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.
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
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.