Playing at Work (Shhh, don’t tell my boss I’d work for free)

A great place to work, but am I at play?

As another academic semester gets rolling, I am reminded by how much I love what I do. I found a way to turn my passion for sports into a full time job (take that high school teachers who told me sports would never take me anywhere). I also work at an amazing university with ambitious and talented students who come from all walks of life. After watching the KNES 516 philosophy seminar come up with some great arguments and insights on their forum, I really can’t believe I get paid to talk about sport and physical activity with these people.

So here’s the question: am I at work or at play? Oh sure, I am paid to be here and there are certainly parts of my job that I dislike. But I don’t see these as necessarily opponents to play. Even worse, after rereading some of the great philosophical works on play (Suits, Huizinga, Espinoza, and Fink), I am even more confused than ever about the answer to my question.

Part of the confusion comes from Bernard Suit’s persuasive argument in his essay “Words on Play” that play and work are necessarily in opposition. Suits, the “Plato” of sport philosophy, explained that “we think of professional athletes as working when they play their games and as playing when they go home from work to romp with their children” (Suits 20). Or consider Esposito’s point that most people believe that “work is serious; play is engaged in for fun” (Esposito, 115). This argument would mean that work and play are like two sides of the same coin: you can never have both at the same time. And that would logically imply that I cannot be at play while I doing my work.

But hang on. My experience tells me this is not quite right (although it is so logically neat and tidy). While I was never good enough to be a professional athlete, I have spent enough time around them to know that on a given day, most would choose to be playing their sport than doing anything else in the world. More importantly, work done for pay is only a necessary evil to maintain existence. Of course work can be satisfying and meaningful; I know that. Still, we all need to eat and put a roof over our head. If we didn’t have to work to stay alive, we would naturally all pursue meaningful activities. Even Suits knew that, which is why he used his Utopia to illustrate the importance of game playing. But since we do still need to work, it makes sense that those lucky few who are good enough to get paid to play choose that option. Also, consider those athletes like Brett Favre, Michael Jordan, or Lance Armstrong who can’t seem to leave their playing days behind even though none of them need the money anymore…well, maybe Lance does. So perhaps it would be better to think about this: if “professionals” would still do their “job” even if they didn’t have to work to survive, then it is possible that they are at play even though they are getting paid.

We can even strengthen this position. Eugene Fink makes a persuasive point that play has the ability to spontaneously emerge anywhere. In this sense, Fink concludes that “[Play] is a fundamentally existential phenomenon. It is not derived from any other manifestation of life. To oppose play to any other phenomenon [work] is to risk misunderstanding it” (Fink 102). Fink continues that “when, as is the custom, we do not restrict play by relating it to work, to reality, to the serious, to the authentic, we commit the fault of not placing it with the other phenomena of existence.” In other words, play is part of the underlying fabric that makes up our experience of the world. We do not choose to play; rather play finds us. We are born playing, as my 7-month-old son can attest to. And you can never predict on a given day what will catch his eye—what will make him at play—but play always seems to find him.

Someone’s excited to play!

This vision of play makes sense given my experience with play at work. I have experienced hours fly by while engaged in writing or reading for class. I have left classes buzzing from the great exchange of ideas that just happened. When students “get it,” when an article suddenly “connects,” or when ideas suddenly “flow,” I can honestly say that play has found me. Of course it is serendipitous. I cannot force these moments to happen. But when they do, I know that I am very lucky to have a job that lets me experience such deep forms of play.

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One Response to Playing at Work (Shhh, don’t tell my boss I’d work for free)

  1. The joys of play often do “contaminate” our culturally derived Puratinistic work ethic (or perhaps the other way around). Suits reminds us that it a false stipulation to define play as an autotelic activity (an activity that derives its meaning from iteself). He further asserts that play is contingent on the “unserious” use of a universal resource; time. I would argue that our physical potential energy, not time, is the resource we play with when we engage in seemingly autotelic activities. Keeping our knowledge of physiology in mind, we must realize that cognition is a metabolically expensive activity. While we seem to be using time to participate in activities we enjoy, we are also using real energy. This energy must be replaced at our own expense (grocery bill). Therefore, we are perfectly justified in being compensated for our output of energy despite the fact that the fruits of our labor benefit ourselves as well as our employers.

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