A Joyful Paradox: Rethinking Play in the Modern World

I think I was about 10 years old. One sunny spring day following a long rain, my sister and I stepped outside and encountered a stream of runoff water cutting across the dirt road near our house. We watched the steady flow of muddy water for a while, and then had a bright idea. If we kept the water from running off the edge of the road, we can make a nice little pond! So, we got to work, gathering and stacking rocks to form a dam.

Time slipped away as we worked. The water was cold and turned both our hands bright red. The air became chilly as the warm midday sun descended low in the sky. Yet we were oblivious. When our father came to check on us, his initial impulse to scold us quickly gave way to understanding and interest, and before we knew it, he was also squatting over the emerging pond. That evening, as we returned home — cold and hungry, yet filled with joy — I didn’t realize we were partaking in a timeless ritual, one that is fundamental to human experience: play.

Johan Huizinga argued in his 1938 book “Homo Ludens” that play predates culture itself, suggesting that many aspects of human culture arose from and as play. This idea was later expanded by researchers like Cliford Geertz, who recognized the meanings embedded in play, and Brian Sutton-Smith, who more recently detailed the multifaceted nature of play.

Play, as they suggest, is not just a frivolous activity; it’s a vital component of our cultural DNA, instrumental in fostering creativity, community and identity.

My childhood memory reflects some of the key elements of play. Immersed in our makeshift construction project, my sister and I lost track of time and ignored the discomforts of the physical world. Play, in its purest form, is captivating and immersive. It’s an endeavor undertaken for its own sake, not for some practical outcome (the pond disappeared quickly once the runoff stopped). This act of creating a pond, however purposeless, was inherently valuable — it was play in its most authentic form.

Play is also inherently social, connecting people through shared experience. My father, initially inclined to reprimand, found himself drawn into our world of play. This shift from routine to spontaneity, from responsibility to recreation, is a hallmark of play as a transcendent experience. It underscores Huizinga’s notion of play as voluntary, fun and distinct from the ordinary. In that moment, the generational gap and the day-to-day obligations faded, replaced by the simple joy of shared creation.

If the separation from the world of day-to-day living was once the quintessential characteristic of play, in our modern world, the lines between play and productive activities, often labeled as “work,” have blurred considerably.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of professional sports. Athletes, who engage in what can be considered “play” at its highest level, often experience a transformation of this concept. What begins as a passion for the game, characterized by freedom and joy, can evolve into a career dominated by performance and competition, with wealth and prestige at stake — a stark contrast to the childhood play in my anecdote.

Professional athletes, like tennis stars Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic, provide poignant examples of this transformation. Tennis, an inherently individualistic sport, places the spotlight squarely on the athlete. The intrinsic joy and freedom of playing the game often give way to a more structured, performance-oriented activity.

Osaka and Djokovic have both publicly discussed the immense mental and emotional pressures they face. The constant expectation to remain at the top of their game, the scrutiny of media and fans, and the weight of professional competition can wear down even the most resilient athletes, eclipsing the playful origins of the sport. The story of these athletes resonates deeply with the broader narrative of play in our society.

Aside from elite athletes and others for whom play has turned into work, the blurring of play-work boundaries can affect just about anyone in modern society with an unexpected paradox: the overabundance of play, accessible at our fingertips, begins to resemble work. The obligation to respond instantly to messages or to participate in online gaming, even when it conflicts with other responsibilities, mirrors the pressures and demands typically associated with work.

In turn, work invades the time and space previously set aside for recreation. In our constant state of split attention, the transcendent experience of losing ourselves in the pure joy of play is harder than ever to obtain.

The genie, however, cannot be put back into the bottle. Professional sports are a big industry and a major part of our economy; online forms of games and play are so ubiquitous already — and growing rapidly as we speak — there is no chance we can go back to the quaint old days. Perhaps, then, the key lies in how we play (figuratively speaking) with blurred boundaries and take advantage of the newly gained flexibility that technology affords us. After all, play has been an integral aspect of the human experience, shaping our culture, creativity and connections.

As the boundaries between play and work continue to evolve, we must embrace this complexity and seek ways to integrate playfulness into our daily routines, not as a means of escape, but as a path to a more fulfilling life. By doing so, we honor the essence of play, ensuring that its joy and spontaneity remain a vibrant part of our societal fabric.

Sawa Kurotani

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.