In his book Homo Ludens, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga asserts that culture arises in and as play. This is quite a bold assertion. It is not a statement about our love for sports and board games. He is not talking about play as a microcosm of culture, a characteristic of culture. He is saying we have culture because we play. Play creates culture, macro-culture.
Huizinga believes that play is the mother of government and religion. Even law and language have play as their source. I happen to agree with him. That’s why I started an organization called PlayFull.
Since today is July 4th and I happen to be an American, I wanted to reflect a bit on this theme that culture, macro-culture, is a child of play.
America has been and always will be an experiment. There is no way America’s founders could have seen or predicted what America would be like today. That’s because our history is a story of testing limits, seeing how far the boundaries of our Constitution will stretch.
Drafting the constitution was a creative, imaginative endeavor. The framers wanted to find just the right words to ensure long-lasting liberty, freedom from tyranny and oppression.
The authors of the Constitution put in place a system of checks and balances, a feature shared by play in its fullest form. That is what creates interest. These checks and balances attenuate the effects of conflict, but they also establish an arena that creates conflict and within which conflict is played out. Putting in place a three-part system takes into account that conflict is bound to happen—and when it happens these same checks and balances ensure everyone plays the game fairly.
Notice that play happens in specific locations. The Supreme Court is just as much a playground as the area rug in my son’s bedroom. When my son was much younger, we would role play together on that rug with his sister and a menagerie of stuffed toys. When we were in that place, one role served to mitigate the power of another. Playing fairly meant honoring the role another played, no matter how different they were from you. We had a special language when we role-played and there were special rules to govern the playtime.
Huizinga: “All play moves and has its being within a playground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course…The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds…within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.” (10)
The accusation “I hold you in contempt of court” is telling. It is a charge that someone in the playground is flaunting, twisting, disregarding and disrespecting the rules that apply in that place. The game cannot function properly in such an environment—which is why we have grown sick to our stomach at the games people play.
“That is not how it is intended to work!” We know when something is awry by instinct—our creative, joyful, generous play-instinct. When the rules are twisted, it is a game that is anti-play and we do what we can to restore the situation to free play that honors the rules of the playground.
Why does this matter? As an American, all this begs humility. America was and is an experiment—and so are other forms of government. We do not have a monopoly on truth. We are still learning and growing (hopefully). Our system is not perfect and conflict will always be a factor for which we must account. We can choose to embrace conflict as an opportunity to grow, an arena to work towards reconciliation, or we can manipulate conflict to enact innumerable power-plays.
My hope is that the latter will diminish as we choose to nurture the former. America, I wish you a future of gracious, imaginative play.