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” 🙂 ).

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’s 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 – 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 “the underlying, always there, continuum of experience” (Richard Schechner), “an ongoing, continuous undercurrent of life” (Rachel Shields)”a metamotivational state” (Jaakko Steenros), “a way of being in the world” and “a physical, psychological, and emotional attitude” (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 “connected to interesting social themes and processes at the very time that they are disconnected from them” (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” (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 “that captures the dimension of sensation, as an ideal state of indulgence in the body-mind’s capacity for breaking free from patterns” (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!


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’s 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)

“The 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” (Link)

“The 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.” (Link)

“Play 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’s 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?

Principles, values, purpose

I’ve been self-employed since 2008, and that has been tied to a more or less permanent condition of confusion. I embrace that confusion, as the world is generally a confusing place, and I try to make the most of it by constantly asking questions:

What am I doing, why and where should I go from here?

I simply want to contribute to a society and a world, that is a little bit better with a little more openness, respect, empathy, diversity, understanding, sense of community and playfulness (quick note: I think playfulness holds value in and of itself, but also as an approach to meaningful changes).

I realise that this is way too big, idealistic, ambitious, naive and down-right impossible. Even so, anything less feels like it’s not enough. I know that I can’t change more than the smallest things, even if I spend my entire life on this path. I do, however, believe this is all any of us can hope to do. Small changes through an endless number of small steps:

I think change happens, step-by-step, little step by little step, as people do things differently. That’s the only way it makes sense. People on the ground start to do things a bit differently, and start to expect things to happen a bit differently, and then this gets absorbed into the more macro-level context of how people in government, or visible in the media, do things, and what they expect things to be like – David Gauntlett

I consider education one of the key areas in changing the world, as we need to educate humans who are themselves empowered to become catalysts of change – in their own lives and the world at large. This doesn’t mean that I’m just interested in education. On the contrary, I’m interested in most things, that influence our lives.

One way of reducing my day-to-day confusion is by working with a set of guiding principles or values, that I try to embed in all my work. The list is not exhaustive and it’s constantly being renegotiated:

Distributed ownership

I believe few concepts capture these values better than the notion of global citizenship:

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 United Nations Secretary-General’s Global Education First Initiative

I think the world and the structures we have created are highly malleable, and that we can change it through a series of more or less controlled experiments. My approach is thus to design and carry out small and big experiments, that I think support my guiding principles (the festival CounterPlay is one such experiment).

None of this is fully thought through, and I’d love input. As with anything I do, I prefer to share ideas, while they are still being formed in my head, negotiating meaning with people around me, online and offline (yes, the latter does happen from time to time).

My personal agenda

Even if you accept the above, you might ask: what’s in it for you? What’s my personal gain? I often meet people, who don’t really understand why I’m involved in this or that initiative, and a slight confusion about my agenda is not uncommon. I fully understand this, and as I wrote in the beginning, I’m confused myself.

While I’m confused about many things, my motivation is quite clear to me, however. This whole time, I’ve had two overlapping reasons for doing what I do:

First off, I want to be part of making meaningful changes in the world based on the principles outlined above. I rarely initiate or engage in projects, where I don’t see the opportunity to support at least some of my core values.

Secondly, and closely related, I want to do things that make sense to me. I want to play and be playful, to have fun, to embark on adventures, to smile and to jump with joy, but also to be challenged, to feel like giving up and to scream in frustration. Combine the theories of flow and self-determination theory, and you’ll have at least part of the explanation.

“Immer ein Abenteuer” as an old man in Germany once told me.

I basically want a good reason to get out of bed every morning and go to bed with a smile on my face – I’m a simple person that way.

None of this has to do with money. I honestly don’t care about money. Money is no goal, and if I could, I would never talk about money again in my life. I’m not that naive, and I know and accept that I must make some money to keep on working like this. I need money to support myself and the projects I find important. I’m fine with that. I currently consider turning all my activities into non-profits to remove the focus on profit (or reduce it as much as possible). Also, If I cared about becoming rich, I would probably not have spent 7 years being a self-employed grassroot activist in domains, where money are scarce.

I also don’t care about a career as such, progressing through a series of more or less predetermined stages. I’m not here for raises, fancy titles or lots of employees/subordinates. I do love, however, to feel that people appreciate what I do. I definitely like the recognition.

My strategy (business model, if you like) is to create opportunities for and with people, and, by doing that, to create opportunities for myself in the process. I try to never do anything for my own sake, but I also always do things to that will allow me to do more things I like doing. If I can do that for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t wish for anything more.

I imagine that the clearer I can make these considerations to anybody I interact with professionally, the easier my life will be and the further I can come on this endeavour of mine.

If I could make one wish, it would be this: I hope nobody would ever suspect that I’m in this game for any other reasons than the ones stated above.

I’m not and I will always work against hidden agendas, as I don’t find them conducive to positive changes. Agendas are fine, we all have them, but why keep them hidden?

Anything is possible

I’m stubbornly idealistic with a pinch of naivety. Surprisingly enough (at least to me), the older I get, the more I insist on pushing this to the forefront. When I was younger, I would tend to hide it away in some misguided attempt to be as society seemingly wanted me to: realistic, conscientious, ruly.

Sit still, do as you’re told, don’t make any trouble. That kinda stuff (I was never good at it, but I tried).

While I still have my lapses, I’m learning to stay confident in my belief that it’s important to be idealistic, to be naive, to dream of a better world and to pursue that dream.

I genuinely believe that anything is possible, but I need to occassionally remind myself:

Whenever you want to change things anywhere in society, you’ll get the feeling that it can’t be done, that things are set in stone.

Don’t believe that.

While it will take a lot of work over long periods of time, it is possible.

Say you want to change the world:

In the end, what’s the alternative?

If nothing else, the conviction that anything is possible will certainly make more things possible than the idea that nothing is possible.

It’s not about the games.

I’ve made myself known to people as somebody very interested in games (in a learning perspective, but – hopefully – also in general).

That’s fine.

I love games.

Despite this fascination, I’ve felt an ever increasing concern over the past weeks and months:

It’s a gnawing feeling that has only been growing stronger. Basically, I don’t think games will solve anything.

Some time ago, I gave a talk at the SETT (Scandinavian Educational Technology Transformation) conference in Stockholm, where I tried to elaborate a bit on these thoughts:

There’s a lot of content in that presentation, and I had to rush several things during my talk. I’ve been thinking about this, and feel that it might be a good idea to examine a few topics in further detail.

While I wanted to question the current focus on games, I also wanted to stress that a lot of games are actually really interesting. Take this:

Or this:

Or this promising take on civilians in wars:

Ok. We’ve established that I (still) like games.

One thing is all the fascinating games out there. While there’s always room for improvement, I’m quite opmistic & excited for what’s happening in this field.

It’s another and more problematic thing to ask if “games work” in education, but that particular question is an incredibly popular one.

Work for what?

Control? Transmitting knowledge? Maintaining “the banking concept of education“?

“Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat.”

Inspired by Gert Biesta, I’d say that “education is a practice, that always needs to engage with the question of purpose – what are we doing it for?”

This is my current suggestion (it’s a constant work in progress, always up for negotiation):

Education should seek to create the best possible foundation for people to live rich and happy lives, by empowering children and young people to be in the world with other people, to make difficult decisions and to use technology to express themselves and solve meaningful, complex problems in creative ways.

This is not likely to happen on a large scale if we don’t change the way we perceive of and practice teaching. 

It’s also not likely to happen if we use technology or even games to simply “transmit” knowledge to the students for them to internalize. I mentioned, that Minecraft is not important because it’s a great game (which it clearly is), but because it so convincingly illustrates how amazing learning can take place in very different & open arenas.

I think that “play” and “being playful” is really important in all of this. Even more important is the notion of “subversive play”, which game scholar Jesper Juul defines as:

“Play against the intention or authority of the game design/game designer”

 Stephen Totilo once wrote a nice comment on subversive play over at Kotaku:

“I’ve assumed that not following the rules was part of following the rules.  I’ve believed that to play a game partially involves playing with a game, shaking it to see if it breaks, poking it with a stick to see how it reacts, and, of course, always shooting the character who is talking to you in a game to see if they even pause their speech (usually, they don’t).”

I think students should be allowed and even encouraged to “poke” education “with a stick” and “playing with it to see if it breaks”. It would definitely challenge our desire to control whatever happens in the classroom, but that control was always an illusion. If we want students to become innovative & entrepreneurial people who feel competent to engage & shape the world, we need to do this. The same goes for allowing students to figure out what it means to be human and make choices to impact the life they want to live.

One approach to empowering students can probably be found in the many initiatives to transform education from “a shift away from a ‘sit back and be told’ culture towards more of a ‘making and doing’ culture” as David Gauntlett writes. In my talk,  I quoted the always inspiring Paolo Pedercini (AKA @molleindustria) from his thoughtprovoking talk at the recent Games for Change festival:

But one thing I can tell for sure: the act of making games about social issues, has always been a profound transformative experience for me.

 I came to the conclusion that there is a greater liberation potential in designing games rather than playing games.

 I argue that next step of games for impact doesn’t lie in some technological advancement but rather, in helping people to engage with the practice of game design.


How often do we talk about the liberating potential of education? And if all education does is teach us to follow the rules of education, how liberated are we really? If education is not liberating, what is the purpose?

In this, I’m completely in line with Carl Anders SäfstrĂśm & Gert Biesta, who wrote a “Manifesto for education” a few years ago:

“We propose that to speak for education in an educational manner means to express an interest in freedom and, more specifically, an interest in the freedom of the other: the freedom of the child, the freedom of the pupil, the freedom of the student”

Having very clearly stated that I haven’t reached any conclusions, the only thing I dared say, is that we need to cultivate communities of play. We need to create spaces for playful experimentation, where we don’t assume the answers (or the questions) are given beforehand.

David Gauntlett wrote a really nice piece on this, arguing that:

“If you want to have a culture of playful learning and experimentation, you need adults to have embraced a culture of playful learning and experimentation before you can expect that we might try to make it happen in schools.”

“we need adult culture itself to become more playful and creative, because only then will that really be seen as something valuable that we can hand on to children. We have to look at culture as a whole system, and not think that the ‘education’ bit can be separated off and fixed without changing the rest of it.”

I completely agree, and I’ve always been convinced, that this needs to happen across domains. In fact, I think it’s one of the most important things we can do:

It’s probably also one of the most difficult and intangible. How do you create safe spaces for play, where adults feel playful? How do you nurture communities, where playful experiments is the norm rather than rare exceptions? Where we live life in playful ways rather than merely play a game from time to time?

Luckily, much is happening in this direction already. Lots of amazing festivals & conferences are  emerging for different audiences around the world. People like lifelong playful veteran Bernie DeKoven continue to show us how to be more playful in all aspects of life.

As for my own work, the festival CounterPlay is my most ambitious attempt so far at cultivating such communities, and to bringing people together from many different domains (see reactions from the first edition, which has held in Aarhus earlier this year).

All of this is unfinished thoughts (when is a thought ever finished, by the way?). Even so, it feels like I’m on the right track here and I’ll definitely keep moving in this direction in the time to come. I ended my talk with these questions (from the CounterPlay-SmallTalk game), and I’ll do the same with this post:



Do we need games for learning?

I have again and again argued, that most learning games (or what we choose to call them at any point in time) are often quite disappointing.

At the same time, I still believe good (learning) games are relevant – as one tool among many.

There’s of course also the ongoing discussion whether or not it even makes sense to distinguish between games and learning games. All games are about learning something, and games can be extremely relevant in education without being actual learning games. Furthermore, in many learning games you end up spending too much time on learning something, that is external to playing the game.

Games like Papo & Yo, Cart Life, Papers Please, and (the elephant in the room) Minecraft are brilliant examples of games that are not built explicitly for learning purposes, but which are nonetheless challenging players intellectually and emotionally.

Regardless of this discussion, and regardless of my hopes for better games for learning, what we really need is not learning games.

Or any kind of games.

Or teaching materials or technology in general.

What we really need is not technology (as such), it’s better, more meaningful and relevant educations.

This might seem obvious, so why am I spending the time writing?

I am very concerned that we (again) end up perpetuating the mistaken belief that technology is some kind of holy saviour.

I see these overly optimistic headlines all around the world, stating that games or play or MOOCs or Flipped Learning or [whatever hypeword tomorrow brings]…will save education and eventually the world.

I don’t care much for such predictions. To be honest, I think it’s utter sensationalist nonsense.

To boil it down, tech will solve nothing. We may have new opportunities with new technologies, but it requires changes in the way we think, work and organize ourselves. Changes won’t just magically follow in the wake of technological innovations.

Here in Denmark, I’m part of a forum hosted by the Ministry of Education, where we are looking at the field of “digital teaching tools”. While I unequivocally applaud the initiative, these meetings often leave me confused, because what are we talking about? Do we just want better teaching tools/technologies? We do, of course, but I’m struggling to figure out how much emphasis we should really put on this, and how much we should put on changing the structures, cultures, goals and purposes of education.

If we think of games as nothing but more efficient means to simply transmit knowledge to the students, but otherwise change nothing, we’re not really getting anywhere. That would just be reinforcing the notion of students as recipients and consumers of content.

What is really important in education, then?

Many things are important, of course, and this is an important discussion to keep having. Should I capture as much as possible in as few words as possible, I’d say something like this:

Education should seek to create the best possible foundation for people to live rich and happy lives, by empowering children and young people to be in the world with other people, to make difficult decisions and to use technology to express themselves and solve meaningful problems.

There’s much more to it, of course, but I generally think about education as a way to learn how to be human, how to be social, and how to be and act in the world.

…and this is where we can really learn from games and (not least!) play.

The “magic circle” of play creates a safe space, where we can experiment with roles, with scenarios, with being in the world, with being together, and we can do so in creative ways driven by curiosity, excitement and joy. These activities can be structured like games, or assume a more loose, playful and less controlled structure.

Remembering Salen & Zimmerman’s definition, “play is free movement within a more rigid structure”.

Education then becomes a question of striking the balance between structure and freedom, with emphasis on the latter (if you ask me). The “free movement” is essential if we want students to take ownership of their own learning.

None of this is about technology. No, it’s much more important than that.

It’s about how we’re being humans. Together.

Monument Valley

Many people lament the current state of the games being developed:

“There’s too many games, that are not really games.”

“Games are too easy today.”

To me, none of this is a problem. It simply goes to show that there’s an increasing diversity in the games being made and the people playing them.

This is a good thing. In fact, I’ve already written about my love for diversity in games:

All of this is to say, that if you think the term “game” refers to a homogenous field, you should probably look a bit closer.

Games are not just about shooting or sneaking or walking or jumping or solving puzzles or driving cars or even overcoming challenges.

Games can make us smile and laugh, they can make us feel fear or hope, they can make us feel small or invincible, they can make us question what we take for granted or they can, when they’re really good, make us think about what it means to be human.

Games are simply experiences, that can be about anything, that can come in any shape and size, and if we prove unable to ever come up with one label, that catches what all games has in common, that’s not a problem at all.

No, it’s actually a testament to why I love games in the first place.

Now I just finished Monument Valley, and it made me think again about some of these discussions.

Shaun Musgrave wrote about this in his review over at Touch Arcade:

There are games that lean more on giving you interesting play mechanics and challenging you to master them in order to overcome some sort of challenge, and there are games that lean more on the side of giving you an experience. You get rare cases where the line is straddled fairly evenly, but for the most part, games are going to do one of those things very well and give less attention to the other. Both types have their fans, and many gamers love both, but when a game comes along that strongly favors one type and does it well, you often see confusion from the opposite camp. I say this because even though I expect it to get a lot of well-deserved praise, a lot of people aren’t going to like Monument Valley very much.

Monument Valley is a fairly short game, and while there’s definitely more game-like features (e.g. challenges & puzzles) in MV than, say, Dear Esther, a huge part of my fascination still has to do with “just being there”.

The first thing that struck me was how absolutely gorgeous the game is, and how the combination of aesthetics create an atmosphere so dense, that sometimes I just stopped playing altogether to take it all in.

The game is clearly inspired by M. C. Escher, and works like the impossible stairs of “Relativity“:


Ken Wong, designer of MV, talks a bit more about sources of inspiration:

“Escher is just an easy way to explain the game to people, there are so many other bits and pieces that inspire the game. Windowsill, a game by Vectorpark was a big influence. We talk about Fez, Portal, Sword & Sworcery and Ico a lot too. The aesthetics of the game have been informed by everything from bonsai plants and poster design, to arabic calligraphy and Tarsem’s film The Fall.”

With a direct connection to Escher, the primary challenge in MV lies in figuring out the quirky and impossible (but very consistent) spatial logic. Most levels are very straightforward, but an occasional one had me experimenting for a bit before moving forward.

Sometimes, solving the puzzles sent me straight back to just absorbing the atmosphere, watching how the turn of a lever made the world change in beautiful ways.

As a whole, Monument Valley may not be the most gamey or challenging of games, but who cares?

Well, many people do, and that’s just fine.

This game or any game can’t be all things to all people at all times. To me, it was simply a wonderful, condensed and completely captivating experience of exploring a beautiful universe with an intriguing spatiality.

A lack of continuity?

The first edition of CounterPlay is over, and while there’s definitely lots to change & improve, I’m generally extremely happy about the way it turned out (read more about it here).

Now it feels like I’m in a big hole.

A part of this is surely just me being really, really tired.

Exhausted, to be honest.

That’s to be expected, as organising the festival was pretty intense. I should take some days off, and with Easter coming up, that’s happening soon.

Another part is probably just a completely natural void in the wake of a big project.

Even so, there’s this gnawing feeling that I should make a full stop and think about the way I work & live. I’m constantly thinking about these things, but for some reason, now feels like a particularly good time to do so.

What am I concerned about?

There’s a lot of dilemmas in this.

I’m doing so many things all the time (and constantly  tweeting about it), that, to any bystander, it probably seems like I’m doing absolutely fine.

In a way, everything IS just perfect. I love the freedom, the chaos, I love the things I do and the people I’m involved with, and I like to think, that I am actually moving perceptions and people.

I’m, plain and simple, happy with what I do.

I’m not exactly a person who cares much about money or business’y things in general. This is obviously a huge disadvantage, when you’re self-employed. My priority is always to A) do something that’s fun & challenging while B) hopefully making the world just a tiny bit better, more humane and playful. Money is not a part of this equation – except that they are, of course.

Ever since I started, 5-6 years ago, I’ve been involved in a broad range of activities. A lot of it has been related to games and digital media in education, but I’ve also been working with “games as culture”, and I’ve been doing a few projects on games & playfulness in companies & organisations. I’ve been doing many consulting jobs, a lot of talks at conferences and seminars, a lot of workshops, courses for teachers, a huge pile of writing and experimental projects. I have been part of creating multiple initiatives & events for knowledge sharing and networking (#skolechat, EdCamp Denmark, Spil i skolen).

Oh, and of course CounterPlay, that got me thinking about the importance of meaningful events in bringing people together.

CounterPlay opening - by Zuraida Buter
CounterPlay opening – shot by Zuraida Buter

All of it has been revolving around changing the perception of when & how playing can be meaningful and valuable.

Moving forward, I hope to follow my own lead from CounterPlay, exploring playfulness & games in projects and events across domains (e.g. culture, learning, business) as well as playing with and without purpose. I want to create more meaningful learning experiences for people in education, but I also want to encourage simply playing (also see this post on “my playful dreams with games“)

So my immediate challenge is this:

The perfect situation would probably be one, where I have 1-2 steady projects, while still leaving enough time and space to launch new initiatives as I see fit.

As with everything I do, I’d love to have conversations about these things. I’ve only been able to be working on so many amazing things because of the people I’ve met over the years, and I’ll only keep moving forward because of people.

A cup of coffee, a beer, a phone call, a hangout.

Anything goes.