Let’s talk about play (baby)

Play is everywhere in society. Video games are a multi-billion dollar industry, and there seems little sign of sport losing its choke-hold on the national psyche anytime soon. Board games, my particular obsession, are experiencing a sustained and wonderful renaissance, and I write this surrounded by commuters, each playing games of some kind, ranging from fantasy epics, via Candy Crush, to social media.

Because, by the way, social media is also a game, with likes, shares and retweets standing in for points. Some will disagree, but for me social media places a gamified sheen over everything the modern world does.

Of course the pervasive importance of play is not new or unique to Western culture. The history of play is rich and forms a tapestry of alternating obsession and suppression, and I hope to explore this in later posts. No country in the world currently seems immune from the drive to play, from the stick and dirt games universal in young children, to the majesty of East Asian abstract games.

Of course the other feature of western society is that we don’t just do things, we talk endlessly about them. And I want to talk about play. But I’ve looked around at the discussions of play, and it seems to me that they fall into three broad categories

Firstly, there’s hype. There is an enormous amount of play: games, sport events, products and of course coverage of all of these things, that can be trialed, promoted, and talked up. Reviews of every sporting contest, videos of gameplay for the latest triple A offering, and more board game kickstarters than perhaps seems either possible or decent.

Secondly there’s what I call the literature of striving. This is related, but is more about perfecting whatever play is being engaged with, so from the perfect cover drive, to the top 10 worker placement games, to an appreciation of the genius of Patrick Mahomes, all of these are concerned with the being the very best at a particular form of play.

The final sort of writing about play, which is greatly outnumbered by the other two, but is still significant I think, is the moralistic approach. Looking at the history of play, it always been accompanied by a current of moral disapproval, which has verged on panic at various points. I plan to write more about more panic and play and I just wanted to mark here that this sort of writing is always with us

There’s nothing wrong with any of these genres. They just don’t answer the questions that I would like to talk about, questions like:

  • What counts as play?
  • Is some play more worthwhile than other play? Is an hour playing video games ‘worth less’ than an hour’s board gaming?
  • When does sport become play and does it become better or worse for it?
  • Can we accept play as being valuable in itself or does it only have value via other effects?
  • Are we bringing the casino into children’s games with the purchase of loot boxes?
  • Who is a Gamer? Do you need to be playful to be a gamer?
  • What will play look like in the future?

I also want to look at the past particularly the history of moral panic, information technology, and games.

Now you might object that I should just look all this stuff up in the academic literature; surely there’s some boffin writing about the meaning of this and that? And I’ve tried, the problem is that the academic literature on play is essentially the information arm of a campaign to make early education play-based rather than instructional, and while that is a noble aim, it rather limits the literature to a narrow focus on imaginative play in the under fives.

So what I would really like to do is open up some conversations with people about these questions.. I can only hope that these opening thoughts have stimulated something in your own mind: I would love nothing more than for people to suggest topics about play that they’ve always wondered about. I’m hoping to get the first few posts on this blog out fairly quickly and then look around for other people to talk to about this stuff.

Away we go then.