Play, a social construct

What we play and how we play define not only our personalities, but also our social and cultural identities.

After seasons of racing and sportives, we cooled down for a year to focus on work. You know, that thing that pays for the nice bike and jazzy kits.

I spent much of last year working and observing yet another industry related to money, but with less emphasis on play: fintech.

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The GLUE Studio ladies take up surfing in Bali. Ok, we won’t make it as extras for the remake of “Point Break”.
A spell in online gaming, post MSc (on anthropology of play), and another spell in sports retail informed a few ideas I am developing on money, token and play. But alas, I observe very little play in fintech, unless you consider the betting on currency fluctuation as gamification in forex trading. It is no coincidence, I reckon, that forex traders tend to be athletes of sort: triathletes, go-karters, cyclists, runners – the usual type A personalities.

During this ‘chill’ period, my level of sports participation can be described as “little and often”. Two seasons ago, an ITU race was the main goal of 2014. In 2016, a quick run at lunchtime or a longer run after work is secondary to the main goal: finishing work.

Play, a social construct

So far, work had paid for two cool trips to Bali: the first, we spent doing some mountain biking, and the second, an opportunity to take up surfing. To be modest about it, I was only following the footsteps of Clifford Geertz, my favourite anthropologist whose fieldwork on Balinese cockfighting really inspired my interest in play.

Months before that trip, I confided in my colleague in sports retail, an accomplished Melbourne surfer/retailer who later went on to work for Tomtom, that “it was a real shame I am Polynesian but I can’t surf and am pretty bad at swimming”.

Surfing and triathlon have its roots in Polynesia and the Pacific, so it was a pity I knew nothing about both. So, after I was done with my masters, I spent three years acquiring two particular skills: swimming and balancing on a piece of wood. The latter I belatedly did last Christmas.

Does having the two skills make me feel anymore Polynesian than before? To a degree.

I am the way I choose to chill out

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Pangkor fishermen looking for sea cucumbers. Diving is a hobby, or social labour to some, but to these men, this activity is labour.
At the risk of sounding like an anthropologist, I now have new insights with which to frame my thoughts on matters like the ‘labour of play’ – time spent perfecting and indulging in a pastime – and the ‘play within labour’.

I now understand that in two distinct environments – a seaside economy somewhere in Sleepy Town, Malaysia, and in cosmopolitan London – ‘play’ skills such as rowing, boating, swimming and diving are essential in order to adapt to two different socio-economical demands: livelihood and social mobility.

In Sleepy Town, the fishing economy means that the said skill set is mandatory in order to earn a living. Rowing, boating, swimming and diving are a form of labour.

However, in cosmopolitan London, the same skills may not be required for labour, but are a form of ‘social labour’ that one participates in after work to demarcate oneself from other groups. By doing so, you become different, you can climb a specific social ladder and as a result, improve your livelihood. Bourdieu calls this ‘habitus’.

The objectives of play in both instances are, of course, legitimate.

For all this insight, however, I certainly don’t swim or surf any better. I am rather mediocre at both.

But I certainly have learned new ways of having fun.

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