One of the great challenges for play scholars or anyone thinking seriously about play is discerning when something is playful and when it is not. As circumstances change, boundaries shift, or meanings alter, the same action may be playful or not be playful, the same object may be a plaything or not a plaything. Play can be an elusive quarry, just when we think we have it pinned down it escapes our grasp, and when we may not even be looking for it, it might appear.
Consider the vacuum cleaner. Most of us associate it with the drudgery of housework, the burden of chores. It seems like just about the most unplayful thing imaginable! But switch the context and the vacuum might in fact become a toy.
This is most evident in the case of children’s play. Perhaps a boy or girl enjoys using it in order to pretend to be a grown-up. There are numerous examples in The Strong’s collections of toy vacuums that allow kids to pretend to clean the floor like mommy or daddy. But sometimes the real thing becomes the plaything. Children may want to try pushing around the vacuum to pretend they are big. After a few passes they’re usually done, and it only remains play as long as they want to do it—as soon as they’re commanded to vacuum, it magically transforms from play into a hated chore. Voluntary choice is at the root of almost all play.
But it’s not just kids who might play with vacuums; adults sometimes will as well. This is situational and rare, of course, but it does happen! It might be after a party when people cleaning up and still in a state of reverie from the night’s events find themselves in a playful pirouette with the vacuum cleaner(s) as they sweep up the crumbs left over from the fun. Or a person by him or herself might suddenly crank the music and begin using the vacuum cleaner as a dancing companion like Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire. Maybe while making passes on the floor, one finds oneself creating an interesting pattern on the carpet. A parent might tease a child with a vacuum cleaner (“It’s going to get you”) as he or she flees in pretend horror. Or maybe someone vacuuming might tease a cat or dog. The line between play and cruelty sometimes depends on the perspective—it’s not play for the animal but may be play for the human in the same way a cat “plays” with a mouse.
Manufacturers have learned that making the vacuum a sort of plaything might even help sales. The Roomba, after all, is not merely a cleaning device, it’s also an excuse to buy something fun. Vacuuming suddenly seems more enjoyable if it also involves programming a robot. It’s doubtful the job gets done any better or more quickly or more cheaply, but there’s something playful about watching the vacuum skitter across the room following some mysterious algorithm for maximum effectiveness.
So is the vacuum cleaner a toy? No, it is fundamentally a tool. But it’s a good reminder that play has the ability to transform any activity into something fun. That’s why we have a vacuum cleaner in our Field of Play exhibit here at The Strong. In the words of Mary Poppins, “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game.”
Article by Jon-Paul Dyson, ice President for Exhibits and Director of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games at The Strong.