The only time we can truly play together is when we play together as equals. What especially interests me is that we can do this even though we are not equal at all. When the old are playing with the young, the abled with the disabled, the expert with the novice, the human with the animal - as long as we share the same rules, as long as we can somehow agree that we will treat each other fairly, that, despite any "real" differences, we will not overpower each other, not allow the inequalities to surface; we can play as if there were nothing dividing us, nothing separating, nothing differentiating.
When we are playing together, despite our differences, we celebrate a transcendent sameness, a unity that underlines the illusion of our separateness. You could call this an act of love - an enacted love that lets us keep the game going. Many acts of love, in fact, many acts of compassion, caring, trust, assurance.
This is the kind of play that takes place between all kinds of lovers: parent and child, between the older and younger, between you and your pets. It's the kind of play between animals of different species that Fred Donaldson talks about in his beautiful story of the Bear and the Dog. And it seems to me that it is this kind of play that has been the center of my awakening, for all these 40 years I've been playing and talking about playing; this kind of loving fun, this form of play that is, in its very essence, love.
It doesn't seem to matter what kind of game we're playing - competitive, cooperative, planned, spontaneous, new or old - if the game is played between beings who are not equal in power or ability, and if we can keep it fun, it is almost as if we play in defiance of each other's differences.
This is very different from the kind of play we find in formal sports and games, where players are professionals. Under the competitive contract, it is a struggle between near equals - the nearer, the better. People of almost equal strength and build, knowledge and skill. People who are so much the same that we can tell them apart only because they are wearing different colors, or because they stay on their own sides of the field or board.
But when we play in acknowledgment of our differences, it is never the game that really keeps us together. It is always and only our desire to play with each other, our need to keep our selves and each other in play. It is merely an act of love.
It never was a question of who wins or loses, as the cliché has it. The truth and marvel of any game has always been found in how, despite everything that divides us, we manage to play it, together.