New Philosopher #20: Play

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New Philosopher is an independent quarterly magazine devoted to exploring philosophical ideas from past and present thinkers on ways to live a more fulfilling life. Commentary on New Philosopher aims to guide readers into living a happier and freer mode of existence.

In this issue: At its best, play provides a spark in life, releasing us from the burden of playing ourselves. At its worst, play becomes a game to win at all costs: think Lance Armstrong’s doping or the Australian cricket team’s ball tampering.

For better or for worse, play reveals us – to ourselves and to others. Canadian philosopher Bernard Suits, in his playful book Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, in which a Socratic grasshopper seeks to prove the value of play, wrote that a game is “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”.

But why would we set unnecessary obstacles to overcome? Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play, argues that we do so because play is “the vital essence of life” and “the basis of what we think of as civilisation”. Suits’s grasshopper is no less effusive, arguing that game-playing is the supreme intrinsic good; that in utopia the central activity would be to play games.

Whether it’s the main game or just a sideshow, it’s hard to deny the importance of play. Whatever the case, it couldn’t hurt to take the grasshopper’s advice and, every now and then, just go outside and play.

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