Volume 11, Number 1

Editor's Note

Welcome to the American Journal of Play special issue on redefining work and play, another in our series of themed issues we publish from time to time. Each issue focuses on important topics in the fast-developing study of play. Each is guest edited by distinguished experts and includes work by the leading researchers and thinkers on the topic. Our guest editors sociologists J. Talmadge Wright and David G. Embrick have assembled a series of articles that challenge definitions and seek alternative interpretations and categorizations of work and play. Wright begins the issue with an article that introduces a new model of play based on accomplishments and human expression that could resolve perceived binaries of work and play. Christine Payne argues for expanding the sphere of play to include considerations of desire, consumption, work sharing, talents, and interests. Michael J. Roberts makes a case for an interpretation of work and play that emphasizes a separation of work from play. Ken S. McAllister and Judd Ethan Ruggill explore the concept and consequences of electronic game death. In an excerpt from T. L. Taylor’s book Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming, the author discusses some of the work game live streamers undertake to convert their private play into public entertainment. And Wright and Embrick close the issue with an examination of the emotional work of players of the massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft and their families and how these players negotiate both conflict and cooperation between family members in their off-line and online lives. Together these articles explore the interrelationships between work and play and the ways in which work and play have changed, particularly in the age of neoliberal capitalism.


by J. Talmadge Wright


Critiquing and expanding Huizinga’s theory of play in Homo Ludens, the author argues for play as a means to access what is real and introduces a new model of play he calls the containment play expression (CPE) to challenge traditional notions about the opposition between play and work. This model, he contends, bridges this gap between phenomenological and Marxian perspectives that view both play and work as accomplishments within a capitalist economic and political context. He then applies his new unitary model of play to computer games and discusses how players negotiate their relationships online in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). Keywords: alienation; containment play expression; digital games; human expression; play and work; virtual environment

by Christine Payne


The author takes up Karl Marx’s and Herbert Marcuse’s investigations into the possibilities for expanding freedom and play. She begins with an analysis of the essential questions about labor that need attention before considering theoretical and practical attempts to render necessary work superfluous in the interests of free play. She considers the limits of Marx’s original formulation of such a possibility as well as the problems with Marcuse’s attempts to fuse the spheres of work and play together. Inverting Marcuse’s reading of Sigmund Freud through Marx, she speculates on the irrational character of desire and its relationship to work and play. Key words: capitalism; Critical Theory; desire; play; work

by Michael J. Roberts


The author offers what he calls an intervention in the Marxist analysis of the relationship between work and play. As an alternative to some Hegelian and sociological readings of Marx that seek to merge work with play as a means to overcome alienation, he provides an interpretation that emphasizes the importance of maintaining the difference between work and play in terms of distinct modes of experience. Reading Marx through Huizinga, the author argues that the goal for Marx is the emancipation from labor not the emancipation of labor. Marx develops this position, the author says, through a close examination of the labor movement’s epic struggle for shorter hours of work. Against a particular Hegelian-Marxist view that play in a capitalist context is trivial because it cannot transform the world, the author claims the pursuit of more time for play through the fight for shorter hours of work does indeed change the world. And he maintains that the fight for shorter hours of work is particularly relevant today as more and more jobs become automated and those who still have jobs find themselves working longer hours for less pay. Key words: alienation; labor; play; work

by T. L. Taylor


In this excerpt from the author’s new book, Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming, (Princeton University Press, 2018), she discusses some of the work game live streamers undertake to convert their private play into public entertainment. She details the layers involved in a typical broadcast and argues that this emerging form highlights the transformative nature of play. Key words: gaming; live streaming; transformative work; Twitch

by Ken S. McAllister and Judd Ethan Ruggill


The authors discuss the relationship of death and play as illuminated by computer games. Although these games, they argue, do illustrate the value of being—and staying—alive, they are not so much about life per se as they are about providing gamers with a playground at the edge of mortality. Using a range of visual, auditory, and rule-based distractions, computer games both push thoughts of death away from consciousness and cultivate a perception that death—real death—is predictable, controllable, reasonable, and ultimately benign. Thus, computer games provide opportunities for death play that is both mundane and remarkable, humbling and empowering. The authors label this fundamental characteristic of game play thanatoludism. Key words: computer games; death and play; thanatoludism

Mors aurem vellens: Vivite ait venio.
—Appendix Vergiliana
, “Copa”

by J. Talmadge Wright and David G. Embrick


Computer game play has been criticized for disrupting family life by some who claim digital fantasy play alienates individuals from everyday interactions, even as others hold that such play increases sociability among players and their families. The authors argue that the truth about game play is more complex. They draw on research using participant observations and interviews with players about a well-known massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft and examine the struggle within families about time spent playing, family responsibilities, enhanced family dynamics, and the distances created by game playing. Key words: family play; game play and work; massive multiplayer online games; massive multiplayer online role-playing games; virtual environments

Book Reviews

by Peter Grey

Children, to develop well, need lots of time and opportunity to play. In play children practice the social, emotional, intellectual, and physical skills required to survive and thrive. The play world, for children, is a simulation world, a safe place to practice new skills and aptitudes, because in play failure has no real-world consequences. (Sadly, we have in recent decades ever more deprived children of play, which perhaps helps explain the sharp rise in psychological problems among the young, but that is a different story.)

by Jodi Ann Mullen

In Doing Play Therapy: From Building the Relationship to Facilitating Change, authors Terry Kottman and Kristin K. Meany-Walen illuminate, discuss, deconstruct, and confront the clinical aspects of play therapy. They take the reader on a journey through the play therapy process using different lenses, and they challenge readers to analyze their own perspectives about human nature and how people change, heal, and grow. The text provides beginning, intermediate, and seasoned play therapists alike with a unique opportunity to consider various play therapy theories through the use of thoughtful questions. Kottman and Meany-Walen do not just connect with readers as authors, they also connect with them as teachers. Navigating the pages of the book, readers can solidify their theoretical and clinical perspectives and learn enough about alternative theories and approaches to speak intelligently about the clinical decisions play therapists make.

by Peter N Stearns

The first thing to note about Little Cold Warriors: American Childhood in the 1950s is that it is mistitled. The subject centers on efforts to influence and use children in the cold war—American children, but also children of other nationalities—not 1950s childhood per se. Of course, the subjects interrelate—the author offers interesting evidence about the varied exposures of American school-aged children to cold-war propaganda and programs. And she is at pains to urge us to realize that the 1950s were not some return to childhood innocence marred only by civil-defense warnings. But she makes no effort to place cold war elements in any larger context or to show their impact (as opposed, for example, to other factors including the Baby Boom). Though children’s views emerge periodically, the real focus rests on government and corporate policies aimed at the young. This means, among other things, that the main findings do not clearly link to patterns of children’s play.

by Michelle Parnett-Dwyer

In Paper Dolls: Fragile Figures, Enduring Symbols, coauthors Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene analyze the political, social, economic, technological, and religious influences on the creation of paper dolls. The authors examine the ways that these pieces of ephemera portray political satire, notions of womanhood, motherhood and family, the dictates of fashion, and self-image, among other topics. From discussions of ancient Chinese burial ceremonies and theatricals starring pantins (or puppets) at Versailles Palace under the reign of French king Louis XV to the cutout dolls of opera singer Jenny Lind and printable Kim Kardashians on the Internet, Paper Dolls proves a noteworthy source for readers interested in learning more about the rich history of paper dolls.

by Mark Chen

Individuals learn in contexts that depend on social and cultural connections to each other and to their environments. They are learning all the time, in fact, as they adapt to their changing environments—for learning is essentially a change in behavior often informed by a change in understanding contexts. Realizing this opens up the conversation to a new set of questions and makes moot many others when we talk about video games and children. Children are always learning. Asking do they learn with video games proves facile—the answer is always yes.

by Joseph A. Loporcaro

Dominic Arsenault’s book, Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware: The Super Nintendo Entertainment System, offers a valuable reminder of what all scholarly activity should have at its core—the willingness to challenge firmly held beliefs. After all, a belief that does not stand up to rigorous scrutiny is not a belief worth having. Arsenault’s work allows us the chance to do exactly that, rigorously to scrutinize the widely held belief that the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) video game console was a stellar piece of hardware that enabled some of the greatest software in video game history. Arsenault uses extensive research and novel information to reframe most major factors that contribute to that belief. Ultimately, his book is not designed to change the reader’s mind regarding these widely agreed-upon beliefs of the Super Nintendo. However, it demands the reader flex some mental muscles that may have grown weak after decades of simply adopting the same old assumptions about the platform.

Ken S. McAllister is the Associate Dean for Research and Program Innovation for the College of Humanities at the University of Arizona, where he is also Professor of Public and Applied Humanities. He holds affiliate appointments in the Departments of English and Teaching, Learning and Sociocultural Studies, as well as in the School of Information. He cofounded and codirects (with Judd Ruggill) the Learning Games Initiative and its attendant research archive. His research focuses on technologically enhanced modes of persuasion, particularly in transdisciplinary contexts. Judd Ethan Ruggill is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Public and Applied Humanities at the University of Arizona. He holds affiliate appointments with the Africana Studies Program; the Department of English; the School of Information; the School of Theatre, Film, and Television; and the Graduate Interdisciplinary Program in Social, Cultural, and Critical Theory. His research focuses on play and the technologies, industries, and sociocultural phenomena that enable it.

Christine A. Payne is an instructor of Women’s Studies at San Diego State University. She is also affiliated with San Diego State University’s Master of Arts in Liberal Arts and Sciences Program. She specializes in social and political theory, feminist science, and technology studies, cultural studies, and the sociology of knowledge. Her article, “The Question of Ideology in the Light of Will-to-Power – The Truths of Marx and Nietzsche,” will appear in a forthcoming issue of Critical Sociology. She is also coeditor of the forthcoming Nietzsche and Critical Social Theory: Affirmation, Animosity, and Ambiguity.

Michael J. Roberts is Associate Professor of Sociology at San Diego State University. His publications include Tell Tchaikovsky the News: Rock ’n’ Roll, the Labor Question, and the Musicians’ Union, 1942-1968 and Class: The Anthology. He has also coedited a special issue on Nietzsche and critical social theory for the journal Critical Sociology.

T. L. Taylor is Professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and cofounder and Director of Research for AnyKey, an organization dedicated to supporting diversity and inclusion in esports. She is the author of Play between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture; Raising the Stakes: E-Sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming, and Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming. She is also coauthor of Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method.

J. Talmadge Wright is Professor Emeritus of Sociology from Loyola University Chicago. His early work centered on homelessness, social spaces, and urban gentrification, as explained in his Out of Place: Homeless Mobilizations, Subcities, and Contested Landscapes. He has coedited two books focusing on virtual game space research, Utopic Dreams and Apocalyptic Fantasies: Critical Approaches to Researching Video Game Play, and Social Exclusion, Power, and Video Game Play: New Research in Digital Media and Technology. David G. Embrick is Associate Professor with a joint position in Africana Studies Institute and the Department of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. He is a past-president of the Southwestern Sociological Association, and a past-president of the Association for Humanist Sociology. His research has centered largely on the impact of contemporary forms of racism on people of color. His publications include articles in Sociological Forum, Symbolic Interaction, Race and Society, Sex Roles, Critical Sociology, and the Journal of Intergroup Relations.