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.]
- “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.
- 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).
- 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).
- “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).
- “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.
- “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.”
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.