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.)