Talking Points: The powers of play

After reposting my Talking Points series about games (with a bit of an “in libraries” focus) from the International Games Day @ your library blog, I seem to have created a second series looking at play. Here’s an introduction and overview, similar to the one I wrote at the start of the games series.

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-, finger-, and even 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.

The current list, and I reserve the right to add to these (I already have twice), is:

  • 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 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 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 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 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 here.]
  • Inclusion and community-building – 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. [Full post here.]
  • Courage and resilience – By helping us explore our limits, play helps us know them and feel secure with them – but also to take sensible, calculated risks. In so doing, it teaches us that life can get better. [Full post 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 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 first post in the series: Play and innovation.)

Talking Points: Play and learning

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 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.

(Click here to read the next post in the series: Play, analysis and action.)

Talking Points: Play and innovation

The points covered in the past 6 reposts (starting here), 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 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, hopefully) making it harder for outside forces to disrupt them.

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

(Click here to read the next post in the series: Play and freedom.)