Csikszentmihalyi & Bennett—An Exploratory Model of Play

An Exploratory Model of Play

by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Stith Bennet

[Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, and Stith Bennett. 1971. “An Exploratory Model of Play.” American Anthropologist, New Series, 73 (1): 45–58.]

Points

play is:

  • “action generating action: a unified experience flowing from one moment to the next in contra- distinction to our otherwise disjoint “everyday” experiences … “
  • grounded in the concept of possibility. We assume that in general individuals have the ability to assess what actions are humanly possible within the bounds of a given situation. The point is that in “everyday,” non-play situations the number of things that can happen is always more than the one series of events that does happen. Of all the possibilities for action that we perceive, only a few become ongoing projects: we can only do “one thing at a time”

So play is a way to think about the actions we take at any given moment—we acknowledge the choices for action, choose one, and commit to it.

  • “the ability to synchronize “starts” and “stops” with their social environment to produce interaction. This operational volition or decision for immediate action will be referred to as the “voluntary fiat” (45).

Play is the enactment of voluntary fiat under the right conditions.

  1. not too much worry:
    • “A multitude of boundaries constrain our projects at every moment, and talking about what to do and how to do it crowds the time for doing it to the extent that a full consideration of the potential frustrations of any project leads to hopeless anxiety.
    • Worry is experienced when the assessed possibilities in a situation far outnumber the projects available to the actor by voluntary fiat.
    • “The more things we perceive requiring us to act, and the less compatible these actions are with each other, the more worried we become” (45-6).
  2. not too much boredom
    • “A wearing tedium or dullness can pervade action that has become routinized, making it hard to tell present action from past actions, since monotony lacks change or variety.”
    • Boredom is experienced when the projects available to the actor by voluntary fiat far out-number the assessed possibilities in a situation.”
    • The fewer opportunities for action we perceive, the more bored we become” (46).
  3. “When there is a “balanced” state of affairs, when we can make each action by voluntary fiat, but still do not exhaust possible actions, the necessary conditions for play are established. ”
    • Play is experienced when it is impossible for the actor to differentiate projects available by voluntary fiat from assessed situational possibilities” (46).

BIG POINT:

  • “If one accepts the postulate that the essential aspect of the play-experience is a state of merged awareness and action, then the requirement of a good game, that is of an institutionalized play-form, is that it should allow the player to sustain this experience throughout a relatively long span of time. In order to accomplish this, games must limit by convention the realm of stimuli that the player need pay attention to: by establishing a playing field or board, by defining what are the relevant objects of the game. The game also has to limit the choices of action open to the player: by establishing the rules of the game. And finally the game has to limit the time within which the player can act: by clearly setting the starting and finishing times of the process. Within this limited spatio-temporal unit the player can abandon himself to the process, acting without self-consciousness” (46).
  • In other words, rules + limited relevant information + time limit = play / flow / free action

The article then goes through ethnographic information on games of chance, strategy, and skill, linking each to ritual divination. For more on this, see the annotations below.

Finally:

  • “We have been most concerned with the concept of “self”: of how it is forgotten when action is plentiful, and perhaps of what the experience of “selflessness” is like.”
  • “It is our contention that the full theoretical significance of the “self” concept does not unfold until the possibility of playing is considered.”
  • “Any concept of “self” relies on the ability of an actor to share perspectives of “others” who see him. Interaction is grounded in the “self” as integrator of one person’s actions with another, and therefore as the continual negotiator of social reality”
  • “What is important here for social theory is that a negotiable reality which is subject to varying interpretations and requires a “self” (everyday life) coexists with a voluntarily structured reality with no referential requirements (play). In other words, the traditional theoretical conflict between individual and society (or monism and dualism) is irrelevant for a man at play.”

Abstract

Play is defined as a state of experience in which the actor’s ability to act matches the requirements for action in his environment. It differs from anxiety, in which the requirements outnumber the ability, and from boredom, in which the require- ments are too few for the ability level of the actor. Games are reviewed with illustrations from a cross-cultural context of traditional and modern societies. It is suggested that games of skill, strategy, and chance all share structural characteristics that allow the player to limit his experiences so as to maximize the play experience as defined. Further theoretical implications are drawn from the model in terms of the relationship of individuals and the social system.

Annotation Summary for: Csikszentmihalyi & Bennett – An Exploratory Model of Play

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “An Exploratory Model of Play MIHALY CSIKSZENTMIHALYI The University of Chicago STITH BENNETT Northwestern University”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Play is defined as a state of experience in which the actor’s ability to act matches the requirements for action in his environment. It differs from anxiety, in which the requirements outnumber the ability, and from boredom, in which the require- ments are too few for the ability level of the actor. Games are reviewed with illustrations from a cross-cultural context of traditional and modern societies. It is suggested that games of skill, strategy, and chance all share structural characteristics that allow the player to limit his experiences so as to maximize the play experience as defined. Further theoretical implications are drawn from the model in terms of the relationship of individuals and the social system.”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Despite the fact that play is a truly universal cultural category, its nature is still far from being understood.”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “It is generally assumed that “I have fun” is a kind of basic protocol-statement which cannot be analyzed further and that the experiences that accompany playing are self-validating and in no need of being explicated.”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Every day we depend on the control of people over a large assortment of projects-a control which includes the ability to synchronize “starts” and “stops” with their social environment to produce interaction. This operational volition or decision for im-mediate action will be referred to as the “voluntary fiat” (Schutz 1962).”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “this paper’ we will attempt to develop a conceptual model for play, and present illustrations of it through an analysis of actual play-forms. ”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Play is action generating action: a unified experience flow- ing from one moment to the next in contra-distinction to our otherwise disjointed “every-day” experiences.”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Play is grounded in the concept of possi-bility. We assume that in general individuals have the ability to assess what actions are humanly possible within the bounds of a given situation. The point is that in “every- day,” non-play situations the number of things that can happen is always more than the one series of events that does happen. Of all the possibilities for action that we per- ceive, only a few become ongoing projects: we can only do “one thing at a time.” ”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “A multitudeof boundaries constrain our projects at every moment, and talking about what to do and how to do it crowds the time for doing it tothe extent that a full consideration of thepotential frustrations of any project leads to hopeless anxiety.”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Worry is experienced when the assessed possibilities in a situation faroutnumber the projects available to the actor by voluntary fiat.”

Page 1, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “Worry”

Page 1, Stamp (Star (Frame, Red))

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The more things we perceive requiring us to act, and the less”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “compatible these actions are with eachother, the more worried we become. ”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” A wearing tedium or dullness can pervade action that has become routinized, making it hard to tell present action from past actions, since monotony lacks change or variety. Boredom is experienced when the projects available to the actor by voluntary fiat far out-number the assessed possibilities in a situa- tion. The fewer opportunities for action we perceive, the more bored we become. ”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “If one accepts the postulate that the es- sential aspect of the play-experience is a state of merged awareness and action, then the requirement of a good game, that is of an institutionalized play-form, is that it should allow the player to sustain this ex-perience throughout a relatively long span of time. In order to accomplish this, gamesmust limit by convention the realm of stimuli that the player need pay attention to: by establishing a playing field or board, by defining what are the relevant objects of the game. The game also has to limit the choices of action open to the player: by establishing the rules of the game. And final- ly the game has to limit the time within which the player can act: by clearly setting the starting and finishing times of the pro- cess. Within this limited spatio-temporal unit the player can abandon himself to the pro- cess, acting without self-consciousness. ”

Page 2, Stamp (Star (Frame, Red))

Page 2, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “Boredom”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “When there is a “balanced” state of affairs, when we can make each action by voluntary fiat, but still do not exhaust possible actions, the neces-sary conditions for play are established. ”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Play is experienced when it is impossible for the actor to differentiate projects available by voluntary fiat from assessed situational pos- sibilities.”

Page 2, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “~ Play”

Page 2, Stamp (Star (Frame, Red))

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “It seems clear from ethnological evidence that games of chance, like other games, were first played in a context of religious ceremonial activities, i.e., they served to relate the players with supernatural forces postulated to exist in the environment.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “play as here defined can occur under a great variety of situationssome of which would be classified as work by the observer un- aware of the player’s experiential state.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” Games of chance specifically seem to have emerged from the divinatoryaspect of religious ceremonials (Culin 1906:32, 37, 43; Huizinga 1950; David 1962). ”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “we now briefly analyze institutionalized play- forms in light of the present theory-always keeping in mind that formal games are but one of the forms in which play can be, but is not necessarily, experienced.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “we use the three traditional categories of games of chance, games of strategy, and games of skill”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “What is clear in most reports of North American games of chance is that the activity, even when it had crossed the line and become a pastime, was still heavily related to genuine forms of divina- tion.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “GAMES OF CHANCE”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Of course once the ritual of divination becomes a game, a powerful motivation is added to it: the desire to win the stakes placed on the outcome of the throw of dice.”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Yet it seems that the bet is more of a secondary reinforcement giving concreteness to the player’s control over chance rather than the primary goal of the activity.”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “rather than the primary goal of the activity. The winnings are proof that the player has in fact successfully coped with the mysterious pos- sibilities of the environment. In other words, the real stake is the player’s ability to outwit chance.”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The point is that like all effective play forms, games of chance successfully delimit, by means of both physical implements and rules, a slice of reality with which the player can cope in a predictable way, thereby losing himself in a pleasurable state of activity and consciousness, free of either worry or bore- dom. A die can only turn up on one of six faces; we need never worry that it might turn up a seven, a cancer, or a shrewish wife.”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “GAMES OF STRATEGY”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “At a very basic level, both types of gameswere, and still are, inherently divinatory. The player who begins a game, whether of chance, strategy, or skill, is in essence ask- ing: if I put myself in this situation, will I be able to cope with the requirements for action that this situation presents? And the structure of the game provides a clear answer to the question. ”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “There are several reasons why chess is able to limit the perceptual field so dramatically and so advantageously in terms of producing the play experience. In the first place, with a relatively simple material ap-paratus of sixty-four squares and thirty-twopieces the rules allow for an almost infinite variety of situations to develop. ”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “GAMES OF PHYSICAL SKILL”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Games of physical skill or dexterity are without doubt the most universally wide- spread institutionalized play-forms.”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Even at present, despite secularization and specialization, the divinatory aspect is still perceptible in this category of games. A match between two teams, or two individ- uals, is the answer to the implied question: which will win?”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In our theoretical model, the process by which the player opens up new possibilities in a given situation so that he can act on them, is in some important respects analogous to the essential com-ponents of the process of divination.”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “self becomes superfluous, and the player can merge with the process in a state of monistic awareness.”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The episodic nature of play is now re- vealed: play emerges out of the context of everyday life whenever the latter becomes tooworrisome, and slips back into everyday lifewhenever the play experience becomes boring. ”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “CONCLUSIONS”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “We have been most concerned with the concept of “self”: of how it is forgotten when action is plentiful, and perhaps of what the experience of “self- lessness” is like.”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “It is our contention that the full theoretical significance of the “self” concept does not unfold until the possibility of playing is considered.”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “What is important here for social theory is that a negotiable reality which is subject to varying interpretations and requires a “self” (everyday life) coexists with a voluntarily structured reality with no referential require- ments (play). In other words, the traditional theoretical conflict between individual and society (or monism and dualism) is irrelevant for a man at play. ”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” playing is considered. Any concept of “self” relies on the ability of an actor to share perspectives of “others” who see him. Interaction is grounded in the “self” as integrator of oneperson’s actions with another, and thereforeas the continual negotiator of social reality: ”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The question might be raised, how can any activity proceed without a functioning self to act as a “negotiator” between the environmental demands and the person’svoluntary fiat?”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In everyday life this would indeed be impossible. But in the play situa- tion social reality is not up for negotiation: the actors are absolutely bound to a limited set of actions and to identical accounts of those actions; play is a social system with no deviance.”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Given a manageable number of options for action and an unambiguoussymbol system, no viewpoint other than theplayer’s viewpoint is necessary-the social ”

Page 13, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “To understand play is important precisely because it combines in an experiential unity both social constraintsand spontaneous behavior. We have here, then, a rare opportunity for integrating the unilaterally accurate perceptions of the sociologistic and psychologistic views of man.6”

Page 13, Underline (Red): Content: “ARENDT. n. 1958 The human condition. Chicago:The University of Chicago Press. ”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “PARSONS. T. 1961 Theories of society, Vol. I. New York: The Free Press.”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “GOFFMAN, E. 1961 Encounters. Indianapolis: Bobbs”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “SARTRE, J. P. 1956 Being and nothingness. New York: Philosophical Library.”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “Office. HUIZINGA, J. 1950 Homo Press. ludens. Boston: Beacon”

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