It was a fascinating discussion, raising lots of questions – perhaps most importantly, “what is play?” Not fully answered, if only because once you define it, it stops being play! – and giving many answers to the implicit question of why, but that’s fine – it was thought-provoking, and for me that was the point.
There are of course problems. Defining “play” seems difficult – it is one of those behaviours that we all recognise and understand the meaning of, but can’t really define. Patrick Bateson (a biologist, and hence something of a taxonomist too) laid out five characteristics of play:
- it is intrinsically motivated – there is no or limited external reward
- it has no immediate benefit
- it is sensitive to wellbeing (to the extent, Bateson felt, of being an indicator of it)
- it most common, but not exclusively so, among the young
But these don’t seem exclusive behaviours – unless one includes activities like reading and artistic endeavours in the definition (perfectly plausible – the discussion went on to discuss creativity, so maybe art is just another, “creative” form of play?). Maybe it is best not to get lost in semantics, though as Bateson pointed out, scientists (and, presumably, other academics) need to be able to define something to study it.
Mammals play (cats, anyone? Chimps, dolphins, you name it…); birds play (and learn from it); humans play. In mammals – including us – play can be social or directed at objects, as we (and other animals) learn to manipulate the world around us.
Bateson also highlighted that “play” is a homonym: as well as play itself, we play sports, playmusic and play in the theatre. We even play with data…
He also pointed out a difference – which I am not sure I really get – between rule-based play and “playful play”. Many games are structured – particularly in competitive play and sports – and the structure brings meaning to the game. Playing chess, for instance, relies on a very complex rule structure. If one could improvise chess moves, it wouldn’t be much of a game. But “playful play”, outside the strictures of games, is apparently linked with imagination and creativity.
Alex Fleetwood, a games designer who I saw speak a couple of years ago at TEDxOrenda, discussed how it is possible to use games – and play – to generate new ideas. People can use games to help them interpret and make sense of the world, and as new technologies come along – be it clocks, printing, or virtual reality – new games have come along to help us understand the technology; in turn, games can change the way we integrate this information and the way our brains work. (I couldn’t find any references for that contention!) Interestingly, many of the games Alex’s company, Hide and Seek, develop seem to use old technologies in novel ways to make us think differently about the world and explore new behaviours.
Wendy Russell took a rather more academic approach, though focussing on games and society. There are, she said, four kinds of games and play (with what I guess are Greek names…):
- agon – competitive games and sport
- alea – games of chance
- mimesis – mimicry, make-believe and play-acting (and, perhaps, even theatre?)
- ilinx – dizzy play and disequilibrium
These form a continuum, she reckoned, from rigid, rule-bound games to turbulent, improvised anarchy – from order to disorder.
She pointed out that on of the things about play was its pointlessness; and if you try to impose a point, it threatens to become serious and – well, not fun. (Just think about how seriously people can take football matches!) All those people looking to “gamify” their processes, take note…
Those in power and in institutions like order and structure; those at the bottom of the pile like disorder, as a way to get away from their everyday lives. Society allows disorderly games, sometimes in a managed environment, so that people can let off steam: funfairs, carnivals, mardi gras, April Fool’s Day – all allow people to relax the usual conventions and escape for a while. The role of the fool and the jester do the same: the normal hierarchy is temporarily suspended.
British society is changing (or has changed!) the way we, and children, play. Parents seem to manage their children’s time much more closely, and seem scared to let children play outdoors, unattended; both adults and children can play more easily indoors, using modern technology, than outdoors, albeit socially. Russell said that architects are now trying to design space for play into new structures – perhaps just as interior designers are trying to build play-areas in workspaces.
The role of play in creativity was touched on by each of the speakers, but it seems hard to put a finger on it. Some creative processes tend towrds the anarchic – brainstorming sessions, for instance, where all ideas are equally valid and anyone can contribute. The burgeoning unconference movement (of which I am a strong advocate!) might also be seen as disorderly play, beyond the usual bound business strictures. Everyone felt that play – or a sense of play – is crucial to promoting creativity – without specifying how.