The first time I heard that comment, it was from an American living in Denmark. Amos Blanton, whose business cards may or may not read "ex-LEGO anarchist guru," sat across the picnic table from me in the courtyard outside his former office in Billund, describing what play means. "I see play as a very democratic thing," Amos told me, lowering his academic-chic glasses to punch me with his gaze. It must have caught my jaw because it took me a while to make use of it again—it sort of just hung there, slack.
That was my introduction to a fascinating field of study: play as democracy. Apparently the Danish have been doing it for over a century. According to MP Rasmus Nordqvist, a former fashion design teacher at Design School Kolding and political speaker for the Alternativet party, the movement started after Denmark ill-advisedly supported Napoleon and went broke. A group of political and social reformers reconstructed their economic system and built free primary schools for Danish children to attend. In the 1850s N.F.S. Grundtvig, a popular poet, writer, and controversial theologian, lobbied for farmers to become participants in the democratic process by studying together in folk high schools—a boarding school for all ages where individuals study what they want, together, for the sake of becoming more aware of themselves in their society—and today's social welfare system supports Danish children learning to partake in society through play at an early age, a process of negotiation and discovery paid for by their community's taxes.
As an American, I believed the words "democracy" and "freedom" were trademarked by the U.S. government. It felt really weird to extend my conversation with Amos into Danish circles, where Ph.D.s from Design School Kolding and Aarhus University immediately picked it up. "Well, you know, laughter is democratic," responded Hanne Hede Jorgensen, a former teacher-of-teachers at a pedagogy school in Aarhus, now researching laughter and sense-making at Design School Kolding. They gave me a key to the Ph.D.s' room, so I got to pester her and several others with my questions for a couple weeks. "There's not much laughter in a dictatorship. They've shown laughter often results from reimagining the world, which you can do in a democracy, but under a dictator it's not allowed."
I asked her about play in Danish education, and she described it as the primary means by which children discover their personal voice contributing to society. Play, she said, is "formation, building, support for children, becoming a democratic interaction with other free citizens." Awfully weird as an American to think of Danish citizens as free and concerned with democracy when so few of them drive pickup trucks. Then again, they love their flag. Even birthdays are commemorated with Danish flag-waving.
I've been trying to wrap my head around democracy. What it is, how it grows, how its meaning has changed over the years and what to do with it. Working at PAX West this weekend, Seattle's four-day game festival, I encountered a variety of individuals working in play from what they described as a democratic angle: accessibility and representation. Games—both digital and physical—have become a space for otherwise helpless or disenfranchised individuals to find their voice, taking control of their circumstances. More on this in a future post.
Here are components of democracy I'm playing with now. I'm still trying to figure out how they relate to each other.
Agency: The ability to steer your own course, make decisions, choose a path; freedom. As James C. Scott points out in his book Two Cheers for Anarchism, choosing between starvation or selling your child into slavery to buy food doesn't really count as freedom.
Participation: In order to make your choices count, they need to apply toward a public end. A bunch of people making choices together, that intentionally affect each other, is part of the democratic process. We're all in this together, actively involved participants.
Accessibility: If I can't get up the steps, I can't vote. If I can't hear the person talking, I can't respond. If I can't receive the invitation, I can't participate. Making the process available to all members is important.
Negotiation: Resolving issues together for the benefit of all parties involved results in improved quality of life for individuals, a balanced society, and greater understanding between parties. Persuasion and Influence might be important words to associate with Negotiation.
Empathy: Conscientiously considering each other's perspectives and needs in our decision making improves negotiations for everyone. Making decisions that only benefit me doesn't seem terribly democratic.
Representation: If negotiators at higher levels fail to speak with my voice, I'm no longer a contributor to the democratic process. My perspective, requests, and needs must be represented—ideally by someone who looks like me—in order for democracy to function.
I'm probably missing something important here, but considering this list, I find it fascinating how effectively Play serves each of these ideas. Play creates a safe place to make decisions, with limited consequences and room for experimentation; Play generally demands participation from all parties actively involved; Play is more effective if all participants can access its necessary components; Play often requires consensus, which is generally achieved by negotiation of some kind; Play increases empathy, and empathy benefits Play; Play allows us to represent ourselves imaginatively, and we often feel drawn to participate when we see adequate reflections of ourselves presented well.
There's an awful lot more to be said about this. I'm hoping to add my voice to a complex conversation gaining volume around the world.
Your effort will bear fruit. Eventually. Probably.