The Lost Chapter

For a long time, Play Matters was a longer book, with even more footnotes. The missing chapter in the final version is a chapter on ethics and play. The book’s reviewers considered that the presence of that chapter made its argument somewhat confusing, so I decided to eliminate it from the final draft of the book.

But enough time has passed, and I think it is worth to publish here that chapter. Please take into consideration that this an unfinished draft, and it’s stylistically horrid. But since some of my new research is taking me back to philosophy and ethics, I think it will be worth publishing it here. In the next few weeks I will write about this new work, and hopefully things will start making sense. In the meanwhile, here’s Play Matters‘ lost chapter:

Moral Play

I have dedicated my professional academic career so far to the understanding of the ethics of computer games. I am a firm believer on the ethical possibilities of computer games, but I am also concerned, to a certain extent, with the potential moral dangers that some aspects of computer games culture has. However, I am not going to be writing about that in this chapter. Neither am I going to be writing about ethical philosophy, or other complicated and abstract academic arguments. In this chapter I am going to write about play being valuable for our well being, about play being a moral activity, one that can contribute to our well being, to our flourishing as human beings, but one that also presents dangers and risks and challenges.

I am not going to portrait play as a morally neutral, or even morally positive activity. There are ethical risks when we play, in excessive play, in addiction, in power play. But my argument will differ from those who might be interested in sensationalist and oppositional arguments to play. Play is important for the moral fabric of society not only despite its potential risks, but also because of these risks. Playing is learning to navigate, playfully but also deeply seriously, the activity of play as a way of being in the world, as a form of expression. Because play is dangerous, and because it is also a creative, human form of expression, it has value for us, it makes us grow; it makes us better human beings.

In philosophical terms, I am taking the position of what is called constructivist ethics. I believe, like Aristotle, that ethics is a practical science, and that we develop our best by practicing what makes us best as human beings, by practicing virtues. To be a morally sound human being we must develop our potential, we must exercise, practice, test and expand our virtues, from empathy to love, to courage. We are ethical beings not only because we are virtuous beings, but also because we can develop those virtues through time, through practice. That practice takes place in all instances of life: when we work, we love, when we are idle and when we excerpt effort. A way of understanding this active, constructivist approach to ethics is to think about morality as another way of being in the world, one that is defining of who we are, one that determines how we engage with others and how we take decisions.

Given that ethics is a practical science, a way of being in the world that underlies all of our actions, activities and ideas, its relation with play as a way of being in the world should be relatively simple. Play is a way of being in the world, a mode of existence. The ethical nature of play, then, should be evaluated looking at how play helps us develop our values, become a better human being, create virtues that we can then develop. The ethics of play should be then seen as the value of play, the way in which, through play, we become better human beings.

This is, of course, not a new problem to address. In the history of philosophy, and particularly in the tradition of sports philosophy, there have been numerous accounts on the virtues of play, and how play is an exercise of values. However, most of the reflections on play and virtues, while pointing at the idea that play is an exercise of virtues, struggled with two main issues: first, the clearly huizingian roots of the theories of play in which these analysis were developed, which meant that they had to deal with the explicit claim made by Huizinga that play was outside of the ethical domain. And second, these theories were mostly concerned about how play, enacted through games, can be used to develop and practice values, without giving much though to the importance of the plaything in the development of the ethical meaning of play; that is, the relevance of the game being played in the development of values.

The theory of play I am presenting in this book is an ecological one, that is, one that advocates that play is a way of being in the world that appropriates, and is sometimes mediated, by objects, things and circumstances. In this sense, the importance of the game, or the plaything, in the way play can contribute to our betterment, is obvious, since it affects the way of being in the world through play. Dystopian fictions have provided us with numerous examples of unethical sports, like Rollerball, most of which are inspired in the idealized idea of the Roman gladiator games. More than a shortcoming, this is a minor issue: a detailed analysis of how play contributes to our development as virtuous beings also has to take into consideration the context of play, and the vehicle for expressing play. Games matter, as much as those with whom we play.

The most important problem, though, is the huizingian theory of play, and its influence in the way we think about play. As I’ve mentioned before, I have an academic career focused on understanding the ethical importance of computer games. This line of work has often led me to discuss the issue of violence and video games. However, this moral concern is also extensive to topics like addiction, grades, and the general importance of play for those who play. In other words, play is suspect, even though we acknowledge that it does foster some virtues. But still, it is unserious, not valuable, a pastime at best to which we add some values to justify its existence.

This notion of suspect play is rooted in Huizinga’s general idea that play is something “separate” from life, something we enter into, doted with its own seriousness but ontologically separate from reality, and furthermore, separate from the ethical domain. In fact, Huizinga goes as far as to say that play is not, and cannot be coupled with ethics, they are almost antinomial: in the realm of play, there are no ethics.

With this basic idea lurking into our argumentation on the value of play, it is not difficult to understand why play was suspect. Even though we understand that through sports, and through play, we live and enact and test and learn values, our dominant theory of play insists on the separation of play and real life, on play being based on disinterestedness, a reality of its own.

If we separate play from real life, from being in the world, we also deprive it of the capacity of affecting us. It becomes moderately harmless, yes, but also less important, just a pastime, a banal way of interpreting our being in the world. If we want play to be important, if we want to defend the idea that play matters, we have to do so by acknowledging that it is a strong force, a way of understanding and expressing and being that can be dangerous, but that can also be profoundly illuminating, a way forward in our betterment as human beings.

We need, then, to leave behind the idea of play as something that happens separate to the world, that has a seriousness of its own, that is not affected, and does not affect, the contexts and objects through which it is manifested. Play is valuable through its capacity to be appropriative, expressive, and disruptive – the ethics of play have to be seen in the way play itself allows us to explore, train, and develop our better sides as human beings.

This is not to say that all play is good, and that there are no moral risks with play. Play can seduce us; through playthings we can forget that play is just a mode of being in the world, and we can lose the relative distance between the action and the context that we need for play to be ethically and culturally valuable. Play can become an addiction, in that it can turn into being the dominant mode of being in the world, not allowing us to develop other relations with others, and with the world, that are not through play.

Many playthings are created with the intention of engaging us exclusively in play, to be addictive. In fact, in the lingo of computer game culture, addictive is seen as a positive adjective, without giving much thought to how it can be damaging. Besides the obvious social and health risks of addiction, there is also a moral concern: if our only way of engaging with the world is through play, we miss out on the extreme richness of different modalities of being in the world. Our experience of the world will be limited, partial, and ultimately uninteresting and damaging for our development as human beings. The addictive risk of play, the temptation of engaging exclusively with and through play can harm us more than nurture our well being. As such, play can be dangerous, and morally harming.

There are other possibilities for harm through play: dark play, or subversive play can not only challenge situations and unearth political statements, but it can also be used to marginalized people because of their reluctance to play. While the benefits of dark play as an expressive mode assimilate it to some of the most interesting and influential avant-garde movements, it is also a risky deployment of play, one that is often unleashed in contexts where many others don’t know that play is happening. Dark players find pleasure, and meaning, in that direct interference in other modalities of being, a secret one of sorts. However, that interference, that occupation, because it is not been clearly demarcated, risks harming others, and therefore constitutes a moral risk. 1

Play can be risky for our moral well-being, then, when it becomes the exclusive mode of being in the world, and when that mode of being in the world is not shared, in its consequences or practices, with those who might be present in some form or another on the act of appropriation through play.

But as I’ve already expressed, play is also a valuable way of being in the world. In fact, it is because play can be dangerous that it is so valuable: because it has that power of expression and appropriation, because it can be subversive and engaging and unexpected, an aesthetic expression as much as a political appropriation, play can be morally good. In fact, play is more than morally good, morally necessary.

For a good life to be so, for us to be able to develop our potential as moral beings, for us to develop virtues and become better human beings, we all need play. In fact, play is a fundamental part of the well being, of the healthy and mature and complete human life. In huizingan play, we almost take for granted the importance of play, yet we keep it separate from the world, we seclude it in its own seriousness, in its own environment.

But play should not be secluded. Through play we experience the world, we construct it and we destroy it, and we explore who we are and what can we say. Play frees us from moral conventions but makes them still present, aware of their weight and presence and importance.

We need play precisely because we need occasional freedom and distance from our conventional understanding of the moral fabric of society; because we need to see values and practice them and challenge them and break them and reconstruct them in order for them to become more than mindless habits, true practices. Through play we engage with our moral being, we are pushed to see morality and ethics and the way it also operates as mode of being in the world, and by that double play, by that back and forth between morality and play, we develop our own moral being.

Play is not a secondary mode of existence, nor it is the domain in which we practice play-specific values. In play we explore, practice, develop and test the same values that we then use as moral beings in the world. However, play is different because of its very constitution as a mode of existence. Since play is defined by being appropriative, ethics, that is, the moral principles and rules that are determining our condition as moral beings, are also subject for this appropriation.

That is why play is morally important, ethically valuable: because it appropriates ethics itself, because it makes morality a prop for play, much like it makes rules a prop for play. This is why Huizinga, and Nietzsche, considered play outside the realm of morality. However, they were wrong: play is not outside, but a different mode of engaging with morality, one in which ethics is not the primary mode of being in the world, of experiencing the world, yet a mode in which ethics and values can play a particularly important role.

When play is about ethics, it is so because it appropriates and explores values, like in the case of games created for educational purposes, or games that use ethical dilemmas as a way of emotionally engaging their players. But play should not be reduced to being ethically significant when it explicitly addresses morality. Like any other way of experiencing and expressing the world, play is always moral, it is always the expression and being of a moral being in a world that requires that type of understanding. That is not to say that play is always concerned about morality, but it is not devoid of it. In fact, ethics as a structure of behavior, as principles for how to act, are a fundamental part of play as experience.

As said, what makes play important for our moral life is how it allows us to explore, as props, our own assumptions and ethical principles. Play gives us distance, but also engagement with our own moral fabric. To lead a balanced life, to explore and become who we can become and flourish as ethical human beings, we need to understand our values and principles not as an act of faith, but as the structural elements of the practical science of ethics. And play, because of its appreciative nature, allows us to do precisely that: appropriate, strange us from our own moral being, and at our own risk, allow us to explore who we are, and what our values are.

To play is to be moral. We need to play in order to become better human beings, to explore morality. There is much talk and importance given to games and other playthings as important because they can address serious topics. But that is an unnecessary argument: play in itself is already important; play in itself is already necessary for living a good life. Because through play we practice morality, through the balancing act of avoiding the perils of play, but also through the appropriation of morality and ethics to question them, to explore them, to make them too subject to play.

The values of play do not reside in whatever ethics a particular plaything or situation wants to communicate, or on the values of players or the rules. The values of play are important because of the way play can appropriate all of the former, and let us, players, explore their meaning and experience them while we also create them. Play is a path to the better life, an experimental and experiential route to the betterment of our own moral fabric. Play is necessary to be human not only because as humans we play, but also because through play we better express what it means to be a moral human being.

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