There are books on play, then are books on play studies, then there is this. Stuart Brown has an excellent book on the science of play, Huizinga wrote a pioneering work on play theory, but Sutton-Smith (SS) has outplayed them all.
Let me be Frank. This is a textbook. It reads like a textbook. It contains technical terminology, schema and classifications, definitions, references and all the usual academic tools. Some parts require serious brainpower to appreciate. The list of primary and secondary sources is massive and most impressive.
But it’s more than a mere textbook, much more. Here’s what it does for you.
It gathers together all previous theories, theorists and key works by contributors to the field of play studies. It gathers them from the widest range of disciplines possible. Then it categorises them according to seven major meta-themes or “rhetorics” that nicely bundle together all these disparate elements in such a way as to expose their core meanings and spread them over a timeline from ancient to modern. And then, for each of the seven, it picks out the main adherents, interacts with them in a lively and insightful discussion, and summarises the rest.
The work does have a weakness, but it is not the fault of SS. The Index is inadequate to the task of serving such a key text. It only picks out major interactions with a particular author and excludes all minor mentions. This infuriates me. For example, in the chapter on “the rhetoric of self” I was excited that SS focuses attention on the ‘flow’ theory of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi but there are several places where he (ps. 200, 207) and his theory (67, 81, 174, 188, 192, 195, 207) are mentioned in the text but not in the Index. Same with Nietzsche (57, 60, 132, 151, 190-1, 220). Poor Maslow (184) and Carse (207) don’t get included at all. Grrr!
If the content does have a weakness, then it might be the fact that SS hardly touches on one of the main expressions of play in our world: humour. In fact, there is an entire theory of humour that centres on the notion that humour is essentially a form of play (propounded by thinkers are diverse as Thomas Aquinas, Max Eastman and John Morreall) . Beyond mentioning humour once (208), comedians once (211), and jokes in passing (56, 210), SS does not mention humour or comedy with any depth at all.
A word about the strange title is in order. Sutton-Smith regards play as “ambiguous” for several reasons. Play cannot be captured in one definition or perspective. That why he needs his seven “rhetorics” to cope with all the material. He also believes that play exists in diverse forms and experiences, with diverse players, agencies and scenarios, studied under diverse scholarship. But more than this, unlike some authors (e.g. Stuart Brown), SS allows for valid aspects to play that others might find disturbing. Some scholars (e.g. Schechner) call this “dark play”; SS labels it “cruel play” (p. 56).
I first came across the name of Brian Sutton-Smith when reading him quoted in other books. “The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.” I tried in vain to source this quote in the internet. Finally, after reading this book, I had my reward of a eureka moment. Actually, the usual quote isn’t a full or accurate rendition of what Sutton-Smith says. But it does capture the heart of the matter. Turn to page 198 for the real deal.