Play: serious business

This blogpost is is about ‘play’. The concept is getting more attention by psychologists and I became more interested in the topic myself. Not only as a psychologist, but also as a designer of games. Creating games means creating experiences that have a potential for priming playfulness. Now, after 2 years working as a lecturer I am even more intrigued in ‘playing’.gamepadWhat is so interesting about ‘play’? Playing is learning and learning is playing. Whether that is in some skill that has applied use outside play is a different matter, but as Raph Koster has stated and argued succesfully: Learning is fun. In that sense, his book is interesting for game designers AND teachers. Having fun and learning are 2 sides of the same coin, so to speak. Check out this presentation, in which he looks back on his book about this topic.

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Even something that many might regard as very serious: philosophy is not without play. Plato opposes separating seriousness and playfulness. And we Dutch have our own historian Johan Huizinga who wrote ‘Homo Ludens‘ in which he argues play is important for culture and society. It is a activity all humans (and animals) show when they are young, but most seem to lose the playful attitude when growing up.

A time ago a Dutch documentary ‘De Kennis van Nu’ dived into the concept of play and how being playful as an adult has a lot of advantages: ‘Spelen is van levensbelang‘. It is very interesting to watch (in Dutch) and it discusses the many advantages. Playful adults are better at coping with stress, more likely to report leading active lifestyles, and more likely to succeed academically. And it makes them more attractive to the opposite sex. Intrigued? This article also discusses and sums up what playfulness can do for you.

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As the article states, playing a game and being playful are not the same. In a competitive game of soccer the teams try to perform as well as possible and probably players will not goof off or fool around. How about goofing off during practice? Will they also have a performance mindset or be more playful? I have seen and felt the difference in martial arts training groups and the atmosphere it creates. When it is all about performance (and not losing), not much is experimented with and there is a lot of angry frustration.

Being playful might have a lot of advantages, but players (and coached) might think it is nonsensical behaviour without any use. There seems to be a link with growth mindset versus a performance mindset. If it feels ok to make mistakes a soccer player or martial artist will probably try out more challenging or unconventional techniques. They might fail -at first-, but with a playful mode that is fine. You tried something and got feedback on it. In contrast, a performance mindset inherently will be negative on fooling around, it is behaviour that seems to be not helping and making mistakes is deemed a bad thing. Good luck coming up with something that is innovative and surprising that way. Or expanding your skills in new ways.jugglerBeing playful seems to trigger more of a growth mindset, which has a lot of advantages. And a lot more fun can be had. In my experience as a teacher I have seen a playful approach and culture help relieve pressure and lower the threshold for students to try something out of their comfort zone. And the fun increases the motivation to practice. These days, most students often feel enough performance pressure. As will teachers. Offering clear rules, structure and demanding performance is fine. But we do run the risk of losing play in our education.

Learning how to cope with the complex world education strives to have students develop 21st century skills. Those entail complex behaviours needed to face a rapid and everchanging world in which graduates will be confronted with questions and jobs not even predicted when they started their study. Having a playful attitude seems very beneficial to have. And the good news: even those researchers who think of playfulness as a personality trait (being persistent) suspect it is a malleable one. This means it can be developed and probably the context can prime one to it (my experience in class is this is certainly the case).3d-meepleI advocate to add playfulness where we can. In the classroom, engrained in a course, within the structure of a study, in the hallways of the building. And to start, in the attitude of a teacher. Be it with making jokes, not take yourself too seriously, make a game out of an exercise, be ok to experiment and be ok it might not work out. Laugh it off. Now not everyone feels playful and there are several ways to be playful. To find out how playful you are yourself, René Proyer is the psychologist that contributed to the documentary and he developed a questionnaire to measure playfulness. His survey is available online in Dutch. Go fill it in!

It is also available in English here in the published article. They found out there are 4 basic components that make up playfulness: Other-directed, Lighthearted, Intellectual, and Whimsical playfulness. Read below what these mean.dice-six-faces-four

  • Other-directed: enjoying to play with others; using ones playfulness to make social relations more interesting or to loosen up tense situations with others; enjoying good-heartedly teasing.
  • Lighthearted: seeing life as a game and not worrying too much about future consequences of one’s own behaviour; liking to improvise; reserving time in the daily routine for play.
  • Intellectual: liking to play with ideas and thoughts; liking to think about and solving problems; thinking about and trying different solutions for a problem; preferring complexity over simplicity.
  • Whimsical: finding amusement in grotesque and strange situations; having the reputation of liking odd things or activities; finding it easy to find something amusing for oneself and/or others in everyday life situations and interactions.

This blogpost is an exploration in playfulness. More can be said, more can be done for sure. As a lecturer I am more and more focussed on having an playful attitude and stimulate it during teaching and coaching whenever I can. Where and when can you be more playful? Let’s take play seriously, and be surprised where it takes us.

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(A Playful path’ website: Bernie DeKoven has been exploring playfulness for years)

(game icons resource)



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