Play, Talk, and Friendships - Oklahoma Center for the Humanities

Play, Talk, and Friendships

The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at The University of Tulsa is pleased to begin its series of blog posts from the fellows of the 2019-20 academic year. The fellows are engaged in wide-ranging creative and research activities surrounding the idea of play– a topic the center will explore through lectures, symposia, public debates, readings, writing, films and exhibitions.

This post was composed by Lars Engle, a Chapman Professor of English and chair of the English Department at TU. Lars likes most games but is not a gamer.  He regards himself as a playful person and appreciates playfulness in others.


Play, Talk, and Friendships:

Video and computer gaming lie largely outside my experience. I play tennis regularly, but I now rarely play board games or card games. I limit myself to the NYT mini-crossword each morning because the full crossword takes way too long, and lately I’ve also been playing the online NYT’s new Tiles game while my coffee gets to work but find myself getting a little bored with it. I think of myself, nonetheless, as a playful person. So where does playfulness lie for people like me?

Let’s go back to the beginnings of play in each life: how do people learn to play, and what are they learning?  My guru in this matter is D. W. Winnicott (1896-1971), the pediatrician, psychotherapist, and psychoanalyst who wrote Playing and Reality and reassured anxious parents with the term “the good-enough mother.” Winnicott found the origins of creative living in the infant’s use of what he named “transitional objects,” objects central in the transition an infant makes from living in a world existing only of itself and the breast or bottle that appears as needed to gratify its desires, to living in a world that mostly consists of “external reality,” that is, people and things largely indifferent to its needs.  The blankets and teddy-bears to which infants attach themselves in the absence of the care-giver, Winnicott believes, lie neither outside the child in “reality” nor inside the child’s psyche.  Rather they are transitional between total self-immersion and the acceptance of a frustrating world one must put up with.  For Winnicott, the intermediate space, neither psychic nor objectively real, that transitional objects inhabit remains with healthy people as a component of adult life.  Playfulness and creativity in adults as well as children requires comfort there:

The important part of this concept is that whereas inner psychic reality has a kind of location in the mind or in the belly or in the head or somewhere within the bounds of the individual’s personality, and whereas what is called external reality is located outside those bounds, playing and cultural experience can be given a location if one uses the concept of the potential space between the mother and the baby (Playing and Reality 71-2).

To be successful, Winnicott asserts, his own work of psychotherapy must be playful:

 Psychotherapy is done in the overlap of two play areas, that of the patient and that of the therapist. If the therapist cannot play, then he is not suitable for the work.  If the patient cannot play, then something needs to be done to enable the patient to become able to play, after which psychotherapy may begin.  The reason why playing is essential is that it is in playing that the patient is being creative (Playing and Reality 72, italics Winnicott’s).

One of Winnicott’s favorite forms of play with child patients was the Squiggle Game, where he would draw a random line, and the child would add to it, and he would add another, and the child yet another, creating drawings like this:


The playfulness needed for therapy also has its place in teaching, and in administration, indeed in any form of work where a hierarchy exists but exists to pass authority along to another generation.  But more fundamentally, I think, it has its place in friendship.  The playfulness that facilitates friendship is an attitude toward shared activities (in my case preeminently conversation, but also games like tennis and work-tasks like committee membership) that recognizes the activity as partaking both in external reality and in the idiosyncratic psychic lives of each participant.  Playfulness for me is a gravitation toward active pleasure in exploring this space.

I love to talk.  And to listen.  Parties, for instance, make me nervous until I find someone who actually wants to talk about something that feels real for both of us.  Sometimes I’m talking with someone whose life is very different from my own, sometimes talking with people who share my general intellectual formation, even with fellow English professors of my generation who have read the same books and teared up over the same poems.  In the first kind of conversation, there’s pleasure in discovery, sometimes also pleasure in a kind of bouncing our differences back and forth to see whether they hold up as differences or morph into similarities.  Playful, in that if we are well-intentioned people conversation makes a kind of safe zone for pleasurable rather than reproachful or angry exploration of difference.

In the second kind of conversation, talking with people I share a lot of particular experiences with – like other people who love Shakespeare, or other people who grew up reading J. R. R. Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin – the talk often involves allusion or quotation: it attempts form and aspires to wit.  Snobbish?  Well certainly full of snobbish potential, if what I say happens to enforce an “I know something you don’t know” difference, that is, if I am showing off in order to make someone else feel bad.  My younger sisters say I showed off in this way as a young teen, and I believe them.  But now?  I think of a conversation that pushes me and my interlocutors to move quickly around and within a set of intellectual issues as joyous, mutually enlarging, but only marginally competitive.   If it pushes one or both or all of us to self-disclosure and thus potential self-discovery, well, better yet.

The ephemerality of playful conversation resembles the inconsequence or impracticality of games and other forms of play, but it perhaps exceeds other forms of play in its spontaneity and the informality of its beginnings and endings: it does not have particularly sharp boundaries.  We know someone we like to talk to about things, someone who can make us laugh or surprise us into seeing something in a different way: talking with such a person is playful and potentially serious at the same time.  For Winnicott, we are allowing the overlap of inner experience with outer reality by entering a play-zone where neither has sovereignty.

For me, then, play essentially involves an openness to friendship, and while games may well open one in this way, they aren’t the dominant form of play, nor do they invariably serve its most important social function.