Playing at Life: Leisure and Play in a Technological World

by Clark Elliston, Assistant Professor of Religion and Philosophy, Schreiner University

This post is one in a series of reflections on the 2018 conference held in Vancouver at Green College on the University of British Columbia campus. The entire set of posts can be found here.


For many in the West, work lies at the heart of human existence. Though rarely required to work for the satisfaction of subsistence needs, we work more intensely than ever. Americans work longer hours, more days of the year, and with more stress than ever before. Seemingly paradoxically, this evolution of work coincides with exponential growth in technologies supposed to release us from the burden of work. Endless workplace programs promise to streamline our efficiency, to enable us to spend more time doing those things which we find fulfilling in our work. We can reach colleagues at almost any time of day or year via any number of communication technologies. Yet there is a price to this connection: the omnipresence of such technologies reduces our ability to escape our work. Increasingly, even this phraseology – to “escape” from work – is called into question. Indeed, we lionize those who place work at the center of life, even at the cost of their own apparent well-being. Mercurial techno-leaders, committed to “progress,” promise utopian visions of worlds without traffic and automotive emissions and with interplanetary travel and meaningful global communities. The concomitant acceleration of scientific and technological progress, though now seemingly unavoidable in the contemporary world, creates unintended consequences: rest, leisure, and play now have no place. Productivity usurps all challengers as the mark of the life well-lived. Work, as a fundamental mark of identity, becomes all-encompassing.

The force of this breakdown between work and leisure/play is nowhere clearer than in modern professional sport. Here two divergent traditions collide: is modern professional sport work or leisure? The answer entirely depends on who is asking the question - management, fans, or players. For management, sports is an arena of work resembling any other; a marketing associate for the Los Angeles Lakers conducts their work much like a marketing associate at any advertising firm with categorically similar goals and outcomes. For owners, despite being strictly-speaking “management,” answers to this question vary (though all owners care about maintaining at a minimum financial stability). Some owners care more for the profitability of clubs while others pine for on-field/pitch success. However, for fans and players the issue remains more complex. Fans often care little whether clubs turn a profit, much to the chagrin of perceived “cheap-skate” owners. Instead, they care for both success on the field and how one achieves that success. A concern for how one wins highlights a concern for something beyond mere productivity, whether financial or achievement-based. It marks aesthetic pleasure as a measure of “successful” sport. With the commencement of a new Premier-league season, one need only contrast gushing pieces on Pep Guardiola’s surgical Manchester City system or Jürgen Klopp’s overwhelming Liverpool attack with critical ones on Jose Mourinho’s trench-warfare Manchester United tactics to see that how one succeeds matters greatly to many observers. This disjunction exposes a fundamental tension in sport – how does one relate the quantitative metrics of sport success (profits, wins) with the qualitative metrics of sport success (beauty, effort)?

This disjunction creates tension for players more than any other contingency. Whether disgruntled players lamenting that sport is a business, or megastar Paul Pogba stating, "It has to be fun…It started like that. It started fun. So why does it have to change,” professional athletes frequently note the degradation of sports from play into productivity. Moreover, the transmutation from sport-as-play to sport-as-work, in cultures where work is one’s fundamental identity, creates additional issue when that identity is threatened either through injury or the natural end of one’s career. It remains only natural for the athlete to wonder how such an intrinsically joyful and leisurely activity such as sport turns into a form of lifeless productivity and even oppression.

The technologizing of sport, and thus the increasing emphasis on productivity, manifests itself in the growth of analytics. Made famous both by Bill James’s sabermetrical insights and Michael Lewis’s bestseller Moneyball, sports analytics measure player impact on games apart from traditional statistics. Often, this requires the revision of former measures and the creation of new statistical categories. For instance, whereas the traditional statistic of fielder “errors” is a notoriously problematic (how do you measure what a player should have been able to do in a complex field of variables?), measuring a player’s impact as wins-above-replacement-player (WARP) establishes clearly whether a player is of defensive benefit. Billy Beane, the protagonist of Moneyball and the then-general manager of the Oakland A’s, intentionally resists evaluations of players tied to anything other than data-driven analysis. What was pioneered in American baseball has since spread to all major sports leagues. Its ubiquity has spawned both elation in those who are inspired by statistical analysis and opprobrium in those who feel statistics fail to measure impact. Former baseball player Jayson Werth recently stated that, “... I think it's killing the game. It's to the point where just put computers out there. Just put laptops and what have you, just put them out there and let them play. We don't even need to go out there anymore. It's a joke." Werth clearly fails to understand the purpose and the scope of analytics – it isolates statistical likelihood, rather than providing a narrow prediction of events – but his comment taps into a common sentiment. Centrally, sports manifests something valuable but ineffable. Sports presents to those who are common something which is uncommon. Sometimes couched as “genius,” professional sports presents people playing well. Fans wish to participate in an exuberant excellence they themselves do not possess. Often that excellence coincides with a joyfulness in an athlete set free. Even recreationally athletics releases one from obligations of life. Thus, as both Rob Ellis and Simon Kuyper note, in England professional soccer effectively began when factory workers were freed from work on Sundays. It was not simply another form of work, but something altogether different. Modern analytics remains unsatisfying not because it is ineffective (or perfectly effective), as Werth suggests, but rather because the very power of sport lies in things beyond the quantitative world of the win/loss column.

This extended reflection on professional sport teases out a central problem in a technological world: when even leisure and play have become technologized and thus subjected to constant measurement and assessment, where can one find refuge? Art, philosophically, has been one answer. Gratuitous play, that movement of enjoyment which needs no other end than itself, comprises another. I play soccer with little fitness and less skill. I run with neither alacrity nor grace. Nevertheless, there is joy in the performance. It is a joy borne of participation in a larger community of players, the experience of changing limits, and the simple release from daily cares. These constituent joys can be neither measured nor made more efficient. To be sure, grading my performance after a friendly five-a-side match is not only misguided but masochistic. Friendship with others is likewise “unmanageable.” This is of course not true in an absolute sense; I may decide that I have not treated a friend appropriately and make every attempt to rectify the mistake. Nevertheless, my capacity to build a friendship has clear limits. Most people have had the experience of wishing for a greater depth of friendship with another person and yet having no clear path to secure that depth. Moreover, friendship remains fundamentally risky. While friendship may result in pain, persistent attempts to manage friendship and lower this risk inevitably cause the atrophy of the relationship. Perhaps the most cogent example is play with children. Children resist efficiency (to put it mildly) and follow few scripts or standards in play. While children certainly learn during play, my children do not “play better” from day to day. They will likely not remember (depending on their age of course) the time spent playing with them, nor will there be measurable growth in skill or ability. Not only does this not deter me, it is the very reason why the interaction is “play” at all – it is joyful activity divorced from a technological hegemony of measured performance. Engaging them in play takes time, and more importantly attention, that defies every attempt at management. Indeed, when I manage that time as I manage work, I parent badly. All forms of play are equally inefficient, and attempts to render them otherwise threaten to transform them into work. Sport and play should limit our work rather than become work. Then and only then do play, leisure, and rest become possible. Without play, leisure, and rest, no genuine human flourishing is possible.