Mathias Poulsen

Play Activist & Researcher @ Designskolen Kolding

Playing with playfulness

For many years, I have been pondering the relationship between ‘play’ and ‘playfulness’.

I have come to believe that the very possibility of distinguishing between play and playfulness has been vastly overstated. The more I think about it, the less sense it makes to view them as separate entities. They are perhaps more like units in the mesh networks many of us have at home, they cannot be positioned too far from each other or they will fail.

I myself have cited Miguel Sicart repeatedly to say that playfulness is an attitude and that we can have this attitude without the activity of play (Sicart, 2014). For instance, with CounterPlay we used the categories ‘playful learning’, ‘playful working’ and ‘playful living’ to structure the event, and to suggest that we can be playful anywhere, whether we are learning, working or living.

Now the promise of playfulness is everywhere, and I have a sneaking suspicion that something is amiss. Are we sometimes misusing the term? Not everything need feel playful and if it has nothing to do with play, then why indicate that it does by calling it playful?

I wonder if ‘playfulness’ may be sometimes preferred because it can promise what play has to offer but without all the trouble? Is playfulness more palatable in contexts where play remains frowned upon? Playfulness may seem more orderly and ‘compatible’ with classrooms, meeting rooms, board rooms and other overly serious rooms, where we expect a return on our investment, and where things can’t be allowed to get out of hand. Playfulness may simply be an easier sell, but was play really ever about making things easy?

In contrast, play is potentially unruly and disorderly, shaking up things, resisting our intentions and getting in the way of even the most well-laid plans. 

However, when I am drawn to both play and playfulness it is exactly because it evades our attempts at control and prediction. As Miguel himself wrote, ‘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’ (Sicart, 2014).

Play holds the force to destabilise us, to rupture our smooth movement, and to transform us. Play can generate a kind of ontological friction that questions our most deeply held beliefs about how the world works (even the belief that there is indeed one world in the first place).

If playfulness is allowed none of that vitality, I doubt it has much to offer.

Consequently I think play and playfulness must remain connected, as if there is a rubber band between the two. It can be stretched and perhaps quite far, but if it breaks, we are at loss.

We may, in turn, end up with what Niels Åkerstrøm Andersen (Åkerstrøm Andersen, 2008) has called a ‘parasitic’ relationship between play and power, where play is basically used to conceal manipulation and power, merely dressing it up in a more appealing costume. This may also be akin to what I have called ‘playwashing‘, something that pretends to be play, but isn’t.

If playfulness must retain a relationship or even kinship with play, how do we grasp the possible breaking point of the rubber band? 

I am quite certain that elaborate systems, rigid structures, predefined processes and neat templates won’t help us here. The situation calls instead for attunement and a delicate sensitivity, an affective capacity to sense in our bodies when the so-called playful initiative is no longer playful.

And where does that sensitivity come from, you might reasonably ask? 

I wonder if it can only ever be developed and sustained through play? 

Maybe our innate playfulness is like a battery that needs recharging? We can bring our playful spirit with us, and we can let it out everywhere we go, but to maintain that capacity we have to play? 

This only becomes ever more pressing if we work with play, whether as play scholars and play designers, teachers and pedagogues, urban planners, game developers, strategy consultants or meeting facilitators.

If our practice is play, we have to practice play.


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