Welcome to the last of our series on the powers of play (which starts here for those just coming in). In some ways we've saved the best to last - not in terms of writing, that's hardly for me to say, but in terms of the importance of the point being made. Hope you agree - and whether or not you do, hope you've found the series thought-provoking, and that it's inspired you to grant play the respect it deserves as a fundamental aspect of human intelligence and culture!
If you're familiar with my work outside IGD, or you’ve been paying attention to the way I’ve espoused the virtues of games and play, you’ll have gathered that I have a fairly cerebral approach to things. Playing helps us learn better, think more creatively, be mindful of others, broaden our cultural horizons, make better decisions… you might be forgiven for thinking that thinking’s all I’m concerned about!
In fact, this is a long way from the truth; I’m interested in thinking because it informs what we actually do. Getting your thinking right means you’re infinitely more likely to get your doing right. But in the process of dwelling on those aspects of learning, I’ve neglected to point out that games are also the most active of artforms. So it’s time to make this point properly.
To begin with, I’ve touched on the fact that play and games actively improve skills, not just knowledge and intelligence, but I haven’t really dwelt on it, despite the fact that I’m pretty sure it’s saved my life at least once.
(Short version: driving in rural Australia, sharpened reflexes and improved threat anticipation allowed me to avoid being sideswiped by a semitrailer that had to brake and swerve into my lane.)
But in fact this is another core value of play, and games especially (but not exclusively, since it’s possible to play without the defined objectives of most games): they teach us that to achieve our goals, understanding of one’s decisions and the context in which one makes them are vitally important – but so is actually turning understanding into decisions and decisions into actions.
It’s inherent to the nature of games: while they can incorporate other artforms (language, static and moving visual forms, music and audio elements, tactile elements…), the distinctive markers of this medium (or rather, these media: games are incredibly varied) are that they include the poetic arrangement of decisions, actions, and tests of skill for the audience. In other words, if you’re not actively doing something, it’s not much of a game. You have to be playing it: “you” being the subject of that sentence means the action is coming from you.
What this means is that while games encourage and improve our capacity for analysis and reflection, they do so within a context of that thought having to inform action. That action can include decisive inaction, i.e. not doing something because that is the most intelligent option; but there is a world of difference between that and defaulting to inactivity. (As an example of this, read the section headed “Identify What Matters Most” in Live Like a Gamer, an article by Mark Rosewater, the Head Designer of one of the world’s most popular tabletop games, Magic: the Gathering. The whole article is worth a read, in fact, since its whole point is to catalogue some of the often non-obvious ways in which games teach important life-skills.)
This has two major positive effects.
First, it creates what you might call an “implementation bias”. It’s one thing to come to a good judgment; it’s another entirely to enact one. But games drive home the fact that even the most perfect understanding means nothing without action. What’s more, having the inbuilt assumption that any conclusions you come to will have to be implemented gives you a stronger incentive to make decisions which are actually good, because they give you a much stronger incentive to be engaged with reality than decisions where you are (unconsciously or otherwise) letting yourself off the hook of having to make them work in the real world.
Second, linking analysis to enactment works both ways, building an iterative, error-checking propensity into our actions. Nobody ever has perfect information; while you can be more or less confident, you can’t know when you formulate a plan how it will turn out. A good game trains us for this, because it creates plenty of room for surprises, whether from random elements, from cunning AI, or from competing players. Not only do you learn to try to anticipate what might be coming, but you learn to expect that you will have to deal with things you failed to anticipate, that you may need to revise your specific tactics to achieve your strategic objectives, that strategies may need to be revised or discarded in order to achieve your goal, and even that goals may be conflicting and you may need to prioritise or choose between them. The only way you can know that you have reached this point is if you are continuing to pay attention to your environment as you roll out your plan, and constantly thinking about what you are learning.
I call this capacity to maintain mindfulness while in the thick of things “reflection-in-action”. Closely related to Csiksentmihalyi’s “flow”, it layers on top of that close engagement with immediate circumstances the detached analysis of the planning stage, allowing the mind to draw insight from both bigger-picture, abstract or systemic understandings and the minutiae of the actual unfolding of events. At its most extreme, it feels like a literally mind-expanding experience (yes, I know it’s hard to be literal about the intangible, but that’s the subjective sensation): as you watch developments with which you are this closely engaged, you feel as though your mind is extending itself both outside the boundaries of your ego-self into the abstract and conceptual truths that reflect wider reality, and also out of your skull into that actual reality.
This isn’t isolated to play – the act of creation can also induce this experience, which to me highlights the connection between play and creation. But given that elsewhere it’s a hallmark of humanity’s most exceptional achievements, and it’s a useful capacity either way, it’s yet another reason to reconsider our false assumptions – and realise that just because the overt outcomes of play are typically of little value outside the context of the game, play itself is far from trivial.
Welcome back folks! This is the fifth entry in our series about the importance of play. If you're just joining us, this series starts here. It also refers from time to time to our series about games last year which you can find here.
I've already covered this topic to some degree in the post on games, sharing culture, and connecting people: games, by providing a framework for interaction, enable a connection between people that requires no other common experience - there's no need to share an age, class, culture, occupation, or anything else; even a common language can be optional.
What I didn't do in that post was call out the fact that this means games and play can not only strengthen bonds that are already there, but work to break down the barriers that artificially divide us - or, if you prefer, to regrow the bonds of our common humanity that have been artificially severed.
They can do this in two ways, which we might label the "active" and "passive" modes.
The active mode is by using the stakes-free experimentation of play and the many tools at games' disposal to explore and undermine the false rationales that justify the mistreatment and exclusion of individuals for things other than the actual consequences of their behaviour.
For instance, games can abstract the systems and dynamics that foster bigotry and division from the specifics of their circumstances. Done well, this can not only give us a certain critical distance and a chance to see them from outside, just as well-written fiction can do, but even to inhabit other positions in those pecking orders. Jane Elliot's "Blue Eyed" sessions can be taken as a relatively extreme, intentionally highly emotional, and not entirely unproblematic example of this.
(Two notes: First, to the extent that calling Elliot's necessarily unfun sessions of behaviour-according-to-arbitrary-rules "games" is a fair description - and before accusing me of trivialising them, bear in mind that I do not consider games any more inherently trivial, or slaves to entertainment, than books are - I would point out that they constitute another example of games tackling vital subjects in ways other media simply cannot.
Second, just as with fiction and other poetic ways to instil empathy or vicarious experience, there are limits on how much insight can be offered. After all, even if for the duration of the work the experience of persecution is simulated perfectly, the simple fact of knowing that it will end - and that you probably have control of when it will end - utterly transforms the experience. It's similar with any draining experience. Being a carer for an abusive invalid, having water drip on your forehead at irregular intervals, even the mild tedium of involuntary social isolation can drive you insane if you don't know when it will end. One of the strengths of Elliot's approach is that just as her blue-eyed audience are starting to refuse to take it any more, she takes that point - that they want to opt out of this arbitrary BS, but you don't get to do that with real-world oppression - and drills it home, by inviting people who have experienced ongoing racism to tell those stories at a time when their audience are primed to be receptive.)
Other games exist that seek to consciously explore these issues: Steal Away Jordan, dys4ia, Dog Eat Dog, Freedom: The Underground Railroad, This War of Mine, and many more. While all these work in different and fascinating ways, and are worth your time and attention, I'd actually argue that besides the value of addressing these divisions consciously and intellectually, play and games do a great job of overcoming them experientially.
This is what I mean by the "passive" mode. Whether or not a game sets out to make us think about these issues, simply by giving us a chance to spend time in the company of those different from us on a somewhat more equal footing - because a game doesn't care who's playing it - we start to break down those barriers. Having to rely on ideas and stereotypes for our understanding of whole groups of people inevitably results in us thinking of them, and relating to them, in those terms. Having experience of a range of specific individuals from those groups means we can relate to them as people, and start to see what they have in common with other people in our life, lessening the power of the group identifier in our reflexive, emotional thinking, and bringing individual humans back into focus.
Again, I'm not asserting that just having a good time together (assuming we can see past our prejudices enough to do so in the first place) is a substitute for actually reflecting on and consciously attempting to dismantle the systems, symbols and generalisations that shape our lives in destructive ways. The bigot who sincerely thinks that <almost all X are terrible people, just not the X he happens to know, who are actually really lovely (for X), which proves he's not a bigot> is a genuine phenomenon, as well as a joke.
But that experience of the humanity of others is an indispensible complement to that more analytic approach: we are emotional, instinctive creatures as well as intellectual ones, and moment-to-moment most of us live in (and react from) our emotions at least as much as we do our intellects. Just as much of a joke (and just as tragic a joke) as the bigot-despite-his-own-experience is the idealist who understands intellectually that we're all equal and decries discrimination in principle, but who somehow still can't quite get comfortable with Those People - or help them feel comfortable around her.
It's possible to change ourselves at those primitive levels by sheer force of reason, but it's extraordinarily hard and almost never produces any kind of social ease. The best and fastest way to shift those basic, primal levels of our thought is by direct experience: by simply spending time enjoying ourselves in the company of people who are, in some way that matters more than it should, unlike us. And games and play give us a framework for doing exactly that: somewhere to bond together over shared effort and experience, where nothing is really at stake to prime our fear and anxiety responses.
You can imagine how these sorts of positive shared experiences could be provided ancillary to other media (book clubs, art appreciation societies, or what have you), all of which are very much to be encouraged. But only in games and similar playful experiences are they innate - and indeed beneficial, because arbitrary social barriers restrict the pool of possible fellow-players - to the form. Games and play give us an inherent incentive to make room in our lives for others as they really are, not as we think of them or as they are represented by someone else. That's pretty amazing stuff.
Hey everyone! Here's the fourth in our series about play and why it matters. For those just joining us, this series starts here, and there was a prequel series about games last year which you can find here.
This point is already part-argued: play’s close links to innovation – and the fact that, as quoted in that post, the drive to play arises from its nature as “training for the unexpected” – make its equally close links to learning obvious. (I’m making this point briefly, but it’s a crucially important one.)
Then there’s the clear implications of the well-known “10,000 hours theory” – the idea that excellence in any field is achieved in large part by spending 10,000 hours doing it with constant feedback. Play implies a degree of interaction with and varying response to the outcomes of the various objects of play and actions being tried; it isn’t play if it’s monotonous repetition! It also motivates this kind of persistence in a task.
But, again, common sense tells us that play is a powerful tool for learning. The old adage “show, don’t tell” is true as far as it goes, and not all lessons can be learned hands-on (at least without a degree of preparation… and in some cases, warning!), but for learning how to actually do something, for any actual application of information to real-world conduct, and even in many cases for a better understanding of abstract properties, “play with” will always trump “look at”.
This is why young children are such sensovores: they are trying to learn all the different qualities of things (including, of course, their own bodies and senses). They play with things by looking, listening, feeling, smelling and tasting – and shaking, throwing, hitting and otherwise manipulating with all the precision they can muster while they are still just starting to learn precision. Given that very few people have conscious memories of life at this age, and even if they did these memories would almost certainly be sense-memories not informed by conscious strategic/analytic thought, it’s harder for us now as socialised and enculturated beings to recall the pressing experimental drive that underpins this profound encounter with reality on its own terms, but given what we know of brain development at the ages where play is most prevalent (I could say “unadulterated”) it seems safe to say that the smartest period of our lives – not the most knowledgeable, but the smartest, the time when we work the most stuff (and the most complex stuff) out the fastest – is the most playful.
There are also the fascinating parallels between the psychological state of “flow” – discussed in this post; what Csiksentmihalyi calls “optimal experience”, but is often (though not always) experienced as transcendent fun – and the needs of learning. Indeed, if you look at the way that flow is defined – roughly, staying in a zone where you are challenged but not overwhelmed as you improve your skill in the action you are undertaking – and compare that to educational theories around presenting students with material that will keep them stretching to learn (I’m thinking here of Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” and the notion of “scaffolding”) the links between play and learning become even more apparent.
Even setting aside these considerations, the most rote and informational of learning (which on first glance would seem not to lend itself to play) benefits from external incentives – and not just gamification-style motivational incentives, though those can certainly work, but concrete external links onto which to scaffold the learning and ground it into the real. The basics of logic or mathematics or system dynamics or the laws of physics make far more sense to those still learning them if manifested in a form that students can manipulate to experience the interactions for themselves. Yes, at some point they need to stop playing with the props and start playing in their imaginations if they are going to develop new understandings of their material, especially the more complex or counterintuitive parts. But it’s impossible to deny that play is a highly effective hack for uploading those abstract principles (at escalating levels of abstraction) into a brain designed first and foremost to engage with the concrete physical world… and playfulness doesn’t stop being a useful tool once those less-evident truths have been so uploaded.
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?
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.