History 1L The History of Play and Leisure, Spring 2008

So this is the first time I’ve tried this course. I have no idea if the goon squad that runs around looking for allegedly lightweight courses is going to pick up on this one by its title, but at least that won’t be as hilarious a misfire when they picked up on my upper-level course on the theory and practice of world history. I hope it goes without saying that anyone actually looking at the readings will realize this is a substantial course, but if you need further persuasion, just think about the economic and cultural centrality of leisure and games to contemporary global life and then consider the ubiquity of leisure and games in human history. How could you argue against the rigorous historical study of these topics?


In this course, students will examine both the long-running global history and philosophy of play, games and leisure in human societies and the distinctive modern, post-industrial construction of leisure time and activities. Play is a serious question: there are deep questions about why humans do it and how it has changed over time, and powerful debates about the economic, cultural and social centrality of games and leisure time to modern societies. Do not take this course if you are looking for an easy or casual course: the reading load is often heavy and there are significant writing requirements. Regular attendance and active participation is also required. In some weeks, the seminar will be divided into several groups reading different assignments: in those weeks, you will be responsible for summarizing and describing your reading assignments to the other groups.

History 1L is also a first-year seminar, and we will be working on skills development in writing, persuasive argument, reading and discussion throughout the semester.

Deep Histories

Thursday January 24th
Gordon Burghart, The Genesis of Animal Play, pp.3-20, pp. 45-110
Brian Sutton-Smith, The Ambiguity of Play, pp. 1-51

Exercise: Skimming for argument, note-taking for discussion.

Thursday January 31st
Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, all
Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games, pp. 37-70

Exercise: Argument formation.

Thursday February 7th
David Shenk, The Immortal Game: A History of Chess, selection
R.C. Bell, Board and Table Games From Many Civilizations, selection
Alison Futrell, A Sourcebook on the Roman Games, pp. 84-119
Maria Teresa Uriarte, “Unity in Duality: The Practice and Symbols of the Mesoamerican Ballgame”, in E. Michael Whittington, The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame
Tomoko Sakomura, “Japanese Games of Memory, Matching and Identification”, in Asian Games

Exercise: Themes across reading, synthesis of information. Verbal summaries of readings.

Leisure, Time and the Making of the Modern World

Thursday February 14th
Compton Reeves, Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval England, Chapter Four and Five
Alessandro Arcangeli, Recreation in the Renaissance, selection
Chris Humphrey, The Politics of Carnival: Festive Misrule in Medieval England, selection
Reading TBA on contemplative practices/otium in monastic life
Nancy Struna, People of Prowess: Sport, Leisure and Labor in Early Anglo-America, Chapter Three and Four
Movie: “Tom Jones”

Exercise: Outlining and flow in writing.

Thursday February 21st
John Plumb, The Commercialisation of Leisure in 18th Century Britain, selection
Hugh Cunningham, Leisure in the Industrial Revolution, selection
Louise McReynolds, Russia at Play: Leisure Activities at the End of the Tsarist Era, selection
Brad Beaven, Leisure, Citizenship and Working-Class Men in Britain, selection
Phyllis Martin, Leisure and Society in Colonial Brazzaville, selection
Catherine Yeh, Shanghai Love, selection
Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class
Tamara Hareven, Family Time and Industrial Time, selection

1st paper due.

Childhood and Play
Thursday February 28th
Howard Chudacoff, Children at Play: An American History
Mariam Formank-Brunell, “The Politics of Dollhood in Nineteenth-Century America”, in Henry Jenkins, ed., The Children’s Culture Reader
Selections from Tom Sawyer, The Secret Garden, Little House in the Big Woods

Movie: “Peter Pan”

Revision of 1st paper due.

Thursday March 6th
CLR James, Beyond a Boundary, Chapter 4
David Goldblatt, The Ball Is Round, Chapter 8
Laura Fair, “Football and Leisure in Early Colonial Zanzibar”, in Zeleza and Veney, eds., Leisure in Urban Africa
Emmanuel Akeyampong, “Bukom and the Social History of Boxing in Accra”
Elliot J. Gorn, The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize-Fighting, selection
H.G. Bissinger, Friday Night Lights
Movie: “Langaan”

Exercise: Evaluating methodology.


Play, Hobbies and Domestic Life

Vacations and Tourism
Thursday March 20th
Hofer and Jackson, The Games We Played
Steven Gelber, Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America, pp. 23-58
Ekegami, Bonds of Civility, selection
Ruth Lampland, Hobbies For Everyone [1931]
Austen Riggs, Play: Recreation in the Balanced Life [1935]

Cindy Aron, Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States, selection
Pieter Judson, “Every German Visitor Has a Volkisch Obligation He Must Fulfill”

Exercise: Primary sources and historical evidence
Source analysis paper due.

Gambling, Drink and Drugs
Thursday March 27th
Thomas Malaby, Gambling Life: Dealing in Contingency in a Greek City, Chapters 2 and 3
Jackson Lears, Something For Nothing, Chapter 2
David Schwarz, Roll the Bones: A History of Gambling, Part 2, 5 and 6
Emmanuel Akeyampong, Drink, Power and Cultural Change: A Social History of Alcohol in Ghana, selection
Madelon Powers, Faces Along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingman’s Saloon, Part 3
Zhang Yangwen, The Social Life of Opium in China, Chapters 5-8
Movie: “Rounders”

Exercise: Formulating research topics

Digital Games: Applying the History of Play

Thursday April 4th
The debate over digital games
Jesper Juul, Half-Real
Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen, Rules of Play, selection
Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck, Chapter 7
Nick Monfort, Twisty Little Passages, Chapter 8

Exercise: Search and other research skills.
Research topics for final paper due.

Thursday April 10th
Experiencing and interpreting games
Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games, selection
McKenzie Wark, Gamer Theory, selection
Mia Consalvo, Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, selection
Stephen Johnson, Everything Bad Is Good For You, selection

Hands-on: Console games

Exercise: Sources and historiography
Source reaction paragraph due.

Thursday April 17th
Themes, Genres and the Development of Videogames
Leonard Herman, Phoenix, selection
David Kushner, Masters of Doom
JC Herz, Joystick Nation, selection

Hands-on: Doom, other computer games and emulations

Exercise: Abstract writing
Abstract for final paper due.

Thursday April 24th
Gamer Culture
TL Taylor, Play Between Worlds
Gary Alan Fine, Shared Fantasy: Role-Played Games as Social Worlds
Various machinima

Hands-on: World of Warcraft, Second Life

Thursday May 1st
Iain Banks, The Player of Games
The debate over the future of leisure

Exercise: Discussion of drafts of final paper.

Final 8-12 pp. paper due by 5pm May 9th.

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16 Responses to History 1L The History of Play and Leisure, Spring 2008

  1. brodysattva says:

    Dear god, this looks fantastic. I wish I were one of your undergraduates. (More generally, I wish I had gone to a liberal arts college.) I hope you’ll let us know how it goes.

  2. Kieran says:

    How could you argue against the rigorous historical study of these topics?

    Let me count the ways.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Seriously? You think that these aren’t subjects which historians (or other scholars) should study?

  4. Kieran says:

    No, no! I mean, let me count the ways that various boneheads might try to make out that this course shouldn’t be offered by a serious university.

    For the week of Feb 7th you might look at Scott Boorman’s The Protracted Game: A Wei-ch’i Interpretation of Maoist Revolutionary Strategy (Oxford, 1969). (A book, incidentally, written while Boorman was a sophomore at Harvard, and published the year before he graduated.)

  5. Tim, looks like a GREAT course. Wish I could take it myself.

    I’ve seen figures — and could probably dig up a cite if you wish — that tourism is currently a 4 to 6 trillion dollar industry worldwide. Tourism is all about play, and, obviously, there’s lots of play beyond tourism. That’s pretty consequential.

    In consequence, the world’s collective military budgets come to about 1 billion dollars, half of them the US.

  6. Timothy Burke says:


    The Boorman sounds interesting.

    I was trying to find space also for exposure to Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, in honor of an online acquaintance who does very interesting things with it, but it’s just too long and difficult.

    The economic significance of modern leisure all told is so enormous that it alone should suffice as an explanation of why this is an important domain of human social and cultural life to examine historically. But I’d add that from a conservative or free-market standpoint, leisure time is arguably one of the great achievements of the Industrial Revolution. (There’s a counterargument that all that industrial capitalism did was attach a precise commodity value to time, etc., but the point is that it’s an argument.) This does remind me though that I maybe should teach Sahlins’ “Stone Age Economics” in the first week of the course, given his arguments about the plenitude of leisure in pre-agricultural societies.

  7. Kieran says:

    from a conservative or free-market standpoint, leisure time is arguably one of the great achievements of the Industrial Revolution. (There’s a counterargument that all that industrial capitalism did was attach a precise commodity value to time, etc., but the point is that it’s an argument.)

    E.P. Thompson’s “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” and all that.

  8. My sense, Tim, is that from the dawn of “civilization” (agriculture and walled cities, etc.) on into the early Industrial Revolution, the benefits of economic advance accrued mostly to the ruling classes and they’re the ones who were most able to enjoy leisure. The peasants, serfs, laborers, etc. had to spend too much time in back-breaking physical labor to benefit from what little leisure time they had. But once industrial labor got organized and cut back the work week of six 12-hour days, then they got some leisure time and were even in sufficiently good health to enjoy it.

    As for the commodification of time, that’s gone on the dance floor, in the theatre, the sports field, in the amusement park and when you’re on vacation. Or, it’s gone if you’ve learned how to shut down the tick-tock industrial clock, for not everyone learns how to do that.

  9. That is to say, the muggles of this world are still tied to that clock.

    BTW, did you know that “muggles” happens to be old New Orleans slang for marijuna? & that Louis Armstrong wrote a blues called “Muggles,” which he dearly loved as he smoked it nearly every day of his adult life. So they say.

  10. Western Dave says:

    Dean MacCannel’s Empty Meeting Grounds: The Tourist Papers didn’t make the cut? Some great selections there. A very good piece on eco/cultural tourism in New Guinea that has some Germans with a video camera trying to induce acts of cannibalism so they can take home an “authentic” film. Alas, the Unbearable Whiteness of Skiing” did not make the cut.

    I love the skills emphasis and the way course makes it clear that these are what you are supposed to be working on. That’s a big shift since the 80s when I took my Freshman seminar, and even different from a few years ago when the sole purpose seemed to be “write as much as possible” without necessarily much other skills focus. (He said guiltily looking at the “Crossing Rivers and Oceans” syllabus he crafted and taught).

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    I like the MacCannel too. Maybe I should try to work it in. Though to some extent, it raises a set of questions about tourism that almost belong best in another kind of framing or course. I’ve just gotten a copy of “Unbearable Whiteness” to look at and when I steal a moment to read it, I may decide to shoehorn it in to the already crowded hobbies and vacations meeting.

    Yeah, with skills building, this has long been my modest disagreement with the view here that writing courses are primarily distinguished by the volume of writing and the amount of revision that goes on. I really want to break down skills into smaller components that are highly customized to what students here are going to be called upon to do.

  12. jpool says:

    A side point I’ve been meaning to ask you about:
    How do you find your students respond to material from African history dropped into a course not specifically about Africa? Do they have the tools/background to make sense of it? Do they tend to treat it as a meaningful part of human history, or as a tangent to a central Western line? I worry about these things as I’m sketching out sample syllabi for non-Western history courses.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    I think about that issue a lot. I think it only works well when there’s a very tight topical focus like in this class, and when I’ve set up the grounds for comparative arguments consistently throughout the semester. E.g., what I’m trying to do, most crucially in the class on Feb. 21st (on industrial time and leisure) is to propose that there’s a structural history around leisure that then propagates across the world. So then what the Africa or China or other readings are doing is asking how that develops or inflects differently in different locations. The best way to pull that off is when I can get something that’s closely paralleling (like the Akeayampong and Gorn pieces on boxing).

    But it’s still a struggle to make it work well. I’ve felt happiest about the Africa material in my course on the history of reading. In the consumption class, it’s actually harder to make it work out really well, because relating it to globalization is such a huge and unmanageable topic in its own right.

  14. k8 says:

    I would LOVE to take this class. From what you’ve said, I agree with the skills development through writing. They are very appropriate for your course and discipline. I think that is where some people get in trouble – they don’t think about the discrete skills that students need within a particular discourse community and, as a result, don’t scaffold instruction in ways that are beneficial to students.

    You are taking a very rhetorical approach, which, as a comp-rhet person, I like! And it seems like you will have plenty of opportunities to show students how arguments in history work through the readings you’ve chosen. While writing a lot is important, that writing needs to be towards some sort of end or purpose, which definitely seems to be the case here.

  15. domurphy says:

    How do the students do with “Beyond a Boundary”? Isn’t it incomprehensible for them? And do you know Ramachandra Guha’s “Corner of a Foreign Field’? It’s about religion, cricket and Indian nationalism in Bombay/Mumbai, where there used to be an annual tournament between Hindus, Muslims and Europeans. (It has much less cricket jargon than the James.)

  16. Timothy Burke says:

    I was originally going to focus that week around Beyond a Boundary, which I love, but it’s precisely because it’s so difficult to grasp if you don’t know cricket a bit that I shifted to Friday Night Lights (which I also love). But hopefully showing at least some of Langaan that week will help a bit.

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