In 2009, Sarah Palin quoted Plato as saying, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” She was wrong about the author—it was Richard Lindgard, hardly as big a name—but Palin was right about the idea… though perhaps not in the way she intended. Americans seem to be playing all the time.
The opening of Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (1938) describes ways biologists account for animal and human play: it’s training for life’s serious business, it’s an initiation by elders, it’s a release of a youth’s superabundant energy, it’s an exercise in controlling and channeling impulses. However, Huizinga rejects all of these explanations because they assume, “Play must serve something that isn’t play.” He asserts play has it’s own compulsion. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be fun.
We can’t, in other words, not play—it’s instinctual, fundamental. At the same time, we can, Huizinga says, recognize play as less than serious. In his view play centers on experimentation only possible when actions have no consequence outside the game. It begins with pretense, he says, and all play, “Betrays a consciousness of the inferiority of play compared to seriousness.” The absorption and intensity of participants can exist within a game while remaining make-believe. Play is cathartic, rapturous without being consequential. The game ends, and we return to life.
His views seem naïve now. Even if the NFL playoffs weren’t beginning this weekend, the multiple sports networks and hour-to-hour wall-to-wall broadcast of games suggest how seriously we take sports and how central it is to American culture. Revenue from professional sports contributes significantly to the overall economy—it’s big business, we’re told over and over—and anyone who’s met someone in a weeklong snit over a ref’s botched call or watched a fallen baseball star testify in Congress or seen footage of overturned cars burning during victory celebrations knows how sports bleed into real life. Athletes are demigods, their stature in society assured by skills confined to quarters, innings, fields and courts.
Huizinga seems to have overestimated our capacity to separate play and real life. American culture elevates even the most trivial pursuit to high seriousness and treats our most grave pursuits like melodramas. We take our mock seriousness very seriously and fill airtime with tweets, verbal slips, and wardrobe malfunctions. Our political news follows politicians like soap opera actors, and we attend to their antics without knowing much about their positions or actions. The issues at stake are too complicated, so we revel in partisan disputes as we might boxing, unaware exactly what’s being disputed, aware only that it’s fun to watch. The discontented gather in parks, and we absorb them like a made-for-television circus. We struggle to distinguish the serious from the not-so and, even worse, stop struggling to make much of a distinction at all.
Of course, some people still study their daily newspapers and can differentiate the policies of every Republican presidential candidate, but they are a shrinking minority and subject to jokey ridicule from many of us. Scholars still pore over the great thoughts of authors, philosophers, religious figures, and historians, but they aren’t funny enough to hold anyone’s attention for long.
Voltaire once called God “A comic actor playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.” We’re not sure who God is anymore and are afraid not to laugh. Raise a cry about our self-absorbed and trivial culture, and someone will ask, “Why so serious?” and then return to the private amusements of their iPhone, videogame, laptop, television, and iPod.