Do we have a right to play?
Since we’re starting a company with play as a central value, I’ve been thinking about it. What is it, and do we have a right to it?
Let’s start with what it means to play. I don’t have one single definition. Instead I propose there are two kinds of play:
competitive play: what you do when you’re trying to win a game
imaginative play: what you do with your action figures on a rainy Sunday when you’re 12.
Here’s the difference:
competitive play is goal-driven, bound by rules, and not much hindered by fear (in fact fear can drive competitive play). The purpose is to experience the thrill of understanding and achievement beyond what’s possible in day-to-day life.
imaginative play isn’t goal-driven, isn’t bound by rules, and is hindered by fear. The purpose is to delight in curiosity and imagination.
Each can be critical to learning, each in its own way. Competitive play is freely available to almost everyone. Imaginative play isn’t.
The reason is fear. Imaginative play requires a feeling of freedom, to indulge curiosity, follow your nose, “waste time”, and set aside the cost-benefit analyses looping in your head. Worry is kryptonite to imaginative play, and it doesn’t take much to make it impossible. The nagging feeling at the edge of consciousness from a looming deadline or an unpaid bill is enough to make imaginative play impossible.
Everyone fears, but some more than others. Kids tend to fear less than adults, the rich less than the poor, whites less than non-whites (in the U.S.), etc. Not only that, but it’s hard to control at will.
Fear is what makes imaginative play seem alternately precious and frivolous.
Precious because fear, in degrees minor and profound, is ubiquitous, so imaginative play is rare no matter who you are.
Frivolous because for many of us, worry is constant enough that imaginative play seems like a nice perk afforded to the lucky among us who’ve escaped the need for constant watchfulness.
The bottom line here though is it’s easier for some of us to engage in imaginative play than others.
As a white man from a comfortable background (looking at these words, I imagine I’m sitting at a slot machine, watching them rotate into alignment), I’m lucky. I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to cultivate a spirit of imaginative play, mainly because from where I sit, it looks like freedom. But I know not everyone gets to live this way.
I’ve noticed spaces in which adults gather to cultivate imaginative play tend to be white. For example:
improv clubs - I did improv for three years (one of the most important things I’ve done for myself), and oh my god was it white
Burning Man - I’ve never been but it has a notorious reputation for whiteness
My theory is that the more fear you’ve lived with, the harder or more frivolous (or both) these sorts of pursuits seem. So you leave them to others. A lot of the people most insulated from fear are white.
But. If it’s true, as I believe, that we learn best at play, it means inequality of imaginative play could be another means through which privilege breeds privilege. I, blithe white guy born to wealthy parents, can explore my interests more freely than someone more encumbered by fear, leading to opportunities out of others’ reach, and this is an advantage beyond what material advantages I may enjoy. Even if I were poor, my playful attitude toward life, baked-in since childhood, would remain, because I’ve been conditioned not to worry.
An example close at hand: my participation in this business, Move38, the business whose site you’re now reading.
I was traveling for work in Boston, staying at the house of a friend teaching at MIT (this story originates in a traditional kind of privilege - my friends have access to resources), and he told me there was an inventor in the MIT Media Lab I should meet.
So we went to the Media Lab and I met an amazing man named Jonathan Bobrow, who’d created a kind of board game with pieces that can think for themselves, communicate with one another, and act like living things. I played with them briefly, I talked to Jonathan briefly, and was moved by both.
Here’s where the privilege of play comes in: then and there, I told Jonathan if he wanted to commercialize his invention, I would leave my job to help him do it.
I discovered something delightful and I pursued it without fear. There was no cost-benefit analysis. I made my decision playfully. Of course there was apprehension later, once I gave my 30 days’ notice, because I’m human and fear is a condition of life, even for the lucky.
But it wasn’t enough to keep me from making the playful choice. Here I am. I can do this because I’m used to living with only a modicum of fear and a bedrock belief I’ll land on my feet.
So. Imaginative play is another dimension of the social capital keeping people like me hitting jackpots in life’s slot machines.
But it shouldn’t be that way. It shouldn’t be a privilege. It should be an inalienable right.
I don’t know how it’ll become so or how we can contribute to it. Our first product won’t address fear. I don’t even know where to start.
So for now it’s a dream, but we won’t forget it.
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