"Maybe highly organized competitive sports have a constructive function. Some people feel they help to sublimate violent urges and teach citizens to be obedient. Maybe we need this kind of sport to prepare people to work, but big sports programs thwart playfulness.
"Play, I think, is very close to being an innate characteristic of man, and for that reason as long as man is man, it is never going to be forgotten or abolished, but there are times when we get very grim and serious, and the whole style of society tends to make it harder for people to play. When this happens—and we are in that kind of period—people languish, become spiritually spindly as they might physically if they did not have sufficient or proper food. I think play is an essential element for spiritual well-being."
With such notions in various stages of intellectual gestation, Harper received his Ph.D. from Southern Cal in 1970. Upon graduation the best job he could find was at Emporia State, a school of 6,500 students, mostly would-be teachers, located between Wichita and Topeka. At the start, except for speaking well of play in his lectures, Harper was not noticeably more playful than is customary for untenured philosophy instructors. However, in 1973 the school needed an intramural director, and Harper volunteered for the job. That fall Harper published the first issue of the Fool-adorned Advocate, which announced that the intramural department had been abolished, at least in name, and replaced by the Play Factory. Asked what the Play Factory was about, Harper never explained precisely. ("Surprise, curiosity, wonder are all important to the playful spirit," he says blandly.) However, the first Advocate did reluctantly acknowledge that it had become necessary to make play, to manufacture it, so sorry was the human condition.
Among those receiving the initial manifesto was John Visser, the college president. "No," he says, "I did not know until I read the Advocate that I was going to be the chairman of the board of a Play Factory. And no, I don't know exactly what a Play Factory is, and I am not certain Bill Harper does. I think the central point, that a school should be a place where people can have some fun, is a good one that we tend to overlook with all the emphasis on career preparation. Mostly what I know is that Harper is creative and imaginative, and that creativity and imagination don't do well if the administrative reins are too tight. I let Bill alone, wait for the Advocate and expect to be surprised."
While others were mulling over his initial statements, Harper, like a proper factory manager, was putting together a production staff. Eventually he recruited 25 playmakers—art, drama, psychology, English, history, business, music and a few phys ed majors. Though real money was being offered, the first playmakers were confused about what they were meant to be and do.
"When I was employed I thought it was going to be like a regular job with typing and filing," recalls Nori, a charter playmaker. "I wasn't athletic and I know now I wasn't very playful." Nori remains what she was before becoming embroiled in the Play Factory, a small-town Kansas girl studying to be a high school business teacher. But now she is uncertain whether such a calling will be sufficiently lively and playful. "When I started I asked Dr. Harper what I should do. He asked me what kind of things I thought I should do. I said maybe type some announcements or schedules. He said that was a good idea, and what kind of things did I want to announce or schedule? Then he said, 'Play on' and went off to do something else. I was in a state of shock. It was so unreal."
Nori persevered, however, and has risen to a recently created inner circle of playmakers who, in conventional industrial terms, might be the equivalent of a new-product research and testing division. Among other things she has become the most proficient female tobacco spitter on campus, an activity about which she has typed a few announcements and schedules. "Being a playmaker is the best thing that has happened to me," Nori says. "I used to be so tight and straight. Now I feel like I can float instead of plod."
Once staffed with players and floaters, the Play Factory announced it was open for business and would be pushing five product lines, Play I, II, III, IV and O. Play I and II turned out to be conventional games and diversions—football, basketball, softball, hiking, orienteering and dance—which would be equipped, scheduled and officiated by the playmakers just as these pastimes had been by the previous intramural staff. But Play I and II were given new touches. In keeping with the philosophy of the Play Factory that rewards corrupt rather than promote play, the presentation of trophies, plaques and other athletic keepsakes was abolished. The principle that people should voluntarily choose their own playmates was honored by eliminating eligibility requirements (in the past students participating in intramurals had to belong to some nonplayful organization on campus, a fraternity, sorority, dormitory or club).
There was a degree of customer resistance to the new play styles. Dormitory politicians complained. In response some of the playmakers suggested that the factory open an ego shop, in which trophies would be stocked and available for the asking to those who felt the need for one. The idea was eventually discarded as being an unplayful put-down.
Play III games are conventional ones that have been disorganized and deregulated. There are no officials or schedules for Play III encounters; the playmakers act more or less as brokers, putting one playful group in touch with another, supplying equipment and playgrounds. In Play III, ironclad rules have been replaced by elastic ones. Harper and his playmakers consider boundary lines one of the more restrictive features of most conventional games. "It works against abandoning yourself to play, to be pulled up short by an arbitrary white line beyond which play is prohibited," says Harper. "With the exception of women's lacrosse, which is a beautiful game, outdoor sports are line-bound. We've tried soccer, softball, touch football without lines, and they are more playful games than the play-in-a-box versions. A problem has been convincing the maintenance staff that we don't want lines on the fields. I guess groundkeepers figure that having a baseball field without lines is appalling, like a body without clothes."