Can Play Save the World?
Photo by  Robert Collins  on  Unsplash

My recent article on the importance of humour received a lot of substantive feedback on social media, and one comment made a reference to Homo Ludens - the playing man - which has prompted me to refresh button some material I had been working on play.

At a 2011 conference organised by the Australian Society for Continental Philosophy, a presenter gave delegates a highly informative introduction to strands of Play Theory. Listening as a theologian, I found the paper highly stimulating and this post is a chance to revisit some of the theological golden threads of this paper.

One theorist that we were introduced to was the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Writing in a 1981 essay entitled “Some Paradoxes in the Definition of Play”, Csikszentmihalyi said that play is more than just the generation of self-centred pleasure for those engaged in play. It was a “subset of life”, a social laboratory where one can “practice behaviour without dreading its consequences”. Whether it would be in the context of a game, dance or theatrical performance, play so defined allows for the person so playing to extend reality beyond the horizons set by the immediate site of the play taking place.

Writing in another context, Richard Schechner made a similar point in 1990. In his essay, he wrote of the importance of “performance” in not only maintaining cultural institutions, but also enlargening them.

A more thorough overview of Play Theory’s relation to culture can be found in Patricia Masters’ article in Sociology Compass entitled “Play Theory, Playing and Culture“. In a post that similarly suggests the cultural valence of play, the Social Learning Blog has put up a post looking at the role of gaming in social transformation.

I found these threads fascinating because the first thing that came to my mind was not the frivolity of the playground or the video game. What came to my mind was the solemnity of the Eucharistic liturgy.

At first, I wondered if I was being vulgar to equate something so solemn and sacramental to a game. Upon reflection, I realised that it was not the play per se that interested me, but the ends to which such play served.

More specifically, the vocabulary of Play Theory helped me articulate the task of Liturgy. As Christians we believe that liturgies were not only the works of the people (hence the name). Liturgy was also the context in which we train ourselves to recognise God entering history, and in so doing “advances the peace and salvation of all the world”. Our world of pride, emnity and violence becomes the dining hall for a party that quite literally ends all parties – namely the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.

What is that if it is not, as Luke Bretherton describes it, envisioning a different future, if only for a moment, “and having reality re-framed”?  In other words, what the Eucharist is is not only the entry of the Body of Christ in our broken world, but extending and envisioning an alternative to that broken world, to borrow Csikszentmihalyi’s words.

At another level, because the Eucharist is supposed to bring us ever closer to the beatific vision, which is characterised by an eternal reveling in the presence of God, it is thus proper to consider the Liturgy’s relationship to Play Theory.

One is not so much reducing the Liturgy to a form of entertainment, but is providing the blueprint of true play (and thus calling into question whether entertainment can be true play), by which all other forms of play in contemporary culture can be judged. It can also be the means by which the Christian can critique society’s relationship to play, in particular in entertainment societies where a narrow vision of play is now seen to be the highest good, but producing instead only counterfeit forms of enjoyment.

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