Mark C. Taylor on “Play” in Life

“In our sports-obsessed world, true play is rare. Ever eager to make a profit, crafty investors turn play into serious business. Customer recruitment begins when players are very young: children barely old enough to walk punch away on cell phones that carry video games; Nike runs sports camps to hook seventh-graders on expensive shoes; kids not yet in their teens compete for countless hours in massive multi-user-online games where they learn skills better suited for the trading floor than the playing field. When nothing escapes the logic of the market, losses become incalculable. These distortions of play have serious consequences – a society that has forgotten how to play has lost its way.

I have long thought the historic phases of economic development can be charted by the games people play: agrarian society loved baseball; industrial society, football; network society, basketball. It is not only the grass that makes baseball a field of dreams but also the leisurely pace of the game – nobody ever seems to be in a hurry. The long warm-ups, breaks between innings, walks to the mound, jumping in and out of the batter’s box seem designed to slow everything down. Baseball is not governed by the clock and often seems to go on forever.

And then there is the spitting – what is it about baseball and spitting? In no other sports do athletes spit like baseball players. They spit on the ground, in their hands, on their bats, in their gloves and, when they can get away with it, on the ball. It seems to be a ritual vestige of an earlier era when times were rough and edges had not yet been smoothed.

Football is all about strategy and timing and, as such, it is the ideal game for the military-industrial complex. Metaphors of war dominate discussions of football and violence is intrinsic to the game. More important, football is rigidly hierarchical – the command structure is strictly top-down. Plays are first diagrammed by coaches acting like generals and then executed by troops equipped with the latest high-tech body armor heading into battle against a hostile enemy. Carefully staged rituals make the point obvious: fighter jets flying low in tight formation over stadiums, military paratroopers landing on fields, color guards carrying the flag and high-soaring eagles released while fans belt out the national anthem. Warriors one and all.

Basketball is improvisational and spontaneously emergent rather than programmed and deliberately plotted. Like jazz, basketball is played best when it flows freely. Though some plays are planned, most are riffs that cannot be anticipated. The structure of the game is lateral rather than vertical, distributed and not hierarchical. Basketball does not conform to the logic of the industrial grid(iron) but follows the alternative logic of information networks. Though the court is circumscribed, the game is decentralized and the action is free-wheeling. If football players following commands recall movements on a chessboard, basketball players bumping into each other as they constantly adapt to the continuously changing flows surrounding them resemble packets darting across worldwide webs.”

Mark C. Taylor, “The Games We Play,” (http://www.ssrc.org/blogs/immanent_frame/2008/02/06/play/).

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