Reflections 12th September

Children’s Games. Breughel.

On my mind this week.

That sometimes, maybe far too often, we get so absorbed in the business of life that we lose sight of the joy of experiencing it. 

I was reminded of this as, with friends, we watched an eighteen-year-old with precious little experience laugh her way to a very temporary victory in a slightly ridiculous and insignificant game. This morning, no doubt, the media will analyse the achievement in terms of how much money she will earn. Turning a game into a business, where sponsors, managers and coaches fret from point to point, strikes me as so ridiculous as to be laughable.

Play is much more important than that.

“The eternal gulf between being and idea can only be bridged by the rainbow of imagination.”

Johan Huizinga. Homo Ludens.

Right now, in the infinite game of life, humanity is a set down and in a tie break to see whether or not we can make it through to the next round. And, unfortunately, our hubris lets us think that if we don’t make it, somehow the planet will not, that it’s all about us. The likely reality is that, come what may, the earth will be fine for around another billion years or so, with ot without us. The rest of life on earth may sense that, but it is not spending angst-ridden days trying to work it out to a precise date. Instead, it is just getting on with it. 

We have been blessed, or maybe cursed, with the cognitive abilities to analyse and record what is going on around us more than experience it. As a result, we have a culture that prioritises the accumulation of the proceeds of our play in some sort of “winner takes all” frenzy and sets us in a direction that suggests we will soon run out of tokens to play with.

How, I wonder, could we make better use of the gifts we have been given?

Before the industrial revolution, play was a universal human trait shared by all, children and adults. Huizinga identified six key aspects:

  • Play is freely engaged; it can’t be mandated or coerced.
  • Play is disconnected from ordinary life; mundane concerns don’t apply within the field of play.
  • Play is intrinsically satisfying; it is not fundamentally connected to or motivated by any external goal or objective.
  • Play has definite limits in space and time; it only happens in a certain place and during a certain period.
  • Play operates according to special rules; these govern players’ actions but don’t apply to the external world, the rules of which likewise don’t impose on play.
  • Additionally, play tends to establish a community that persists beyond the place, time, and activity of play; players develop cohesive bonds and a sense of being “apart together.”

By these criteria, not only have we forgotten how to play, we are eliminating it from our lives. We measure our children’s performance from their earliest years as we seek to turn them into “productive” members of society. Joy, curiosity and imagination are tough to measure and are somehow treated as “nice to have” options to be used outside of the more serious business of work. 

The challenges we face as a species are severe, and we may not make it to the other side. If we are to make it, we need to play more. Analysis and logic will not take us there.

Ideas I’ve played with this week.

Anita Ross @ creativeboom

Not taking things so seriously. Play and humour changes perspective. I loved this series of photographs from creativeboom. 

Postcards from the Edge. I really value Edge magazine, and these summer ramblings are a joy.

The Grinch at work. I thought this article in HBR was a good example of our obsession with performance over play. We need to lighten up.


“If a serious statement is defined as one that may be made in terms of waking life, poetry will never rise to the level of seriousness. It lies beyond seriousness, on that more primitive and original level where the child, the animal, the savage, and the seer belong, in the region of dream, enchantment, ecstasy, laughter. To understand poetry we must be capable of donning the child’s soul like a magic cloak and of forsaking man’s wisdom for the child’s.” 

Johan Huizinga.

We have serious work to do. It’s time to play.

Have a wonderful week.

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