Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Rehabilitating “Play”

Originally posted on December 16, 2013

Play isn’t just for kids: It’s the essence of experimentation. I know that in the past play is just kids’ stuff, frivolous. That’s the semantics, but gradually the word is getting rehabilitated. Innovation is “in.” People are promoting creativity, and we’re seeking to develop and sustain the underlying skills that lead to creativity. Guess what: Play is a fundamental skill and mind-set.

Other elements involve:
  – a can-do attitude, as if the goal sought is possible.
  – playmates (i.e, co-workers) with similar attitudes and a willingness to be encouraging and supportive rather than jealously competitive
  – materials and an environment that allows for experimentation rather than full commitment. This is because full commitment is often extremely expensive and we don’t know if it will work. Let’s try it out on a small scale—indeed, a tiny scale, if possible. That way, if it doesn’t work, no great tragedy. And also, we may refine it, adjust it, try it a different way, or with different materials. This is practical science!
  – some reflection on what we’re doing, theorizing, discussing, room to contemplate the problem
  – but also freedom to move between reflecting and doing, and the equipment for making this shift
     So in this new sense play involves a mixture of improvisation, enactment, and creative collaboration.

To say it again: Play used to be for kids, but now it’s for adults, because play is the bridge to innovation, invention, exploration, and we’ve entered an era in which those dynamics are valued. We’re leaving an era in which ordinary people were assigned to routine tasks, to obey, to be given orders, and only the elite—and only a percentage of them—were to invent anything. The transition has taken a century and we’re still in the middle of it, and we don’t fully appreciate the kinds of thinking that go along with this.

Liberation from a Subtle Oppression

We grew up in a world that believed that it was right and proper to have rules and order, and to take orders. I suspect this is so in many cases, but in other situation, we need to liberate and empower ourselves. We might dare to recognize that a blanket submission to rules and the orders of people imagined to be our superiors was a form of subtle oppression.

I’m making a radical suggestion to envision ourselves as slightly enslaved—to the extent that we believed unthinkingly in the virtue of obedience, of following orders. Associated beliefs, equally false some of the time, were that duly authorized or high statuse “others” knew better, and thus it made sense that we obey. This has been a major tenet of religion, even more than of politics. It may have been okay for an era when people had the mentality of mild slaves—uneducated, unimaginative, and no one thinking to stoke the imagination of most folks. Indeed, many people feel no shame in confessing that they have no imagination, as if that lack is no big deal, like admitting, “I have no head for numbers.”

This is a crisis of responsibility: If more folks don’t learn to enjoy being involved, our fragile civilization will go down the tubes. I emphasize enjoyment because the real competition is that of the mass media, what Neil Postman called “Amusing Ourselves to Death” in a book title. I can’t withhold a mixture of understanding, compassion, excuse, and forgiveness because folks don’t know any better. They don’t know how to innovate, how to explore, how to risk, how to play. Play has been made into something only young children do, rather than an attitude that goes with exploration—something grown-ups need to redeem and employ as a primary method for not only work but also life. It’s called re-inventing yourself.

The problem with the postmodern condition is that everything has become so very diversified and complex that no one else can tell you what to do and how to be—other than the rather broad rules of being nice and not harmful—and even that’s ambiguous. It takes responsibility, and that in turn requires knowing how to do it, and in truth, we don’t know, nor can we know. We can guess, and experiment—and the point is that even this alert guessing is better than slavishly following somebody else’s rules.

Ideally, we’ll play in a way that integrates cybernetic principles, which is a fancy way to say that if something isn’t working we’ll try it another way. Indeed, we need to try things out, dare to experiment and perhaps risk making a mistake. Sometimes that’s the only way we can get feedback that, no, that’s not the way to go. This is exploration, this is play. The game is to set the exploration up so that one isn’t fully committed. It’s called being tentative, or feeling your way gently rather than blundering full-force into the pit. Oops. That’s a hole there. Back off and feel if there’s some way around it.

Thinking you know the right answer is nuts. You never know the answer, because even if you did know the answer a few minutes ago, the situation has changed. It may or may not work now. If it doesn’t, don’t be all shocked. And for heaven’s sake, don’t get defensive. Don’t get caught up in trying to justify what you did. No one cares why you made a mistake, in the sense of judging you. They care that you recognize the mistake and join in looking around and maybe trying something else.

To open to creativity, and to play as a way to get there, is a radical turn away from a world in which we are conditioned to not make mistakes. We were conditioned to believe that if we had just studied, we’d know. But that assumes that the ones who wrote the books knew—and they certainly did not, because things have changed! Oh, they knew some fairly rudimentary facts: 8 x 7 = 56. Okay?

At that time in history, in the 18th through the mid-20th century (and beyond), there was a tendency to overshoot our sense of what we knew. Yes, it was far more than before, but also far less than what there was to yet learn. There was a bit of a tendency to reductionism and a type of arrogance. The common, unexamined belief is that if we could know the basics, then we could know highly complex things, right? Wrong! Highly complex things can’t be known in advance because there are way too many variables at play, including changing circumstances. So you work cybernetically, experimentally, playfully.

In summary, this mini-essay is an encouragement to 21st century folk to play again, and recognize it as creative exploration.

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