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The Ambiguity of Play [Paperback]

Brian Sutton-Smith
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 14, 2001 0674005813 978-0674005815 1

Every child knows what it means to play, but the rest of us can merely speculate. Is it a kind of adaptation, teaching us skills, inducting us into certain communities? Is it power, pursued in games of prowess? Fate, deployed in games of chance? Daydreaming, enacted in art? Or is it just frivolity? Brian Sutton-Smith, a leading proponent of play theory, considers each possibility as it has been proposed, elaborated, and debated in disciplines from biology, psychology, and education to metaphysics, mathematics, and sociology.

Sutton-Smith focuses on play theories rooted in seven distinct "rhetorics"--the ancient discourses of Fate, Power, Communal Identity, and Frivolity and the modern discourses of Progress, the Imaginary, and the Self. In a sweeping analysis that moves from the question of play in child development to the implications of play for the Western work ethic, he explores the values, historical sources, and interests that have dictated the terms and forms of play put forth in each discourse's "objective" theory.

This work reveals more distinctions and disjunctions than affinities, with one striking exception: however different their descriptions and interpretations of play, each rhetoric reveals a quirkiness, redundancy, and flexibility. In light of this, Sutton-Smith suggests that play might provide a model of the variability that allows for "natural" selection. As a form of mental feedback, play might nullify the rigidity that sets in after successful adaption, thus reinforcing animal and human variability. Further, he shows how these discourses, despite their differences, might offer the components for a new social science of play.

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The Ambiguity of Play + Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture + Man, Play and Games
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Editorial Reviews


Brian Sutton-Smith presents a lively, contemplative and challenging theoretical discussion of the "category of diverse learnings"...that make up play...Sutton-Smith presents a variety of play dimensions that cause disturbance of theoretical certainty and bring together hitherto unconnected ideas on play in the tradition of creativity. The book explores its chosen rhetorics in a scholarly and yet undeniably accessible way. The material included is multi-faceted and multi-layered drawing on theories across the centuries and presenting a case for a new look at play. Play is taken beyond the rhetoric of progress leaving the reader alive and alert to the possibilities of play that transcend generations and cultures. (Jill Williams British Journal of Educational Studies)

This book provides a comprehensive analysis of extant theory and research on the subject of play in children and adults in a variety of cultural contexts with relevant comparisons to play in nonhuman species. The work is thorough and well referenced and provides new insights on a classic topic in children's social development. The primary issue addressed is the ambiguous nature of play. Although we have a sense of what constitutes play, when asked to define it, explain its function, or even identify players, its paradoxical nature becomes apparent--it is and is not what it appears to be. Does and does not have a function, is and is not the purview of children. (Child Development Abstracts & Bibliography)

A wonderful and important book. Its strength is its depth and its breadth. Play is discussed in incredibly close detail, and from diverse perspectives: from anthropology to zoology, to literary criticism and biology. This work represents the one most thorough discussion of play that we have. (Anthony Pellegrini, University of Georgia)

A stunning book and a superbly scholarly undertaking which will make it impossible to discuss play in the simplistic terms we are accustomed to. (Greta Fein, University of Maryland at College Park)

The Ambiguity of Play is an extremely important contribution to theoretical discussions about play not only in the United States but around the world. The book provides a platform for further theoretical reflection, interdisciplinary dialogue, and for critical examination of long-held beliefs about child development and education. Sutton-Smith succeeds at maintaining a playful tone throughout, and lives up in his own rhetoric to the topic at hand. (Petra Hesse, Wheelock College)


A wonderful and important book. Its strength is its depth and its breadth. Play is discussed in incredibly close detail, and from diverse perspectives: from anthropology to zoology, to literary criticism and biology. This work represents the one most thorough discussion of play that we have. (Anthony Pellegrini, University of Georgia) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1 edition (June 14, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674005813
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674005815
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 5.9 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #269,767 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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41 of 44 people found the following review helpful
In a novel approach to an understanding of the everyday phenomenon that we call "play," Professor Sutton-Smith tackles this slippery subject by analyzing the persuasive techniques that researchers use to define play. "We all play occasionally, and we all know what playing feels like. But when it comes to making theoretical statements about what play is, we fall into silliness," claims Sutton-Smith. In his attempt to bring some coherence to past scholarship of the ambiguous field of play studies, Sutton-Smith not only challenges conventional definitions of play but manages somehow to succintly summarize all major and minor theorists in a mere 231 pages. The text is laced with numerous examples to support Sutton-Smith's contention that all theories of play to date fall into one of seven rhetorical categories. He clearly points to the problem of consensus on the definition of play in a field that is divided among different disciplines each claiming that its own kind of play is the one that is central to the phenomenon. Although the book is not directed to a popular audience, it is an excellent text for classroom use in many academic disciplines.
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There are books on play, then are books on play studies, then there is this. Stuart Brown has an excellent book on the science of play, Huizinga wrote a pioneering work on play theory, but Sutton-Smith (SS) has outplayed them all.

Let me be Frank. This is a textbook. It reads like a textbook. It contains technical terminology, schema and classifications, definitions, references and all the usual academic tools. Some parts require serious brainpower to appreciate. The list of primary and secondary sources is massive and most impressive.

But it’s more than a mere textbook, much more. Here’s what it does for you.

It gathers together all previous theories, theorists and key works by contributors to the field of play studies. It gathers them from the widest range of disciplines possible. Then it categorises them according to seven major meta-themes or “rhetorics” that nicely bundle together all these disparate elements in such a way as to expose their core meanings and spread them over a timeline from ancient to modern. And then, for each of the seven, it picks out the main adherents, interacts with them in a lively and insightful discussion, and summarises the rest.

The work does have a weakness, but it is not the fault of SS. The Index is inadequate to the task of serving such a key text. It only picks out major interactions with a particular author and excludes all minor mentions. This infuriates me. For example, in the chapter on “the rhetoric of self” I was excited that SS focuses attention on the ‘flow’ theory of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi but there are several places where he (ps. 200, 207) and his theory (67, 81, 174, 188, 192, 195, 207) are mentioned in the text but not in the Index. Same with Nietzsche (57, 60, 132, 151, 190-1, 220).
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2 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Child development must read September 7, 2008
By A. swan
This is a great read and a must for anyone outside the feild of childrens play. I say that as everyone in the field know this man's work and reputation.
Anyone working with kids should learn to evaluate their own work and position within the field. This book will help you do that.
Mind you if you don't regularly learn from working with children, you are definetly doing something wrong!
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