Bryan Caplan  

Play and Exit

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I've now read Peter Gray's Free to Learn twice.  To be honest, he's the first unschooler to deeply impress me as a thinker and a writer.  Before I discuss the heart of his book, I plan to read his key citations.  Many parts of the book, however, are convincing a la carte.  Perhaps my favorite is Gray's microeconomics of play:
Lesson 1: To keep the game going, you have to keep everyone happy.  The most fundamental freedom in all true play is the freedom to quit.  In an informal game, nobody is forced to stay, and there are no coaches, parents, or other adults to disappoint if you quit.  The game can continue only as long as a sufficient number of players choose to continue.  Therefore, everyone must do his or her share to keep the other players happy, including the players on the other team.

This means that you show certain restraints in an informal game beyond those dictated by the stated rules, which derive instead from your understanding of each player's needs.  You don't run full force into second base if the second baseman is smaller than you and might get hurt, even though it might be considered good strategy in Little League (where, in fact, a coach might scold you for not running as hard as possible).  This attitude is why children are injured less frequently in informal games than in formal sports, despite parents' beliefs that adult-directed sports are safer. [1]  If you are pitching, you pitch softly to little Johnny, because you know he can't hit your fastball... But when big, experienced Jerome is up, you throw your best stuff, not just because you want to get him out but because anything less would be insulting to him...

To be a good player of informal sports you can't blindly follow rules.  Rather, you have to see from others' perspectives, to understand what others want and provide at least some of that for them.  If you fail, you will be left alone.  In the informal game, keeping your playmates happy is far more important than winning, and that's true in life as well.
Play, in short, is kids' earliest encounter with the sacred principle, "If you don't like it, you can quit."  And in play as in work, the right to quit has a huge influence on behavior even though the right is rarely exercised.  Under normal circumstances, the mere threat to quit is enough to elicit civilized behavior from all participants.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Daniel Meyer writes:

Mike Munger did a recent-ish EconTalk on informal rules in organized sports that has some similar notes. It largely killed my puritanical views on playing 'by the book'

John S writes:

he's the first unschooler to deeply impress me as a thinker and a writer.

I'm surprised that you weren't impressed by John Holt and Ivan Illich. Gray is himself much influenced by Holt, and I find Illich to be an incredibly original and challenging thinker.

Gray's review of the recently published book, "The Legacy of John Holt."

Pajser writes:

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need!

Bob writes:

Adam Smith (and his impartial spectator) smiled in his grave when he read that.

Cync writes:

"Under normal circumstances, the mere threat to quit is enough to elicit civilized behavior from all participants."

A little over optimistic.

Noelle writes:

This idea of play and exit can be compared to the models of supply and demand. Keeping in line with the baseball example, consider that, together, the single firms (players) work together as an industry (team). The firms are the pitchers and catchers. Each firm (player) has the same exact technique (product). Then, there are the consumers (players of the demand team). The consumers are the batters. Each consumer (player) is different based on his or her individual determinants. The catchers from the industry are in place so as to respond to elasticity of demand (changes in swing). Ceteris parabus, both teams should perform at peak efficiency.

In a perfectly elastic, pure competition market structure, little Johnny and experienced Jerome have an equal opportunity to win the same number of points (products). This is a result of the idea that the industry must play by the fair rules of the implied structure. As the playing field becomes less of a winning game (normal profit), firms (players) may choose to enter or exit the industry (team).

John Hunter writes:

To keep the game going, you have to keep everyone happy?

Weltschmerz can't be far behind.

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