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.

A festival of play & games

I like to play (no shit, Sherlock).

I like to explore play.

I like to talk about play, and I like to bring people together, who play, talk about play and make other people play.

In the past, I have been responsible for a few minor conferences on games and learning (more here & here), both extremely inspiring endeavours (though also very demanding and slightly intimidating).¬†For a while, I’ve been wanting to do something more, building on these past experiences. I wanted to broaden my scope on games & play, and¬†to create an event, that is embedded locally here in Aarhus, but embracing inputs and people from around the world. It’s about learning, of course, but it’s also about all the other ways games & playful activities can improve our lives – whether play is the purpose, or we have our aims set at goals external to playing. I want to create a place, where all kinds of people meet and talk; people who are usually not likely to stumble upon each other (e.g. game devs, educators, librarians, health care professionals, private companies etc.).

I’ve written¬†a fairly long description of my plans, and used the term “CounterPlay” as a (working, perhaps) title:

“Referring to ludic or playful vitality in its most transformative expressions, counterplay speaks directly to the disruptive creation of the new through the reiterations of gaming‚Ä̬†(Apperley & Dieter)

My goal is two-fold:

  1. To expand our understanding of games & play

  2. To contribute to a wider awareness of the potential impact of games & play

And here’s a bit more:

CounterPlay is a tribute to and an exploration of the many ways, in which a more playful approach can help us live better lives. We focus on the excitement, intense engagement and rich experiences of people involved in all kinds of playing experiences. This sparks an investigation of how play can be transformative, change our thinking, push our boundaries and lead us places, we never imagined.

And this tweet captures much of it as well:

Along the way, I got ambitious and wanted to build something big. I wanted an international conference ¬†spanning ¬†several days with multiple tracks, workshops, an expo etc. Even though there’s a few events in this domain ¬†in & around Denmark (most notably the brilliant W00t in Copenhagen and Animated Learning in Viborg – both great events, that I want to support as much as I can) I still don’t think the space is saturated, and I feel like my approach is different enough to be relevant.

For those of you with whom I engage on Twitter, you know about these thoughts, as I’ve been talking about this with regular intervals (many of you have been very encouraging as well – thank you!). I almost feel a bit silly to keep coming back to this, and I’ve been a bit insecure as to whether or not my plans are really viable (to be completely honest, I’ve been thinking and talking so much about this, that I’m simultaneously A) afraid that it never happens and B) that it does happen, but fails miserably. None of these concerns are even remotely rational, I know. It’s all in my head). Also, I reminded myself about this:

It’s obvious, that I can’t do something like that by myself. I’ve investigated a number of possibilities, among them the fact that Aarhus is ”¬†European Capital of Culture” in 2017.¬†I haven’t really had much luck, though, and may not have tried hard enough (I clearly haven’t. If I had, I’d have been somewhere else). Even so, I’m currently¬†left with a feeling, that, right now, I’ve got two options:

Either I forget about the whole idea (for the time being).

…or I scale it down (probably to one day), make it more low-key and just go ahead and do it by myself (and draw on anybody interested).

As this is something I¬†really want to do, the former is not too attractive, and the latter is how I often work, anyway, so it’s not much of a choice, really. It just took me some time to reach this (fairly unsurprising) conclusion.

I haven’t given up on the dream of something bigger, but it’s always easier to allow something to grow, if it’s already up and running.

As it happens, I’m also currently planning the next iteration of EdCamp Denmark, that takes place in Aarhus on April 5th. Consequently, I’m contemplating possible synergies between the two. Maybe some people would want to attend both? Maybe I could host the two events the same place? Maybe someone would even be interested in sponsoring both?

For now, I’ll spend as much time as necessary during the fall talking to potential speakers, finding a relevant venue, and possibly acquiring a few sponsors.

As always, I’d love to talk to anybody interested.

All that’s left to say at this time:

It’s happening.

My playful dreams with games

Attending conferences aimed at the game industry is always fun, but also usually reminds me, that I probably need to clarify my relation to games.

It’s not that I personally mind my eclectic approach, working in several directions at once, it’s just that I rarely know how to convey a clear image of this in the short amount of time conference networking leaves you with (a phenomenon I was never too happy about in the first place).

“Are you a developer?” “No, I’m..”

…and then people are already gone, moving on to someone less confusing (and confused).

So here’s a humble attempt at describing my dreams with games – in a (relatively (who am I kidding?)) brief post (If nothing else, laying out my position is probably a good exercise for me) (and I will try to use less¬†parentheses)..

Games in education

When I was preparing my Master’s Thesis back at Media Studies, around 2007, I was conflicted. Initially, I was kinda opposed to the idea of games having anything to prove. They are legitimate in and of themselves, damn it! I was and is vehemently opposed to any perception that sees games as nothing but trivial tools to reach goals outside the game, e.g. learning.

Even so, I moved into the field of¬†games & learning.¬†I started exploring how specific games (in the case of my thesis, “Global Conflicts: Palestine“) could be used in education, and what it means, how it challenges teacher/student relations etc.¬†I didn’t have a clue what to expect, but was quite fascinated with what I found. Students considered “weak” in school participated heavily, and talked eloquently about the complex conflict. I mean…some students (almost) understood suicide bombers, because they talked to the mother of one such.

It was a both touching and¬†eyeopening experience, and I knew I wanted to go further down this path. I also believed, that people knew most of this already. As it turned out, most people didn’t, and I figured I had no other option than being self-employed, trying to navigate and mediate between game developers, researchers, educators etc. I thought of “bridging gaps” as one of my primary goals – and I still do.

I quickly realized the need to broaden my scope, and early on, I started working with all kinds of “games in education“; learning games, “entertainment” games, games as “learning tools”, analysing games, making games etc.

By now, five years in, I remain heavily interested in all aspects of games in education. I am involved in several exciting projects, and I might start spending more time on creating better conditions for developers of “learning games” (or whatever you fancy calling them). I have also encountered and worked with more general challenges facing the use of digital media in education, and I spend much time encouraging conversations across domains & an increased focus on sharing knowledge.

More than anything, though, I’m interested in working towards changing the way we think about and practice education.¬†How do we make it much more meaningful for anybody involved? How do we create better opportunities for more people to live rich lives, including being an active part of society? In this regard, games serve as a source of inspiration more than an actual tool.¬†It’s not about the games themselves, it’s about how they can inspire us to think differently about education and learning.

If you want to dive deeper into this, James Paul Gee is probably one of themost vocal & prominent proponents of understanding games as an ideal framework for learning and problem solving:

Summing up, you probably couldn’t point to an area of “games & learning” that doesn’t interest me (that’s not entirely true, because edutainment-style drill & practice rarely gets me fired up. That’s an exception from the rule).

Games in society

Spending a lot of time and energy on arguing for the inclusion of games in education, I am frequently engaged in broader discussions on the role and perception of games in society.

If I have to say it again, I’ll do that. Just for the sake of extreme clarity. I¬†bloody love games.¬†Not because they can help us achieve stuff, that can be tested. First and foremost because games allow us to do interesting things, go interesting places, and in some (albeit rare) cases, allow us to explore what it means to be human. Or sometimes, it’s just about being as stupid and silly as possible (looking at you, Saints Row).

That’s all fine.

So many people still don’t really understand or care about games, and a (surprisingly) large portion of society are still attracted to the sensationalist headlines of games causing all kinds of harm, and then this happens (again and again):

Oh no, you didn't...
Oh no, you didn’t…

On a less dramatic scale, many are simply happy to maintain the most stereotypical perception of games and gamers, even though the demography of people playing games is shifting. Ian Bogost has a nice take on this:

“Soon gamers will be the anomaly. If we’re very fortunate, they’ll disappear altogether. Instead we’ll just find people, ordinary people of all sorts. And sometimes those people will play videogames. And it won’t be a big deal, at all.”

At the same time, we need to stop defending games at all costs. We need to stop pretending there’s no possible consequences of playing games. We need to abandon the notion that “it’s just a game” as the only answer to any kind of criticism. Hey, if games have no impact whatsoever, how could they be so fascinating? Let’s talk more about¬†why¬†we love games, how they challenge us intellectually, connect with us on an emotional level, and what it means that games are such a huge part of culture and our lives.

I would love to do more to work challenging assumptions and¬†exploring the concept of “meaningful conversations”¬†about games. Most people simply don’t know how to talk about games, or at least they tend not to do so.¬†I have been contemplating events, that bring together a much broader audience than, say, game developers or educators. I’ve also had the pleasure of discussing this with the most brilliant people:


A playful life

What I would like more than anything, though, is to contribute to a movement towards a society, where playfulness is an ideal (one ideal, not¬†the¬†ideal. I don’t care much for dichotomies between games/play and other media/activites).

A society where something like this happens more often:

Or this:

Or…oh, you get the picture.

A society where “play” is not relegated to the realm of children, and where playing is something we all do – in a multitude of ways, in all kinds of situations.¬†This is not about games per se, but about fostering a culture, where play is not merely tolerated, but embraced and appreciated.

Among many other domains, education would benefit SO much from allowing play to unfold. Just think about the relationship between play and creativity, curiosity, exploration and experimentation.

…but it’s really not, first and foremost, about¬†using¬†play as an instrument. It’s about acknowledging the inherent value of a “playful state of mind”.

This line of thinking is not new, and many brilliant people are already fighting this important fight (in different, but playful ways). Look towards people like Thomas Vigild, Stine Liv Johansen, Carsten Jessen, Bernard De Koven, Zuraida Buter (whom I recently dubbed “play evangelist”. Actually, all these people qualify for that label).

Those are just some of the people, that inspire me on (more or less) a daily basis. Then there’s all the wonderful game companies, organizations & collectives like the lovely Copenhagen Game Collective.

How do we encourage a more playful approach to life?

So this is all very broad, you say? Yeah. Well, it’s an adventure, and I keep seeing interesting patterns, overlaps and new connections. It all makes sense to me (from time to time).

Any hooks in some of this long tale, that made you want to talk? Get in touch (protip РTwitter works better than anything).

The simple beauty of a duck

As already stated, yesterday I had the pleasure of participating in the very inspiring “NEXT KIDS TECH 2011” conference hosted by the LEGO Foundation in Billund. Besides “just” participating in an exciting conference, I was struck by the culture permeating the organization which is LEGO.¬†I’m fully aware that this experience cannot be separated from happy childhood memories, intensive corporate branding and my personal opinion that LEGO is cool.

Even so, the core values of LEGO (some of which are caught on the image to the right) all seemed very credible to me and I returned home with a reinforced conviction, that our schools should be more like the informal, autonomous, open-ended and exploratory learning, which the LEGO bricks so brilliantly facilitates.

Less scaffolding and rigid rules, more freedom and exploration.

All these important lessons were beautifully illustrated by the little yellow LEGO duck. At the end of the day, we all received a tiny bag with just six bricks, and were told to each make our own duck as we thought a proper LEGO duck would look like. Everybody engaged passionately in this, and few ducks ended up looking the same.

“There is no wrong way to build with LEGOs, only right ways” we were told.

Of course this is all a relatively cheap (yet effective) trick, but two things struck me as being perfectly encapsulated in this little intermezzo (besides all the allready established LEGO-values).

First off, the idea expressed above. There are no wrong ways, just right ways, and in addition, if you have enough LEGO, you can build just about anything. The same should go for education – there should be no wrong ways, but rather a multitude of right ways, all depending on your individual preferences, and we should definitely support the notion, that with the right amount of creativity and hard work, you can build anything.

Secondly, by building our own little duck, we all experienced a strong sense of ownership over our little creation. Most people kept their ducks, showing them off, and bringing them home to support the memory of a mighty fine day. What if we could instill the same sense of ownership with students in our educational systems by allowing them a more autonomous role in “building” their own education?

Definitely worth thinking about, and yet another reminder, that most informal learning (e.g. LEGO or video games) are way better at fostering intrinsic motivation, and that we simply cannot afford to ignore this in formal learning contexts.

Oh, and my overall impression of the entire day wasn’t in the least ruined by a bit of bribery:

Bribed to be creative?