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Chapter Eight

Play, Games,

and Interaction

In this chapter, I will briefly review and critique existing theories and definitions of play, games, and socialization. A view of interaction and socialization consistent with the formulations of G. H. Mead and the symbolic interactionist perspective will be offered.

Play, Games, and Childhood Socialization

The import of play and games for early childhood socialization experiences has long occupied the interests of sociologists, social psychologists, psychologists, and students of child development, among them, Mead, Cooley, Groos, Hall, Huizinga, Caillois, Piaget, Freud, Herron, Sutton-Smith, Lueschen, Ellis, I. and P. Opie, Aries, Singer, Stone, Goffman, Waller, Berlyne, and Merton. Research and theory has typically been concerned with one or more of the following questions: How can play be defined and what is unique to childhood play? (Huizinga, 1939; Piaget, 1962; Mead, 1934). Are there different forms of play? (Caillois, 1961; Groos, 1901; Piaget, 1962). Why do people, and children in particular, play? (Huizinga, 1939; Freud, [1922] 1959). What are the consequences of play and games for the socialization process? (Stone, 1965; Merton, 1957).

In general, play is seen as serving anticipatory socialization purposes for the young child. It is conceptualized as a form of social behavior that results in children learning to cooperate and interact with others. It is variously seen as infantile or sophisticated in nature. Play and games are seen as establishing the vehicles for teaching the child how to take the perspective of others (Mead, 1934). Play is seen as displaying shifting degrees of the fantastic and the real. Piaget (1962), for example, views the play of young children as lacking in accommodative abilities and in this sense as revealing the limited cognitive abilities of the child player.

Classical, contemporary, and recent theories compete for attention, yet by and large no consistent theory or definition of play and games relevant to the socialization process currently exists in the literature (Berlyne, 1969). Central to current misunderstanding in this area is the failure of all theorists to distinguish systematically play from games. Furthermore, existing formulations typically attempt to bracket or separate play from work. It will be necessary to make a distinction between these interactional forms in the discussion that follows. Playing a game of marbles, for example, is clearly different from playing dolls or pretending that a blanket is a baby that will not go to sleep. Yet current formulations confuse these two processes: The first is rule governed and gamelike; the second is not. A set of distinctions separating play, games, work, playing at play, and playing at games, will therefore be made, and the impact of play on early childhood socialization will be discussed. Finally, data drawn from naturalistic studies of young children will be offered in support of the perspective presented.

Existing Theories of Play and Games. In an excellent review of play and games, Ellis (1973; also see Gilmore, 1971) lists some thirteen different definitions and theories of play and games. These include the surplus energy theory of Groos (1901), the play-as-relaxation theory of Sapora and Mitchell (1961), the instinct theory of McDougall (1923), the recapitulation theory of Gulick (1902), the psychoanalytic theory of Freud ([1922] 1959) and Erikson (1950), and, more recently, the cognitive-developmental theories of Piaget (1962). Underlying each of these separate formulations are such arguments as that people play because they have too much or too little energy to expend; that they play because they have inherited instincts that make them play; that in play the player recapitulates the history of his species; that in play people play out crises or reverse social roles, so as to resolve unpleasant experiences. In play, people thus confront or avoid problems, produce or lose energy. Ellis summarizes his review by arguing that no existing definition of play or games is workable. He proposes to define play as arousal-seeking activity, yet admits that his definition is too broad. He concludes by suggesting that it is perhaps impossible to separate play from games and work. His review provides a convenient point of departure, for it points to the current state of conceptual confusion in this area. I turn next to perhaps the two most influential theorists on play and games: Caillois and Piaget. (I have cited these several definitions of play so as to establish this state of conceptual confusion. I have not analyzed or discussed these formulations in detail, for my main concern is to establish an interactionist framework for the study of play and games in early childhood. My remarks are also intended to point in the direction of a more general theory of games and sports. The interested reader should consult Ellis, 1973, for his systematic critique and review of these other perspectives.)

In all of the existing formulations of play, the following attributes are commonly ascribed to this interactional form: It is seen as an end in itself, it is spontaneous, it is an activity pursued for pleasure, it has a relative lack of organization, it is characterized by an absence of conflict, and it produces no economic gain or loss for its players (see Berlyne, 1969; Piaget, 1962; Caillois, 1961; Huizinga, 1939). So play is an autotelic or pleasurable and self-contained form of activity. Yet exceptions to each of these criteria can be found. Some play is not spontaneous, some play is pursued so as to achieve an end beyond the playing episode, and some forms of play are highly organized. Also, many playing episodes display high degrees of conflict, emotion, and tension, and some players (for example, gamblers) do lose commodities of some form or another during their playing activities.

It is problems of this order that led Caillois (1961, pp. 9–10) to define play as an activity that incorporates the following essential elements. First, it is free—playing is not obligatory; if it were, it would at once lose its attractive and joyous quality as diversion. Second, play is separate; that is, it is circumscribed within limits of time and space and is fixed in advance. Third, play is uncertain. Its course cannot be predetermined nor its result attained beforehand, and some latitude for innovations is left to the player’s initiative. Fourth, it is unproductive, in that it creates neither goods, nor wealth, nor new elements of any kind. Except for the exchange of property among the players, play ends in a situation identical to that prevailing at the beginning of the game. Fifth, play is governed by rules. These rules operate under conditions that suspend ordinary laws and for the moment make new legislation, which alone counts. Sixth, play incorporates an element of make-believe, accompanied by a special awareness of a second reality or of a free unreality, as against real life. Caillois remarks (1961, p. 10) that “These diverse qualities are purely formal. They do not prejudge the content of games.”

Herein lies the problem, for Caillois has confused play with games. He begins by listing the attributes of play and concludes by offering a now-familiar typology of games: games of competition, change, simulation, and vertigo. These four game forms are analyzed along a continuum of “structuredness”: from paidia (unstructured) to ludus (highly regulated). It is not clear, then, whether Caillois offers a theory of play, or a theory of games, or a typology of neither one.

Caillois’ failure to separate play from games is also evident in Piaget’s highly original formulations, which postulate a stagelike, cognitive-developmental model of childhood play. He begins by assuming that the thought processes of the young child move between the polar extremes of assimilation and accommodation. He also establishes four major phases in the development of the child: sensorimotor (birth to two years), preoperational (two to seven years), concrete operational (seven to eleven years), and formal operational. With increasing age, the child’s cognitive abilities increase, and the preceding schemata of the stages is reordered. The processes of assimilation and accommodation underlie the child’s intellectual development. In assimilative thought, children impose their own reality on the physical world. They do not adapt to it but force reality to fit their limited cognitive conceptualizations of it. In the process of accommodation, children alter their cognitive structures to meet the obdurateness of reality. Piaget defines intelligence as the primacy of accommodation over assimilation. He defines play as assimilative behavior, and he distinguishes three forms of play: sensorimotor practice games, symbolic games, and games with rules. Games with rules, Piaget argues (1962), rarely appear before the ages of four to seven, and they belong mainly in the third period of development (see Flavell, 1963; Ellis, 1973). Like Caillois, Piaget fails to separate play from games. Thus he confuses what occurs in a game, which is properly termed playing at a game, with what occurs when a child “pretends to eat a green leaf and calls it spinach” (1962), which should be termed playing at play.

Piaget’s model has been criticized on several scores. His data are primarily drawn from the behaviors of western European children playing during their free time at school. His model gives no room for games of chance (Caillois, 1961). He treats play as an aberration on the thought processes and sees in it none of the elaborate pretense elements Stone (1965) and others have observed in the play of little children (Sutton-Smith, 1966). His model of cognitive development assumes that intelligence and thought are relatively unresponsive to the influences of social context and social interaction. He postulates that social behavior originates in the organism (thus he can speak of a movement from autism to egocentricism to sociocentricism). He views the child under the age of seven as an egocentric interactant who is unable to fully take the views and attitudes of others (Piaget, 1926). It is not until after the child reaches the age of seven that Piaget views socialized thought and action as appearing. His choice of the term socialized is unfortunate, and, as Markey (1928) observes, it implies that social behavior does not appear prior to the age of seven. This clearly prejudges the cognitive and interactive skills of the young child and overlooks the fact that the young child is, in a fundamental sense, the center of his own universe of discourse. That he occupies such a position in no way implies that he is unable to take the positions and attitudes of others. The observations that are reported hereafter reveal young children to be differentially skilled interactants. By neglecting these qualities, Piaget denies the symbolic interactionist view of mind and self, for it is the social context of socialization experiences that shapes the thought processes of the young child (see Vygotsky, 1962; Mead, 1934).

This brief sketch of existing theories of play and games serves to support the following conclusions: With the exceptions of Huizinga, Caillois, Mead, and recent symbolic interactionists, students of play and games have tended to divorce these interactional forms from the interpersonal contexts that produce them. Thus the majority of existing formulations are context-free typologies, divorcing play and games from social setting. Furthermore, they seldom take account of the player’s perspective in the playing or gaming episode, young child or otherwise. We have typologies of games, but few theorists make a distinction between play, work, and games. (The major exception is Huizinga, 1939.) Too often games are confused with play, and play is confused with games. There exists in these current theories no firm discussion of the uses to which persons put play and games. There is little treatment of the implications that play and games carry for their players. The data base of existing studies tends toward the study of formally structured games observed in laboratories or child development settings. With the exception of the Opies’ (1969) large catalogue of games in Great Britain, few students have recorded and analyzed the spontaneous play and games of young children. The language or medium through which the gaming encounter is produced and presented seldom receives empirical attention. The verbal and nonverbal gestures that go into the focused action of play and games have seldom been studied. In summary, existing theory gives no firm interactional basis for a comparative study of these social forms.

Elements of a Theory of Play, Games, and Interaction

In their decontextualization of games and play, contemporary theorists have failed to grasp the fundamental fact that all instances of play and games involve the interactions (which may not be face to face) of one or more persons who are orienting their cognitive, physical, and symbolic behaviors toward themselves, one another, or animate and inanimate objects (the case of solitary play with animate and inanimate objects was brought to my attention by two anonymous reviewers). There are forms of play in which the child does not directly and physically interact with another person. They may, however, symbolically mock or imitate that individual, perhaps taking on the mannerisms of a mother, father, or hero or idol. Yet the physical absence of the other does not stop the child from bringing elements of that person’s line of action into play. In play that is not face to face, the child imaginatively acts out the attitude of the other. In face-to-face play, of course, the child reacts directly to the actions and utterances of the other. A definition of play, then, must be capable of handling the solitary player. Similarly, such a definition must include playful and playlike actions with animate and inanimate objects that the child has “personalized”—perhaps given a name to or assigned a role to in a game. The child transforms the object into a playmate and may or may not anthropomorphize that object in the process.

Accordingly, a theory of play and games must rest on a consistent image of the interaction process, and it must address the place of persons and situations in that interaction. Also, as the foregoing suggests, it must treat solitary as well as joint players, and the objects of play (whether animate or inanimate) must be considered.

Interaction (whether playful or worklike) occurs in place (Goffman, 1971). Place consists of the following interrelated elements: differentially self-reflexive actors; place or setting itself (that is, the physical territory); social objects that fill the setting and are acted on by the actors in question; a set of rules of a civil-legal, polite-ceremonial, and relationally specific nature that explicitly or tacitly guides and shapes interaction; a set of relationships that binds the interactants to one another; and a shifting set of definitions reflective of each actor’s co-ordination to self and other during the interaction sequence. The total amount of time two or more actors spend in place shall be termed the occasion of interaction. Every focused exchange between those actors shall be termed an encounter. Thus, places furnish the occasions for interaction, which in turn provides the conditions for encounters (see Goffman, 1961a).

Any interactional episode between one or more persons can be studied in terms of the dimensions of place that are acted on and played out. Every instance of focused interaction displays a unique configuration of these six elements of place. Each element can assume different parameters over time, within and across the same encounter. The players can stand in varying degrees of “knowingness” to one another. The relationships that bind them together will be of shifting equality, moving between the extremes of subordinate and superordinate, and they may be of the intimate, stranger, friend, colleague, or enemy variety (see Davis, 1973). The setting may be rigid or flexible, known or foreign, public or private, rented or owned. The objects may or may not be taken as concrete extensions of the actors’ selves. The objects may be owned, rented, borrowed, sacred, or irrelevant to the action at hand. The rules that shape interaction will be differentially flexible, and they will vary in their bindingness on the actors. They will be differentially reciprocal. The degree to which rule violation influences the interaction process will be specific to each place, occasion, and encounter.

The action that occurs within place will be of shifting temporal length, differentially reciprocal. The degree to which rule violation influences the interaction process will be specific to each place, occasion, and encounter.

The interaction that occurs within place will be differentially focused or unfocused. Its biographical implications for the players will also vary. Some episodes carry no implications, while others (turning point encounters) are heavily consequential (Strauss, 1969). The degree of seriousness or “pretense” that hovers over place, occasion, and encounter will be variable (Glaser and Strauss, 1964; Stone, 1965). The players may be seriously embedded in the action or take it lightheartedly. They may pretend to be serious or seriously pretend not to be serious.

Play and Games Defined. Play, work, and games are interactional forms: They are situated productions that differentially mold the elements of acts, interaction, and place that have been outlined. Definitions are in order.

Play and games, as Caillois noted, exist along a continuum of interactional structuredness. A game shall be defined as an interactional activity of a competitive or cooperative nature involving one or more players who play by a set of rules that define the content of the game. Skill and chance are the essential elements that are played over. Played for the amusement of the players and perhaps also for a set of spectators, games are focused around rules that determine the role that skill and chance will have. The objects of action are predetermined (checkers, kites, chess players, dice). Furthermore, the elements of pretense are known beforehand and are specified by the rules of conduct deemed appropriate to the game at hand. These rules specify the number of players, tell the players how to play, and determine how they will relate to one another as game players. Typically these rules hold constant outside game relationships and make each player a co-equal (subject to the variations of skill and chance) during the game itself. (However, some games deliberately build on inequality; they assign in sequence, or by chance, undesirable roles to their players—for example, “wolf-wolf,” “hide-and-seek.”) And of course, many games have winners and losers.

Yet location in those roles is determined by the game, not by relationships that exist between the players when they are not gaming (see I. Opie and P. Opie, 1969). While the factor of pretense is known before the game is entered, the players may exaggerate pretense during the game—for example, players of monopoly, poker, or “button-button.” In this sense, emotion is central to the game, and players may enter the game precisely because its outcome is problematic and emotional, if not pretenselike in nature.

The temporal duration of the game is typically not known; only its outcome is known—it will produce a winner and a loser. Thus the length of a game will be determined solely by how long the players take to play it and by how long they are willing to play. Some games are suspended, broken productions that never reach a rule-determined conclusion. Rule violation is crucial to the game, and all games have players who cheat, or break, or distort the rules. (Highly structured games—for example, professional football—have their own judges or referees who determine when a rule has been broken. Less structured games rely on their players to be one another’s judge—and jury.) On rule violation, Caillois (1961, p. 7) has observed: “The confused and intricate laws of ordinary life are replaced in this fixed space and for this given time by precise, arbitrary, unexceptionable rules that must be accepted as such and that govern the correct playing of the game. If the cheat violates the rules, he at least pretends to respect them…. one must agree with the writers who have stressed the fact that the cheat’s dishonesty does not destroy the game. The game is ruined by the nihilist who denounces the rules as absurd and conventional, who refuses to play because the game is meaningless. His arguments are irrefutable. The game has no other but an intrinsic meaning. That is why its rules are imperative and absolute, beyond discussion.”

The biographical consequences of any given game, for any player, will vary by the nature of the game and by the player’s attitude toward what the game furnishes him or her. The seemingly inconsequential nature of games can establish for the player a sense of self not otherwise attainable in daily life. Goffman (1967, pp. 269-270) observes: “When persons go to where the action is, they often go to a place where there is an increase, not in the chances taken, but in the chances that they will be obliged to take chances. … On the arcade strips of urban settlements and summer resorts, scenes are available for hire where the customer can be a star performer in gambles enlivened by being slightly consequential. Here a person concurrently without social connections can insert coins in skill machines to demonstrate to the other machines that he has socially approved qualities of character. These naked little spasms of the self occur at the end of the world, but there at the end is action and character.”

The place or places of the games are differentially fixed. Some games can be moved from place to place, as in checkers or chess or hide-and-seek. However, once the place of the game has been set, it is typically seen as “playable” only in that place, at least for its current duration. It may be played elsewhere on another occasion. Other games require a fixed place for play that is borrowed or loaned, rented, or owned. Such places require that players come to them. The more formalized the game, the more likely it will be fixed by place or by classes of place. And the more fixed the place, the more likely that the game is played for the amusement of an audience as well as for the players themselves. In either case (movable-negotiated place or fixed place), games can be seen as relatively intransient productions. (This point will be elaborated later, when it is shown that play—? as an interactional form—is relatively impervious to the needs of a fixed place.) During the production of the game, players are granted a “place legitimacy” that is often not granted the player of play.

In the present context, play shall be given two meanings. On the one hand, it will describe the activities that occur during the gaming encounter. Persons as players play games; they are playing at a game. However, some persons play at games, but are not playing a game. Witness the following episode: Three daughters—ages six years, four months (Sara), six years, one month (Jody), five years, one month (Ramona)—are seated in the center of a family living room.

Jody says to Sara and Ramona:

“Sara and Ramona, let’s play cards. I’ll deal.”


“Okay, but do I have to sit next to the fireplace?”


“I don’t want the joker.”

(Jody sorts the cards into three equal stacks, and play begins. Each player has to get an ace to win a hand.)


“I’ve just changed the rules; if you get a pair, you win.”

Sara and Ramona:

“No, no [in unison]. That’s not fair.”


“Okay, Sara, want to have an ace?”


“No. Let’s play by your rules.”

(The game goes to conclusion. Each player wins one hand. The cards are stacked up, and the girls leave to watch television in another room of the house.)

In other instances, these three players have played bridge and poker, slightly altering the rules on each playing occasion. Here the players have a sense of a game, have a knowledge of playing in turn, can understand the concept of the deal and the shuffle, but are not playing a specific game of cards. They are “playing at playing at a game of cards,” playing within a constructed pretense context that permits them to be something other than what they ordinarily are. (Further exceptions to our formulations can be noted. A player can play with himself and focus the effects of play solely on himself. And many players play with no sense of a game in mind.)

When persons engage in the production of a pretense awareness context that is not framed by the specific rules of a game, they shall be said to be “playing at play.” Playing at play, unlike playing at a game, involves the use of flexible rules, and it is much less tied to any specific place. Playing at playing involves players engaged in a “free-floating” set of interactions that takes them from place to place as the focus, needs, and demands of whatever is being played shift and take on new forms.

Consider the following interaction, based on thirty minutes of observation. Jody and Ramona and Sara enter the kitchen. To Jody and Ramona’s mother (Emily), they ask:

Jody, Ramona, Sara:

“May we have juice and crackers?”


“Yes, wash your hands first.” (The three comply and then go to the kitchen table.)


“Let’s play we’re princesses. Jody, you be the king. Ramona, you be the queen.”

Ramona and Jody:



“Let’s play the king died last night. Oh dear, your husband is dead.”


“What shall we do? Let’s go on a walk through the forest and look for another king.”

(The three leave the kitchen, enter the dining room, and crawl under the dining room table.)


“King, king, where are you?” (She moves a chair and places a stuffed dog in front of her.) “Bow-wow, King, King, Bow-wow.”


“Oh no! Your doggie has to go to the bathroom.” (The three exit and go upstairs to the bathroom. They come back downstairs.) To Emily, they state: “The king is dead, and we found him.”


“Come, Madame, we will go to the desert island.” (They move to a green circular rug near the front door of the living room.)

In unison:

“Oh no, the crocodiles are out again; quick, get on the island.”


“Bow-wow, my dog will kill them.”


“Oh boy! Thank you.”

Three different playing at play behaviors are displayed in this specimen, and they move from setting to setting, irrespective of the actual place of play. At the kitchen table, over juice and crackers, they moved into playing princess. The dining room table saw the dog enter the picture. The upstairs bathroom permitted them to elaborate on the playing of princess, and finally the dog saved them from the crocodiles who were attacking them on the desert island. In this sense, players of play can pick up their play and play it anywhere. (Some forms of playing at play do become place specific. In many nursery schools, the play involving mother, daddy, and baby often attaches itself to the school’s playhouse. Construction play similarly becomes attached to the block corner or the sand box. This attachment is typically encouraged by the designers, owners, and managers of these establishments. The child players are taught to attach their various forms of play to these settings. This often gives rise to place invasions, and battles over territory ensue. See Joffe, 1973; Suttles, 1968; and Thrasher, [1927] 1963, on play and territorial invasions.)

Play is an expansive and expandable interactional form. It is not tied to the demand of time or place. Unlike games, which have concrete rules specifying who may play and how many players there will be, the number of players who can play is limited by the number of persons present and by the relationships the players have with one another. Often these relationships stand outside the moment of play itself, unlike the game as noted earlier.

The following specimen is drawn from a West Coast university preschool. Female Cindy (three years, two months), male Wally (three years, six months), and John (three years, one month) are making pumpkin muffins the day before Halloween. They are seated around a table mixing their batter and filling their baking cups.


“My mommy has a grandma, and she lives in L.A., and her name is Grandma Kaye.”


“I have another grandmother, and she lives in New York.”

(Two children pass by the door to the kitchen.)

In unison:

“Hi, Mary; hi, Gary, come on in,”


“Hi, John; hi, Wally, hi Cindy.” (Each child says hi to every other child.)


“Hi, John.” (He says this to Cindy. He then proceeds to alter the name of each child around the table, calling each one by the name of the child seated next to them.)


“Hey, that’s a mistake, I’m not …

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