The Play Community
…The only real assurance we have about the “fun” we can have together is the one we give each other.
The need for community holds true whether we are players or spectators. As a spectator, I want to be able to scream for my team. If the spectator sitting next to me wants to scream for her team, and if she insists that I also scream for her team, the likelihood is that we will wind up screaming at each other. We have to spend more of our time resisting each other than enjoying the game. I want the game to be important. She wants the game to be important. But we both lose our opportunity to relish this importance when the game becomes more important to us than we are to each other.
When mother and child play together, regardless of what they are playing, they are establishing a community in which both people operate under the convention that they take precedence over the fun. When the child cries, the mother stops playing.
When children play together, in the street or the back lot, they too establish a Play Community. When someone gets hurt, the game stops. When there’s a little kid around, you watch out for him, you play softer when you’re near him, you give the kid a break. At all times there is an acceptance of a shared responsibility for the safety of those with whom you play.
The point is that somehow, in the process of becoming adult, in the attempt to establish familiarity, we tend to separate the fun from the community. We develop an official body of rules so that, even though we might not be familiar with the people we’re having fun with, we’ll all be familiar with the game. Baseball is always baseball, no matter with whom we are playing. In the enlargement of our community to embrace the national community we abandon some of the conventions that provide us with access to fun. Our goal is no longer “play,” but a game that we or our team can win.
What’s so strange about this whole shift is that the search for play never stops. What stops is our awareness of how to find it – our awareness that in fact it resides not only in the game but also in the people playing.
The conventions that we tend to enforce with each other are those which are more directly related to the maintenance of a particular game than they are to the establishment of a community. Winning takes precedence over establishing trust. Winning takes precedence over providing for the safety of the players. Winning even takes precedence over the willingness to play.
The Play Community becomes a game community, devoted to the pursuit of a particular game, measured in terms of our success or failure as players of that game.
Thus, we meet for the sake of the game. We go bowling or play bridge. We enter leagues and evaluate our community in terms of how successful it is in prevailing over others. As a game community, we have abandoned any authority to determine whether or not the game we are playing is, in fact, fun. That decision depends on who wins.
It is the nature of a Play Community to care more about the players than about the game. If play is what we truly want for each other, it matters less to us what game we are playing.
In fact, as our Play Community develops, there are particular times when we seek out games with fewer and fewer rules. Games with no rules. Or rules with no games. Or a short nap. We have so affirmed our ability to play well together, to be safe with each other, that rules begin to get in the way of our freedom together.
As we begin to sense our power to create our own games, as we discover that the authority for determining whether or not a particular activity is suitable resides not in the game but in the community, we are willing, even, to change the very conventions that unite us.
Because we have had fun together, because we have played so many different kinds of games together, we have become familiar enough with each other to allow our trust to reside not in any particular agreement but in the community itself.
We can find new ways to play. We can make it our goal to have nothing else but fun. Only fun. Just fun. We can abandon even the agreement to find a game we can all play together. The trust we have established with each other is so profound that we need no longer to aim at anything.
And so we continue, pursuing this convention of playing together, until any attempt to decide ahead of time what game we’re going to play or not, even an attempt to decide what rules we are going to play by, becomes too much of a hassle – unnecessary, in fact contrary to our purpose, in fact impossible.
And then, maybe, we find ourselves playing follow the leader into the woods, and next, we find ourselves climbing trees and skipping rocks. And when everybody’s running amuck so beautifully, so caringly, who’s going to ask for rules?
We are playing. We are caring. We are safe with each other. This is what we want. We are playing together, even though we can’t name what game we’re playing. We are having a good time. We trust each other. There’s no doubt at all about our willingness to play. So there’s nothing, anymore, that needs to be established. We are who we want to be, how we want to be, where, here, now.
And then, suddenly, we find that we have done this enough. We aren’t tired of playing. We’re tired of playing this way. We aren’t tired of each other. We want to change the way we’re playing together. Maybe we want to do something harder. Maybe we need some challenge.
Nobody knows how this happened – this change – but somehow all this delicious ease we have with each other has become too easy, too familiar. Now we want to play doing something – play doing something else, maybe. Play working even. Building. Gardening. Making a meal. Eating.
Until even playing isn’t enough and we establish other aesthetics. We want to feel beautiful together, to experience grace together, to express harmony.
Until that too isn’t enough, and all that we want to do is find another fun thing to do or play or be.
But, whatever game or not it is that we finally find together, whatever game or not we are able to play playing together, we are somehow assured, even then, that we will be safe in it.
Let us hypothesize that all we are trying to do at this moment is to have a good time. We’re not looking to prove anything to anyone. We simply want to play something together that will be good for all of us.
I feel like playing a game of checkers. I’m tired of running around. I want to do something mostly in my mind, and I’d like to be doing it with you.
You, on the other hand, want to swing from the tree rope. You don’t want to get into anything competitive. You aren’t particularly interested in thinking at all. And somebody else wants to play tug-of-war.
Now the fact is that, if we really wanted to play together, we could find a game if we needed one. That, also, is most amazing. Somewhere there’s a game we could all play, each of us feeling the way he’s feeling, each doing what he wants to be doing. We might have to give up the things we’re using. We might have to change a few rules. We might even have to make up a whole new game. Maybe we’d wind up with our tug-of-war friend holding on to a rope that you were swinging on while I counted the swings. Maybe a card game. Who knows?
When we’re looking for fun, we’re not as concerned with the game we wind up playing as we are with having the opportunity to play together.
When we look often enough, with enough people, in enough different play communities, we find eventually that it really doesn’t even matter whether we’re being physical or mental, competitive or cooperative. Those are just games.
We’ll even find that the kind of activities we get involved in don’t matter that much. We might be tired, we might be feeling thoughtful, but we also might really delight in a heavy game of soccer. Because our basis for trust and safety has broadened to such an extent that it resides not in any particular game but in our very relationship
(FROM THE WELL-PLAYED GAME, BERNIE DEKOVEN, 1978, 2013)
see also: Dr. Amiti Etzioni’s “The Responsive Community”