All the World is Play: Journal #2

It’s been a while since I’ve officially posted an update here, but I’ve been hard at work. I suppose it’s important to keep in mind that sharing progress updates is simply a part of the work itself though. Anyway, I’m releasing these journals in two parts this week to update two different tracks of research I’ve been doing.

On the plate today: Books and more books! I’ve finished my prescribed reading list of four well-regarded books on play theory and research. I went pretty in-depth into my thoughts of the first one, Homo Ludens, last journal. This time I’ll mix it up a bit and give a brief summary of each of the other three, along with a couple key findings and insights from each.

Book #2: The Grasshopper by Bernard Suits

This is another older book, originally from 1978, but it’s interesting to see Bernard’s references back to Huizinga along with a couple other philosophers throughout the text: the field of studying play is clearly still nascent here. The Grasshopper is a playful exercise in philosophy disguising itself as a story in script form. Not just a story, though: this is Aesop’s Fable meets the Resurrection meets Plato’s dialogues. It begins with the archetypal Grasshopper on his deathbed, beginning a Socratic dialog with his students and leaving them with a riddle about a dream in his dying breath. The students are left to puzzle out the meaning of his words mainly in the form of ‘memories of the Grasshopper’s teachings’ (which, it turns out, usually is a clever way for Suits to reuse several of his previous essays on games verbatum).

The main substance of Suit’s argument plays out through these dialogs in which his main student, Skepticus, continuously challenges Grasshopper’s assertions and the definitions (such as what are games and what is playing) are more firmly defined. Eventually, the Grasshopper is resurrected and discussion resumes, and he ends by describing a grand vision of Utopia in which everyone is free to pursue life’s most pure calling: playing games.  Overall, the book is quite silly and is is unapologetically self-aware , with the Grasshopper at one point saying that it seems that their very existence is designed as if by a philosopher trying to write a treatise on the definition of games – very insightful little guy.

Key takeaway: Definitions are messy, and society calls a lot of things ‘games’ that may not be games when you examine them closely. Similarly, plenty of pastimes that may not be traditionally considered games perhaps should be. The biggest takeaway is the definition Suits successfully defends against Skepticus’s attacks: a game requires (1) a “lusory attitude” acted out through (2) a set of rules (“lusory means”), to (3) accomplish an established goal (“prelusory goal”).

 

Book #3: Play Matters by Miguel Sicart

This was such a different experience to read than the previous two, wow! This book is part of MIT’s “Playful Thinking” book series, and just came out in 2014. Miguel Sicart is a teacher and researcher at the University of Copenhagen, interested in HCI and playful interactions. It’s astounding to see how far the field of “game studies” has come from a book like The Grasshopper to this. I’m reminded now, looking back at this distinct difference, of how Eric Zimmerman, another well-known game designer and academic, described in his blog the apparent shift away from “formalism” over time in game studies – he writes how in the 90’s and earlier (Suits, Huizinga…) the main goal of these thinkers was to formally define games and play and every detail involved along the way, but how in the 21st century the focus has shifted away from such rigidity.

This shift towards non-formalism is perfectly exemplified in Play Matters, and I’m so glad to have read this contemporary take! Sicart’s presentation of his ideas is quite interesting. He references hundreds of other scholars and thinkers, spanning many domains such as experience design, anthropology, performance studies, politics, music theory, and far beyond. Each of these is its own distinct Note, detailed in the back of the book but nothing more than a smattering of small numbers to distract you while you’re reading the main text. As someone who really wanted to go into all the details this ended up being a tedious process – constantly flipping back and forth to find each note and scribble notes-about-notes – but it was well worth it. This ridiculously well-sourced book has given me dozens of leads on where to research further in my pursuit.

Key takeaways: Sicart’s main take is that play and playfulness (distinct!) are what are really important – games are merely a tool to access play. He openly points out his own bias and mission statement, that play should be open-ended and allow for exploration, tinkering, novel experiences and different directions. The book has a clear thesis, in my opinion, about why play matters: through play, or through adopting a playful attitude in life, we appropriate the world around us, giving our own meaning and power to the life we lead. This reminds me a lot of Ian Bogost’s discussion of playgrounds and finding play in our lives in his book, Play Anything. All of this is exactly the kind of ripe, meaningful examinations of Play that I need.

 

Book #4: Play by Stuart Brown

This was the book I was least sure of initially, since I found it online based on my own digging. I wanted to find a book looking at play from a different angle, not just from another professional game designer or play theorist that now seem to be plentiful. This book is written by an accomplished psychologist, later turned play enthusiast and founder of the National Institute of Play. This was a refreshing step back into some of my previous academic studies of psychology. Brown speaks at length about topics like developmental attachment models and how play is a key factor in modulating our social behaviors; neuropsychology and the activation pathways and processes associated with play, both in humans and in animal studies; screen addiction and the perceived societal threat that screen-based technology poses; and learning and behavior, discussing the importance of play as a training tool in animals and further how it’s an opportunity in humans to run simulations of outcomes and futures. All in all, this was a fascinating read!

As with all the other books, Brown leaves us with a bold call for adults to reclaim play as an essential part of life, “infusing [love and work] with liveliness”. He makes a living of this now, running international corporate play retreats to encourage play and creativity in the work place. He makes an interesting connection in his last chapter, about play’s important role in the world: the ‘knowledge economy’ has given way to a ‘creative economy’, he says, and hence the importance of play – especially in developing countries/economies – has never been greater. All in all, there’s lots of great bits to chew on through this book, and I’m happy to find myself back at home with his psychology-backed mindset.

Key takeaways: It was encouraging and unexpected to hear about several of Brown’s colleagues who are professional play researchers in animals around the world! One researcher, for example, has been studying the play patterns of bears around the world for over a decade. Overall, this book acted as a great navigational mark that I am indeed on a valuable journey. I want to share one specific quote that I found particularly encouraging:

“Neuroscientists, developmental biologists, psychologists, social scientists, and researchers…now know that play is a profound biological process[…] It shapes the brain and makes animals smarter and more adaptable. In higher animals, it fosters empaty, and makes possible complex social groups. For us, play lies at the core of creativity and innovation.”

 

Onwards!

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