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How we play

Posted by on July 20, 2011

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we, as adults, play. Goodness knows, I’ve got reason to think about it — nearly all our discretionary time seems taken up by one kind of playing or another. Gene and I play computer games, card games and board games; he plays role-playing games, I attend costume parties; we play on rope swings at the park; we build Lego sets and work on puzzles — we play so much that it’s a wonder anything ever gets done around here.

I’ve been watching other adults to see how they fulfill their need to play. Our friends, of course, play many of the same games we do — they’re who we play with, after all. My parents, as long as I can remember, have engaged in an endless series of wagers, which is its own form of play — they bet on who’s remembered that actress’s name correctly, or which year they saw that Presidential debate. For some adults, drinking takes the place of play, since it confers a similar feeling of lowered inhibitions. For some, I think, it’s gossip, which is the grownup version of Calvin and Hobbes standing in their clubhouse and refusing to let Susie Derkins come up the ladder.

But no matter who I look to, none of the adults I know play in the way that children play. Everyone’s adult play takes place inside a structure. All adult games have rules. Even messing around with Lego pieces has limitations — as an adult, you may build a structure, but you don’t go on to give the Lego men little voices and walk them around.

It’s not that all adult games lack creativity. Role-playing games, for example, are basically group storytelling, inventing the world and the plot as you go along. But even then, there are pre-determined structures, there are laws in the world, there are dice and character stats and boundaries. At no point do we ever suggest pretending and inventing in a vacuum, the way as a child we might begin “Let’s say this happened, and let’s say we are these people,” and go on endlessly from there.

Maybe my nostalgia for that kind of boundless play is why I cling to this idea of writing fiction, even though I’m so lazy about it. A blank white Word doc is the closest I come now to the worlds without end which I played in as a kid. But how do other people do it? How does the adult personality go on, day after day, with only itself to be, never turning into a rabbit or a mermaid or a spy? Is the regular descent into an alcoholic haze or the polite boundaries of a Scrabble game really enough of an escape from the wearying sameness of self? And if it isn’t, what other escape is possible once we’ve lost our milk teeth and acquired our mortgages?

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