While I certainly would not claim that this piece - a mere 1500 words - represents a theory of play, I would hope that it does mark a step in the right direction. It is part of a much longer, more detailed article that I have been working on for some time and which should, with any luck, be published later this year or early next. I post this precis of my work here because over the coming months I will revisit the themes and issues it raises. Any comments, thoughts or observations are most welcome.
I once took a friend, a confirmed sports sceptic, to a game of rugby. As we watched two front row forwards, a combined forty stone of muscle, sweat and intent, collide with unnerving force he turned to me and said, “I don’t know what these guys are doing, but it certainly isn’t playing.” In a summer full-to-bursting with sporting contests – the Olympics, the Euros, Wimbledon, the test series – we’ll hear countless commentators talk of players, playing and plays in sports. But what is the relationship between sport and play?
Answers to the question have historically fallen into one of two camps. The first, exemplified by the liberal-idealist Allen Guttmann, sees sports as being a distinct subset of play, marked by its physicality, its competitiveness and its rules. In short, it argues that while not all play can be considered sport, all sport is necessarily play. The second argument, and one that characterises much of what passes for sports theory on the left, is the complete rejection of a link between play and sport. This is typified by the work of Jean-Marie Brohm whose book Sport - A Prison of Measured Time is held in far greater esteem than it deserves. In it he makes the point that “a child who practices sport is no longer playing but is taking his place in a world of serious matters”.
The problem facing such writers is that their theory of play is so lacklustre – or in Brohm’s case, entirely absent - that the attempts to analyse the nature of sport inevitably fail. Instead of theorising play in any meaningful way they are reduced to listing a set of characteristics that are used to describe, rather than define, play. These characteristics include spontaneity, a certain sense of freedom, fun, a separation from everyday life and make-believe, although this is by no means an exhaustive list. In the absence of a working definition nearly all the serious writers on the topic fall back on the same four words: play is not work. Or to give it a sophisticated feel, they talk of play as being a non-productive or non-utilitarian activity. And when they’re feeling particularly wordy, they describe play as being autotelic, i.e. it is an activity performed for its own sake.
This commonsense dichotomy between work and play might seem to be a fair approximation to reality but it is fraught with problems, and it is possible to arrive at a far more satisfying and insightful definition of play by using Marxist concepts. I would argue that play is the unalienated, simultaneous production and consumption of use value. I’m aware that such a phrase is not only horribly unwieldy but also requires a fair amount of ‘unpacking’.
By defining play as a use value we recognise it as fulfilling a human need. As Trotsky notes in The Problems of Everyday Life, “The longing for amusement, diversion and fun is the most legitimate desire of human nature.” Whether this need for play is an innate biological drive or socially and historically conditioned is unimportant, the fact is that the want for pleasure and excitement exists. That this creative drive should manifest itself in so many forms is an indicator of humanity’s ingenuity and inventiveness. It is, therefore, possible to see how play is the creation of use value. As Marx outlines:
“Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use values, but use values for others, social use values.”
By stating that play is an unalienated activity one is able to both incorporate and transcend the quality of freedom that writers identify. But rather than limiting the question of freedom to whether one chooses to play or not, it encompasses the freedom of the players to create and control their play environment. Either individually or collectively people choose how they play; there are no structures delimiting play’s potentiality, nor are managers and supervisors issuing instructions as to the players’ conduct. Furthermore the separation of producer from product, a key feature of alienation, is missing as play belongs immediately and irrevocably to the players.
In similar fashion the notion of the simultaneous production and consumption of use values allows us to overcome the limitations of the autotelic model. Play is still seen as an end in itself, but this definition allows one to avoid being caught in the theoretical trap of the players’ intentions. Equally it renders as redundant the notion that play is an essentially non-instrumental activity. Instead play differentiates itself from other spheres of human activity not so much through what is (or is not) produced but in the way it is consumed. Here the very act of production is the act of consumption. In a dialectical sense they occupy the same moment. Labour produces use values that may be consumed at some indeterminate point in the future but in play production and consumption occur simultaneously. The very act of playing is the satisfaction of the need to play.
How then does this relate to sport? The key to our understanding is, as Richard Gruneau has written, the fact that “the structuring of sport has become increasingly systematised, formalised, and removed from the direct control of the individual players.” Governing bodies exercise control over sports across the globe setting rules and issuing directives. In sport the players are not free to participate, instead they are faced with a series of gatekeepers – managers, coaches, selectors. Some of these people then exercise control over the way in which players play. Tactics are prescribed and, of course, plans and set pieces are part and parcel of the contemporary sporting world. You could easily argue that they predominate. Nowhere is this clearer than in the use of the word ‘play’ in the American version of football. Here a verb suggestive of spontaneity is transformed into a noun denoting a preordained manoeuvre.
At the heart of sport is a constant tension between play and competition. As the importance of the contest – and the financial stakes involved – increases so playfulness gives way to “playing the percentages”, “playing it safe” and “stopping the other team from playing”. But it would be wrong, I think, to say that there is no element of play apparent in sports. When commentators talk of an inspired move or a piece of ingenuity, it is the case that the ludic is reasserting itself in the face of the demands of competition. It should come as no surprise that those sportspeople who acquire iconic status (Best, Botham, Ali) are the ones who look as though they are genuinely ‘playing’ even in the most serious and competitive situation. The nature of the sporting contest, with its unfolding drama and the need for instantaneous individual and collective decision-making, means that individuality and personality can never be wholly removed from a game. It is possible for the quarterback to change the play.
The world of professional sports is not best understood as existing in the realm of pure play, or as its negation. If we use Marx’s criteria and look at “the relation of labour to the act of production in the labour process” then professional sports are the alienation of play.
Equally the use values produced by those playing sports no longer belong to them. Play is now mediated through the prism of capitalist relations reconfigured as a spectacle, and in turn, placed on the market as a commodity. In professional sports use values do not present as the fulfilment of the need of the player, but as the satisfaction of the demands of capital, where spectators are the consumers of a product. The sporting spectacle is no longer the by-product of play; it is the product, deliberately cultivated, and it is now play which is incidental. As Gideon Haigh laments of one sport, “cricket must be sold in order to be played.”
As ‘work’ is the contemporary manifestation of labour, so sport is a historically conditioned form of play. We may still point to its physicality, its competitive nature and the development of physical and intellectual skills as important characteristics, but when defining its relationship to play these alone are insufficient. Instead professional sport is commodified, alienated play. We may, perhaps, be so bold as to re-write the famous aphorism of Marx and say, “Players play, but not in the conditions of their own choosing”.
This isn’t simply an academic exercise, nor is it an exercise in self-justification, as we lefties attempt to excuse our guilty passion for competitive sport. The more we can understand the link between play and sport the more we safeguard against writing sports fans off as mere dupes in front of capitalist ideology and the better fitted we are to orientate ourselves on sport’s struggles and contradictions, whether they take place on the pitch, in the stands, or – inevitably – in the boardroom.