The vigorous exhortation to “play” now haunts every corner of our culture. Typically issued as an imperative along with words like breathe and meditate and dance and celebrate, the word play, in its catchall generic form, has a curious way of repelling the senses, conjuring as it does all manner of mandatory frivolity, most of it horribly twee and doggedly futile. Yet Johan Huizinga, the Dutch cultural theorist who tirelessly examined “the play element in culture,” asserted that the one defining feature of play is that it’s voluntary. “Play to order is no longer play,” he declared flatly. “It could at best be a forcible imitation of it.”
…A second-order definition of play, Huizinga notes, is its close correspondence to the serious adult activities of work. “Play must serve something which is not play,” he observes—which is why so many children’s pastimes openly mimic adult pursuits, from the near-universal rituals of doll nurture to games that reenact the aims and provisional alliances of war-making.
But in a consumer culture committed to prolonging adolescence at all costs, the boundaries demarcating child and adult experience have blurred to the point that it’s no longer obvious just who is imitating whom. The American state of play is terminally confused. Much of it feels grimly compulsory, and carries with it a whiff of preemptive failure to achieve the target level of revelry.