" 'Well, well, go and play till the light fades away
And then go home to bed.'
The little ones leaped and shouted and laughed
And all the hills echoed."
This is a sampling of the aphorisms, analyses and announcements that appear in the Play Factory Advocate, which itself appears once a month in Emporia, Kans. The four-page Advocate is published by the students and faculty of Emporia State. However, there is a growing group of Advocate devotees scattered about the world like members of an obscure religious sect. It is likely that their numbers will increase, for the Advocate, whose logo is The Fool (one of the major arcana of the tarot deck) and whose closing exhortation in each issue is "Play On," is a marvelously entertaining, fey and, by some standards, subversive journal of outrageous opinion.
The Advocate is not a member of the free press, being a house organ of the Play Factory, an enterprise that has been called variously a philosophical experiment, a Marx Brothers charade and a revolutionary cell. One of the few things people in Emporia agree about is that whatever the Play Factory is, it is the creation of Bill Harper.
A tall, slender 30-year-old blond. Harper looks more like the stereotype of a Southern California beach-and-tennis bum, which he once was, than the stereotype of a doctor of philosophy, which he now is. "I lived around Los Angeles," Harper says. "I was intense and competitive about everything—school, surfing, tennis—but I was not playful. In fact, I am not naturally a playful person. I was a product of a competitive nonplayful subculture. Maybe one function of the Play Factory is to provide self-therapy."
About the time Harper entered graduate school at USC he began to think seriously about play. During this period—the mid-1960s—Southern Cal had a formidable collection of heavy thinkers addressing themselves to the philosophical aspects of fun and games. Though Harper has continued to think about this subject for a decade, he is still seeking a definition for play: "I am not sure that anyone can find a short, adequate one—in the sense that we can define an ostrich or a forehand lob. Come to think of it, I am not sure that anyone has ever truly defined anything, but that gets into another area."
Harper is, however, willing and able to hold forth on the attributes and effects of play for hours or, given the proper kind of audience, days: "Play is voluntary, spontaneous, light and one of the traditional sources of pure pleasure for humans. Real play is an in-itself, not an in-order-to activity: an end, not a means. In play a human recognizes and celebrates his humanity, recognizes and celebrates the humanity of others. Play is expansive. Lack of play turns a person inward, makes it more difficult to experience and perceive the reality of the world."
Harper is more definitive when talking about what play is not. Anything that people are required to do under threat of direct or indirect punishment is not play. If one does something that appears to be play but is doing it for reasons other than experiencing the joys of the moment, this is not play. Playing for good health, therapy, social acceptance, money, grades, trophies and publicity is not, according to Harper, playful.
Harper feels that the educational system is one of a number of modern institutions that have become dangerously unplayful. "The school was the original playground," he says. "In fact, school comes from the Greek skole, which means leisure." Harper can be ferociously erudite in the defense of play. "Leisure," he says, "suggests certain qualities not prized these days, such as silence, contemplation, celebration, wonder, fantasy. Schools were provided for people to disengage or distance themselves from the workaday part of the world in order to learn to see the whole world more clearly. Schools once encouraged people to play with ideas."
A recent Advocate contained an instructive passage about what schools have become: "In the mill of the academy today we do not grind gerunds, chiefly because most of us cannot remember what gerunds are. Yet we still glorify the work spirit. It is not an accident that we regularly speak of homework, workbooks, work loads, workouts, workshops, workhorses, schoolwork, task forces, works of art, workrooms, work sheets, work-ups, classwork, work schedules, make-up work, board work, remedial work, course work and committee work."
In Harper's opinion competitive athletics rivals schools in antiplayfulness. He asks, "What do coaches from the Little League up say when they want to praise a player? They say he is a hard worker. Any time you have games in which the participants have less control than the organizers about how they play, who they play, when they play, then it is not really play. Kids get started in sports because they are playful, but they get caught in a system where they are playing for other rewards.