Are people afraid of play?

Yesterday, I received a question about the use of the words “play” and “playfulness”, which reminds me of some concerns I’ve been struggling with myself:

I was wondering if you have any (bad) experience in using the word play and playfulness.

I thought I might as well share my answer here, as I’m sure more people are considering these things:

It’s a good question, however, about the way “play” and “playfulness” can be perceived.

I’ve definitely met (and continue to meet) people who think play is not for them and mostly for children. They’ve never considered the potential impact of play or the huge ramifications of playfulness as a way of living and working.

Hence, I think it *can* turn some people away, but I also think it depends a lot on the way it’s framed and the context it’s situated in. Since I’ve started talking mostly about playfulness as a goal in itself rather than play as an activity, I think I’ve met more people, who understand and who take it seriously.

I mean, most people understand that we probably need to do things differently to navigate this chaotic world, to stay relevant and, most importantly, perhaps, to stay sane. If playfulness is framed as part of the solution to those challenges, it may get harder to ignore (with emphasis on “maybe” ūüôā¬†).

I think you saw my post from the Next Library conference, where I presented these ideas.¬†Maybe you also saw my post about the PhD-application I just recently sent off. In that, I propose the above hypothesis – that playfulness may be linked to “global citizenship” and, in turn, to becoming a person capable of living, navigating and maybe even improving the world.

To sum up: if you succeed in framing playfulness as a trait or something central to our success, it’s way, way harder to ignore even though they might think “play” is for children.

That’s what I answered.

I’m not afraid of using the words, but I’m aware some people stop listening the second I mention play.

I’ve consciously decided that these words are too important to dress them up as something else. I’d rather try to paint a clearer picture of the huge importance of play than disguise play in a more “serious” language.

It doesn’t get much more serious than play.

Playful, global citizens

I’ve talked about it before, but this time¬†I’ve actually done something about it: I’ve sent an application for a PhD-project at Aarhus University. Now I’ll just have to wait for a couple of months before I get the verdict. If it doesn’t fly the first time, I’ll consider alternatives (and do let me know, if you have suggestions).

While I’ve enjoyed the work I’ve been doing over the past 7’ish years immensely, a couple of issues keep reappearing in my mind: I need to focus more, to create stronger continuity in my work and to pursue the impossible questions.¬†The most pressing of these is probably the latter. In most of the projects I’m involved with, including CounterPlay, I’ll have to come up with results/products/answers within relatively short time frames.

Some of the big questions I keep asking are: how do people learn to live, play and act in this messy, complex world? How do we learn to take responsibility for the world and to, in the words of Martha Nussbaum, ¬†cultivate ” the ability to see full and equal humanity in another person, perhaps one of humanity‚Äôs most difficult and fragile achievements”?

With this project I want to investigate the relationship between playfulness and global citizenship.

I think that global citizenship is something we should all strive for and I believe playfulness is both a catalyst and a part of that.

You can stop here, as that’s the core of it. For a slightly more elaborate presentation of the project, keep reading.


The impetus for the project is found in the big societal transformations:¬†mediatization, digitalization, globalization.¬†As David Held writes in “Cosmopolitanism: Ideals and Realities“:

“In our increasingly interconnected world, these global problems cannot be solved by any one nation-state acting alone. They call for collective and collaborative action ‚Äď something that the nations of the world have not been good at, and which they need to be better at if these pressing issues are to be adequately resolved”

I argue that global citizenship is central if this is to ever become reality, and I’ll look more into the UN Global Education First, other work done by UNESCO, the Global Goals and similar projects and strategies.

Field studies

It’s important to me that the project is tied directly into “real” practices in society, and I’ve got numerous field studies planned.¬†The project is centered around the CounterPlay Festival, which will serve as an arena for field studies¬†and¬†a gateway to organisations¬†in culture, education and private companies (which, as some of you will know, is more or less the domains CounterPlay operates within).¬†Methodologically, I’m veering towards¬†action research¬†and¬†participatory design research, as I’ll be “conducting the research process with those people whose life-world and meaningful actions are under study” (Jarg Bergold & Stefan Thomas).



To understand the process of¬†becoming¬†a global citizen, I look to learning theory and I perceive global citizenship as a certain kind of¬†Bildung¬†centered around empowered participation.¬†I see learning as a combination of cognitive, social and embodied practices that is¬†not limited to formal institutions or certain life stages.¬†I use James Paul Gees notion of “affinity spaces” together with Wenger’s “communities of practice” to frame the social contexts I’ll be investigating. Affinity spaces are defined by 11 features, the first stating that “in an affinity space, people relate to each other primarily in¬†terms of common interests, endeavours, goals or practices, not¬†primarily in terms of race, gender, age, disability or social class”. Affinity spaces also¬†seem to describe a space¬†that supports playfulness particularly well (as a side note, Gee has been using the concept to study the social contexts of video games).

I’ll also be drawing on old¬†acquaintances like Dewey (Democracy & Education) and Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) as well as more recent research from Biesta (The Beautiful Risk of Education), Learning Across Sites, Peter Jarvis and more.


While play is often seen as either A) an autotelic activity (most notably with reference to Huizinga’s “Homo Ludens“) or B) an instrument to achieve something outside of play, I try to frame it differently. Both of the aforementioned are entirely valid positions, but I don’t see them as mutually exclusive, rather just two possibilities among many that you can shift back and forth between. I’ll agree with Brian Sutton-Smith that play is, indeed, ambiguous and Thomas S. Henricks that it’s “paradoxical because it displays one quality and the¬†opposite of that quality at the same time”. This is ok, we don’t need play to mean just one thing.

Drawing on a number of brilliant people, I think play is ‚Äúthe underlying, always there, continuum of experience” (Richard Schechner), “an ongoing, continuous undercurrent of life” (Rachel Shields)”a metamotivational state” (Jaakko Steenros), ‚Äúa way of being in the world‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúa physical, psychological, and emotional attitude‚ÄĚ (Miguel Sicart). Accordingly, I’m less interested in games (as objects) and play (as activity) and more in playfulness as a state of mind “filled with tension” (Mortensen et al), where people are¬†‚Äúconnected to interesting social themes and processes at the very time that they are disconnected from them‚ÄĚ (Thomas S. Henricks).¬†

This tension describes a constant oscillating movement between positions, like order and disorder (“Orderly and Disorderly Play“), and play can become cruel (Brian Sutton-Smith) subversive, dark (Mortensen et al) and risky (Peter Gray), in the process allowing us to see the world “through the lens of play, to make it shake and laugh and crack because we play with it‚Ä̬†(Miguel Sicart). Furthermore,¬†“play is a feeling, an embodied state of mind in which we experience novel thoughts and sensations before they become entrapped within language” and ‚Äúthat captures the dimension of sensation, as an ideal state of indulgence in the body-mind‚Äôs capacity for breaking free from patterns‚ÄĚ (Ludic Ontology)

To recap: I think these characteristics of play and playfulness¬†can be meaningfully linked to global citizenship.¬†To be a person, who can live and act in the world today, to be a global citizen, you need to be able to engage in these movements, to navigate the chaos and complexity, to challenge existing structures, envisioning other worlds, and to be able to act with people who may or may not be similar to yourself. Furthermore, I agree that ” playfulness also seems to contribute to the good life in various forms” (The virtuousness of adult playfulness).

There’s a lot more to it, of course, but I think this is a fairly accurate introduction for now (you can watch the full list of references here¬†and the full application in Danish). Please feel free to ask if there’s anything you want to know, or comment or just get in touch. I don’t know if it will ever become a PhD-project, but I¬†do¬†know that I’ll be working with these things in the future, one way or another, so I’m very keen to talk about it!


Global Education First

The world faces global challenges, which require global solutions. These interconnected global challenges call for far-reaching changes in how we think and act for the dignity of fellow human beings. It is not enough for education to produce individuals who can read, write and count. Education must be transformative and bring shared values to life. It must cultivate an active care for the world and for those with whom we share it.

The Global Education First Initiative –¬†Priority #3: Foster Global Citizenship

Learning/Working/Living a Playful Life

I’ve always tried my best to share my work, ideas and thoughts. It’s a combination of trying to live up to all my talk about transparency and sharing; of having the audacity to think some of it might actually be relevant and of appreciating how much I learn by doing so.¬†This also applies when I’m confused and not entirely certain which path to follow (which is not at all a rare situation).

Now the dust has settled after CounterPlay ’15, and I’m considering what to do with my life. It sounds dramatic and it may very well lead to some fairly big changes.¬†I’ve been working as self-employed since 2008, and it’s been a wonderful adventure. I allow myself to think I have helped, maybe even inspired, a few people along the way and I have done some things I’m proud of today.

I’m involved in many projects, but it feels too fragmented, disconnected, too lacking in continuity and cohesion. Despite constantly working with amazing people, I feel detached¬†and somewhat alone. This is emotionally taxing, but it also diminishes the potential impact of my efforts.¬†I also need to radically improve my “business model”. I must be honest (also with myself) and admit that I’ve probably cared¬†too¬†little about making money and¬†too much¬†on doing stuff I thought was important.¬†I must create a bit more stability in this area as well (not thinking about money only leads to having to think a lot about money).

I’ve been in this situation before, and I thought I was on track to finding a solution – but here I am again and I’m considering (at least) 3 possible paths:

A couple of good people responded:

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years trying to bridge gaps and connect domains¬†while also making an effort to combine the things I myself work on.

So how do I get to the sweet spot?

3 domains of my work

1. CounterPlay

CounterPlay is the most obvious path, as it’s already here and I’ll keep working on it for (hopefully) years to come.¬†Earlier this spring, the second edition took place and I think it went quite well. With almost 200 adults and around 50 kids, it definitely felt bigger this year and I hope we’ve now proven there’s an interest and a need for something that brings people together to explore playfulness.

Now there’s a bit of momentum around the festival, we want to use that as a starting point for experimenting with playful interventions outside the festival. This is at an early stage, but there’s so much going on in the field and at the festival that we would like to develop and implement.

Some things need to change, however. The festival must be transformed into an organisation with more people feeling ownership, collaborating to keep developing the festival.¬†We also have to secure additional funding, as relying solely on registration fees is too¬†unpredictable. In short: to take the next step, we must have an actual organisation able to cover expenses, including salaries for a few people and we’re looking into possible funding schemes (sponsors, funds, Creative Europe etc).

2. Non-profit organisation for educational experiments

Over the years, I’ve been involved in numerous grassroots¬†projects, mostly in education. It’s been spanning from concrete experiments (e.g. with games) to fostering a more transparent culture and nurturing (playful) communities. I think it’s important to keep making these efforts and experiments, but it’s extremely hard to maintain based solely on the efforts of volunteers. Like with CounterPlay, we need an organisation with a shared focus and some resources. I would love to create something that is open, transparent, networked and building on the energy and passion of grassroots.¬†It should be able to carry out concrete initiatives when needed and to become a strong voice in the public debate. The idea about making it non-profit is simply to align expectations and make the purpose clear: it’s about making meaningful changes, not profit.

3. PhD

Finally, there’s the Ph.D.¬†that might, as Rikke suggested, be the best opportunity to tie things together. I’m really intrigued by the ability to ask hard questions¬†and to dwell upon the, delwing a bit deeper than is otherwise possible. What would it be about? Yeah, that‚Äôs a hard question right there: Learning, being human, (subversive) play, playfulness, global citizenship, challenging and changing the world.

Cultivating playful communities as a catalyst for changing the world?

I think it captures some of the duality that intrigues me. It indicates “being playful” is an approach to doing something in the world, a means to an end. At the same time it argues that simply “being playful” is a way to change the world, an end in and of itself.

I remain wildly interested in education, but I’m also a little afraid of focusing too narrowly on formal education. I want to explore what it means to be playful and how it can challenge the establishment – in education and in life. How can transgressive play lead to empowerment and emancipation?

A few quotes that illustrate the “eclecticness” of my thoughts:

“The world faces global challenges, which require global solutions. These interconnected global challenges call for far-reaching changes in how we think and act for the dignity of fellow human beings […]Education must fully assume its central role in helping people to forge more just, peaceful, tolerant and inclusive societies. It must give people the understanding, skills and values they need to cooperate in resolving the interconnected challenges of the 21st century” (Link)

‚ÄúThe more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world. The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them‚ÄĚ (Link)

‚ÄúThe essence of our argument is that playful behaviour and playful thought can generate radically new approaches to challenges set by the physical and social environment.‚ÄĚ (Link)

‚ÄúPlay can also be attached to specific ways of acting in the world which entails playful experimentation, such as trying out ideas and things, tinkering with materials, testing boundaries, taking risks, and iterating. Here, play and playfulness account for voluntary, passionate and persistent social activity, characterised by positive emotions, high reference value and creativity. Play is about considering alternatives, re-reading the past and to opening up possible futures. It means using the imagination, in order to enrich and expand one‚Äôs experience and understanding of the world” (Link)

“Play is disruptive as a consequence of being appropriate. When it takes over the context in which play take place, it breaks the state of affairs. This is often done for the sake of laughter, for enjoyment, for passing pleasures. But like all other passing pleasures, play can also disruptively reveal our conventions , assumptions, biases, and dislikes. In disrupting the normal state of affairs by being playful, we can go beyond fun when we appropriate a context with the intention of playing with and within it. And in that move, we reveal the inner workings of the context that we inhabit. […] Playfulness means taking over a world to see it through the lens of play, to make it shake and laugh and crack because we play with it. (Link)

Common denominators?

How is all this related? Playing and being playful is embedded in everything. So is the importance of communities, of cross-pollination, of being in, challenging and changing the world.

I’ll be spending some time in the coming days & weeks describing the three areas and figuring out how to merge them. I would absolutely¬†love¬†to hear from anybody with thoughts to share – in the comments, on Twitter, on skype or a hangout, or over coffee or a beer. While I think these are my most viable options, I’m open to anything

Get great games into schools

I’ve repeatedly said that games are not going to save neither the world nor education.

This doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t think games can be very relevant and valuable in schools.

They most certainly can.

It only means that they shouldn’t be considered anything but a little piece of the big educational puzzle –¬†how do we create more meaningful education, that empower kids to change the world?

When looking at the big, sprawling field of “games & learning”, many of the most interesting tendencies are tied to games that are not “learning games”. They’re “just” great games:


The Walking Dead.


Sim City.

Portal 2.

Gone Home.

None of these games are developed to support the formal learning goals in education, and they don’t do so if all you do is play the game (no games or media do that, by the way).

The secret behind the use of these “entertainment games” in school is deceptively simple, as it’s (in almost every case) initiated by¬†great teachers performing creative experiments¬†(which is also, incidentally, the only way I see real change happening in education).

I’m fortunate enough to know a fair share of these amazing teachers, in Denmark and around the world, who are constantly in the midst of these experiments, and who are consequently huge sources of inspiration.

One of the issues all of these teachers are trying to solve and one of the big barriers for “games in schools” (but far from the only one, mind you) is getting access to the games.

It’s currently quite the undertaking to A) find relevant games and B) acquire the relevant licenses for students, and there’s no one way of going about it. Often teachers engaged in this are simply playing games themselves and either buying “deals” (e.g. in Steam sales or in the Humble Bundle) or using their own or students’ copies of the game. Some go the extra mile and initiate a conversation with the developer, who actually more often than not are willing to make a particularly good deal or even give away their games for free (major¬†props to any developer supporting the use of games in schools like that).

While I salute the effort of these passionate teachers, I can’t help but wonder:

Wouldn’t it be better, if teachers could focus on what they love more than anything:¬†teaching?

I have actually written about exactly this issue before, but maybe this is a better moment in time?

What we need is something along these lines:

A central hub/website, where great games are curated based on their potential use in education, and where cheap and easy access to school licenses are readily available in a flexible way.

These licenses should be negotiated with the developers, who will probably have to be interested in partly sponsoring games to schools. They would gain access to a new market (education), create awareness and build massive goodwill (more about this in the old post).

The actual initiative behind the effort could be a new, independent non-profit, or it could be affiliated with existing initiatives:

I think it’s important that any initiative in this direction should be a non-profit, as it’s not about making more money off of other people’s games.

It’s about providing access for teachers. That goal should be completely clear.

I don’t know if I should really get involved in something like this (I did say I’d talk less about games), but if that’s what’s needed to make it move forward, I’ll make myself available.

Who wants to talk about the idea?