From the Archives

In this series, our contributing editors reflect on a set of articles from the archives of American Anthropologist that speaks to their research interests.


Chin, Elizabeth. 1999. “Ethnically Correct Dolls: Toying with the Race Industry.”

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, and Stith Bennett. 1971. “An Exploratory Model of Play.”

Doostdar, Alireza. 2004. “‘The Vulgar Spirit of Blogging’: On Language, Culture, and Power in Persian Weblogestan.”

Frake, Charles O. 1964. “How to Ask for a Drink in Subanun.”

Miller, Stephen. 1973. “Ends, Means, and Galumphing: Some Leitmotifs of Play.”


As a set of practices and category of experience, play is an important concept in my work on online gamers’ relations with the servers that make their online social worlds possible. Identifying as “players,” gamers generally understand that play shapes their social environments in virtual worlds, just as those spaces shape the contexts and limitations of play. Server engineers and online gamers alike find pleasure in forms of play, whether through tinkering with software and hardware, commanding avatar bodies to sprint across a virtual landscape with friends, or testing the limitations of code. Through playing around and embodying a playful spirit, there exists the potential to generate meanings, values, and politics. In reviewing work from American Anthropologist on play as experience, behavior, method, analytic, and object of study, I suggest the usefulness of studying play for contemporary ethnographic practice.

Photograph by author.

Miller’s 1973 “Ends, Means, and Galumphing: Some Leitmotifs of Play” is an early exploration of “what play is, and what it does for us” as humans (87). Coming from a background in biology, specifically zoology, he wonders why zoo-goers could recognize play in animals, but trained observers were reluctant to label certain behavior as play. One of the more interesting contributions of this piece is his use of “galumphing,” or unstructured play, which he compares to the play fights of baboons (of which the term is an onomatopoeia). In the spirit of galumphing, play is sometimes nonlinear, lacking a streamlined course, and this is often where players derive Funktionslust, or the pleasure of doing and generating an effect. One example he provides is that of “the walker who avoids the cracks in the sidewalk . . . setting silly obstacles in his path” (93), pointing to those affective and practical aspects of everyday play.

In “An Exploratory Model of Play” (1971), another early take on the theory of play, Csikszentmihalyi and Bennett take an ethnological approach to studying games cross-culturally in an attempt to establish common or even universal characteristics of play experience or the “state of play” (53). The authors juxtapose the experience of play to that of everyday life: “Play is action generating action: a unified experience flowing from on moment to the next in contradistinction to our otherwise disjoint ‘everyday’ experiences” (45). While of course play is often integral to many people’s own “everyday” (see Miller, Chin, Doostdar) this work does provide a vantage point from which to think about the spaces generated by games and play, as well as the kinds of narratives and experiences that emerge in different play contexts. He writes that future work should address the flexibility of play and how playfulness is key to producing novelty.

A rich example of concerns around objects of play can be found in Chin’s 1999 article “Ethnically Correct Dolls: Toying with the Race Industry,” in which she argues for a better understanding of the cultural meanings, financial dependencies, and broader societal importance of playthings. In this study, Chin observed and spoke with young black girls who tended to have white dolls that they worked to bring into their own worlds through the play of hairstyling. She writes, “White dolls with braids have a profound and potentially radical meaning that confounds the commercial rhetoric of ethnically correct toys” (306). Through the material and symbolic transformations of white dolls, her interlocutors offered ways of “blurring racial absolutes” while constrained by contingencies of social inequality. Skillfully scaling between children’s personal play territories and cultural politics, she deconstructs the corporate marketing of “ethnically correct toys” and assertions that “kids ‘play better’ with dolls that ‘look like them’” (306).

Operationalizing play as an analytic, Doostdar examines the tensions and debates around language use and cultural authority in the Iranian blogosphere in “‘The Vulgar Spirit of Blogging’: On Language, Culture, and Power in Persian Weblogestan” (2004). Following the conflict around what is known as the “vulgarity debate,” he writes how Iranian bloggers reacted to claims that their language use was substandard and unorthodox. This debate raised issues around censorship online as well as what counts as legitimate language use and bringing into question who has the authority to say so. Taking blogging practice and the broader cultural debates around linguistic norms within this sphere of interaction online as “deep play”—an analytic borrowed from Clifford Geertz—Doostdar identifies interrelated levels of structure and meaning of individuals, communities, and the state (and their interplay). Yet in some ways this article is also about linguistic playfulness, similar to the classic “How to Ask for a Drink in Subanun” by Charles Frake (1964), in which Frake describes a drinking ritual during which games begin and end, and the play of speech plays a central role in the interactions. However, Doostdar found that the play of language use in Iranian blogging practice during the vulgarity debate was often strategic and purposeful, tracing how these bloggers frequently and deliberately used “improper” or “careless” language to index themselves as rebels in a kind of play of resistance.

In conclusion, these articles provide a range of lenses through which to see play as a theoretical mode, an object of study, or method of analysis. They also offer examples with which to think through continuing issues of materiality, affect, politics, and space in contemporary ethnography. For example, we can understand play as a part of everyday life as we go about galumphing through the world (Miller), yet play also creates new spaces for social inventiveness (Csikszentmihalyi and Bennett) and political and cultural meaning-making (Chin), setting the stage for interaction and ritual practice (Frake), even in the interplay of online and offline spaces (Doostdar). In reviewing this work, I also humbly call for more work on play, as I think the study of games would benefit greatly from continued anthropological analysis and method. We should question what it means to “play” alongside our interlocutors, to more deeply understand the meanings and impacts generated through play, and to apply our theoretical arsenal to contexts of play even outside of gaming, leisure, and recreation.

Evan P. Conaway is a PhD candidate in anthropology at UC Irvine.

CITE AS
Conaway, Evan P. 2017. “Play as Theory, Object, and Analytic by Evan P. Conaway.” American Anthropologist website, November 27.

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