How the modern world plays: Elon professor furthers study of play with new journal article

The recent article in the American Journal of Play by Professor Thomas Henricks follows his 2015 book, "Play and the Human Condition."

What do you think of when you think of play?

Is it time spent in a spontaneous and disorganized way, perhaps laughing, running and interacting in the back yard with friends or family? Is it a week-long vacation spent at a resort, with the days spent moving from one well-planned activity to the next? Is it something else?

Thomas Henricks, professor of sociology
How society engages in play has changed during modern times, and that evolution as society has become ruled more by reason and rationality is at the core of the latest offering of scholarship by Elon University’s Thomas Henricks. 

A professor of sociology, Henricks has followed his 2015 book “Play and the Human Condition” with a recent article in the American Journal of Play titled, “Reason and Rationalization: A Theory of Modern Play.” The article is an outgrowth of themes Henricks explored in his book, and focuses in large part on the thoughts of well-known German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber about the impact of reason and rationality on people’s lives. 

Henricks says Weber and other late-19th and early 20th century thinkers worried about how “the cold wind” of rationality might impact the softer parts of life, like family life, love, sexuality, religion and recreation. Henricks said that raises this question — “has human play become all rationalized in just this way, or does it continue to be spontaneous, and emotion-filled and unpredictable?” 

A look around how people spend their time engaged in play offers ample examples of reason and rationality guiding them — take golf, Henricks says, a game that is played in a perpackaged environment with standardized equipment and rules. The article delves into how much control and choice people have when engaged in play in these organized environments and structures. 

Henricks notes that while visits to a resort or amusement park or embarking on a cruise might have less spontaneity and more structure, that doesn’t mean that there’s not enjoyment to be drawn from those experiences, which Henricks describes as “emotional destinations.”

“One thing that Weber didn’t quite see is that emotion could actually become the goal of play,” Henricks said. 

Henricks writes in the article: 

“Only the shrillest, or perhaps most romantic, of critics would insist that play always take the form of nonrational indulgence. … As (Friedrich) Schiller himself stressed, play joins that effervescent spirit with consciously imposed formats. Rationality is not the enemy of play, but rather a contributor to it.”

Henricks said the key, as with many things, is to find that right balance betwen spontaneity and structure.