Conflict socialisation

Sutton-Smith then incorporates text, context and metacommunication into his theory of conflict socialisation and play.

He has collected a long list of terms and arguments which we can trace back not only to historical and cultural anthropological theories but also to a broad variety of basic conditions which will be discussed in the section “The Play Phenomenon” in Chapter 13.

And all this is in turn integrated with modern psychology. Some of the literary examples which form the basis for Sutton-Smith’s ideas will be mentioned and justified here.

From the sphere of evolutionism, Sutton-Smith cites Bakhtin (1965) who describes and analyses a number of brutal types of medieval competitive games, also described by Rabelais in the 16th century. These descriptions also formed the basis for both Huizinga’s and Caillois’ evolutionary studies of play and games. In addition, Sutton-Smith cites Mead (the complete works), Bateson (1956), Turner (1969), Geertz (1973), etc.. He also cites comprehensive collections and interpretations of the many historical forms of play and games compared - by means of modern sociological methods - with those of today. These include Opie & Opie (1959), Abrahams (1969) and popular memorabilia collectors such as Culin (1975), Gomme (1894, 1898), etc., alongside Sutton-Smith’s own classic New Zealand collection and classification (1959).

Many of the analyses are cited in a large number of descriptions in articles, the majority of which are collected in the major 1971/72 publications: “The Folk Games of Children” and “Child’s Play”.

Sutton-Smith is motivated by the list of contradictions which can be drawn up on the basis of the earlier cultural historical studies and anthropological treatises. He makes thus a clear distinction between play and games:



The points of view behind these characteristics which represent a very important description of the similarities and the differences, are, however, blurred or completely interconnected in modern existence. Sutton-Smith suggests that it can, therefore, be difficult to identify or make clear distinctions between the two forms.

It is worthwhile examining why this is so.

Rubin, Fein & Vanderberg (1983) present (according to Sutton-Smith (1985)) an overall psychological overview of what play is. This overview builds on broad and concise principles concerning what modern psychologists can agree upon as a description of play, i.e.:

  1. Play is motivated by instinct.
  2. Play is characterised by attention to the process itself rather than to its conclusion.
  3. Play is directed by organically dominant questions.
  4. Play moves toward instrumental behaviour.
  5. Play is free of externally imposed rules.
  6. Play involves active participation of the participants.

By comparing the above with the collection of words on play in Huizinga’s etymological studies (ibid.) and with the socio-cultural key words related to play found in works by e.g. Geertz (1973), Turner (1982) and Gadamer (1985), Sutton-Smith presents the following:

From Geertz, Turner, Gadamer:                       Psychological key words:                        

- trivial                                                                                  - tension reduction

- frivolous                                                                             - abreaction

- immature                                                                            - arousal modulating

- childlike                                                                              - neural priming

- narcissistic                                                                         - metabolic recuperation

- nonsensical                                                                        - need stimulation

- free                                                                                     - heart rate variability

- unreal                                                                                - non-prototypic variability

- unnecessary                                                                      - proximal zones

- disorderly                                                                           - variable transformations

- indiscreet                                                                           - self-generative processing

- fluid                                                                                     - foregrounding

- open                                                                                    - manipulation of frames

                                                                                               - paradoxes, etc.

Attempting to identify the basic requirements for a thematic comparison may seem a daunting task. It would include vastly different terms from vastly different scientific disciplines using vastly different terms and metaphors.

Sutton-Smith’s distinct point is that play and games have had very different significance at the social level over the last two centuries but that the significance of play has increased considerably, especially within the last hundred years. How great the significance of play and games is today is reflected in particular by the definitions given by Rubin, Fein & Vanderberg.



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