How do adults play?

I hadn't thought much about the concept of play until I saw two adults do it really badly. What started out as a game of predicting the winners of a reality TV show descended into a shouting match about how they should play. I thought to myself, wasn't that supposed to be fun? It was then that I realized that what I had witnessed was play.

For the young, play is practice (watch two puppies play-fight sometime) and exploration. Adults aren't supposed to need those things anymore, or at least that's what they tell us, so it's uncool in many circles to admit you're still playing D&D. But we play golf and video games. This made me wonder more broadly about how adults play.

A quick stop at Wikipedia provides a partial definition that play is always voluntary and done without the prospect of material gain. I was particularly struck by this quote: "According to Stephen Nachmanovitch, play is the root and foundation of creativity in the arts and sciences also as in daily life." Sciences! Could it be that my work as a scientist depends on play?

This line of inquiry coincided with some well-timed posts by other bloggers. First, Art of Manliness included play on their list of 30 things one could do to be a better man. Shortly thereafter, Gretchen at The Happiness Project quoted Carl Jung saying that "the creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”

I think of play as mental experimentation constrained by improvised, changeable rules. It is continually asking: what if? Einstein explained his theories of relativity using "gedankenexperiments", thought-experiments. Here, again, is the link to science. Openness to possibility is necessary for play and certainly necessary for success in science.

What have I been playing with lately? T-shirts. For years I've kept a list of pithy slogans I'd love to wear. For Alice's birthday recently, I took the next step and had one printed for her. It says "ALL THIS" in three-inch letters, and below it in small type, "and brains too." This shirt, and several others, are available at my online store at CafePress. I did the designs myself, with my limited skill as an illustrator. The prices are what CafePress charges; I haven't applied any markup so I don't make money on it. (No prospect of material gain here!) Oddly, CafePress will only let me use each type of shirt once, so all the prices are different.