The Paradox of Play

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“That’s Why They Call It ‘Work’.”

“(T)oday necessity is master and bends a degraded humanity
beneath its tyrannous yoke. Utility is the great idol of the age, to
which all powers must do service and all talents swear allegiance.” 1

Friedrich Schiller

Why does the word “work” often have a negative connotation?

Although the number of problems that can potentially arise at work is as large as the number of working situations, many work problems originate in our response to work’s defining feature: Work is, by definition, an activity experienced as necessary for survival. Work is serious. Insofar as work is compulsory and opposes freedom, it opposes desire: the fact that we must do what is necessary implies that we must defer gratification. If we have work to do, we are not entitled to do, feel, or get what we want until our work has been completed.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder: Children Playing

Sigmund Freud observed that most people would not work in the absence of coercion. He referred to “two widespread human characteristics” that explained why “a certain degree of coercion” was necessary to motivate many people to work:

“Men are not spontaneously fond of work and . . . arguments are of no avail against their passions.” 2

While a myriad of problems can arise at work, many such problems would be neither as bothersome nor as preoccupying if the context within which they occurred were not compulsory. Work problems are often particularly pernicious because we feel as if we have no choice but to expose ourselves to them. We don’t ordinarily feel that we can simply “ditch” our jobs. Even when we feel well-suited to perform work expected of us, and even if some aspects of work are gratifying, problems we encounter at work tend to loom large.

The tendency of work problems to arouse anxiety is connected to work’s defining aspect: problems at work tend to induce anxiety when we feel that our survival is threatened by them.

“I’d Rather be Sailing”

One is free to play when one is not compelled to work. Play is, by definition, voluntary. Play is defined in relation to work, in general, and by the degree to which the activity contrasts with
work, in particular. Play is voluntary in the sense that it contrasts with the involuntary nature of the things we must do for survival.3

Another defining feature of play is also elucidated by contrasting it with work: Unlike work, play is not useful or subservient to material interest. If one chooses to sail during one’s time off from work, for example, sailing would be “play”. If one makes one’s living as a sailor, however, the same activity would no longer qualify as pure play. Similarly, playing the violin with friends in one’s spare time is play, but if one is employed as first violinist for an orchestra, then playing the violin would be work, not play.

Pieter Brueghel: Winter Landscape with Ice skaters and Bird trap

The point that warrants emphasis here is this: The activity itself does not determine whether it is considered work or play. Any sport or game that can be “played” professionally – sailing or “playing” a musical instrument, for example, can be either “work” or “play”. To identify an activity as either “play” or “work” is to specify the conditions that govern it. While work is pursued under conditions that permeate ordinary life (i.e., necessity), play ensues because it attracts us.

Whereas necessity coerces us to work, in play we pay no heed to reality-based pressures. When we play we are fully aware that we enter a domain distinct from everyday life: the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga referred to this realm as the “Magic Circle”. Consciousness that one’s activity is different from ordinary life constitutes another defining feature of play that epitomizes the extent to which the concept of play is predicated upon that which it opposes, i.e., work.4

The Paradox of Play

“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he’s always doing both.”

James Michener 5

While play activity is defined by its apparent purposelessness, play is ubiquitous among animals and is found throughout nature: Biologists have established specific criteria that define play-behavior and have found evidence of play among creatures as diverse as ants and octopi. The world’s knowledge of animal play – from Aardvarks to Zonotrichia (sparrows) – has been meticulously compiled.6 Although a hallmark of play entails purposelessness, the pervasiveness of play throughout nature reflects its indispensability.7 Animals live in demanding
environments in which they must compete to find food, compete with other species, and compete to mate successfully.8 Why would animals waste time and energy on unproductive (and sometimes dangerous) activity?9 While we might hate to saddle play with a purpose – after all, one of the elements of play that makes it play is its apparent purposelessness – the ubiquity of play throughout human culture and across the evolutionary spectrum reflects its enormous survival value.

Play is paradoxical in the sense that it is defined as an activity that is “not useful or subservient to material interest”, yet the absence of play is linked to poor health, negative functional outcomes, and “a grinding mechanical existence” devoid of a sense of adventure and excitement. It is paradoxical that a bit of “nonproductive” activity can make one much more productive. 10


  1. Schiller, Friedrich. On the Aesthetic Education of Man. Yale University Press. New Haven.(Originally published in 1795).
  2. Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Norton. New York and London. 1961.
    (Originally published in 1930).
  3. Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Human Culture. Beacon Press. Boston. 1955. (Originally published in 1938).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Michener, James. The World is My Home: A Memoir. Random House. New York. 1992.
  6. Fagin, Bob. Animal Play Behavior. Oxford University Press. Oxford. 1981.
  7. Brown, Stuart. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the
    Soul. Avery/Penguin. New York. 2009.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid. These findings will be discussed in future posts.

4 thoughts

  1. Andy,
    This is terrific. There is a heaviness to work. And a lightness to play. We have to go to work and if we’re lucky we get to play a little bit as adults.

    Micheners idea is aspirational, but not common for most professionals I know.

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