Welcome to “Starting Monday” - a weekly blog where I sift through the previous seven days of busyness, finding what remains. And identify from this a key challenge for the next seven.
I had and heard a lot of discussions about play this week. (Some of you may know it’s one of my great obsessions, as well as part of my trade). The first round was triggered off by a sad event - news of the passing of Bernie De Koven, the great Californian guru of the “New Games Movement”.
The NGM (and Bernie) had two waves of popularity - the first in the sixties and seventies, and the second in the explosion of computer games culture in the 90's and early 2000s. New Games began as one of the activist practices of the 60s protest movements. These games tried to conjure up a different experience of reality in a climate of zero-sum war, whether Vietnam or nuclear. One of Bernie’s obituaries described perfectly what this could mean:
Take the game “Catch the Dragon’s Tail.” Get a group of people in a conga line, each person with hands on the waist of the person in front of him. The last person, the tail, puts a handkerchief in her belt while the first person, the head, tries to snatch it. The head and tail are clearly in competition, but what about everyone in between? The game challenges players to experience what happens when the line between competition and cooperation gets blurred.
Educative, in a very physical and visceral way. Yet as this obituary makes clear, Bernie and his gameful radicals had to work very hard to get people - especially adults - to give themselves permission to play. Bernie even set up a “Game Preserve”, a large farmstead 90 minutes outside Philadelphia, where diving into “Deep Fun” (as he called it) could safely take place.
I had a lot of correspondence with Bernie in the last ten years (we regularly blogged each other). And in retrospect, much of what we exchanged was about the following question. What were the contexts in which the power of play - which is, essentially, about keeping humans alive to possibility - could be entertained and welcomed, especially by grim grown-ups trying to hit targets or serve bottom-lines?
Bernie and I often found the answer to that was to make the innovation case to business. Allowing zones of joyful experiment and simulation within your walls, or even just tethered to them, could get your employees to come up with a stream of improvements or even inventions.
What would be the success rate for such play-grounds to come up with world-transforming products and services? Well, the answer could be to point to some of the world’s most valued companies - Facebook, Google, Apple, Tesla - and cite their commitments to primary research. Or their design technologies that go from expressive to outer-spatial in their ambition.
“Deep Fun”, for Bernie and I, might mean becoming self-conscious about the “rules of the game” in any circumstance, any jaded or settled scene or marketplace. And enthusiastically creating an alternative game. Or cheekily “modding” the existing rules.
The plenitude and abundance that digitality and networks opened up at the heart of business and society is causing all manner of challenges. Too much knowledge, too many alternative systems, too many actors, cries the existing order! It causes our legacy institutions - from journalism to representative democracy, from banking to energy - to strain, buckle and sometimes be washed away.
In terms that Bernie would recognise, some jurisdictions (the UK leading) have seen the need to invent what they call “sandboxes”. These are places where new software, often oriented to economic or financial services, can be tested in “real” conditions with “real” users, but which are lighter in their oversight than usual. Or at least, the regulations can be played with in advance, before you fall foul of them as you launch (think of Uber or Bitcoin).
This is not so much “move fast and break things”, but “play around till it feels right”. And I am fascinated to see that this sandbox model fits well with my own “ground of play” framework, which asks what the “loose yet robust” structures are that would support play as a form of learning and development.
Another conversation I had this week with an educational NGO brought up the question of exactly how we should talk about play and games. This is in the general context of preparing kids for careers that are going to be more “creativity” and “innovation”-focussed.
What the scholarship and research on play contributes here is a focus on evolved and biological human nature (and not just human nature, at that). To what extent is play a primary “drive”, in the psychological sense, that has evolved to ensure an organism’s surviving and thriving?
So the case for including convivial, expressive and exuberant spaces in, say, an urban development plan, isn’t just a decorative “nice-to-have”. It’s actually a necessary response to one of our primary emotions - a way of keeping us healthy, at a mammalian level.
My own favourite model from all this play science is the late Jaak Panksepp’s - who found that play was one of our fundamental emotional systems, alongside others like seeking, rage, fear, lust, care, and panic/grief.
Play is an evolutionary late-comer in this list, and increases in animals that are highly social, responsive to their fellow creatures - with humans notably playful. What play does for us, according to Panksepp, is to largely help us deal with the other fundamental drives - generating and rehearsing strategies for living together.
As Panksepp said in this interview with the American Journal of Play:
Our best hypothesis right now is that the primary-process emotional urge to play, when allowed abundant expression, helps construct and renew many of the higher regions of the social brain. Perhaps it is especially influential in refining our frontal cortical/executive networks, that allow us to more reflectively appreciate social nuances and develop better social strategies.
In other words, play allows us to stop, look, listen, and feel the more subtle social pulse around us.
This neuroscience echoes one of Bernie De Koven’s great wisdoms about Deep Fun: that the rules should not be fetishized at the expense of the humans temporarily submitting to them. A young video game journalist, also lamenting Bernie’s passing, put this beautifully on Vice:
If humans are looking for fun, and we often get sidetracked into games, then we might mistake the game itself for the fun. We might become invested in those rules instead of each other. That would be bad. After all, people are what make the game work. You and I make the game when we play together.
That is the key insight that we need to carry forward from DeKoven’s work: We have to care about each other. Not in an abstract, “we are the world” kind of way, but in a literal one. As game players, our games are only as good as the people we have to play with them.
This, to me, is one of the most frustrating and sad things about the toxicity of games culture. If you’re invested in policing and driving people out of a game that you love, then you are betraying that game. If you want to be a gatekeeper who pushes people out of an experience you enjoy, then you are actively attempting to destroy the thing you care about.
Much to nod at there. Especially the test, which could be extended to many societal games beyond the financial and economic, that “our games are only as good as the people we have to play them with”.
So there’s my challenge - to myself and you - for the next seven days. How do we design the “sandboxes” or the “grounds of play” that helps us “stop, look, listen, and feel the more subtle social pulse around us”, as Panksepp puts it? Where do we start, and who helps us?
Let me know directly, or use "Comments" below.