Each year the Center organizes most of its programming around one or two major themes. These are broadly conceived and will be illuminated from a variety of different historical, artistic, and critical angles. In 2019-20, the Center is focusing on a single theme: Play.
Play is a fundamentally inventive social activity in which we craft rules, experiment with boundaries, find new opportunities for expression, and engage in creative work. Both a noun and a verb, the word itself is wildly expansive and can describe everything from musical and dramatic performance to sporting events and apps on our phones. Play is among the first things we do as children in order to test the affordances of a complicated world and try to understand—and perhaps even change—its bewildering rules and constraints. Yet we sometimes imagine that such activities have to be pushed aside as part of the growth into adulthood, treating them as somehow opposed to things like work, seriousness, and maturity.
One of the great modern theorists of play, John Huzizing, however, argues that play is an essential human activity, “that civilization arises and unfolds in and as play.” Games have long been a central feature of our social, civic, and imaginative lives, from the ancient Greek marathon, through the billion-dollar spectacles of modern football and soccer, to the explosive growth of digital gaming. Modern workplaces often deliberately incorporate elements of play into their design, and urban planners seek to create spaces—like Tulsa’s own Gathering Place—that treat play as a fundamental element of social life. Education, leisure, and even government have incorporated “gamification” to improve outcomes and increase engagement.
Play has, it seems, moved to the center of our culture, but what are the consequences of this shift? What does it mean, for example, to dissolve the boundary between work and play or to incorporate game design elements into civic and educational practices? Does play offer a new way to theorize the arts, humanities, and creative practice more generally? Or are we at risk of play losing its creative or disruptive spark in these attempts to routinize or control it? And how do the definitions, practices, and places of play change across time and between cultures? What about the role of things like race, gender, class, sexuality, and technology, whether in the “gamergate” debates or in the design of toys, cities, and classrooms? Finally, how can the concept of play help us better understand our changing definitions of work, leisure, boredom, and pleasure? These are some of the questions the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities will explore through intensive research and public programming in 2019-20.