Play and the Urban Realm (Q.Stevens)


The text below consists of selected parts from the chapter titled ‘Play and the Urban Realm’ in Quentin Steven’s book The Ludic City. You may access the full book at this link.

Any attempt to define play runs into the question of whether clear distinctions can be drawn between play and other social practices. Play is typically understood in terms of oppositions. It is contrasted with long-term purposes, productive work, and serious consequences (Goodale and Godbey 1988).

Such oppositions have a role in framing people’s beliefs and their actions; however, the definitions, intentions and effects of play remain varied and imprecise. Most definitions of play themselves remain ‘at play’, continuously binding or unraveling. What makes something play and what play ‘means’ to culture continues to be redefined through changing social practice. The strength of the concept of play relies on the binding together of many different social conditions which people may understand as play, but which cannot be collectively defined by any firm set of rules or boundaries. Because play is not a distinct, discrete set of activities, but rather a characteristic which is present to varying degrees in many different kinds of human behavior, it is necessary to look at play from multiple perspectives, drawing together threads of analysis.


Scholars and players use the term ‘play’ to describe a great variety of practices and objectives. The meaning and purpose of play differs between individuals and between situations. (...) In general terms, ‘play’ is used as counterpoint to behavior which is ‘normal’ – everyday, conventional, expected, calculated, practical, constant. Which impacts of play are noteworthy depends on professional interest. Play is in some way unusual, special and different, either in form or in outcome. In this book, play stands principally in contradistinction to people’s assumptions about the everyday functionality of the urban built environment. It is a rhetorical device to focus attention on uses of public spaces which are not practical and other than what the spaces were designed for. (...)

Children’s play occupies a more narrow range of behavior than the play of adults. Play is just one component of the complex social existence of working adults, and one that is rarely analyzed. Adult play is not merely a remnant of childhood forms; indeed, ‘the full variety of play forms only appears with the achievement of a certain maturity’ (Mouledoux 1977: 52–53). (...) Thus adult play provides far better illustration of the transformation of everyday life and of lived space into new experiences and new forms. It is the play of adults which can lead to a reconsideration of the ways in which urban space might stimulate and facilitate unexpected and impractical behavior, and how space can be utilized for escapes from serious meanings and uses and to critique the normal social order.


Another limitation of examining children’s behavior is that theorizations of children’s play tend to circumscribe the freedom, creativity and diversity of human agency rather than open it up. (...) In these ways, child’s play generally reproduces the habitus which defines childhood itself.(...) Interpreting play acts in terms of their utility ignores those intriguing dimensions of play which are most characteristic of urban life: the stimulus of accident and caprice, deliberate exposure to difference and to risk, and the potential which such experiences provide for the continual diversification of social practice. (...)


A second major distinction which is important is that between leisure and play. Leisure and play are closely related concepts, and critical analyses of leisure can certainly aid a better understanding of play. Leisure can most broadly be understood as the luxury of passing time free from compulsion, and in particular from the need to engage in productive activities (Goodale and Godbey 1988). Nevertheless, leisure is a rather precise social construct which is codified in particular practices, and which tends to be demarcated within special spaces and times. It carries connotations of rest and recuperation; of bodily passivity, escape from the busyness and tensions of the social world, and attention to the private life of family and self (Rojek 1995). These circumstances renounce the diversity, intensity and complexity of the city, rather than embracing them. Play, by contrast, is a concept which highlights the potentials of urban experience for promoting and framing active, creative, and above all public behavior. While play can often arise in a context of leisure time, it does not depend upon it. Indeed, the social segregation and ordering of leisure serves to undermine the playful potential of every social experience, by limiting the prospects for confrontations and creative engagements between necessity and caprice, intention and accident, productive effort and waste.


(...) The concept of play embraces a variety of ways in which people test and transgress the limits of their social existence. In terms of play within the urban public realm, Lefebvre’s (1991b) critique of modern city planning suggests that play means encounters with difference, encounters which contest the fragmentation and alienation of contemporary social experience.




Play is presented in western metaphysics in opposition to seriousness, morality, and productive work, and the social power relations these value structures help reproduce (Spariosu 1989). Play is quite contrary to these values: ‘Play is spontaneous and creative, a counterpoint to the tedium and exploitation inherent in instrumental labor. It is the domain of freedom from compulsion’ (Gilloch 1996: 84). Play activities are irrational because they are not shaped around conscious, preformulated ethical and pragmatic goals. Play often runs against orthodoxy, ignoring the systematic organization of human activity, and transgressing the boundaries of seriousness, including taboos. (...)

Rationality suggests people should pursue optimal fulfillment of needs within a given ethical framework. Yet it is precisely when people’s actions are not locked into the service of future goals that their actions are free to explore human values, and can thereby constitute meaning (...)


Play is defined as freedom from the instrumental pursuit of social purposes. But this freedom does not arise naturally through environmental and technological opportunity. Freedom is not wholly defined by an absence of power, by finding gaps within the instrumental structure of everyday life.

Huizinga (1970) notes that play is freedom. Practices of play constitute, rather than merely reflect, freedom. Freedom takes place in dialectical relation to power. The more a form of play is defined as immoral, outlawed and restricted, the greater its attraction as an escape from, and confrontation of, the social order (Rojek 1995). The boundaries of freedom get established through action and reaction, rules and the transgression of rules. (...)


The dialecticity of play in the public realm


Play can be understood within Bourdieu’s (1984) framework of habitus as a practice which is ‘structured’ and also ‘structuring’. Acts of play arise within a cultural context and help to reproduce it, and play can thus become ‘an instrument of fecund and decisive culture’, serving material and ideological outcomes and becoming ‘diffused to reality’ (Caillois 1961: 27, 64). Both

Caillois and Huizinga compare play to a range of ritual social forms including art, war, poetry, myth, philosophy and religion; both see the whole of culture as played. Play can also impart new meaning and potential to society: ‘Play form emerges from the contents of ordinary or serious life situations, but ultimately is not bound in these contents. Play as a transformational process develops an “autonomous existence”’ (Lutfiyya 1987: 10; see also Simmel 1950). But rather than treating play as a completely separate category of human experience, it is more useful to use it as an analytical construct for understanding how everyday life unfolds dialectically.


One of the main defining characteristics of play is its tension with everyday life: ‘Play forms typically involve testing . . . Through play homo ludens lives out emotions which are either repressed or diverted by the rest of life’ (Rojek 1995: 185). The four-part definition of play laid out in this chapter points toward several oppositional tensions between play and various ‘serious’ features of everyday social life. These include:


morality - desire

order - disorder

intention - surprise

production - destruction

deferred satisfaction - immediate pleasure

control - release           


Play provides opportunities for critiquing, transforming and expanding social practice because of its diversity and creativity, its testing of limits, the absence of instrumental gain and its separation from the roles, rules and expectations of everyday life. (...)


Social experience in urban public space has its own specific tensions. The habitus of urban life is not neatly structured. Urban space confounds expectations; it lacks clear order, it is constantly being used in a variety of ways by others (not all of which appear logical), and it lends itself to new forms of behavior. (...) When people have unexpected encounters with others who are different in public places, they typically have to actively negotiate their engagement, because they cannot follow predetermined rules of conduct. Sennett (1994) suggests that the liberty of public life is defined not by an absence of constraint, but by this active, heightened engagement with possibility and its inherent difficulties:

‘Freedom which arouses the body does so by accepting impurity, difficulty, and obstruction as part of the very experience of liberty . . . The body comes to life when coping with difficulty’ (Sennett 1994: 9–10). (...)


The social experiences framed by urban space can reveal, and indeed stimulate,

new needs and new possibilities; they create, reawaken and resituate meanings. Lefebvre’s (1996) formulation of the dialecticity of everyday life is captured in his conception of ‘moments’. Moments are temporally limited social experiences, characterized by conditions under which the oppositions and contradictions of social life are intensified, thereby raised to consciousness, and engaged. Lefebvre’s idea of play as a moment is thus far more dialectical and creative than Huizinga’s formulation of play as occurring separated from the everyday:


A moment defines a form and is defined by one. The everyday is composed of a multiplicity of moments, such as games, love, work, rest, struggle, knowledge, poetry and justice, and links professional life, direct social life, leisure and culture . . . when playing, one accepts the rules of the game and each time recreates and reinvents the usage of the game. (Kofman and Lebas 1996: 30)


Play and the Urban Realm, in Ludic City (pp.26-53), Q. Stevens