We humans are wired to play from cradle to grave. We are, after all, what Dutch anthropologist Jan Huizinga called Homo Ludens, the Playful Ape! That means we are most human when we’re goofing off, messing around, and enjoying something for its own sake. When our lives are saturated with play, we thrive. When we stop playing, we get sick, violent, and depressed.
So two hundred years under the thumb of the Protestant work ethic is a serious problem. With half of professionals working more than 65 hours/week and taking less than two weeks off per year, it’s no wonder rates of anti-depressant use, mental illness, and suicide are skyrocketing. For sea urchins, seriousness might not be a problem, but for humans, it’s deadly.
Luckily, there is also a counter trend. Thanks to significant advances in play research, play has accumulated an extremely impressive list of benefits, from growing brains to attracting mates, boosting creativity to fostering collaboration. The science is finally turning the work ethic on its head and revealing how play is not just vital to our well-being, but central to our success.
And the news is spreading fast. In the last decade numerous books featuring the benefits of play have hit the shelves with many on the New York Times bestseller list. Emboldened by the good news we’re no longer so willing to postpone our joy and squeeze it into weekends, vacations, and retirement. We’re letting loose at summer camps for grown ups and adult kindergartens, flocking to festivals, board game cafes, and Escape Rooms, while calming ourselves by coloring pretty pictures. I recently counted over 250 adult coloring books on Amazon.com, 16 of which are bestsellers.
Business is starting to wake up, too. Play is particularly popular in technology centers like Silicon Valley, where offices now sport bowling alleys and climbing walls. In fact, the sale of Ping Pong tables is so prevalent among tech companies that it is considered an index for the health of the tech economy.
At the same time, disgruntled millennials indifferent to ping pong are leaving their 9-5 jobs altogether, taking off in vans, and earning a living documenting their new, free-wheeling lifestyles on Instagram. Whether we’re Silicon Valley CEOs, empty nesters, or eco-activists we’re starting to get it. Play, Good!
It’s great news. But just how great it is, isn’t exactly clear. Is play really the cure for our post-modern malaise? The path to a life-sustaining future? The answer to all that ails us, as many play advocates want to believe?
For the past decade I’ve been one of those exuberant believers saving the world through the gospel of play. Now that the movement is getting a little traction, it’s a good time to examine play’s limitations and explore some important distinctions.
After all, our chronic play-deprivation is not just a cause, it’s also a symptom. Dig just a little deeper and we find a hyper-individualistic society, cut off from the natural world and obsessed with status and wealth, in other words, a Proving Ground. And that’s on a good day. On a bad day it’s more like a Battlefield where we have to perpetually protect and defend ourselves from threat. The Proving Ground and Battlefield mentalities are themselves symptoms of a profound sense of insecurity and disconnection.
Creating a life-sustaining Playground requires a deep transformation, a shift in worldview that restores a sense of safety and community. Can play possibly do the job? Of course you’re skeptical! I mean, let’s face it, sticking a Ping Pong table in an office game room is not going to suddenly turn a culture of fear into a rosy playground and playing 28 consecutive hours of World of Warcraft is not going to lead to radiant health. Clearly, not all play is transformative. Depending on many factors it can either reinforce, reform, oppose, or transform the Proving Ground and Battlefield mentality.
It’s safe to say that playing a video game in which the goal is to kill all the Muslims that appear on the screen is not going to transform our world into a Playground. When we have fun at other people’s expense, using play to bolster our sense of power, whether it’s in fraternity house hazing rituals, practical jokes, or violent video games, we’re reinforcing Battleground mentality. In the same way, cut-throat, high-stakes competitive games that reward the winner with cash, valuable prizes, status, or power express and maintain Proving Ground mentality even as they delight us.
The Proving Ground mentality is ravenous for new tools it can use to improve us. When I learned about play’s benefits, I put it right on the top of my To Do list like it was the new Pilates. Dance on Saturday, crafts on Tuesdays, and spontaneous fun on Thursdays at 4:30. It’s tricky. We need a strong case for play in order for the Prover in us to take it seriously, but as soon as we start playing to improve ourselves, we’re only reinforcing the idea that we need to be improved.
When companies install swings in conference rooms or paint bright murals in the hallway, they’re expecting a return on investment, an increase in innovation, engagement and loyalty, which will give them a competitive edge. In other words, they’re co-opting play into the agenda of the Proving Ground. Call it Playwashing.
We can also use play just to help us cope with the pressures of the Proving Ground. When we work hard then play hard to release tension so we can return to the Proving Ground refreshed, we’re not changing anything. We might decorate our cubicles, wear funny hats to work, and add more play breaks but that only makes the Proving Ground more playful and a life of proving slightly more bearable.
Millennials are growing up in a world in which the very notion of being grown up is pretty grim. Going into debt to get a degree to get a 9-5 office job so we can pay off our debts and afford a home, which we spend our lives working to pay for so we can retire someday down the road and finally play...sounds more like a prison than a playground. So many are redefining adulthood altogether by embracing the artifacts of childhood. They’re playing dodgeball, frequenting Disneyland, and collecting Little Pony dolls well into their 30’s. Journalist Christopher Noxon describes this emerging population as Rejuveniles. To the extent that they are embracing adult responsibilities without relinquishing their childlike wonder and joy, they are carving a path to the playground for all of us. But to the extent that they’re avoiding adult responsibilities, or flipping a middle finger to convention, then they are just as bound by the Proving Ground mentality.
We can’t transform the world by opposing it because opposition creates battles and even if we win the battle, we’re still left on a battleground. The Playground emerges naturally from a basic sense of freedom, safety, and connection. To restore the Playground we have to recognize how we’re actually already safe, connected, and free, so there is nothing to oppose.
The Dalai Lama and his irrepressible giggle and 104 year old Cliff Crozier's delight in small moments, along with child-directed, schools without walls and employee-owned organizations without rules all reflect the worldview of the Playground. They are based on and affirm our fundamental connection and freedom.
Transformative play opens a doorway to that Playground by revealing the part of us that is always free no matter what our circumstances might be. It often erupts spontaneously in those magical moments when our incessantly monitored self-consciousness falls away and like wild animals finally released from captivity, we’re free from the cage of our conditioning, the need to be in control, look good, or do it right! We’re simply present, open and available to new possibilities. We are free to play.
Transformative play is often less structured than other forms of play, since it resembles the fluid, emergent, improvisational nature of life itself. It can take many forms, from ecstatic dance to a game of Cards Against Humanity, a deep conversation to theater improv. We can find transformative playgrounds at festivals and workshops. It’s inherent in any environment in which creativity, self-expression and community thrive. The key is that we are fully absorbed in a way that expands our boundaries. When this happens, we catch a glimpse of our playful true nature.
Even if all we know is Proving Ground or Battleground mentality, some part of us longs for the freedom and fullness, the technicolor and zest for life that comes with spontaneous, free play. That play drive is strong. It stirred us to leave the Savannah two million years ago, spread across the globe, create civilizations, build cathedrals, compose operas, start religions, and invent hand held computers, curling irons, and fidget spinners. By driving discovery and innovation play has led to capitalism and consumerism. In other words, it has created the very conditions, the Proving and Battlegrounds that are now threatening our play.
Play is life force itself, and while it continues to be co-opted by the insatiable appetite of the Proving Ground, when we can sense and amplify its most life-affirming, transformative impulses, it will point us directly to the Playground. But is pointing us to in the right direction enough to catalyze such a profound shift in worldview? Stay tuned for Part 2 where I explore the role of play in individual and social change.