International Games Week October 29 – November 4

International Games Week

Talking Points: Play, happiness and health

Posted on July 14, 2014

Hello folks! Welcome to the third in our series about the very real value that play brings to the lives of the playful. Click here to start the discussion from scratch, and here for a discussion of games in libraries!

You wouldn’t know it to look at our arts or health or archival policies – or even, to a lesser extent, education – but a tremendous amount of research has been undertaken on play and health in numerous dimensions: physical, mental, emotional, social. There are numerous practitioners in each of these disciplines battling away to get better recognition of play and games, but the policy framework – and particularly the funding framework – for the playful arts is still negligible. (There’s an interesting post on why this is to be had… another time!) Changing this and enabling the community to better tap into and explore the world of play is one of my key objectives in writing for and editing this blog, in volunteering on IGD, and indeed in the work that I do generally.

I could cite numerous papers on the health effects of play for body (strength, health, flexibility, dexterity, speed, senses, reflexes), mind (memory, perception, comprehension, analysis, intuition), soul (motivation, happiness/pleasure/joy, creativity, assumptions that problems can be solved, capacity for reflection-in-action, drive to learn, ability to centre oneself), and what you might call intersoul – the part of us that inhabits and thrives in our connection to others – and at some point I’ll do that. But this is just a Talking Point and I’m short of time, so I’m going to argue from first principles instead and leave you to seek out the evidence yourself.

It follows logically from the previous discussion about the nature of play as a concept (that it is fundamentally about acting according to one’s nature) that play promotes activity. Given that we know that all of our faculties grow in response to moderate, unforced exercise – and dwindle with neglect – it makes sense that play in and of itself tends to be (though as always, subject to the complex interaction of specific activities and circumstances) a force for health in whichever elements of ourselves we allow to play.

The obverse is also true. Where people – and indeed mammals – are actively restricted from play, there are immediate effects on their health in all the above dimensions. Indeed, and this is one of the studies I’d link to if I had time, some experimental animals completely deprived of play became terminally miserable and died.

(The parallels to the links between freedom and health should, of course, be obvious.)

These findings have been behind the efforts of numerous educators to see play reinstated as central to education, but just as I believe that learning needs to be lifelong, I think play needs to be as well. An adult life deprived of play – whether actively or through passive exclusion – leads to that adult being less happy and healthy, and therefore – counterintuitively, if you’re a beancounter who insists that only the readily quantifiable should inform decisionmaking – more of a burden both to themselves and to others. This has ramifications that go beyond the cultural and medical, and include the political, economic, and industrial.

Still think play is fundamentally trivial?


(Click here for the next post in this Talking Points series - "Play and learning".)

Talking Points: Play and freedom

Posted on June 30, 2014

Hello folks! This is the second in our series talking about why play is important enough to earn its place in libraries - normally this will be a monthly series, but in order to fit them all in, we needed an extra slot - and this month we just happen to have 5 Mondays! Start here if you haven't read the previous entries in the series.

In the context of a culture that trivialises fun, games and play, it’s easy to forget that play has some important foundations. We’ve already touched on what Huizinga calls the “play element in culture”, the way play is woven through even very serious and solemn institutions and aspects of social life. But essential to the notion of play is the core value of freedom.

As a confirmed word-nerd, I arrived at this conclusion by considering the many uses of the word “play” – and the underlying unity of them all.

There’s the obvious playing as both an intransitive verb (what are the kids doing? They’re playing) and a transitive one – playing a game or a sport. (You can also “play an opponent” or play against someone, but these are clear derivatives of these senses – though it’s an interesting tangent to consider that in some sense the opponent becomes the game.)

There’s play as creative expression: playing a theatrical part, a musical instrument, or a musical composition.

Playing a particular position in a game or sport combines the two – you’re fulfilling a function (like playing a scripted role or composed work) but also playing the game in which the position arises.

There’s playing with people or things – treating them like toys, i.e. using them purely according to one’s own nature and with no respect for theirs.

There’s playing at something – pretending, mimicking, mocking or simply behaving with inappropriate levity. This is similar to the sense above, except that the toy is the function you’re inhabiting, and therefore you’re not manipulating an external thing (more appropriate for the preposition “with”).

There’s letting things play out – allowing them to develop or unfold according to their nature.

And there’s liquids, light, objects or abstractions playing over a surface or object – again, behaving according to their nature without outside interference or obstruction.

There are numerous other uses of the word “play” (playing on things/words, being at play, being in play…) but I think the common element has been sufficiently outlined here.

In all cases, the implication is one of acting and interacting freely according to the agent’s nature. Sometimes that freedom is one-sided – a wilful ignorance of consequences, especially consequences for others – and other times it’s mutual. But the common element in all these meanings is the people or objects playing are acting unconstrained by others, as prompted by their nature in that moment.

When looked at in this light, the connection between the concepts of play and freedom is inescapable. But there are practical connections to political freedom too. Time unconstrained by the needs of survival – time to play – is “free time”. Unsupervised, unstructured activity is a primary opportunity for people to discuss the circumstances of their lives and how they might wish to improve them (and is therefore one of the things that tends to make tyrants nervous, causing them to regulate gatherings whose purposes aren't explicitly approved). As we saw in the previous post, the free imagination of play is the best way to explore new ideas in search of an optimal solution – system definitely has its place in ensuring those explorations are thorough, but the bold leap of intuition or inspiration is as important in discovering the new territory to explore in the first place.

None of which to say that play is the only, or even the most meaningful, freedom. But even people who profoundly disagree with Emma Goldman’s anarchism – or aren’t much for getting their groove on – can recognise the point she was making when she refused any revolution in which she couldn’t dance. Any system so totalitarian as to reserve to itself the right to determine whether people should dance, or otherwise express themselves in playful ways, is clearly unlikely to respect other, more immediately political freedoms.

There’s an important distinction here: fascists (and other political bullies) could, and by all reports often did, have fun – at the expense of others. Fun that derives from – or is indifferent to – some participants not having fun is the harmful kind of play alluded to above, and comes from the same basic toxic political relationship: that one person or group’s priorities completely eclipse another’s. But genuine, hurts-nobody, upwelling-of-joy fun is only threatening to those to whom the human spirit is fundamentally something to be squeezed, bruised and broken into some predetermined pattern. (This is not to say that some behaviours which deny or impinge upon others’ freedom don’t need to be moderated or regulated; but any system that has a problem with harmless expressions of happiness clearly needs close scrutiny.)

Given that, the existence of room for the human spirit to grow unconstrained, according to its own nature, without external influences pushing or pulling it too hard in any particular direction, seems to me to be an essential indicator of a political system that is worth inhabiting. That is to say – to the extent we can play freely, it seems more likely that we’re free in other important ways; and to the extent that we’re not, play gives us somewhere to start.


(Click here for the next post in this Talking Points series - "Play, happiness and health".)

Talking Points: Play and innovation

Posted on June 9, 2014

Hello folks! This is the first of our monthly series delving a little deeper into the importance of play, as outlined here.

The points covered in last year's series on games, while valid and important points, are far from being all there is to say about the importance of play. Perhaps one of the most important points is the strong linkages between imaginative play and concrete innovation, technological and otherwise.

It’s a matter of simple logic that play generates solutions that more rigorous forms of work do not. Play is by its nature both engaged and unconstrained – or more precisely, the constraints arise only from the current (and evolving) facts of the situation. It is the ideal tool for exploring the full range of possibilities in any situation, and discovering interesting properties and interactions which might be generalised to other situations. The quote I selected to launch the 2013 Global Gossip Game – “Play is training for the unexpected” – reflects this; and notably, its source was not an educational theorist (though many such would agree) but a paper by mammalian biologists.

In support of this idea, that play is fundamental to developing strategies to deal with the new and unexpected, I can point to things like the ways in which advanced mathematics/logic has developed a branch (which ventures into psychology and economics) called “game theory”; the way in which advanced computing technology spontaneously generated games in a variety of formats; even (stretching it quite a lot) The Game of Life (playable here) as an example of the way in which the most simplistic iterative processes can develop lifelike properties that can start taking on decidedly playful - and playable - characteristics.

But this truism is evident at an even more obvious level. For the last few millennia, the major driving forces behind technological advancement have been military and industrial. In the last few decades, one of the major driving economic forces behind innovations in input and output devices has been the games industry – to the extent that many cutting-edge military technologies use games controllers as inputs. (And as the games industry continues to advance its outputs – VR, haptics, etc – the military will likely start using those more too.)

Let’s emphasise this. Play-driven innovations are keeping pace with – and even outpacing – the life-and-death research of the military. Of course, they are building on each other’s achievements, and the point I’m making here is a generalisation. Even so, you know there’s a powerful motivating force at work – and one that is more likely to produce innovations that actively improve the quality of everyday life, as opposed to (in principle) making it harder for outside forces to disrupt everyday life, or (in many cases) actively making everyday life worse.

In a world increasingly driven by innovation, this is clearly not something we can afford to ignore.


(Click here for the next post in this Talking Points series - "Play and freedom".)

Talking Points: The powers of play

Posted on May 11, 2014

Hi folks! After the series of Talking Points on why games belong in libraries last year, I thought it would be worth following up with a discussion of why play itself is so important. 

Play is to games what reading is to books: the underlying verb that enables the noun, but is applicable well beyond it. Reading, as a peculiar eye-based (also finger-based, and even - thanks to audiobooks - increasingly back-to-being-ear-based) subset of listening, is used for signage, notes, instructions, lists, and a ton of other chunks of information and culture besides books. Likewise, play is used for many things beyond formal games: teasing, joking, various informal contests and challenges, notional tinkering, creation, and many more. As such, it’s worth pointing out the many important aspects of life empowered by play.

Here's a list of a few key areas in which play is crucial:

  • Innovation – There is tremendous value in a systematic grinding-through of possibility spaces, but the fact remains that play is a phenomenal way to apply the power of the brain to exploring new ideas. It’s telling that computers, which excel in the first kind of problem-solving, are still taking longer than human brains (at least those with an aptitude for this sort of thing) to solve questions of protein-folding, RNA-shaping and similar activities. Regardless, in an economy increasingly driven by innovation, play is only becoming more important as a life skill. [Full post up here]
  • Freedom – The essence of play is a pocket of possibility-space which may be shaped and limited by external constraints, but produces a place and time in which unconstrained action according to one’s nature is possible. (Even a formal game may have rules, but if there’s no room for individual decisions and/or skill, i.e. for a player to actually play it, it’s not much of a game!) In political-economic contexts, this quality reads an awful lot like “freedom”. This isn’t a coincidence. [Full post up here.]
  • Health (including happiness) – Just on first principles, it should be obvious that play – activity that expresses and exercises one’s nature, determined by internal impulses rather than external ones – will tend to be conducive to health and general wellbeing. And there’s a ton of research to support this. At the most obvious level, physical play (fun exercise) tends to be good for physical health. Mental play sharpens memory, focus, perception, comprehension, and decision-making, hence the profusion of “brain-training games” (and see again the talk linked earlier, Your Brain on Video Games). Setting meaningful challenges for ourselves, whether through a formal game/program like Superbetter or informally, not only helps us overcome particular obstacles but trains us to expect that obstacles in general can and will be overcome. Social play (such as Werewolf) uses and expands on our connection to others. [Full post up here.]
  • Learning – This is obvious from the links to innovation – which could partly be defined as “learning things nobody else yet knows”! – but if anything this is the primary purpose of play (and the fact that it’s good for our health is because learning things is healthy, is what our organism is naturally disposed to do). This is so much the case that (as I mention in the post on innovation) the quote I used for the Global Gossip Game in 2013, “play is training for the unexpected”, was not from educational theorists but from mammalian biologists Špinka, Newberry and Bekoff. Clearly the drive to learn and experiment is ingrained in us at a bodily level… hence, again, the links to health! [Full post up here.]
  • Inclusion and community-building – In addition to being a way to foster community connectedness, play is a way for people to explore difficult issues such as discriminatory beliefs and the ways that they shape behaviour (which in turn feeds back into beliefs), and also to spend time with other folks and learn about them as actual individuals rather than instances of a stereotype, both in relative safety and comfort. [Full post up here.]
  • Promoting activity – I’m talking here not just about physical activity, but the assumption that thought and analysis will lead to concrete action: play isn’t just about comprehending the systems with which the game’s creator has presented you, it’s about you doing something with them. That leads to better thinking and better acting, as well as more productive uses of both. [Full post up here.]

Any one of these associations would qualify play as pretty important, even by the narrow, numerical criteria which govern so much of our key decisionmaking (except perhaps freedom, because it’s too hard to quantify). More holistic, humanistic values can only increase the value placed on play as something deeply rooted in the best of the human experience.

To be clear, I am not saying that frivolity should reign supreme and that work doesn’t matter. I’m trying to break the false opposition of play and work (they may be very much in tension in some respects, but play is ultimately a form of self-imposed, more-or-less self-directed work; the best work feels like playing; and the best workers are those who work in that playful, motivated, engaged way), the false association of play and frivolity (one can play seriously, and grimly grind away at something completely frivolous, and these are not the same thing), and the false assumption that frivolity is inherently unworthy. (See this post on fun.)

Play is central to our humanity. It has produced many of the best parts of our collective and individual experiences, and enabled us to find solutions to (and, failing that, temporary escapes from) many of the worst. For us to continue to treat it as an inferior part of culture, when it is in varying forms and ways a central part of all culture, is a mistake we should not continue to make.


(Click here to start reading the series in order.)

Talking points: Games, systems, and systems literacy

Posted on October 14, 2013

Welcome to the fifth and final entry in that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned! I hope you've found them interesting and informative - or at least useful in making the case for games as having a place among the many modes of culture the library supports. I would be very interested to hear feedback in the comments! Anyway, here's the summary of this final Talking Point from the original post:

Games are systems, and fostering intelligent literacy about systems is an important educational goal on par with fostering intelligent literacy about words.

As we've discussed, games are culture that creates connections between people; they force us to exercise our capacity for mindfulness; and they are as capable of seriousness and at least as capable of fun as any other medium. But we have not yet talked about perhaps the single most important aspect of games: their existence as systems of rules. (And in some cases nothing more - no physical components at all!)

The world we live in is full of systems. Many of these are natural systems, such as the immensely complex system of air and water circulation that moves heat around the planet and (for instance) allows the west coast of Ireland to be far warmer than it has any right to be out there in the Atlantic with nothing between it and the Arctic. Or the migration patterns of birds and insects, or the dance of subatomic particles within every atom of matter, or the myriad physiological systems (nervous, digestive, circulatory, immune, endocrine...) whose interactions enable the individual existences of every complex living organism on the planet - including us.

Then there are the hybrid natural-human systems on which we depend, such as agriculture, water storage and distribution, various forms of power generation and resource gathering, shipping, fermentation, various medical interventions, and many more.

And lastly, of course, there are the entirely anthropogenic systems - languages (and for that matter language as a whole); the high technology of the internet and its billions of electronic components (including the computer on which I write this and the device on which you read it) which of course are themselves systems; government, the military, cities and towns; economies, corporations, production systems, workplaces; architecture, narratives, music, culture... We have always been surrounded and pervaded by systems of tremendous complexity, but increasingly and for an increasing number of us, the systems with which we interact are either heavily influenced by human intervention, or human-created.

(And we ignore to our peril the inescapable reality that all these systems which can so easily engross and consume our attention are themselves embedded in and emergent from the larger natural systems which surround us, supplying their raw materials, enabling and/or constraining their processes, and being affected by their outputs.)

One of the many extraordinary things about humanity is its capacity to perceive not just the moment-to-moment flow of phenomena, but - indirectly - the systems which underlie the endless tumble of events. It's like trying to work out the inner workings of a tremendous factory by peering through the windows - only the factory is the size of the universe, some of its machines are smaller than atoms, and each of us only gets one window a few centimetres across.

It is my firm belief - and I am far from alone in this; Plato, Einstein, and many other great minds agree - that this capacity is intimately linked to our capacity for play. Play is about consequence and experimentation, about if-this-then-that and what-if-this-happens? It is hard to imagine a behaviour better adapted to learning and responding to the parameters of a system.

Games, as codified play, are themselves systems. Some are incredibly simple systems - Tic-Tac-Toe or Snap - while some are tremendously complex systems which attempt to approximate reality (or some imaginary version thereof) - particularly the "crunchier" or more rules-heavy end of the tabletop roleplaying genre and the wargames from which it evolved, which have their roots in genuine military attempts to simulate various actual battle - and economic and ecological - conditions, and which typically by their nature need to be able to respond to player actions outside a rigorously predefined set of possibilities.

I am not an especially good Chess player, and barely know Go, but in both cases I know enough to see that one of the keys to successful play is the ability to successfully visualise the myriad interactions of a single move both on the board at the time and in the branching possibilities that arise from the new game state - the way it shifts the interfering patterns of support and protection. If I move my rook here, it protects my king, but leaves my bishop vulnerable, and if that goes my queen has nothing to protect it either. Of course, this is just one aspect of play; the ability to use the shift of pieces to manipulate your opponent into making key mistakes is another (and according to some, though I personally disagree, even more important) dimension - playing on your opponent through your play on the board.

Clearly these are skills which are worth cultivating - as our ancestors have known for millennia, as evidenced by the prestige rightly accorded excellence at Go, Chess, and similar games by cultures all around the world. This same ability to visualise and anticipate multiple interlocking influences and consequences is vital to biology, medicine, climate science, economics, physics, engineering, advanced manufacturing and informational workflows - pretty much any advanced discipline, and especially cross-disciplinary work and even advanced generalisation. (If you're interested in further reading, the pioneering work in systems thinking - the art of understanding system dynamics - done by Donella Meadows and others is an excellent place to start developing the general skill of analysing systems.)

So that's one aspect of this topic: the inherent merits of games as practice for life in the same way that fiction is - as a playful practice of necessary analytical skills with very real applications. But as we discussed last month, games aren't just systems, they're poetic systems - systems which are designed to express and/or induce particular emotions, ideas, or other responses.

And this is for me perhaps the most valuable aspect of games as culture: they teach us that systems are not neutral, that they can and do embody particular values and weight themselves towards particular outcomes, and that these outcomes are expressive of the way the system is designed at least as much as they are of the qualities of particular participants in or elements of the system. Given that many of the systems which are most negatively impacting most of us at this point in time are human-created, and many of the natural systems affecting us negatively are human-influenced, this is an essential lesson for us to learn - and apply.


This concludes our Talking Points series! I hope it has helped to persuade those who need persuading that there is substantial value to be found in games, and that they have the capacity to be the active, dynamic complement to the pensive, contemplative cultural mode that books foster. We need both reflection and decision in our lives; I would argue that we need both games and books as ways to keep those parts of our psyches in good health without being overloaded in reality.

There is a great deal more to say about games - the lessons they teach us (through game theory) about mutual support, competition, community, and more; the mental health benefits; the extraordinary range of social and technological innovations they have driven; the fact that gaming culture, although (somewhat deservedly) having a reputation for being riddled with nasty online behaviour, is in many ways ahead of the mainstream in identifying and constructively attempting to address bigotry and discrimination - but we're on the volunteer dime here, and these are all readily available if you start looking. Plus, we've got to save something for next year!

What I would like to do at this point is to encourage our readers to start talking about their own learnings from engaging with games, either here in the comments, or in your own libraries and communities. One other thing games teach you is the endless variety of human experience, the value of being open to each other, and the exponential possibilities enabled  by sharing. (OK, three things which are sort of one thing.)

In any case, thanks for reading the series and best wishes as our preparations ramp up for International Games Day @ your library!

[UPDATE: In 2014 we published a series on the powers of play that follows on from this one about games. Click here to start reading!]

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