Play and Mortality

Why do we play?

The other day I was walking down the halls at UC Santa Cruz and a poster presented at a genomics conference caught my eye. The poster introduced preliminary data on tumor imaging and prognosis prediction for patients with glioblastoma multiforme.

I’m often tempted to think that there is some research that is more important than trying to understand play and playthings. Saving lives, saving the world, one academic paper at a time, seems to be a better use of intellect than making sense of playful people and things. So what’s at stake with understanding play? Why is it so important? Why do we play, and why is it worth studying it?

Brian Sutton-Smith gave one possible answer to this question: we play because life is crap.

I propose another answer: we play because we’re all going to die.

Play is a way of dealing with our own mortality, with the inescapable fact that some years or weeks or days or minutes from now everything will be over. Being conscious is knowing that self-reflection itself will go away. At the same time, it is our conscience what anchors us to the now, and to the then we have lived. To be human is to deal with our own temporal limit, to find strategies to cope with our certain death.

And so play, like the arts, like the sciences, is a way of reaffirming us against the certainty of death. We play because we are alive, because without play, without the arts, being alive is nothing but a mere biological condition. Knowing the origin of the universe, being aware of the middle of the journey of our lives, writing impossible music, playing together, they are all forms of celebrating life because life will end.

Playing gives us the opportunity to make our mortality matter. Playing is affirming that we are alive, in the face of our own mortality. The act of playing will also end, but when we decide, and not before it has radically changed the world, for a period of time. Being able to decide when a world of our make ends is a triumph over our own limited lives.

Are these thoughts more valuable than research that could have saved lives? That poster I wrote about caught my eye because my mother died of a variety of glioblastoma. Is my work less important than research on cancer? That question is a fallacy. We need the knowledge to live long, but we also need lives that are worth living. Understanding what makes live worth living, like playing, is as urgent as understanding how to preserve those lives, or the world we live in. Because if we cannot play, imagine and question, what are we but mere biological machines?

Playing is an affirmation that we exist now, because we won’t exist then. Playing is an affirmation that we are living, and not just surviving. And that’s why we need to study play, why we need to make people play – because being healthy, living long, reaching the stars, they all need to be put in the context of our own limits, and we deal with those limits by singing, by writing, by math and though, by playing.

We play because life is crap, and it will end, but we can be more than slaves to those inescapable facts. Mortality gives us meaning and purpose, and being human is embracing that meaning and purpose as forms of expression, of celebration, as a victory.

That’s why play.

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