Recently, my sister referred me to an article that made quite a splash on the Wall Street Journal by Amy Chua: “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”. (Read it first if you have not). The article is certainly polemical, and it paints a bleak picture of the Chua household: no sleepovers, no playdates, no being in school plays/drama, no watching tv or playing computer games, and above all “no grade less than an A”, etc etc. This is the familiar stereotypical picture of a household run purely on achievement, instrumentality, outcomes and accomplishments. It is a familiar morality tale that could come from the confines of an upper-class household in Victorian England.
Excluded from that life, by definition, is anything that will not lead to a positive outcome in the parent’s eyes (these of course are defined economically: getting a high-paying job, graduating magna cum laude at an Ivy League school, receiving educational awards). I have no opinion on whether or not Amy Chua (a professor of Law and economic commentator at Yale) is a good or bad mother, or whether her children are good or bad people. Those conversations have been had.
Instead, I want to know: if a family excludes play from the household or puts major restrictions upon its expression, what kinds of values are being ignored or denied to the child?
What is Playing Anyway?
Play, by its nature, is difficult to confine in any strict definition. It includes all kinds of activities, from pushing around Tonka toys in a sand box, to kids building a hidden fort in the forest, to jamming in an improvisational jazz session. There is something playful and unexpected in all of those activities: the child in the sand box is not moving around sand for any serious purpose, the children in the forest are not architects trying to erect an office building, nor is the jazz group trying to perfect a piece that they have all memorized. In all of these cases, people are exploring the limits of their expressive abilities, creating different kinds of social relationships with other people, or discovering new kinds of properties or relationships that things have. All of these involve re-imagining and transforming our spaces with or without other people.
What Kinds of Play are found in Minecraft?
Games, for some, serve as a means for play. Playing Minecraft with other kids in The Art Guild has taught me just how powerful play is as a form of expression. Over the last few weeks my guildmates and I have been building a community on our Minecraft server. Some of them play, each day, for hours – constructing elaborate fortresses and underground mines with no particular schematic or final product in mind. Others jump in and explore the map, poking around in dark corners and building staircases hundreds of feet high, just to get an overview of the place. Others yet mine obsessively, dwarven-fashion, delving greedily into the Earth for any coal, diamonds or redstone that it might yield to them, jealously guarding their treasures in secret tunnels and hideaways that their guildmates could not hope to find. Others play Minecraft simply to chat and be in the same virtual space as their guildmates, swapping stories about Guild life or talking about events in the game.
The Values of Play
In all these cases, a very complex and thick social fabric is developing where one did not exist before. Yes, some of these teenagers know each other from school. But in the vast number of cases, they barely know one another – they are just acquaintances. Minecraft, as with all the video games that we play together in the Guild, creates a space in which people can come to share collectively, or fight and argue, or love and cherish, or hide secretively, or obsessively collect, or laugh and jibe about. Some of these are more playful than others: those who explore and build for the sake of expression enjoy a form of play that is clearly more playful than those who log in and needlessly squirrel-away resources. But in all of these cases, children are becoming people of certain kinds – whether they are helpful, combative, secretive or impulsive – through the space that the players of the game create in their style of playing it. They are developing new friendships, discovering new emotions (one player recognized for the first time that he is “greedy” with his resources), or learning new social skills (i.e. bartering). The value of the game is precisely in offering opportunities (spaces) in which people can express, and in expressing themselves, become certain kinds of people with desires and motivations and styles of social relating of their own. Play-spaces (of all kinds, not just in games) create moments for social and personal enrichment primarily through expression, and not through institutionalized learning, education, and cognitive or technical skill-building. Play precedes, and is the forerunner to, all forms of adult institutionalized knowledge.
What is Lost?
This all being said, creating a household in which play (of all kinds) is denied serves to create a child who experiences their world in terms of means-ends, instrumental goals, and cognitive or technical skills. Lost in this, I think, are the tacit forms of understanding developed in playing with other people: expressing and dealing with one’s emotions, developing deep friendships, and interpreting the world in terms of one’s imagination rather than relying upon the stock images provided by parents or social institutions. In essence, denying play leads exactly to the kind of ruthless North American society in which we live in today: one defined by work, end goals, and social anomie.