The Language of Play

Reading this week’s papers from Pat Kane (2005) and Brian Sutton-Smith (1997) were a sheer joy and delight compared to the James Newman chapter the other week. I think the issue between these three writers is one of how an argument is being presented to the reader. We start with Sutton-Smith (1997) who sets that scene by explaining that the meaning or definition of “play” is fraught with ambiguity with various philosophers, anthropologists, biologists, psychologists, etc. describing the essence of “play” in different ways that relate to their particular disciplines.

It’s astonishing to learn that for such a “simple” concept of “play”, or at least perceived by many to be a “simple” concept, has academics from a multitude of disciplines trying to place “play” within some framework or other – indeed, I don’t recall any of the theorists mentioned by Sutton-Smith taking an holistic and all-encompassing view of “play”; this is something that Sutton-Smith (1997, p. 6) sees as a weakness and Kane (2005, p. 40) also picks up on when he talks about the “third culture” or polymathism (“Homo Universalis“) before the arts and sciences had a parting of the ways. I was also intrigued by Sutton-Smith’s view that play “has temporal diversity as well as spatial diversity” when he talks about the likes of the World Cup and the Olympics. Sutton-Smith (1997, p. 9) offers “seven rhetorics”, which Kane (2005, p.39) describes as:

…ways of thinking and talking about play that express a certain vision of human nature and culture, and which can be deployed by everyone from teachers to generals, hackers to CEOs … [which] imply both a very modern and a very ancient vision of humanity.

The “seven rhetorics” are:

  1. The rhetoric of play as progress
  2. The rhetoric of play as fate
  3. The rhetoric of play as power
  4. The rhetoric of play as identity
  5. The rhetoric of play as the imaginary
  6. The rhetoric of play as the self
  7. The rhetoric of play as frivolous

Kane (2005, p. 48) makes an interesting statement whereby he says “the moment of play is identified as a generator of originality, energy and new development” that made me think of Google’s European offices in Zurich and the “Homo Ludens” that occupy it.

Kane’s “manifesto” is about a lifestyle, an attitude, a state of mind, a way at looking at the world and the people and artifacts in it that strips away the rigidity and drudgery that has been hampered by a mechanistic, industrial mindset of the Victorian age. Education is still built around this hidden curriculum of “preparing people for the workforce”.

There’s this wonderful allusion to Jean-Dominique Bauby’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” where Kane (2005, p. 46) quotes surrealist Luis Bunuel: “Somewhere between chance and mystery lies the imagination, the only thing that protects our freedom”. Bauby suffered a massive stroke that left him with a condition called locked-in syndrome (the diving bell) and would use his imagination (the butterfly) to escape his biological prison.

Both Sutton-Smith and Kane position play not as a “trivial, frivolous, silly” waste of time; but as a powerful, natural human asset for learning and discovery through highly creative and imaginative interactions with the world and the people who live in it. Whilst the games industry has shown how people can become immersed in the world of games and are developing skills through experimentation, practice and from other players, so now Education needs to look at this phenomena and translate this into practical, everyday use fit for a classroom be it real or virtual.


Have just learnt that Pat Kane is one half of the late 1980s, early 1990s pop duo Hue and Cry and maintains a blog called “The Play Ethic” and is using Twitter to share his thoughts and resources around his concept of the play ethic.


Gee, J.P. (2007). What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning And Literacy (Revised and Updated Edition). New York, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kane, P. (2005). The Play Ethic: A Manifesto for a different way of living. London: Pan.

Sutton-Smith, B. (1997). The Ambiguity of Play. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.