"Perhaps the truth is something quite different. Instead of youth being the time for play, maybe it is play that keeps us youthful. Perhaps the boundless free flow of creative expression is what keeps us physically and mentally supple, as a child. When we attempt to control it, limit it, mortgage it to the acceptable and safe, then the bounds of that safety project themselves onto body and mind, subjecting both to a severely limited range of motion that hardens over time."
"Consider the possibility that childhood play is practice, yes—but practice for adult play, not adult work! For in fact, the same qualities that characterize childhood play apply equally to the most creative, productive activities of the adult. Childhood play is practice in the exploration of limits, the loosening of inhibitions to creativity, the creative dialogue with the environment, the reimagining of the world presented us. Play is not enslaved to a preset end, but allows the end to emerge spontaneously through the process itself. Play does not require willpower to stay focused and overcome our natural desires; it is natural desire manifest. When we play, we are willing to try things without guarantee of their eventual usefulness or value; yet paradoxically, it is precisely when we let go of such motivations that we produce the things of greatest use. "
"Another way to look at it is that we never stopped playing, but we have forgotten that we are playing."
"We are the universe's channel for play, an aspect of a universal playfulness expressed through our minds and bodies, employing our mental skills of reason and expression but originating beyond them."
"We are the universe's channel for play." Even it's not true, we could pretend it so.
Lawrence Downs of the New York Times describes how children in Haiti make out of sticks and scrap plastic:
"The Haitian boy’s kite starts with thin sticks — woody reeds or straight twigs scraped smooth with a razor blade and cut to equal length, about eight inches. These are lashed in the middle to make stars of six or eight points, sometimes more. Thin plastic, ideally the wispy kind from dry-cleaning bags, is stretched over the frame and secured with thread. Rag strips are knotted for the tail, then tied with thread to two of the star’s lower points: a Y with a long, long stem. More thread is tied to the kite’s taut chest, the rest spooled on a can or bottle."
Downs notes the extreme hardships of survival, and then drifts, like the kites he describes, into poetry:
"One way to resist is to fly. The kite makers dance through the camps with rubbery exuberance, trailed by younger children, all lost in the moment, the most important in the world. Kites battle kites, their makers yanking their lines to cut each other’s, as the kites whirl and spin. When one kite wins, the jubilation is explosive. It’s one of the few signs of joy you see in Haiti, entirely handmade."
Comedian Mark Malkoff wanted to see if he could get people to carry him across Manhattan. To augment his reality, he used Twitter, and procured the services of a film crew.
Ostensibly, his goal was to demonstrate that New Yorkers are a lot friendlier than their reputation. Regardless of anything else that one might conclude from watching his clip, there is something undeniably reassuring and most definitely touching about his findings.
Given the invitation, and reinforced by the opportunity to get filmed doing so, strangers can be strangely wonderful, loving, supportive (I had to say that), caring, and extraordinarily playful. It's almost enough to excuse your frequently blind faith in humanity.
My friend Magdalena Cabrera (see this) sent me a story about her year. In that story, she wrote the following (reprinted with permission):
I continue to work with Hand in Hand Parenting, educating others to teach the classes that transform and support so many children and parents, helping them maintain emotionally connected lives. Work at Leaping Lizards continues to reward me with hugs, much laughter and play, and many small hands to hold my own. Every year I have more new wee ones with whom to share love. We romp in the woods, splash in the puddles, catch as many interesting small creatures as we can and learn about life together. They learn how to say please and thank you, take turns, respect themselves, each other and all life and I learn, again and again, how the path always reveals itself, how to be in the present moment, how to breathe and pause when I am feeling like hurrying, how to truly see the beauty in what is and remember that life is fleeting. These lessons were present as well during my six day backpacking trip in the high Sierra Nevada Mountains this past August. Thirty miles and many feet of repeated elevation gain and loss on the John Muir Trail starting at Toulomne Meadows in Yosemite and ending at Mammoth Mountain in the Ansel Adams Wilderness was one of the highlights of my life. When carrying 45 pounds of food and gear and ascending from 9000 feet to 1100 feet over granite and then back down again, one learns the essential Truths of life. I felt so small next to those majestic peaks and at the same time so part of it all. What I felt one morning while drinking my coffee and gazing at the peaks can be summed up by this quote from Victor Hugo: “Love; the reduction of the universe to a single being. The expansion of a single being into God.” I might edit that last part and replace the name “God” with “the Great Mystery.” I hope Mr. Hugo would understand. I couldn’t be more grateful.
It takes one full hand of coconut, 2 tablespoons of concentrated orange juice, 3 pieces of orange, 4 slices of apple, 5 cubes of cheese, 6 slices of banana, 7 pieces of melon, and 8 grapes, stirred 9 times, to make a Number Salad. (video here)
And it takes a lot of loving sensitivity to children and the way children learn, to parents and playfulness, to make a site you can call, with pride and integrity, Playful Learning.
If you're looking for a great way to start the new year, consider starting with this.
Here's further evidence of the play/work connection. The mastery this guy has developed that led to these feats of tape measure magic comes as much from his need to: 1) have fun, and 2) keep engaged in his work.
"The exorcism of fun could be compared to Foucault's Histoire de la Sexualité - where he analyzes how we construct sexuality to be a taboo topic, yet at the same time create an opportunity to make it all we think about (us victorians). In politics, we perform rituals like: dressing appropriately, awaiting turns for speaking with limited timeframes, having a chair that interferes when we may get too cheerful or drift off of topic improvising. We design buildings where not everyone is welcome, we put up chairs in specific order and the benches on which we sit are fixed, so we don't scoot towards one another to chit chat. We have to really try hard to keep the inclination for spontaneous behavior out and when a politician does display playful behavior, we may even claim s he is mocking democracy. There are, of course, politicians that display forms of contempt for democracy. We need only look at some of the remarks Berlusconi made recently, to see that in terms of the responsibilities he has, he does not do justice to the weight of his function. But this is not due the playful style with which he enters the political arena, it is due to the negation of the seriousness of the topic at hand. So, should we look differently at the notions of playfulness and seriousness, we may find a better way of conceptualizing forms of positively productive play and forms of play that deteriorate the game of politics, without doing away with play and playfulness altogether."
I've posted an article that I thought you might enjoy. It begins like this:
Early in my explorations of play, I observed that people have a different way of playing games that they have themselves designed or modified. They would play with the game as much play the game itself. They would play with the game together. As a shared thing, that somehow managed to take precedent over who won or who lost, who was the better competitor, who was more or less able.
It was especially evident in games played in informal settings, like backyards, streets, vacant lots (as so beautifully described by Iona and Peter Opie) where the choice of game, and the interpretation of rules, would always be in response to the environment, materials at hand, different skills and changing play preferences of players. Bases would be moved, boundaries redrawn, when things didn’t seem fair, players could rely on the semi-magical power of playground law, shouting out things like “interference”, “time out,”, “no cutting,” “do over” or “no takebacks.” Here, in the States, this kind of game became known as Street Games. Played during the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, in streets and vacant lots, informally, with sticks and aluminum-foil balls, these games created and nurtured the urban community.
Much later on, I came to characterize this kind of game play as “playful.”
Cloud Gate is British artist Anish Kapoor's first public outdoor work installed in the United States. The 110-ton elliptical sculpture is forged of a seamless series of highly polished stainless steel plates, which reflect the city's famous skyline and the clouds above. A 12-foot-high arch provides a "gate" to the concave chamber beneath the sculpture, inviting visitors to touch its mirror-like surface and see their image reflected back from a variety of perspectives.
Inspired by liquid mercury, the sculpture is among the largest of its kind in the world, measuring 66-feet long by 33-feet high. Cloud Gate sits upon the At&T Plaza, which was made possible by a gift from AT&T.
As you look at the photos of the sculpture, it becomes clear how playful this work of art becomes. It plays with the skyline of the city. It invites people to play with their amazingly clear and strikingly distorted images. Anywhere you stand, inside or out, gives you a different way of looking at yourself, at the people around you, at the space you are sharing. For me, as your personal fun-advocate, it is iconic, representing with stunning appeal what public art is when it is at its most public best.
In the fifth in a series of articles, intriguingly called Play Makes Us Human, Dr. Peter Gray muses about Why Hunter-Gatherers Work is Play. Like all the articles in the series, Dr. Grey's analysis is thought-provoking and well-informed. In exploring what hunter-gatherer societies think of as work, Dr. Gray writes:
In general, hunter-gatherers do not have a concept of toil. When they do have that concept, it derives apparently from their contact with outsiders. They may learn a word for toil to refer to the work of their neighboring farmers, miners, or road construction workers, but they do not apply it to their own work. Their own work is simply an extension of children's play. Children play at hunting, gathering, hut construction, tool making, meal preparations, defense against predators, birthing, infant care, healing, negotiation, and so on and so on; and gradually, as their play become increasingly skilled, the activities become productive. The play becomes work, but it does not cease being play. It may even become more fun than before, because the productive quality helps the whole band and is valued by all.
Dr. Gray reaches some conclusions about hunter-gatherer ideas of work which could prove very powerful in helping cybercitizens redefine the work-play connection:
Hunter-Gatherers' Work is Playful Because It is Varied and Requires Much Skill, Knowledge, and Intelligence.
Hunter-Gatherers' Work is Playful Because There Isn't too Much of It.
Hunter-Gatherers' Work is Playful Because It Is Done in a Social Context, with Friends.
Hunter-Gatherers' Work is Playful Because Each Person Can Choose When, How, and Whether to Do It.
One thing you learn from playing with children - especially the very young - is that the fun you are having together is more important than the game you are playing. This is equally apparent when you play with the very old. What good is it to win if it makes the other person not want to play with you anymore? Or if it makes the other player cry? Or get angry? Sure, you can blame it on their immaturity (or post maturity), but, still, if your goal is to play together, the game has to end with your being together. In fact, that's how you have to measure the success of the game - the more together you are at the end of the game, the better the game.
This is less apparent when you play with your peers. You tend to think of the game as being the ultimate arbiter of your relationship: "Let the best man win" and all that. When, of course, neither the game, nor your relationship has anything to do with who is the best person. Both, in fact, the game and your relationship are about your being better, together. Not better than each other. Better with.
On the other hand, for the sake of the game, we have to play as if one of us, or one team of us, will prove to be better than the other. It's called "winning." To make winning seem as important and meaningful as we possibly can - again for the sake of the game - we add officials and official rules, trophies and prizes, records and world standings. It makes the game seem more real (when we know it's nowhere as real as we are), more significant (when we know we're far more significant than a game could ever be), more permanent (when we know that neither the game nor any of us can last forever).
So, again for the sake of the game, we play as if it's not just a game, as if it's in fact more real, more significant, more permanent than we are. Which is fine. And fun. Unless we're playing with people who are much younger or older than we are. Because what they have to teach, all over again, is that when it comes to games, the people who are playing are more important. If it's not fun, change the rules, change the goals or the way you keep score or the number of pieces you get or the number of players you have on your team or where you play it or how long you play or what side you're on. Or try a different game.
Sometimes, this is a very hard lesson. Because we want to make the game as real as we can. And we forget who we're playing with or why. And we hurt each other. But as difficult as it is, it's probably the most important lesson we can learn from playing with the elderly and youngerly. It's the reason we need to be playing with them whenever we can. To be reminded what games are really all about. Because otherwise, we forget. And the games get too important. And we play too hard. And we break.
At Every Turn (click on image to enlarge) will be on display this weekend where 107 artists will be exhibiting at Erector Square during New Haven's City-wide Open Studios. The artist's (Bob Gregson) installation will be at building #1, 2nd floor, studio E.
I'm an ardent admirer of everything Gregson. I first met him in the 70s. I was teaching classes at Trinity College and he was producing a lovely, funny, engaging public event he called "Thursday is a Work of Art." The giant chair (right) was one of his more emblematic, engaging, and playful installations. Another of my favorites was a row of chairs, strategically placed along a well-traveled alley, occupied by a random assortment of people, who would applaud you as you passed by. There were always a few empty chairs for those who chose to join the "audience."
Gregson explains: "I am excited when a resonance begins to intensify between my work and people. It is at that special moment - when all the ingredients come together - the work comes alive and exists at its best."
If you're going to be in New Haven this weekend, consider visiting Gregson's studio and "come alive" along with his wonderfully playful work.
So far, I've written about two people who have deeply impacted my understanding of the play/science connection. One of those mentors was my high school physics teacher. Another, Dr. Olga Jarret, my daughter's play/science mentor at the University of Georgia, recipient of the Defender of the Playful award, and who recently invited me to speak at the 2010 conference for The Association for the Study of Play.
I wanted to put both of them together in one post, to commemorate their contribution to my life, and, hopefully, to enlarge theirs to yours.
In my article describing Dr. Jarret's work, I quoted from one of her manuscripts:
Counting takes on new meaning when children count the spots on ladybugs to determine if they all have the same number...
(use) measuring sticks, thermometers, scales and timers (to) determine without guesswork who has he longest hair, how long a worm is when stretched out/scrunched up, how fast a pumpkin grows...." "see how many drops of water you can drip onto the face of a coin before it runs off. Then flip over the coin and try the other side."
And here, from my article Teaching Games, what I learned from Mr. Bush:
...we were about to start playing with our cloud chambers. Mr. Bush had already made one, and we were looking into it, watching these strange contrails zipping across the inside of the bowls, appearing like messages from the unknown.
Mr. Bush stopped us, then turned off the lights, opened the shades and closed the binds so that only a little daylight came into the room. We could see beams of light cross the ceiling, reflected from the windows of passing cars. We spent a couple minutes watching those familiar, yet suddenly strange patterns of light race across the ceiling. Mr. Bush, in a quiet voice, asked us if we could figure out what kinds of cars made those reflections. We laughed in shared puzzlement. And then we watched some more. I thought I recognized the shape of a Kaiser - because of its weird front window. But, of course, I couldn't really tell.
Then he added: "trying to figure out what car made that light is exactly like what scientists do when they try to understand what kind of particle made that trail in the cloud chamber." And then he was silent, letting us look at the light from the passing cars some more, wondering, experience the wonder that drives the science.
As is my stated mission, I scan the Internet from time to time for signs of playfulness. I sometimes check for tweets that cite the aforementioned. A few days ago, I found a link to an article by Sarah Mahoney's called "Top Consumer Trends: Trust, Control, ... Playfulness? " in which she observes that people are, among five other things, "looking to up the fun factor in their lives." She writes:
I have to admit that I found it somewhat humorous to learn, at least to the marketing world, that consumer playfulness is measured by the purchase of giant cheese balls, lip gloss and dog bubbles.
Were I measuring consumer investment in playfulness, I would investigate the amounts invested in things like the Maxflight Glow-in the Dark Frisbee, or perhaps a game or two - Connect 4x4 maybe, or the significantly silly game of Curses - or on events like Burning Man, or the ticket sales at local Fringe Festivals, or attendance at the igfest, and, OK, dog bubbles. But I, for one, would not want my playfulness measured by the size of my cheese flavored snack balls.
"...I think that all behavioral scientists agree that evolution has primed young animals to learn from play. That tells us that this constitutes the most deeply embedded and thus energy-efficient way to teach animals new things. And because we know that domestication more or less suspends an animal in a physiologically and behaviorally immature state, this link between learning and play most likely lasts throughout a domesticated animal's life. Second, whatever else play in adult wild animals might denote, in many cases it signals an animal who has established and protected a territory, found food and water, mated , reproduced and raised young with energy to spare. If this weren't the case, the potential for adult play wouldn't exist in the gene pool. That says to me (and I admit that some anti-adult-animal-play scientists don't agree) that a playful adult possesses more confidence and ability to cope with stressful situations than a nonplayful one." (italics are mine)
I find this theme - the connection between playfulness and the ability to cope with stress - often repeated in psychological musings on the benefits of adult play. The calming effects of playing with pets are even more often cited. I know that it is possible to become more playful. But it certainly makes one think that it might be more than fun to try.
About 14 years ago, I wrote an article called "Learning by Dying." It was a response to a worried parent who was concerned about the kinds of games her kids were playing on the computer (this was in '95). I was writing, as I oft do, from the perspective of a play advocate. I wanted her to help her embrace her the relevance of fun, at least in her children's lives. What's been especially reassuring to me is that what I wrote in response is at least as relevant now as it was then, and not just to the nature of kids' computer games, but to some very fundamental principles of user interface. As the following from an article about the design of the iPhone so clearly describes:
"Any new system or gadget has a learning curve, but where the iPhone differs is that the nature of traversing that curve is more fun than frustrating. You swipe and pinch and tap and shake your way to familiarity instead of pressing awkward buttons and navigating byzantine menu structures. You learn the iPhone by playing with it, which encourages interaction because humans are built to play. Even in a system like this, we could quickly be dissuaded from doing so if wrong actions had negative consequences, such as getting online or sending messages accidentally. The iPhone is mostly devoid of these sorts of consequences. The only time I’ve run into this is repeatedly calling people I didn’t want to call while viewing my Recent Calls list.
"The iPhone goes further than encouraging play; it rewards play. If you explore the phone’s applications, you will often find them anticipating your needs. When viewing a video you’ve shot and press the action button, you can email it or upload it to YouTube. If you try to email it and the video is too large, it will ask if you want to send a smaller clip from the video instead of preventing you from sending it. The iPhone then presents you with the UI to trim a clip and continue with your message. The original video remains untouched. Simple, sensible, satisfying."
My daughter Shael, my wife and I were visiting her brother and his family (4 kids). She had discovered that their clean sock collection had far outpaced their sock-pairing efforts. Shael, shall we say, "invited" us, en famille, to a half-hour or so of collective sock-pairing.
She didn't have a game for us to play, but she sure had a reason. And she also knew us well enough (like family) to assure her that we would not only get the job done playfully, but if there was a game in it, we'd find it, and we'd get the game played, too.
So we approached the task in precisely that manner - out of love and fun, of wanting to help and wanting to play. It was a sock mass of considerable size. Finding an actually matched pair was clearly going to be a daunting task. Daunting enough that the finding of such never failed to merit massive praise from fellow match hunters.
One of us, I can't remember which, began sorting the socks into colors (an admirably practical thing for us to have done). Eventually, we all joined in the task. It was a lot easier to do, and hence a lot more general fun. Ultimately, we each claimed dominion over a certain color, or two, or shared a pile, like the black, brown and blue (one pile) or white (yet another). It took us at least fifteen minutes before the first sock ball was launched. I think it was then that we invented sock marble soccer.
"I have always appreciated the whimsy, fun, and general laid-backness that I feel whenever I shop at Trader Joe's. So I was not really surprised but rather delighted when I recently discovered this redesign of their standard tissue box. It just impressed the heck out of me. I mean it's a box of tissues, right? But someone, somewhere within that corporation decided to have a bit of fun with something that is totally invisible and non-consequential to most people, and this was the result! It's almost like reading a funny series of greeting cards. Some might say it's trivial, but I maintain that nothing is trivial that gives a person even a momentary smile, laugh, or enjoyment of someone else's wacky sense of humor."
Though I have written many articles about volleyball, devoted an entire funcast and even a full chapter of Junkyard Sports to volleyball, I have yet to find anywhere outside of my own writings any mention of the perhaps most profound and, dare I say revolutionary contribution to the very nature of volleyball - the Cross-Court Rotation Variation. Not even in the Wikipedia article "Volleyball Variations," or the obversely titled Thinkquest article "Variations of Volleyball," have my Googling eyes sighted anything approaching actual citing.
Perhaps a diagram is necessary. Perhaps two diagrams.
Here, from Wikipedia, the traditional method of rotating:
While in the Cross-Court Rotation Variation the Number One-positioned player in team A (herein illustrated as the Red Team) goes to the Number Six position in team B (the Green Team) while simultaneously the Number One-positioned player in team B moves to the Number Six position in team A, all other players moving down-position according to the traditional rotation rule.
Perhaps the merits of the Cross-Court Rotation Variation are too numerous to enumerate. Perhaps the concept is too subtle or simple to catch the attention of the sport-minded many. But the truth remains: simply by letting players change sides as well as positions we can not only satisfy all the purposes of the official rotation rules, but we can also make the game a lot more fun for anyone who wants to play. Anyone.
But wait, a note of hope from my colleague Roger Greenaway:
"You will find a reference to this variation of volleyball which forms part of the history of Turntable (née Revolver) ending with a climactic reference to Junkyard Sports.
"As you will discover, the cross-court variation was invented (or reinvented) in Scotland around 1990 by a group of playful trainers inspired by Terry Orlick's creative interferences with the rules of competitive games.
"The intention of playing tennis to improve one's health is not playful in this sense, because it is motivated by the expectation of some future good. In contrast, persons who enjoy the sheer pleasure of competing with others, for instance, exhibit a genuinely playful attitude. Exercising may also help to upgrade our health, but this anticipated benefit is not here the principal reason for the action. Viewed from a biological viewpoint, it makes sense to ascribe functional advantages to physical exercise, but these advantages are not the agent's primary motivation. People who play do so mainly because they treasure the experience of intense immersion that it uniquely affords. When pursued in a purely playful spirit, the ludic experience of tension, uncertainty or release is its own justification, not a means to some subsequent end."
I am always on the lookout for signs of playfulness - on the Web, in the world. Recently, I found this:
"Life is playfulness...we need to play so that we can rediscover the magical around us."
It was a quote, attributed to Flora Colao.
I was so drawn by this poetic and perceptive connection between playfulness and the sense of the magical that I had to find out more about the author of the quote. Fortunately, with a little computer-assisted magicalness, I found her on Facebook. I wrote her. She replied:
"In 1991, I was asked to write an essay about the meaning of life for Life Magazine when they were doing a book called the Reflections in words and pictures on Why We Are Here, The Meaning of Life. I am a social worker and a therapist by profession. Most of my work at that time was with traumatized children (children who were abused, were victims of or witnessed crimes, had terrible losses or who were in accidents). My work experience was that play therapy was the most healing thing for those children. When I thought about my own life experience as well as my work experience I came to the conclusion that life is playfulness and wrote from that perspective."
What a conclusion to reach. What a powerful truth to have come to. Life is playfulness. When we are playful, we are most alive. When we are playful, we rediscover the magical, we are ourselves magicians.
Jonathan Follett asks: "What makes a person want to use one particular digital product or service over its competitor? What makes one user experience more engaging, interesting, or compelling than another?"
He answers for us: "An often overlooked, under-appreciated, and rarely measured component of user experience is playfulness."
Yes, he's talking about "user experience" and playfulness specifically in the context of the design of digital services like Twitter and Flickr.
He defines playfulness in the user experience "...as those elements of a digital design that engage people’s attention or involve them in an activity for recreation, amusement, or creative enjoyment."
"Creative enjoyment." The lad's a definite phrase-turner.
In his article he lists four handy criteria for measuring playability:
lots of small rewards and positive feedback for taking action
no negative consequences for experimentation
the ability to take someone else’s work and build on it
and my favorite:
"Facebook," he exemplifies, "has perfected digital social interaction for no good reason other than pure fun. All playful applications should have a component of interactive silliness."
Bless his perceptive heart: Creative enjoyment. Frivolous interaction. Interactive silliness. How else could one explain the forces that draw us here to find each other?
During play, children also increase their social competence and emotional maturity. Smilansky and Shefatya (1990) contend that school success largely depends on children’s ability to interact positively with their peers and adults. Play is vital to children’s social development. It enables children to do the following:
Practice both verbal and nonverbal communication skills by negotiating roles, trying to gain access to ongoing play, and appreciating the feelings of others (Spodek & Saracho, 1998).
Respond to their peers’ feelings while waiting for their turn and sharing materials and experiences (Sapon-Shevin, Dobbelgere, Carrigan, Goodman, & Mastin, 1998; Wheeler, 2004).
Experiment with roles of the people in their home, school, and community by coming into contact with the needs and wishes of others (Creasey, Jarvis, & Berk, 1998; Wheeler, 2004).
Experience others’ points of view by working through conflicts about space, materials, or rules positively (Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990; Spodek & Saracho, 1998).
Unfortunately, all this wonderful documentation is about children before the age of 5. I guess we have to speculate about what the importance of play for adults. See, for example, Patricia von Papstein's detailed discussion of Integral Play.
Garry Shirts is a friend, game genius, and fellow recipient of the Iffil Raynolds award. But that's beside this particular point, which is about a quote Garry sent me, from this article in which philosopher Avishai Margalit says about Freeman Dyson: "... To me he is a towering figure although he is tiny - almost a saintly model of how to get old. The main thing he retains is playfulness. Einstein had it. Playfulness and curiosity."
I raise my conceptual glass to you, dear reader, in virtual toast: may you grow evermore playful, may you become curiouser and curiouser!
If you've been following my Delicious FUN bookmarks (as everso conveniently echoed in the Delicious FUN widget, as everso wisely installed by my everso increasingly appreciated son), you've undoubtedly noticed my current investigation of sites using the term "playful" and "playfulness" and even "playfulness training." It has been a rather, if you'll excuse the expression "delicious" search, leading me to some remarkable people and a remarkably wide range of applications of those terms to things like pet care and interactive design.
The reason for my renewed interest in these terms are all quite personal. I've come to a time in my life in which I can begin devoting more of my energy to developing my own sense of playfulness - in pursuing, with more devotion, my own Playful Path.
My awakening to this need has been stimulated by my sojourn in Israel, where the dead seriousness of the war has reached into the very soul of a war-weary country; by the wonderful conversations I've been having with my son about the connections between his growing faith in Judaism and my continued belief in fun, and especially by the freedom I've been given to notice those times when I could be having more fun - times with my grandchildren, their parents, my wife; times alone, just walking around Jerusalem - much more fun.
I have written a great deal about this idea of the Playful Path. When I released the most recent edition of The Well-Played Game, I gave it the subtitle: A Playful Path to Wholeness. But, after some remarkably deep conversation with my son, it became clear that I might have the most success in my search for fun by focusing not so much on playfulness, or the web, or even on the depths of the deep fun of flow, but on the experience I have called Minor Fun - those everyday invitations to enjoyment that come with the breezes, the smiles, the touches of love, the play and interplay of shadows.
Gary Berlind is a friend of mine. About 25 years ago, he helped me develop PR materials for my Technography initiative (see, for example, this archived page from my Coworking website). I asked him to share some of his story with us, because he clearly understands what I mean by following a Playful Path. Here's his response (click here and let Gary complement his story with a background music - Gary performing a Couranto from Simon Ives):
"Theoretically, I’ve been trying to have fun ever since I can remember. Usually, however, what fun I was able to muster would muster itself somewhere else, and then, feeling that I had been punished by the Universe for the "sin" of pursuing fun, I would try more conservative endeavors. Eventually, whatever tidbits of fun may have been lurking in those reasonably conservative endeavors dissolved mostly into nothingness, the pain became intolerable, and then I usually chucked it all and embarked on fun again.
"My life was therefore, in hindsight, mostly a fun/not-fun checkerboard. Back and forth, back and forth, until I was 61 years old. That’s a lot of checkerboarding. And come to think of it, a checkerboard has only 64 squares on it. It was looking to me like I had already used most of them up.
"So, in the beginning of 2002, when I was just turning sixty-one and a half, I left Berkeley California wherein I had hatched many shards of checkerboards, and moved myself to Istanbul, Turkey.
"In my last black square, (please forgive the continued use of the metaphor, but it seems to fit), I had been a hi-tech public relations consultant in the Silicon Valley. This square had lasted for a full 16 years. Itself, it was checkered: sometimes fun (Bernie DeKoven had been a client of mine in the early days), and sometimes not fun (I won’t name names). But mostly not fun. Coming to Istanbul made practicing public relations impossible, which was what I sorely needed.
"In 2002 I was convinced I didn’t want to sell out to the non-fun face of the world anymore. Maybe only two squares left. What could I do?
"Almost immediately I realized that my music career, which I had left in despair and sadness back in the late 1960s, might be a path. I wasn’t sure, but a few years teaching music at an Istanbul university made me realize that music was fun. Glorious fun. Playing music, I mean. Not so much teaching it to the unteachables, but going back to basics and playing. Making wonderful sounds. Expressing myself, digging deeper into myself to squeeze out ever more music from wood and gut. Burrowing more deeply into the musical minds of fun-thinking composers who had been dead for more than 300 years. Learning to learn. Learning to play. Learning to have fun.
"It’s been seven years now, and I’ve had lots of fun doing this. Purpose, meaning, fulfillment, have all been there, along with considerable amounts of hard work, deep introspection, and not a small amount of frustration and impatience. But ALL OF IT has been fun.
"It’s what I really wanted to do when I was playing on the home-rows of the checkerboard of my life, back in my teens and early twenties. Music was fun then, although I eventually ran into obstacles and limitations that seemed insurmountable at the time. And they WERE insurmountable to me back then, given the realities that imploded on me every time I attempted to keep the fun in music. My own limitations, and the vicissitudes of my circumstances.
"But a new country, a new instrument (actually an old instrument!), a new Gary, and a lifetime of experience that constantly shouted at me to avoid the black squares, worked. I kept my head down and practiced a lot. Learned a lot. For seven wonderful years.
"And now I’m in South Turkey, in a small resort village on the Aegean called Gümüşlük. Turkey is my playground. I’m playing the viola da gamba and it is a constant joy for me. Whether I’m playing for myself, for friends, or for audiences, more and more of my checkers are getting "kinged."
"It took a long time. And, hopefully, the experience is not over yet. I think often that I could have done this many years ago, theoretically. But in reality I couldn’t, and that’s that.
"When the player is ready, the fun will come. Not before."
This wonderful collection of art made from recycled cardboard. It is enough to restore one's faith in things like art and fun and playfulness. It's enough to make one believe that, out of little more than our passion for play, we might actually save the world, yet.
"Eunoia," quoth the Wikipedia, "is the shortest English word containing all five main vowel graphemes. It comes from the Greek word εύνοι&alpha which means well mind or beautiful thinking."
Eunoia is also the title of a book of, well, poems, by Christopher Bök. The following excerpt should more than amply explain our collective interest in the significance of the aforementioned:
Midspring brings with it singing birds, six kinds, (finch, siskin, ibis, tit, pipit, swift), whistling shrill chirps, trilling chirr chirr in high pitch. Kingbirds flit in gliding flight, skimming limpid springs, dipping wingtips in rills which brim with living things: krill, shrimp, brill - fish with gilt fins, which swim in flitting zigs. Might Virgil find bliss implicit in this primitivism? Might I mimic him in print if I find his writings inspiring?
Play. Word play. Deeply fun word play, cresting the poetic heights of monovowelism.
You've no doubt heard of Chapay that Russian version of checkers that is really a game of billiards played on a checkerboard with, well, checkers, and of course pool cues. And yet, oddly enough, you probably haven't heard of the American equivalent - Knockdown Chess. Actually, not so surprising, given that it was only recently invented, by, actually, this guy.
Were you to click this link, this entire, interactively graphic Deep Fun site would look impressively like a Microsoft Word document. And, should worse come to even worse, and you have ample reason to suspect that the person looking over your shoulder is in fact your boss, simply click on the "Boss Key" as herein illustrated, the site itself would appear to disappear entirely, and be replaced by a Word document about how to increase your job efficiency and avoid procrastination.
The fact that someone would go to the trouble to program such a thing, however tongue-in-cheekily, bears evidence of a certain kind of fun that one might call "sneaky." It is the fun that has a definitely sweet flavor of "being clever," yet possesing more than a hint of bitterness, don't you think?
This is an actual work of play. As much, at least, as it is a work of art, exhibited, actually, at the städtische galerie, in nordhorn, some time in 2007.
Especially given the artistic statement, a statement that doesn't conclude until at least this.
Balloon art, performance art, funwise, it has a taste that is predominantly artlike, yet suffused with an aroma of playfulness, whilst exhibiting an aftertaste reminiscent of swords-into-plowshare-making fun.
By deep study of the Codex of the Lost Ring, we hope to gather insight into the mystery and vasty significance of the The Lost Sport of Olympia. We seek further guidance from Ariadne, who says of herself: "I woke up in a Labyrinth of Feb. 12. They call me Ariadne." Ariadne, should you consult the Wikipedia deeply enough, also refers to: "Ariadne's thread, named for the legend of Ariadne, is the term used to describe the solving of a problem with multiple apparent means of proceeding - such as a physical maze, a logic puzzle, or an ethical dilemma - through an exhaustive application of logic to all available routes." Ah. Ariadne's thread.
The mystery deepens and at the same time widens. What actually is the Lost Sport? Where is Olympia? Who lost it in the first place?
ARG, don't you know, stands for Alternate Reality Game. Ah, so we are not speaking of an actual Lost Sport of Olympia, but something of a fantasy, something perhaps made up?
Perhaps in deed. But, reality-wise, the reality to which the alternate reality is an alternate, what we actually have is a quite fun game, which, as my colleague, covisionary and general friend Celia Pearce is quick to point out, is very much in the spirit of New Games of yore and ours. See, for example, this.
Exploring the relationship between play and games: discovering and affirming both the connections and distinctions - turns out to be ever more relevant to our understanding of the future of both play and games. In universities and art studios, in computer laboratories and workshops, investigations of game/play relationship are leading to a profound evolution of both. A goodly number of these leading-edge explorations can be found in the playful works that comprise the current Homo Ludens Ludens collection. See, for example, Stiff People's League, in the illustration accompanying this post.
"...play reflects more the idea, the notion, the vivid and spontaneous basis for the action as well as its relation to fantasy, whereas games are closed systems and environments governed by rules which demand discipline and a constraint space and time. Play is in a way the presupposition for the games that are its expressions and forms.
"Play as a notion is much more open and therefore it may even embrace elements that come in opposition with a game's structure. For instance play has no death or end; but games do, otherwise there s no meaning into it. Or think of cheating. While it can destroy a game by breaking its rules, it is still a part, an act of play. On the same line, while any game forms hierarchies, play creates interrelations between them."
"...We can be playful anytime anyplace, not only through games. Games are basically a construction which is made possible because of this playfulness that already exists in any aspect of life."
People are doing some wonderful things in the name of play and games, art and technology. If you're interested in getting a taste, Homo Ludens Ludens is a virtual banquet.
A couple years ago, I wrote about Ken Feit's remarkable sound poem, The Romance of Sound and Senses. Ken was the "holy fool" who taught me about the Frog of Enlightenupment. His sound poem is another example of his amazing wit, profound sensitivity, and endless creativity.
When I was in Fairfield I met a storyteller, and in telling her about Ken's sound poem, I realized how important it was to me that she knew about it, and that you knew about it. So I decided that maybe I needed to write yet another post about this amazing work, and to publish it again, in perhaps a more accessible format.
She explains how she remembered the hours she spent with Waldo books, searching endlessly for his image, and made the connection between her childhood pastime and the delight she takes looking through Google Earth.
It is a brilliant connection. Coles creates a remarkably effective translation of a familiar, well-loved, print-based activity into the endlessly complex realities of the virtual world, adding a new layer of fun to our global vision.
As you know, my interest in Improv Everywhere has been high ever since I first heard about their playful public theatrics. Most recently, Improv Everywhere launched a new, shall we say, play, which very well might prove, as they themselves describe it, to be the Best Game Ever.
Start here, with a video of the event. Then read about it. Then ask yourself what it would be like if you had actually been there, been one of the parents, or better yet, one of the kids.
This Best Game Ever is right on the edge of art, theater, and social comment. It wouldn't succeed if not for the playfulness and sensitivity of the Improv Everywhere company - the people who conceived and staged the event. It could have proven insulting to both parents and players, it could have proven upsetting, been perceived as an act of ridicule. But apparently the event stopped short of being ridiculous, just at the point of being almost entirely believable. If not because of the believability of the actor-spectators, then because of the player's willingness to belive. If not by the actuality of the giant scoreboard, then most definitely by the blimp. Why don't we do this for all kids, everywhere - invest great effort and expense, yes, but, for the kids, and parents - to give them one random hour, of sheer, magical, transformational fun. Beyond game and sport. A theater of total participation.
Fantastic fun. The fun of fantasy fulfilled. Ah, delicious.
Once I learned to see the connections between theater and children's games, I began to understand the wisdom contained in their playful dramas.
Once I started sharing this wisdom with adults, it became the thing I liked to do best - more, even, than designing games or reviewing games or writing about games and fun and stuff. I first discovered this when I was leading a workshop for teachers at the Durham Child Development Center in Philadelphia, and rediscovered my joy in ths at the Games Preserve and at the Esalen Institute.
I play with grown-ups, especially playful grown-ups. We play a kids' game together. I talk a little about the theater of the game - the play and interplay of roles. And then everyone talks about the "drama" of the game, as if the game were really some kind of theater piece - especially about the drama they experienced, personally. Not so much about their own, personal drama, but about about the drama of the game itself, about relationships, about the way of things in gameland.
I like what happens as we play and talk, play and talk - some kind of healing, playful, loving wisdom starts manifesting itself. Because we are grown-ups playing these games. Because of the growing honesty and openness and depth of sharing we are capable of, just the act of playing each game reveals to us a depth, a drama more profound, more personal, a truth more mutual, more freeing.
"I have learned to see children's games as scripts," I write, "for a kind of children's cultural theater. I see them as collective dreams in which certain themes are being toyed with - investigated and manipulated for the sake of sheer catharsis or some future reintegration into a world view. They are reconstructions of relationships - simulations - (myths) - which are guided by individual players, instituted by the groups in which they are played or abstracted by the traditions of generations of children."
I like to do this best. Teach people to see this. The artistry, the clarity, the wisdom of games.
And frankly, I'm hoping that by telling you about it, I'll get to do this more.
In an article in the New York Times, Alexander McCall Smith describes what can only be called The Really Terrible Orchestra. He begins: "WHY should real musicians — the ones who can actually play their instruments — have all the fun?" A profound question that set this particular funsmith's heart conceptually aflutter. He continues: "Some years ago, a group of frustrated people in Scotland decided that the pleasure of playing in an orchestra should not be limited to those who are good enough to do so, but should be available to the rankest of amateurs. So we founded the Really Terrible Orchestra, an inclusive orchestra for those who really want to play, but who cannot do so very well. Or cannot do so at all, in some cases."
Similar in spirit to Adam Sandler's Opera Man, The Really Terrible Orchestra completely avoids the question of "good music" by providing its audiences with very human performers who are having a great deal of fun making music that isn't really that terrible.
Smith concludes: "There is now no stopping us. We have become no better, but we plow on regardless. This is music as therapy, and many of us feel the better for trying. We remain really terrible, but what fun it is. It does not matter, in our view, that we sound irretrievably out of tune. It does not matter that on more than one occasion members of the orchestra have actually been discovered to be playing different pieces of music, by different composers, at the same time. I, for one, am not ashamed of those difficulties with C-sharp. We persist. After all, we are the Really Terrible Orchestra, and we shall go on and on. Amateurs arise — make a noise."
Cacophonic fun. But of course. Related, but not to be confused with, Musical fun.
I, myself, am somewhat of a virtuoso on the Cacophone...since I was in elementary school band, and discovered that if I played quietly enough, I could pretty much play anything.
"The Vegetable Orchestra performs music solely on instruments made of vegetables. Using carrot flutes, pumpkin basses, leek violins, leek-zucchini-vibrators, cucumberophones and celery bongos, the orchestra creates its own extraordinary and vegetabile sound universe. The ensemble overcomes preserved and marinated sound conceptions or tirelessly re-stewed listening habits, putting its focus on expanding the variety of vegetable instruments, developing novel musical ideas and exploring fresh vegetable sound gardens."
Transforming fun, because they are playing on vegetables, for godsake. Silly fun, for pretty much the same reason. Serious fun, because these are serious musicians, and the music they are making is actually musical. Sensual fun because they clearly are enjoying the vegetables as much as the music - the color, texture, smell, feel.... Cooperative, because they are an orchestra, and it's about what they are creating together.
One of the "products" of the Games Preserve (of blessed memory) was an official "Notice of Appreciation" card. Which led us inexorably to the official "Notice of Disappointment" card. A clever concept they were, especially in the days of sending things by post. Large cards, they were. Clearly notifying the recipient and the recipient's postal workers of their appreciation- or disappointment-worthy status, written in the form of a lightly-veiled meaningful Madlib which led me, inevitably, to share with you my personal delight and sense of shrewdness in my discovery of the Bureau of Communication and the Formal OBSERVANCE OF HOLIDAY notice.
It could have led with equal inexorability to the Official AIRING OF A GRIEVANCE notice, as well as several other official notice opportunities, but, being the kind of guy I am in the time I find myself, the holiday notice seemed most appropriate.
It is for fun. A certain kind of fun, emanating from that often, upon retrospect, genuine, actual, deep need to give for formal notice.
Optical illusions are what you might call "visual puns." They tickle the same funny bone - confusing us in a most delicious way. They are, however, far more difficult to create, and require something on the order of the visual equivalent of the humor of Gilbert and Sullivan and the drafting skill of an M. C. Escher.
Dark Roasted Blend has recently released the third in its wonderfully comprehensive series on optical illusions, demonstrating, and demonstrating again the wealth of the connections between art and play.
"Two robotic arms attached to a large and vintage-looking machine are making the same movements again and again. They plunge into aluminium bowls containing a soapy mixture and emerge from it with a huge bubble forming a kind of delicate and fragile screen which contrasts with the industrial look of the mechanism itself.
"On the soap bubbles, appear images of living babies, people or animals. Some of them seem to struggle. Others just float around. Until the bubble pops a few seconds after its creation. The cycle is repeated: the machine spews out bubbles, which, like the organisms in the images, will survive for mere seconds. As Curator José-Carlos Mariátegui mentioned during the press conference, the bursting of the bubbles evokes the frustrating attempts experienced by creators, be they artists, inventors or scientists."
Ah, the every joyous evocations of frustration. Who can resist?
The Institute for Figuring "is an educational organization dedicated to enhancing the public understanding of figures and figuring techniques. From the physics of snowflakes and the hyperbolic geometry of sea slugs, to the mathematics of paper folding and graphical models of the human mind, the Institute takes as its purview a complex ecology of figuring."
"These funny clowns are made at the spectacular Foz do Iguacu (Iguassu Falls), which sits at the point where Brazil meets Argentina and Paraguay. Here, there are always beautiful, lush green plants growing everywhere, so no wonder the kids there have incorporated grass into their toys! Meet the Grass Head Clown, which is often decorated with the colors of the rainbow, the same colors created from the mist of Iguassu Falls which falls along 350-foot cliffs of river. The child who made this particular toy used all recycled materials: a pair of her mother's old' stockings, a piece of scrap ribbon, sawdust she found lying around her father's wood shop, and a small handful of grass seeds. As a result of assembling all this "junk" together, she has a toy that's fun for any boy or girl to make and play with . . . especially if they like to cut hair! These toys have become so popular in Iguassu Falls that some of the children make them and sell them to tourists who come to see their town. So they are not only toys, but they are also a way for the children to make a little money of their own.
"We like to call the Grass-Head Clown the original Chia Pet!"
"On my trip last June I walked by this propane tank just down the road from the friend's cabin where I was staying. It's always fun being surprised by someone's whimsy just when you are least expecting it!"
"When lit properly, the molded shapes that make up the city blur into a jewel-like mosaic of luminous color, volume, and light. However, I’ve discovered that the gelatinous material also evokes uncanny parallels with the geological qualities of the real San Francisco. While the translucent beauty of these compositions is what first attracts the viewer, their fragility quickly becomes a metaphor for the transitory nature of human artifacts."
So, see, it's not just fun, and it's not at all silly - it's art. Gotta love it.
The Hema department store has created what might arguably be the most playfully frame-breaking vision of an online catalog absolutely ever, so far. Click, watch, and, in a most Rubenesquely Goldebergish manner, be amused.