A few weeks ago, my mother and I were babysitting for my nephews in New Jersey.  Being of a certain generation that is often described as “over-scheduled,” they both had sports activities to participate in that day.  We deposited my older nephew, age 12, at his soccer game, from which his mother had previously secured a ride home, and then took the younger one, age nine, to his basketball game. Since we’d just have to come back and get him soon anyway, we stuck around to watch the kids play.

It was kind of fascinating to watch boys of that age play organized sports. Their size, talents, coordination skills and intellectual grasp of basketball varied so widely, it sometimes felt like they were each playing an entirely different version of the game. Some kids were clearly winners of a physical lottery — tall and strong, they had an immediate advantage whether or not they fully got what was going on. Then there were the kids who clearly understood the game really well — always in the right place at the right time doing what they were supposed to do, be it blocking their opponent, going up for the rebound, trying to pass or shoot — but often for nought, since they lacked the height, strength, or speed that it took to make them competitive players. And then there were the athletes, who had all they needed physically and also looked like they loved playing, knew how to do it almost intuitively, and also probably practiced it a lot because they both liked it and they were good at it. Even if these kids weren’t that big, they were the leaders of their teams. They were the kids who, when you watched them, you almost started to forget that you were watching nine- and ten-year-olds and started really getting into the game — occasionally embarrassing yourself by cheering like you were watching a real spectator sport rather than supporting a bunch of kids.

My nephew was not any of these. He was the one for whom, at half-time, the coach got everyone together and said, “Okay, we’re going to make sure Ethan (not his real name — God knows he doesn’t need the embarrassment of his oversharing aunt!) gets a basket.” Then, for the next ten minutes or so, he got every pass from his teammates until he scored.  He must have missed eight or ten times, to the point where a confused grandparent sitting next to us was like, “Why do they keep throwing it to the same kid?!” Most of the crowd was in on what was going on at that point, though, and they applauded when he finally got a basket. Ethan was fully aware of it too; afterwards, he was the one who pointed out to me, “Yeah, the other team was helping too, nobody was blocking me either.” But he didn’t seem to mind.  I think he actually enjoyed shooting those baskets. I mean, he is not a good player. He often seemed to be daydreaming, only occasionally remembering that he was supposed to be playing basketball and then belatedly chasing everyone down the court or throwing his arms in the air to block a pass. Then he might be on top of things for about five minutes, lunging and jumping and clearly trying really hard to get the ball from the kid he was guarding to the point of fouling, at which point the game would stop, and then he’d sort of lose interest again. So he seemed to like the actual playing part of things, but not enough to care if he was scoring, or if his team lost or won.

He wasn’t the only one who seemed not entirely in on how it all was supposed to go down. There was one kid who seemed like, for the first five minutes after he was put in, he was always guarding somebody, even when his team had the ball. He did eventually catch on that he had to play offense as well as defense, and then he wasn’t bad, although he always seemed to be glancing behind him as if he wasn’t quite sure where he was supposed to be. Then there was a kid on the other team whose coach did the same thing as Ethan’s coach did, and told everyone to make sure he, too, got a basket. He was kind of a chunky, apathetic kid, who was clearly only playing sports for the sake of his parents, who one hoped would let him quit, and soon, before he became a target.

I think what I was amazed by, as the game went on, was not that so many kids at age nine didn’t get it, but that so many kids actually did. We are clearly wired to play from a very young age, but at what age do children make the leap into learning how to compete? They are definitely not the same thing. To succeed in anything in our society — school, work, not just sports — we all have to focus on goals and achieve them, and I guess this is why so many kids are encouraged to play sports. But something we forget about, as we get older, is that we also need to play. Play is fun.  Play is discovery. Play is enjoyment and experience. Yet at some point we often stop doing it, because we think other things are more important.  

My family was of the intellectual rather than the sporty variety, so while I tried violin, piano, camp, and Hebrew School (none of which really stuck), I didn’t play any organized sports until my junior year of high school, when I joined the lacrosse team. Like Ethan, I actually liked playing the game of lacrosse — my friend Beth and I would often go out and just run around, tossing the ball back and forth. But I hadn’t actually joined because of that, I’d done it to get another activity on my transcript for college and because I thought it might make me more popular. This last part of the plan ended up being a total failure, because the girls on the team were mean, I wasn’t naturally coordinated enough to be good without lots of practice, and I especially wasn’t good when people were mean to me. Our senior year, after Beth and I were promoted to varsity because all seniors had to be varsity, we would sit on the sidelines praying not to be put in so that we wouldn’t get shit from our teammates for screwing up. In short, I wasn’t a winner, and that was the only thing that mattered to me at that point because by the time I’d gotten to high school, playing for the sake of playing had basically lost its value. Up until my teens, I was very into board games, video games, D&D (although I never had friends who wanted to play, probably because my friends were girls, so I was always trying to horn in on my brother’s games), live games (Ghost in the Graveyard, Spud, Potsy, Sardines), even sports (kickball, tennis, lacrosse, volleyball, softball) even though I wasn’t good at them. But my relationship became more love/hate as it became less about playing and more about winning. Once I got to a certain age, it seemed like the only thing that mattered about an activity was whether I was good at it or not, whether I was “successful.” The only thing I was really successful at naturally was school, so that became my focus. Maybe if I’d been a boy, games would have continued to have more social value, but as a girl, they were the kind of kid stuff you were supposed to put behind you in favor of clothes, boys, bands, and boys in bands who wore cool clothes. 

I think part of the reason I came back to photography and film, in college, is part of what’s now drawing me back to games: they all entice me with that sense of play and fun and experimentation. But part of what frustrates me about film now is feeling like the industry beats all of that out of you in the interest of finding commercial success. And I think that’s true of many industries. The people who get to the top in sports and business — and of course, being good at “business” will lead you to the top in many other fields too, including film — do seem to be the ones who do well at competition and winning. Just having that confidence and drive are huge factors because they make you persevere and achieve when most other people would give up. But wanting to win at the exclusion of all else doesn’t make you good at everything. Have you seen great art by people who wanted to simply be prolific, or just get paid? Have you really ever enjoyed a conversation with someone who wanted to be the one who talked the most? Have you ever had great sex with someone who just wanted to get there faster and first? I’d go so far as to say most of life isn’t actually about winning, it’s just that we often focus on the things that are because we are told they are the things that count. As a result, even the creation of games is often not about the value of play. Most of what comes out of the big game industry — AAA Halo and Call of Duty shoot-em-ups, points-oriented Mario platformers or Candy Crush-like win-all-the-marbles games — is really primarily about winning.

Does it have to be that way? Would we all produce a lot more of interest, and just plain do more, if we didn’t need to be the best at everything we did, but just needed to enjoy it and bring ourselves to the process? I know this sounds very kumbaya, but it’s not entirely. Let’s say there was no big money or fame in making movies. There’d be no more people who only wanted to get rich and famous and so were bent on creating lowest-common-denominator crap because that was the easiest way to do it.  There’d just be people who liked 1) making films and 2) enjoyed having other people enjoy the the films they made. I wish I could visit that alternate reality and see the movies they’re making there.

Ethan is on the cusp right now: he’s starting to get the message that doing what he enjoys is less important that doing what he’s good at. But I wonder, would things be different if play for the sake of play was a valued part of becoming an adult? What kind of world would that be?

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