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Illustration by Laurie Rosenwald.

The vigorous exhortation to “play” now haunts every corner of our culture. Typically issued as an imperative along with words like breathe and meditate and dance and celebrate, the word play, in its catchall generic form, has a curious way of repelling the senses, conjuring as it does all manner of mandatory frivolity, most of it horribly twee and doggedly futile. Yet Johan Huizinga, the Dutch cultural theorist who tirelessly examined “the play element in culture,” asserted that the one defining feature of play is that it’s voluntary. “Play to order is no longer play,” he declared flatly. “It could at best be a forcible imitation of it.”

What would Huizinga make of the many forcible imitations of genuine, self-actualizing play that now overrun American culture like a pack of angry, corn-syrup-addled toddlers? When NBC can simply lease a building and fill it with money for something called The Million Second Quiz, the results feel much closer to They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? than to the harmless charms of Password or Match Game ’75. Can the sinister-clown fits of sexual self-redefinition now convulsing the brand known as Miley Cyrus really qualify as “fun”? When the young-adult pop-culture sensations of the moment oscillate between the grisly rigors of Call of Duty and The Hunger Games, it’s clear that a perverse imp of destruction lurks at the heart of the supposedly carefree franchises of American amusement.

A second-order definition of play, Huizinga notes, is its close correspondence to the serious adult activities of work. “Play must serve something which is not play,” he observes—which is why so many children’s pastimes openly mimic adult pursuits, from the near-universal rituals of doll nurture to games that reenact the aims and provisional alliances of war-making.

But in a consumer culture committed to prolonging adolescence at all costs, the boundaries demarcating child and adult experience have blurred to the point that it’s no longer obvious just who is imitating whom. The American state of play is terminally confused. Much of it feels grimly compulsory, and carries with it a whiff of preemptive failure to achieve the target level of revelry. Franchised recreation of the Dave & Buster’s variety cruelly turns both game-playing and drinking into an exercise in perfunctory high-fiving. (Imagine the multilayered Walk of Shame awaiting singles who let their judgments become clouded enough to hook up after a night of two-player Dream Raiders and vodka-spiked “Snow Cones.”)

The mirror image of this play-as-drudgery problem is Silicon Valley’s utopian vision of all-purpose “gamification.” The notion of converting social goods into digital playthings is a beguiling goal for lucre-sniffing software designers. But as a solution to the inequalities of wealth, education, and life chances that are now sinking whatever remains of the American middle class, the deployment of game incentives—chits for losing weight, acing a school exam, or mentoring an at-risk kid—is less empowering than demeaning. (And that’s not to mention what tokenizing otherwise internally generated emotional rewards does to our understanding of our place in the increasingly bewildering high-capitalist maze.) Here the idea of play isn’t so much serving non-play pursuits as mastering them—fostering the illusion that the stubborn social ills of our day can be miniaturized, incentivized, and frothed up into delectably familiar morsels of privileged consumption. These pursuits are thus “gamified,” in the most pejorative sense of the term. Hoping to land a secure job, a pension, a college diploma that won’t reduce you to serfdom? Keep tapping away on your smart phone, kid—it’s bound to turn up somewhere.

But technology isn’t required to induce arrested development in America’s adult population; they’ve enthusiastically embraced that goal for themselves. Consider the somewhat debased folds of what author Christopher Noxon terms the “rejuvenile” movement in his book Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes, and the Reinvention of the American Grown-up. By indulging in activities like dodgeball, Risk, and three-legged races, rejuveniled adults refuse “to give up the cherished qualities of childhood,” an impulse that’s “partially driven by a desire to stay young in a culture that equates being young with being cool and being old with being irrelevant.”

Whether heralded by the adult “tribes” of Po Bronson’s overactive imagination or championed by the novelty-fixated hordes who’ve treated Boing Boing as their personal lifestyle manual since Madonna still had baby fat, this compulsion seems to flourish the most among aging hipsters distrustful of the mainstream’s ethos of embracing personal commitments and adult-sized responsibilities. Anxious to be reassured of their unique-snowflake status, “rejuveniles” find sustenance in rock-paper-scissors tournaments, Zombie Tag matches, and kickball leagues.

Here the idea of play isn’t so much serving non-play pursuits as mastering them.

“All sports are ultimately ridiculous,” Noxon argues in one detailed assessment of the movement. “The beauty of kid games is how they make a mockery of all attempts to take any of this shit too seriously.” It’s quite odd, then, that “taking this shit too seriously” appears to be a defining characteristic of play-fixated adults. From the rejuveniled grown-ups who train for water gun assassination tournaments to those who cede their daily lives to the relentless impositions of complex role-playing games, the movement conveys distinct undercurrents of escapism and regression. It often seems to be the terrain of adults who’ve gained enough confidence—and entitlement, and time, and money—to want a do-over of their worry-plagued childhoods.

There’s also a willful awkwardness in play here, perhaps reflective of its participants’ impatience with the mundane conversations of mainstream adults. Instead of exchanging small talk about football, rejuveniles seem to ask, why not play paintball and Chinese checkers and refer to each other by absurd nicknames?

Of course, there are plenty of other outposts of childlike (and childish) self-infatuation in the notional alt adult subculture, from the calculated innocence of Zooey Deschanel to the halting comedic stylings of Demetri Martin. And the palpable longing for simpler, less stressful pleasures among our reluctantly aging urban elites certainly possesses a kind of poignancy. Maybe those who endorse the ethos of lost play the most vehemently are just trying to secure some safe ground that hasn’t been polluted by the defeatism and hypocrisy of adult life.

If so, they’ll find a ready-made cure in the crash course in regression known as American child-rearing. Hipsters may frantically jury-rig diversion out of kickballs and board games, but nothing brings a person face to face with our culture’s incoherent quest for joyful play and perpetual engagement quite like parenting. Sadly, though, the whole exercise of amusing our offspring feels more and more like, well, thankless work.

Part of the problem is that bewildered parents of a certain class profile face an armada of professional voices—psychologists, talk show hosts, Angelina Jolie—patiently instructing them in the procedures of child-identified play. In The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears, psychologist Lawrence Cohen offers an entirely representative description of the task at hand. “Play is one of the best ways for a parent to reconnect with a child, because it is joyful, fun, and it requires us to join them in their world,” he writes. Cohen recommends that parents gain entry into this enchanted world via games like “The Coast Is Clear,” which can help kids feel less anxious: “I start the game by hiding dramatically behind a piece of furniture or underneath a blanket. Then I whisper to the child, ‘Is the coast clear?’ I make up something outrageous that frightens me—something absurdly nonscary, like tiny puppies, or something extremely unlikely to appear, like pirates. Don’t use something your child really fears; otherwise the game can become really scary instead of pretend-scary.”

This game already feels really scary instead of pretend-scary. And why is it so easy to picture the author “hiding dramatically”?

The point, apparently, is to stop reasoning with children and instead join them in a rollicking land of make-believe. And to be fair, most parents already engage in these practices with their four-year-olds, if only to slightly offset the learned helplessness that arises from being bossed around by adults all day long. “Oh, you’re so strong and powerful and I’m so weak and afraid!” is the natural follow-up to “Stay in this dark room by yourself and sleep for two hours, or else.”

So why does reading the commonsensical instructions for Cohen’s exercises still incite feelings of revulsion? For starters, making a formal, scripted effort to connect with one’s children and calling it “playful” feels like a pretty disingenuous approach to parenting.

Then there’s the tacit message for parents behind the play-at-all-costs industry: whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it wrong. One of Cohen’s central points is that parents create a great deal of anxiety in children—a strange and sweeping indictment considering that a large slice of that anxiety arises from the pervasive suggestion (particularly in advice books like Cohen’s) that parents are fully responsible for every dimension of their children’s development. If anything goes wrong, parents are to blame. Yet if parents have the audacity to behave consistently like grown, responsible adults, they are, perversely enough, failing their kids. For the terminally anxious middle class, this insinuation casts a serious pall of guilt over day-to-day life.

And clearly that guilt is working. Because our parks and grocery stores and restaurants are currently overrun with parents who coo and coax and applaud and speak some crazy coded language of play, finding dorky ways to get their kids to throw away their trash or quiet down without ever saying “Throw that away” or “Be quiet.” Because telling a kid what to do directly, or explaining that tornados don’t visit Los Angeles and wild bears never attack and eat kids on suburban streets, is not acceptable. According to Cohen, parents should verify that their kid’s feelings are legitimate, even when those feelings spiral into total hysteria. Emotional expression should be welcomed, even when it involves screaming at the top of one’s lungs. “I call it Getting Unscared,” Cohen writes (apparently giving things cloying names is one way of hiding dramatically from their banal import). “Try not to hush children when they are getting unscared,” he continues. “It isn’t always pleasant, but it is healthy.”

Learning about such playful methods of taming a child’s anger and fear and anxiety has a curious way of inciting anger and fear and anxiety in a parent. Because unlike former generations, who could comfortably issue the command “Go play outside” without invoking the wrath of Child Protective Services, today’s parents are commanded to “get down on the floor”—and stay there, or else.

My older daughter recently received, as a gift, a “homemade” rag doll craft kit that essentially amounted to five tedious hours of sweatshop work for me while my daughter played elsewhere, wandering by occasionally like a supervisor to make sure that I wasn’t slacking off. Even after I’d threaded a tiny needle several times and created an elaborate hairstyle out of yarn and double-sided tape, the doll looked terrible. Eventually my fingers seized up and I had to quit, leading to tearful recriminations from my supervisor. “Next time,” I gently suggested, “we can buy a rag doll at the store made by someone else” (e.g., someone who really does work in a sweatshop). “That way, we’ll spare us both the agony.” This is what most labor-intensive craft projects mutate into eventually: yet another heartwarming lesson in consumerism imparted to the young future shopper.

In truth, play often boils down to hard work.

Indeed, much of what now passes for participatory parental play is increasingly difficult to distinguish from the degraded labor of the high industrial age. While crafts and crafting are widely regarded as a fulfilling way to commune with children, it’s tough to identify the sheer joy and whimsy in gluing tiny sequins on tiny boxes, or sewing together pre-cut shapes to make something that looks less handcrafted than ill constructed. Which brings us to the central flaw of our culture’s pervasive admonition to “play”: unlike its cousins, celebrate and eat and dance, play is not meaningful as a generic term. There’s a pretty big divide between stacking blocks with a toddler and, say, throwing a basketball into a hoop, giving a bossy voice to an ugly baby doll, or sitting down for an extended game of Monopoly.

In truth, play often boils down to hard work. And ironically, tedious work-like forms of play may be the easiest for the productivity-fixated adult to embrace. Angrily searching for the optimal thirty-point word at Scrabble, for example, appeals to one’s competitive drive and obsessive leanings. Constructing giant houses out of Legos might feel both redemptive (Who ever had enough Legos as a kid?) and soothingly repetitive. And nothing can quite match the inexplicable gratification of digging a giant hole on the beach and building an enormous sand castle next to it.

The sprawling range of the amusements that pass for play may be what makes general incitements to embrace “play” and “playfulness” feel faintly unsavory. When “play” is championed without qualitative distinctions between, say, a game of Hearts and a fort made out of couch cushions, the mind naturally seizes on the image of a rejuvenile hellscape of hipsters in knee pants—or a grown adult, hiding dramatically.

Thankfully, a stirring rebuke to the barren functionalism of today’s modes of play can be found in the pleasure-inducing relics of the long-ago time before mass-consumer society. Take the lyric reminiscences of All the Time in the World: A Book of Hours, in which Jessica Kerwin Jenkins, an archivist of the ghost of leisured pursuits past, digs into centuries-old examples of play, from small-town audiences watching traveling circus performers in turn-of-the-century America to poets strolling in extravagant Persian rose gardens to Oscar Wilde drinking whiskey in a mineshaft. Instead of thrusting these pastimes into the present in order to measure them by our own play-to-order standards, Jenkins savors the unhurriedness of aristocratic hobbies of the Old World—without of course suggesting how we might cultivate a more democratic version of the same ethos amid our own acquisitive and harried personal regimes.

Still, on page after page, Jenkins mines the past for jewels and then describes them in passages so detailed and lush that they almost come off as comedic. The Roman baths of the first century BCE, for example, sound like a combination of food truck, massage parlor, and water park: “There were promenades, gymnasiums, hot rooms and cold plunge pools, masseuses who gave rubdowns, and snack vendors who served eggs, lettuce and sausages.”

From her recipe for a rose julep to her descriptions of Henriette D’Angeville climbing Mont Blanc in a black feather boa and a fur-lined cape, Jenkins paints leisure in such glittering colors that it’s impossible not to be seduced by a sense of endless possibility. Play begins to seem less like the doltish realm of child-focused dullards and more like a rich well of experiences to explore: the “celestial” strains of the glass harmonica, Duchamp’s exotic costume parties, ice-skating on the Thames River in 1813.

As it turns out, being urged to be more “playful” pales in its effectiveness next to reading about the artist Ray Johnson’s habit of mailing friends disassembled chairs or chewing gum, or the scent of three hundred pineapple trees growing in Napoleon’s glasshouses in 1800, or the habit of mid-eighteenth-century aristocratic ladies to sip hot chocolate in bed first thing in the morning.

Most such leisurely reveries were the exclusive province of an aristocratic overclass.

And what could sound more enticing than dorveille, a period of relaxing wakefulness in the middle of the night, during which people smoked or wrote or reflected but rarely left their beds? Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of this time, “You have found an intermediate space, where the business of life does not intrude; where the passing moment lingers, and becomes truly the present; a spot where Father Time, when he thinks nobody is watching him, sits down by the wayside to take a breath.”

It bears repeating, of course, that most such leisurely reveries were the exclusive province of an aristocratic overclass. But it would behoove a hardy utopian populism to expropriate the enviable embrace of leisure more common to ages past, even as it would banish the social regimes of work and play that originally gave them life. Indeed, in an age where we routinely speak of the clock-watching industrial workday and the idea of a languid private sphere as archaic concepts, cleaving to this vanished spirit of a small personal eternity seems like a more urgent social need than ever.

This is what we want from our amusements, after all: we want the passing moment to linger, and become truly the present. In this light, play looks further than ever from another though-the-motions bender at Dave & Buster’s—and, not coincidentally, it recovers at least the spirit of Huizinga’s directive that while play must serve something beyond itself, it can’t be mandated. This is what we might teach our children, rather than joining them in on-the-nose exercises triggered by invading emotions. Because nothing soothes the anxieties of our existence quite like total engagement in an experience that lies far outside our gamified, rejuveniled compulsions. If this is what it means to play—to relish strange musical instruments, to sip rose juleps, to listen to birds singing in the early morning—then count me among the frolicsome.