Growing up in Wellington, New Zealand, where he was born, Sutton-Smith — like any kid — loved to play. But when he became an adult, and studied psychology, he didn’t forget about play. Most psychologists traditionally considered play unworthy of study, but as a developmental psychologist, Sutton-Smith embraced it as a field of serious inquiry. For instance, why do humans play? “Play begins as a major feature of mammalian evolution and remains as a major method of becoming reconciled with our present universe,” he explained. “In this respect, play resembles both sex and religion, two other forms — however temporary or durable — of human salvation in our earthly box.”
He emigrated to the United States in 1956, teaching at the University of California at Berkeley, Bowling Green State University, Columbia University’s Teachers College, and the University of Pennsylvania. For 60 years, he was considered the top researcher on play, and made it clear that schools should keep recess time in their schedules, and “helicopter parents” should stay away. “Games are rites of passage,” he said in 1991. “The player performs a task, gains acceptance of his comrades and experiences success. It’s playing out an analogy of life.” Still, even the definition of “play” is hard to pin down. “Something about the nature of play itself frustrates fixed meaning,” he said in 2008. “Just as some scholars spend their lives consumed by the metaphysics of literature or history or philosophy or theology — you name it — I came to spend mine in search of the metaphysics of play.” But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. “We study play because life is crap. Life is crap, and it’s full of pain and suffering, and the only thing that makes it worth living — the only thing that makes it possible to get up in the morning and go on living — is play.” After a lifetime of work devoted to play, Dr. Sutton-Smith died on March 7 in a Vermont nursing home, from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 90.