on play & the digital

Plato countered the political chaos of pre-Socratic Athens by vilifying ancient cultural traditions and observing that it was really only the poor and the poorly-educated who were still putting much faith in old-fashioned public discourse. He’d thrown together a little curriculum guide, which he’d called Republic, and included a step-by-step plan for policy–makers and citizens interested in reclaiming the agora from criminals and con artists — from all public performers, really, because you just never know.

In the years that followed, Plato’s curriculum proved especially popular with the Church, with Renaissance banking dynasties and wealthy techno–industrialists. But his diminution of mimesis and play — relegating poetry and dance to mere shadows of the world, instead of worlds-in-themselves — had an indelible effect on philosophy, art, and pedagogy.

For nearly two thousand years, then, the West had endured a kind of metaphysical Footloose. Until the first years of the 20th Century, when play — like electricity and the combustion engine — was suddenly at the heart of everything that mattered. Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Charles Ives, Max Ernst, Harold Lloyd, Grand-Guignol, Montessori pedagogy, the Harlem Renaissance, DADA. The Dutch medievalist Huizinga was moved to make an imperfect but marvelous claim: Play is not only one of the great accomplishments of a culture, it is also the foundation of human civilization. Farming, theater, literature, war, the courts: These were sites of play first, says Huizinga.

As concept, context, posture and method, play has been central to my work in the classroom: Not because I am unserious, but in part because I see new forms of play and mimesis as key to thinking about digitality on its own terms. I draw heavily on Huizinga and other theorists of game and play like Piaget and Papert and Brian Sutton-Smith, and philosophers who are putting play to great use: Zizek, Sloterdijk, Boal, and Ulmer.

Sutton-Smith adds further dimension to my pedagogy when he amends Huizinga to observe that not only does play explain how we got here, but it strongly suggests how we might move forward. Play is a mechanism of adaptive potentiation, he argues: An evolutionary advantage. Quirky, redundant, and outrageously inefficient, I see ludic thinking as the 21st Century analogue of Enlightenment-era critical thought.

It won’t be much fun, but I see play as the way we survive the Anthropocene.