I’m no longer convinced play and work are antithetical opposites. It’s too simple. I believe good play requires work. I think Mathias Poulsen of Denmark's Counterplay Festival and teacher at Design School Kolding said as much over lunch: “Play is not trivial. It takes work to maintain consensus.” He went on to list competencies required to deeply engage in play.
Play is a skill to be developed just like anything else. I wonder how much Csikszentmihalyi's Flow comes into focus here: I feel playful at work sometimes, or driving, or even filing my taxes. Naturally sometimes I don’t, but perhaps play is something other than a cut-and-dried location we visit once we leave our job.
Rasmus Nordqvist, Danish MP and former fashion design teacher at Design School Kolding, said “Play isn’t always fun. Watch children role playing in the schoolyard. They don’t always have smiles on their faces.”
If play is Flow, then someone needs to say something.
But if play is separate from Flow, and attempts to achieve and maintain Flow, then what if play is the way we practice Flow? Play should be the easiest way to experience Flow, to feel "in the Flow." Play sets up its own rules and modifies them according to the moment’s need, accommodating the players. It sets goals and boundaries—often arbitrary.
That’s why games are a dangerous form of play: their parameters are fixed. Only in counterplay do we see players create their own metagame, establishing new internal or external rules to adapt or coopt the game to their preferred style of play. Like post-Vanilla WoW guilds demanding members conform to artificial Vanilla constraints, or players betting on their own game. Games can provide a rigid framework for play, but play does not mandatorily happen around games. In fact games can be entirely unplayful or opposed to playfulness if the players’ determined outcome is something other than the pleasure of the moment.
Is that play? Experiencing pleasure in this moment? Recognizing the feeling of pleasure, of transcendence, and reveling in it with no destination tugging at my sleeve?
We say we play a game to win. We play a sport to be the best. But there comes a difference between games played for pleasure and games played to conquer. If my entire focus is the outcome, standing on the podium or atop the hill alone or holding all the cards, I will likely miss the immersive pleasure of the moment-by-moment process. I’m not staying in Flow for Flow’s sake: I’m using Flow when it serves my purpose of elevating me to ultimate success and conquest.
Hypothetically I can have a goal of conquest and experience play on the battlefield. If my primary goal is taking pleasure in this moment, acknowledging the grand illusion separating me from reality, then I can feel playful.
Similarly if I’m answering sales calls at work attempting to make my monthly quota, but I’m more concerned with the pleasure of this conversation or the sport of picking up the phone before Stephanie does or willing to suspend my disbelief somehow and invite myself inside a bubble of arbitrary boundaries separating me from my overall metrics-based goal… then I can play.
Erden Eruç had a goal: setting world records by strategically transversing the globe under solo human power. And it seems like a lot of work. He refers to it as a game, resetting the constraints or handicap to increase the challenge. I wish I could see him in his boat, pulling at his oars. I wish I could see his eyes, hear his breath, and ask him what he’s feeling or thinking in that moment. Because he might be lost in it, fully awakened inside his bubble of pleasure and asleep to the Guinness Book of World Records and the hassle of finances and logistics. That I would call play. If he finds the pleasure of play out there on the open ocean alone, matching his individual skill with the wind and tide; if he finds the joy of the moment trudging up a mountain he’s never climbed, taking in the sight and scent of a vista that changes his perspective every step; if he finds delight in the novelty and majesty of nature as he bicycles or tromps his way across a coastline or wilderness, these I would call play. The logistics he attends to get him there may feel equally playful at times.
Gamers always want to play. If they can’t play their preferred sport they find an Xbox. They want to discover the parameters of a new board game or test their strategy on a new card game. Yes, the rules of the game are fixed, but there’s a different process in playing the game: an internal set of rules that determines strategy. It’s the same play of a factory worker meticulously honing their movement for greatest efficiency as opposed to their neighbor achieving a supervisor's minimum demands. That’s me, driving my Postal Express delivery route trying to best my time, or at Beardslee Public House crafting my tableside phrasing for greatest effect on my guests’ experience.
Is that called the metagame? The internal guides I set for myself to maximize my experience within the rigid constraints of the game itself?
A game’s artificial constraints serve to define a bubble, invite people to enter the haven of play by setting their concerns for unbounded reality aside temporarily. But in its goal-oriented rule-following demands, it actually echoes the frustration of certain uncomfortable parts of the players’ reality. The great opportunity games provide for play is not the outcome. It’s the playing of the game.
Current NFL frontrunner for MVP Russell Wilson’s brand is winning. But in the middle of the game he really seems to play. He doesn’t appear to get caught up in the uncertainty of his destination or the agony of his past. He plays in the moment. This is the only moment that exists. And it’s thrilling.
Dr. Stuart Brown M.D. says play is a universal human and [at least] mammalian language. But I believe various cultures and intersections of culture possesses their own ever-changing dialect. And using linguistics to describe play or to use play as a metaphor to describe something else, we’ve created phrases like “playing the long game” which refers to a goal, to sacrificing something in the moment to achieve conquest at the end. So perhaps goals can be playful.
Competition can be playful. But being known as a competitor indicates I have a problem with failure. Personally I feel hypersensitive to this because of my perfectionism and how it hinders my playfulness. Play involves discovery and exploration; those involve broken expectations. In fact they depend on them. Surprise, novelty, adjusting my assumptions based on new information is entirely what exploration means to me. But then hearing Erden talk about it, he emphasized breaking records. Being the first to do this or that. And he speaks with regret at times about decisions which impeded his goal. In play I find no regret, just the wonder of exploration and the thrill of discovery.
Here’s where defining play gets hazy.