“The spirit of play is the source of the fertile conventions that permit the reinvention of culture. It stimulates ingenuity, refinement, and invention. At the same time, it teaches loyalty in the face of the adversary and illustrates competition in which rivalry does not survive the encounter. To the degree that he is influenced by play, man can check the monotony, determinism, and brutality of nature. He learns to construct order, conceive economy, and establish equity.”
(Caillois 1958-2001, p.58)
When I first started thinking about geocaching as a research topic, I thought it was plain fun, so I started all things published about “play”. Soon enough, the task of simply reviewing the literature on play in all social science and humanities disciplines revealed itself a massive (if not impossible) work. Expanding the overview to include related concepts such as leisure, entertainment, fun, amusement, games, pleasure, and fantasy – and oppositional ones such as boredom, work, earnestness, and seriousness is a task even the most relentless researcher would very likely give up accomplishing.
So I read as broadly as I could and, let me tell you, there are some fascinating texts in this literature... The theoretical notion of play was initially developed in the fields of sociology and history (see, for example, Caillois 1961 and Huizinga 1955 from the reference list below). The definition of play is ambiguous and varies according to the perspective adopted by the author (e.g. cultural, educational, or psychological). Despite a cumulative body of interdisciplinary literature on the topic, play as a concept still intrigues and eludes many researchers. Nevertheless, most authors providing overviews of the literature on play refer to the definition written by the historian Johan Huizinga in 1955 as one of the most relevant ones:
Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an ordered manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means. (1955, p.13)
Checking the definition against the main characteristics of geocaching raises many interesting points:
Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity...
I haven’t heard of anyone being forced to do geocaching (though I suspect some kids or spouses may see it as an unpleasant task...). It is indeed a free activity – you only do it if you want to. And, at least so far, it is free of charge (assuming one already has the basics: a gps and an Internet connection).
...standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’
Geocachers frequently joke about using a multi-billion dollar satellite system to find Tupperware hidden in the woods. Plus the events, the gear, the “geocaching backpack”... I get the feeling that once the GPS is on, the ordinary life is really put aside.
... but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly.
It’s easy to spend a whole afternoon looking for that multi cache....In fact, for many geocachers, this is a serious leisure activity (but I will discuss this in another topic)
It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it.
This is a more complicated match, because some geocachers have started their own business out of the game, like these guys here: http://landsharkz.ca/ http://www.cachingcontainers.com/ http://www.todayscacher.com/ http://t-shirts.cafepress.com/geocaching . Not so sure if they keep playing with the same freedom and intensity (is geocaching still a hobby for them or did it become work?)
It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space (checked) according to fixed rules and in an ordered manner.
There are controversies here – some people play according to their own rules (or their team rules), but the basic guidelines stated at http://www.geocaching.com are the ones most people consider valid when playing geocaching. I think these rules have been evolving organically with the development of the game and naturally adopted or abandoned by the community of players.
It promotes the formation of social groupings
Definitely! There is a large number of associations, groups, teams, and events related to geocaching. I actually think this is one of the main pillars of the activity. Meeting other geocachers is always great fun.
which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.
Caching names, acronyms, intriguing t-shirt sayings, and disguising from muggles... this is what geocachers do best.
So yes, geocaching is play – according, at least, to one of the most traditional definitions of play. What then? Because I am a marketing researcher, I narrowed the focus of my theoretical search to, well, the marketing literature. But that’s the topic of my next post!
I leave you with some references on play – all of them very interesting and worthy checking out.
1. Ackerman, D. (1999). Deep Play. New York: Random House.
2. Björk, S., J Falk, R Hansson, & Ljungstrand, P. (2001), “Pirates!-Using the Physical World as a Game Board”, Human-Computer Interaction – Proceedings of Interac 01. IOS Press: IFIP.
3. Caillois, R. (1961). Man, Play, and Games. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe.
4. Caillois, R. (2001). . Man, Play, and Games.University of Illinois Press.
5. Castronova, E. (2005). Synthetic Worlds: the business and culture of online games. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
6. Ellis, M. J. (1973). Why people play, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
7. Huizinga, J. (1955). Homo Ludens. Boston: Beacon Press.
8. Kline, S., Dyer-Whiteford, N., and DePeuter. G. (2003). Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing. McGill-Queen’s University Press.
9. Lauwaert, M. (2009). The place of play: Toys and digital cultures. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
10. Michaelis, B. (1985). Fantasy, play, creativity and mental health. In Recreation and Leisure: Issues in an Era of Change. T. Goodale and P. Witt (eds.). Venture Publishing, State College.
11. Poole, S. (2000). Trigger Happy: Videogames and the entertainment revolution. New York: Arcade Publishing.
12. Taylor, T. L. (2006). Play Between Worlds. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.