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Defining Play in a Larger Context

Stepping outside of outdated sandboxes of old beliefs, old behaviours, and old values.

I’ve been spending the morning reading a variety of work, interviews, and talks by John Seely Brown and I’m more convinced than ever now that his life’s work encapsulates my own life’s work more so than anyone else. If I could try to articulate this, it would be as follows.

We are a world undergoing radical change. Things are no longer working and breaking down because much of our social constructs have become social artifacts, as they are outdated, constructed hundreds of years ago. We need a vision for a new world but most people aren’t optimized for this because they’re so used to trying to “fit into” the existing world rather than “stepping out of it” and envisioning something new.

The main reason for this is that the social constructs of our older world were built for more stabler times. As a kid, you played, then you went to school to learn, and finally as an adult you got to work, being told to forget about play as “childish ways”. So our current world is so focused on “work, work, work” that there’s very little true learning going on (ie learning how to learn), and almost no playing go on at all.

And the reason for this is that we misunderstand what play is, the larger context of it. We see it as the opposite of work and thus something frivolous. But it’s not the opposite of work. In fact, it is play that helps us curiously imagine, envision, and build an entirely new world of work. Play is the embodiment of curiosity and imagination, stepping beyond the known and exploring the unknown.

This aligns with my own research on Creativity, Social Innovation, and The Future of Work, and more importantly why Play is the next logical big step for me. It’s because if you just focus on creativity and social innovation, you don’t go deep enough and realize how play is the single most critical building block for creativity. In effect, without play (aka curiosity & imagination), the process of creativity and social innovation are impossible to initiate.

So while creativity helps us transition and transform our selves and our worldview via social innovation, allowing us to effectively be world builders, it is play that makes this possible. Play allows us to effectively step outside of the existing social sandbox we’ve societally constructed in the past and step into a new space of possibilities where we can imagine and envision a whole new world and way of being.

Stepping back a bit though, I think it’s helpful to understand the power of play that most of us do agree with. Most people realize that play is critically instrumental in the development of children. Most people will agree with that statement. But as we get older, this value of play seems to be lost and no longer needed. What I’m trying to say here is that because our world is becoming much less stable and radically changing, we need to remember this power of play and reapply it to the greater context of our lives again because we need to learn how to further develop ourselves, if we want to evolve and adapt to the newer world emerging around us.

Again this is why we need to let go of these myths of play and start seeing it in a much larger context, applied continually and cyclically to our daily lives. I think John’s clarification of how he perceives of play will help in understanding this.

Yesterday, I did a talk and I learned how the term play might get misinterpreted, especially in the Singaporean context, if not all contexts. The kind of play that I think about is in terms of the disposition to push the boundaries of a system. It is to understand what the edge is like, and to understand how I might transform a constraint into a resource. Therefore, it is not about “serious” play or “frivolous” play. It is actually about trying to understand the pushback of a system.

John Seely Brown, Learning In and For The 21st Century

But John goes further and states the following.

I also have been very influenced by the idea that it is not cognition, but a nuanced form of play that advances culture. I am arguing that culture evolves when people challenge the system by exploring its edges, seeing how the system responds and thereby understanding it better.

This “exploring the edges” is a common expression used to describe 21 century leadership. But I would say it goes beyond leadership in the conventional sense, embodied by just a few but instead collectively embodied by everyone. In fact, just as communities and organizations must continually explore their edges, so too must individuals continually explore their own edges. By doing so, they provide and hold a space for what they are becoming to playfully emerge from them, rather than being blocked and held within by limited, outdated patterns of beliefs, behaviours, and values (aka culture).

In this same way, we can learn how aspects of ourselves that we previously saw as marginalized constraints can be leveraged as a resource, empowering us in the process. Another expression for this is “Own your story.” This embodies my own life’s journey, where play was instrumental to my own growth and development but then I reached a point where I believed it was a constraint because people saw my gaming background as frivolous and believed it not relatable to the current work world and even The Future of Work.

Yet John Seely Brown’s own life’s work is proving this to be false. Just as I saw similar patterns between The Future of Work and the online video game communities I helped cultivate and build, so too is he seeing this same thing. In effect, the people playing these games are building social spaces around them that are playful testing and role playing new ways of working, learning, and even playing. Put another way, their role playing a new way of living (as an integration of playing, learning, and working) that is radically different from what we believe it should be today.

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