Of all the topics for Canada’s civic elite to discuss, the subject of play seems rather puerile. In the shadow of American race riots, the encroachment of the Harper government on democratic freedom, and a rising climate that still needs attention, why should we ask members of the public sphere to focus their energy on a concept so trivial as fun and games?

Toronto’s most recent Walrus Talk defied this instinct. Gathering at The Isabel Bader Theatre on May 6, nine speakers were each given seven minutes to relay their take on the ideas and activities that constitute play.

Play is a social phenomenon: we play in order to both communicate and speculate. As the night’s first speaker, Mark Kingwell put it, play is a “tacit agreement to bite without hurting,” a way to navigate social interaction by relaxing normally rigid boundaries and roles. It’s also a kind of engagement with possibility — playing house, Minecraft, or Pictionary allows us to proffer concepts for how we might want to construct our realities, to explore how they might be received and what consequences they might have. Play, it seems, can be considered quite vital a topic after all.

Yet for all the possibilities that play affords, the overarching theme of Wednesday’s conversation addressed a burgeoning social regulation of the games embraced by popular culture. Speaker Bruce Kidd worried about sport’s transformation into a kind of work, wherein winning and salaried payouts become the purpose of play, rather than fun or community building. Games under twenty-first century capitalism are systemic, regulated. “The language of play has been replaced by conformity,” said Kidd. What was once done for its own sake is now ruled by a business-minded schematic that strips a sport of essential gamely aspects.

This same conclusion was mirrored in the story of Olympic rower Marnie McBean’s bronze medal win in 1996, when she realized that the very expectation of winning, so integral to her training, had sucked the joy from her greatest passion. She recounted the revelation that changed how she conceived of rowing, when she noticed that she no longer legitimately played her sport, but only worked at it.

Aside from constituting a shift in mentality, one that grants the individual greater joy in their daily activities, play can also encourage a change in social circumstance. Speaker Jason Lewis discussed the role of future visions by First Nations artists, who engage in the same kind of world creation that science fiction writers do. Except in this case, theirs is a kind of utopia drawn in response to centuries of genocide and cultural oppression. Play, as employed by these diverse First Nations artists, can also be a tool to fight for our values, to articulate the better futures we imagine for ourselves, and to change the impoverished conditions of the present.

Overall, as speaker and author Pico Iyer most eloquently expressed, play is a way to find what we want in life, to create bonds, to find sanctity — ends that are not always easy to reach. As Iyer quoted, from the Greek philosopher Herodotus: “man is most himself when he achieves the concentrated seriousness of a child at play,” but this concentration can be difficult to source and retain in the face of restricting social mores. In Iyer’s case, he found these goods after many years of looking for them, in a place he least expected: an elderly Japanese ping pong club.

We play as a basic way of testing the social waters, to judge how we can or ought to act in nonconforming ways in order to produce desirable outcomes. But as irony would have it, there was little in the way of the kind of revelatory play endorsed by the night’s speakers at the Walrus’ reception, where well-dressed groups gathered for pleasantries, sipping red wine and fulfilling situational expectations. Even here, social rules and class-dictated interaction still fully applied, hinting — as Iyer did — that perhaps play isn’t so effortlessly incorporated into our lives after all.