SIMAGES 2015.2 – The Original Play Scholar

The Original Play Scholar
By Brian Remer

Brian Sutton-Smith was a scholar of play – one of the first, in fact.  Born in New Zeeland, he studied psychology and eventually landed in the United States where he taught and conducted research at several universities including Bowling Green State University in Ohio, Columbia University Teachers College and eventually the University of Pennsylvania.  He studied children’s spontaneous play but also made connections to concepts that underpin all types of play.  According to a New York Times article about his life, he was concerned with what could “be learned about the human condition from studying play’s cultural wellsprings, developmental trajectory, psychological import and myriad variations.”

In his essay, “Play Theory:  A Personal Journey and New Thoughts”, referenced below, Sutton-Smith wrote, “Put more simply, play as we know it is primarily a fortification against the disabilities of life. It transcends life’s distresses and boredoms and, in general, allows the individual or the group to substitute their own enjoyable, fun-filled, theatrics for other representations of reality in a tacit attempt to feel that life is worth living.”

And also this from the same essay: “Play begins as a mutation of real conflicts and functions thusly forever afterwards. Play was always intended to serve a healing function whether for child or adult, making it more worthwhile to defy the depressing and dangerous aspects of life. Play is neurologically a reactive itch of the amygdala, one that responds to archetypal shock, anger, fear, disgust, and sadness. But play also includes a frontal-lobe counter, reaching for triumphant control and happiness and pride. Play begins as a major feature of mammalian evolution and remains as a major method of becoming reconciled with our being within our present universe. In this respect, play resembles both sex and religion, two other forms—however temporary or durable—of human salvation in our earthly box.”

Sutton-Smith’s writing includes “The Ambiguity of Play”, “Child’s Play”, “The Study of Games”, “How to Play With Your Child (and When Not To)”, as well as children’s novels and many scholarly articles.  He died on March 7, 2015 at the age of 90.  In this issue of SIMAGES where we focus on play, we have shared below a few articles and websites that highlight his work.


Brian Sutton-Smith, Scholar of What’s Fun, Dies at 90, by, Margalit Fox, New York Times, March 14, 2015. An obituary to the man and an overview of some of his studies.

Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY.  Learn about Sutton-Smith, his areas of study and the National Museum of Play.

The Ambiguity of Play by Brian Sutton-Smith.  Read a description of one of Sutton-Smith’s notable books.

Play Theory:  A Personal Journey and New Thoughts, by Brian Sutton-Smith, an article that makes a playful review of Sutton-Smith’s life and work.

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