Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

The Relevance of Play

Originally posted on September 13, 2013

Play is not just a bit of frivolity. It is deeply connected to psychological freedom, spontaneity, and creativity. To illustrate the power of overlapping properties of a dynamic, consider electricity:  In the 19th century electricity was found not just to “flow,” but also to have many properties not envisioned at first, such as its relationship with magnetism or its capacity to be broadcast as radio waves. Play, too, may also involve also other dimensions of creativity including vitality, social bonding, and even some aspects of spirituality. These all derive from opening the mind beyond fear.

Much of life is driven by negative emotions—fear, shame, guilt, the desire for revenge (which feeds rage)—and these have traditionally been motives that drive people to engage in burdensome work. Relaxing these emotions is almost felt to be sinful, a lapsing into sloth. In small part this is true, especially if one has been engaged in unpleasant work. But as first mechanization eased the burden of heavy work, and robots continue this process, what has not yet changed is the recognition that many types of work today can be play, a kind of enjoyable exploration.

All this reflects the proverb that you can attract more flies to honey than to vinegar. It’s a bit misleading because, hey, who wants flies? At a deeper level, so much of our culture is oriented to a post-Puritan work ethic that suggests that you have to suffer to get anywhere—no pain, no gain. But what if this is simply not so?

Another analogy: In the 2002 Pixar animated full-length cartoon, Monsters, Inc., there was a subtle rephrase of the point I’m making. The energy for the rather charming and not altogether horrible world comes from the screams of children evoked in a parallel world of humans. Through a variety of plot shifts, it is discovered that the laughter of children generates much more psychic energy than their screams of fear. On one level this is just the “Disneyfication” or neutralization of nastiness and terror, as much 20th century has tended to do. On another level, it becomes increasingly recognized that much creativity, innovation, and true work (without the extremes of physical effort—but even then in some extreme sports!—) doesn’t require the deep discomfort of economic poverty and hunger!

Neurologically, what happens is that if the brain is secure, and the security is sustained, it opens to the workings of the forebrain, imagination, creativity. Perhaps we might speculate that the forebrain opens in turn to inspiration, but that is not a necessary component of our observation. It is enough for now to say that creativity based on safety reframes the cliché that necessity is the mother of invention. Perhaps play generates more inventiveness than necessity.

Some of these themes are also shown played out in another animated cartoon more recently, titled The Croods—a commentary on the emergence of creative consciousness from fear-based survival.

The implications here are profound. We have tended to marginalize playfulness as just for kids, or just for moments between work-times, or as a vehicle for satire and speaking truth to power. But increasingly play, theatre, comedy, fiction, imagination development, and the like are shifting to a more positive function in culture. It’s fun to have fun. As work loses some of the allure of virtue, creativity emerges to fill the ecological-cultural-psychological niche.

This is a new envisioning not of play itself, but of making a game of the challenge, using lure rather than fear as the motivating force. Increasingly people are noting this shift, from various angles. McGonigal writes of electronic and computer games. Alfie Kohn writes of the need to get scoring and even competition itself out as the prime motivator of learning and work. 

This mini-essay goes even further and dares to envision a mushrooming of mental investment not based on fear, but rather positive emotions of curiosity and play. I suspect that this is another one of the paradigm shifts going on today.

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