Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Mean Play versus Nice Play

Originally posted on November 13, 2012

A recent item has been circulating as a piece of internet humor, in which a bored husband plays a whole bunch of practical jokes in a store that’s part of a major retail chain. On one hand, I enjoyed it and laughed… but on the other hand, what is described is is an example of sadistic play, mean, bad play, provocative theatre, playing manipulatively with other people’s minds, one step away from bullying. It’s not really play if others don’t want to play, or are not knowing that what is done is play, or are not prepared for joking around. This kind of pseudo-play doesn’t lighten the world, it darkens it, and what bothers me is that it gives “play” a bad name. As in the shouted line, “Don’t play with me!”

What cats do with mice is to torment them, to play in their low consciousness by watching their victims’ behavioral reactions to pain or confusion. Cats are just animals and I don’t hold them to standards of human ethics, but for us, it’s wrong to confuse not-nice-play, playing tricks, practical not-funny-jokes, with innocent and collaborative play, in which all parties join in voluntarily and sort of know the rules.

Not-nice-pseudo-play partakes of throwing banana peels on the ground and laughing as people slip and fall. In cartoons this is okay—the sense is that no one truly gets hurt and evokes our sympathy. The falls are big splats and the cartoon character gets up and tries again. Ha ha. But in real life with real flesh and blood, a fall can be truly tragic, resulting in incredible pain, expense, and disability—indeed, life-ending, almost as bad as murder! Not funny.

So just because someone said "I’m just joking" is no reason to deny that the lack of judgment can be something for which one can be held accountable. Part of appreciating play is to recognize that there is also a category of mean play. Sometimes with lower-consciousness-players, one blurs into the other. Sorry to offer a serious answer to what was intended as play on the internet, and it was a funny piece, I confess, but I felt that it raised a theme that deserved some commentary on why at times for some folks the notion of “play” has unpleasant associations. (Also, I’m revising my Art of Play book so this is relevant.)

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