -- for play. We play with objects, we play with language, we play with concepts. We play with others, and we play alone. In fact, it’s entirely possible that, once we as a species discovered that through cooperative ventures, we could vastly extend our chances for individual survival, we then took it upon ourselves to increase our species ability to cooperate by inventing games. After all, we’d invented language, and once our stomachs were full and the sex was complete, we had to find something else to do. So we played games.

And we play games today. As difficult as the problems of the world may look right now, we’ll always play games, and we’ll always take comfort in watching others at play. Today at 2:30, we’ll put our problems aside and join the rest of the world in watching the best players in the world play the oldest team sport in history. We’ll find some personal reason to celebrate the Spaniards and demonize the Dutch. Or vice versa. We’ll watch the game we’ll wait for those moments of decisions during the game, when the commentators on Univision will shout -- Gooooal!.

Feel the joy.