in Creativity, Psychology

Is Play Important?

Business design people talk a lot about the importance of play at work, the sort of improvisation that — because it is both fun and challenging — encourages us to persist at an activity by generating new ideas. Robin Marantz Henig’s recent essay in the New York Times, Taking Play Seriously, focuses on the scientific study of play. In short, play seems to help animals develop in important ways, but we’re not sure exactly how it helps us or if we can develop just as well without it.

But here’s an interesting thought for us adults…

Bateson, a prominent play scholar who recognizes the quandary posed by equifinality, suggested that play is the best way to reach certain goals. Through play, an individual avoids what he called the lure of ‘‘false endpoints,’’ a problem-solving style more typical of harried adults than of playful youngsters. False endpoints are avoided through play, Bateson wrote, because players are having so much fun that they keep noodling away at a problem and might well arrive at something better than the first, good-enough solution.

I’m definitely guilty of what the skeptics of play call “play ethos,” the reflexive, unexamined belief that play is an unmitigated good with a crucial, though vaguely defined, evolutionary function. Still, I hit a lot of false endpoints in the business world and can’t help but think we’d arrive at better solutions if everyone were just a wee bit more playful.

Update: Here’s a story on NPR on play and the importance of self-regulation… “we’re often using it to surmount obstacles, to master cognitive and social skills, and to manage our emotions.

  1. A couple of problems with play:

    1. As a word “play” is anathema to most business managers. They don’t want to pay for it.

    2. Directed play (i.e. open, constrained systems, as opposed to totally open systems) is more effective then general play.

    Play is terribly important. It’s play that allows designers to approach a set of constraints (an open, constrained system) and produce good results.

    This is also why I enjoy the concept of idealized design so much. It’s an exercise in directed play that leverages an ideal false end-point as a constraint to close the system.

    Of course, “idealized” is just as bad a term as “play”.

    I really liked your concept of a “try”. Any suggestions on better words for “idealized” and “play”?

  2. Momus also wrote an excellent essay recently about the knee-jerk pro-play attitude of many designers. Play is important, but is it often accepted pretty uncritically.

    “…sometimes I wonder what the hell we’re all playing at. Is all this waffle about “communication” and “play” just what post-industrial societies do when they’ve lost all productive sense of purpose?”

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