I wrote this article on play for the Finnish Design Yearbook 2006. The book will be published later this month and it will be available through Design Forum Finland.
If you consider your own life, how would you begin the following sentence?
“_ _ _ _ is a voluntary action or activity that is performed within set limits of time and place according to voluntarily accepted but absolutely binding rules; it serves its own purpose and creates a feeling of excitement and joy, as well as awareness of something that is “other” than “ordinary” life.”
Whatever your answer is, Johan Huizinga, the Dutch historian, would have said that you just defined play. Huizinga denied the puritanical contentions about play in his 1949 book Homo Ludens (“Man as Player”), arguing that play is in fact a most fundamental human function, one that has permeated all cultures from the very beginning.
According to modern western thinking, work and play represent two opposing concepts. Play is associated with enjoyment, irrationality, spontaneity, experimentation and fun, whereas work is serious, rational, economical, normal and entirely predictable. The juxtaposition of work and play is partly explained by the Protestant work ethic, which holds work to be a virtue and a model of the good life. According to this philosophy, sensible and hard work could not be, and was not allowed to be fun, entertaining or anything that would promote disobedience, enjoyment and smugness, all of which were thought to be ruinous to true Christian belief.
The juxtaposing of work and play may also originate from the view that play is a child’s activity. Especially within the fields of psychology and education, play among children and animals is studied as a phenomenon connected to biological and cultural development.
Removing play from the scope of socially significant work and adult activities has led to its trivialisation. Play has no place in the professional world or the social innovation system. In Finland too we consider technology to be a technical activity rather than a creative one. According to the stereotype, Finnish companies are headed by serious-minded, untalkative engineers.
In the light of current trends, however, it looks like the role of play in work, especially in design and research work, will have to be re-evaluated. One reason for this can be found in the ongoing innovation crisis within established institutions and businesses. Organisations trimmed to maximise their economic performance no longer represent the kind of environment in which the best new ideas and innovations can develop.
Instead, scholars such as Eric von Hippel and Henry Chesbrough have highlighted how the latest applications are being developed in the fringes, among communities of users, hobbyists and amateur developers. Eric von Hippel writes: “A growing body of empirical work shows that users are the first to develop many and perhaps most new industrial and consumer products.”
Indeed, devoted hobbyists have developed sports equipment such as mountain bikes, surfboards, and – the latest craze – Nordic Walking poles. Successful internet services, such as Skype for internet phone calls, Flickr for photo sharing, and Habbo Hotel for online gaming, were initially developed as leisure time projects among friends.
Throughout the world, open source developers are utilising the free operating system Linux to rewrite the rules for the software industry. These rules are based on the idea that systems should be available to all who wish to develop them further. For many, programming new applications seems to be closer to the idea of play than the idea of work. This trend reflects an enthusiastic, passionate attitude towards problem solving and development. At the same time, it allows free expression, exploration, and community building through powerful social elements: participation, creation, and sharing. Finnish
philosopher Pekka Himanen has coined the spirit of open source development in the notion of the hacker ethic.
According to current thinking, play is ambiguous and ubiquitous. It ranges from dreams, fantasy, and imagination to collecting, craft, construction, music, sports and computer games. All these activities contain the main elements of Huizinga’s definition of play: they are voluntary activities performed in certain places under certain rules, and they produce excitement and joy for their performers.
Play has been linked with freedom and beauty in philosophy, transformation in art, and experimentation and reproduction of social norms in anthropology. Lev Vygotsky, one of the founders of modern psychology, considered play “the most genuine and effective form of creative activity.”
Unlike other early 20th century psychologists, Vygotsky linked play with cognitive development and learning: “In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behaviour; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself.”
A central element in Vygotsky’s theory is the idea that all human activities, including work and play, are mediated by cultural signs and tools. This insight provides the basis for a discussion about play in creative adult activities, including design.
Few professional designers would define their work as merely play. Design, however, is a process that one carries out by playing with existing social norms, functional affordances, and aesthetic conventions. Fashion itself is a form of social play.
Play can be employed as a method in design. For example, playful techniques can be used to study users and conceptualise the idea of a new product. These techniques may include diary keeping, storytelling, scenario building, and creating visual collages. A future product may be visualised using drama, cartoons, short movies or toys. In this context, role-playing helps designers to imagine potential lines of use action.
These scenarios, which are made visible through play, serve as resources for decision-making. The more versatile the understanding of a product’s potential use, the more flexible the designer's capability to further develop the product. In professional design, play is thus a legitimate form of work.
Designers also need to account for play as part of contemporary daily life. Everyone enjoys some form of self-expressive, creative activity that brings them excitement, joy, and the feeling of freedom and self-development. Some of us like singing karaoke and making home videos, while others enjoy knitting beanies, sailing a boat, or tuning cars.
Easy and affordable tools are essential for the increasing popularity of creative adult play. Tools for making, editing and publishing text, photo and video have developed dramatically in the past five years. The number of blogs and online communities focused on play and hobbies is rocketing. More than just personal entertainment, they form a gigantic development structure for an entirely different, distributed way of exchanging opinions about goods and services, and developing them further.
Play transforms passive users into active co-producers. Some designers and artists regard the idea of users playing with their products as potential copyright infringement. Others are exploring the use of alternative copyrights such as Creative Commons, which leave more opportunities for commenting and co-production.
It has become evident that organisations that wish to foster creativity and innovation in the 21st century need to reshape their current conceptions of production and consumption. Among other things, this includes putting play back into work, making designers play with users, and supporting creative play and voluntary development projects outside businesses.
Considering our innate love of engineering, can Finland – with its high level of education and design expertise – take play seriously and show the way to a genuinely creative and regenerative society?
Chesbrough, Henry (2003) Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology. Harvard Business School Press.
Himanen, Pekka (2001) The Hacker Ethic. Random House Inc.
Huizinga, Johan (1949) Homo Ludens, A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.
Hänninen, Riita (2003) Leikki, Ilmiö ja käsite . Nykykulttuurin tutkimuskeskus. Jyväskylän yliopisto. Gummerrus Kirjapaino Oy.
Lindqvist, Gunilla The Aesthetics of Play. A didactic study of play and culture in Preschools. Uppsala Studies in Education 62. Uppsala.
Sutton-Smith, Brian (1997) The Ambiquity of Play. Harward University Press.
von Hippel, Eric (2005) Democratizing innovation. MIT Press.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1966) Play and its role in the mental development of the child. Soviet Psychology, vol. 12, No. 6.