Order and anarchy

Sutton-Smith gives examples of the significance of play and games in a description which utilises themes in play and games, themes which he believes are more important for modern analyses of play and developmental trends for play within modern society:


  • play as freedom, as opposed to force
  • play as imitationand production, as opposed to pretence
  • play as mastery (hegemony), not as laziness
  • play as co-operationand co-ordination.

The essence of play can thus be summarised in these few words while the way in which play occurs is always an interaction between two possibilities: order and anarchy.

Mankind’s eternal search for safety and security, for a guarantee that things in his day-to-day environment function in a foreseeable and orderly way is fundamental to human existence. Disorder and chaos create problems and conflict but also add knowledge, insight and experience.

In creative and intelligent play, investigation or experimentation, intuitive behaviour will, therefore, always be apparent but will end up becoming targeted as the game ends in a predictable “result”.

Interpreting and understanding the play’s text and metacommunication present the person-at-play with new and existential forms of consciousness.

The Existentialist philosophers’ descriptions of the meeting and I/Thou, I/It and the choice between permutations and solutions - the confrontation on the borderline between order and anarchy - turn these experiences, these existential moments, into something elevated and essential. Sutton-Smith’s genius was that he connected the theory of play’s text, context and metacommunication with the principles of Existentialist philosophy and deconstructivist terms (see next section).

And for this reason it is wrong to assume that play with strict regulations which have to be observed or play with rules is more structured than “free play”.

Anyone who observes play and games can easily be misled by external rules and attitudes. However, impenetrable patterns of action, based on the terms described above, are always concealed behind the structured pattern of any game, organised form of play or set task.

And for this reason setting free play on the one hand and participation in play with rules or in solving a set task on the other as two diametrically opposed opposites is entirely wrong. Both forms of play involve the contradiction between order and anarchy.

The child seeks, constructs and experiments with a form of self-discipline which is simply a demonstration of the will to self-denial in order to be able to participate in or carry out a certain process and to enrich himself with perspective and influence. The child therefore voluntarily acquires a natural form of knowledge and recognition of the extent of his own powers.

Play must therefore be seen not only as something “easy, spontaneous and simple” but also as a “heavy and complex process” which is full of contradictions and deadly seriousness, requiring self-discipline, exhaustion and self-denial. Play is always dignified and significant.




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