Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Of play and fun and design and organisations and such

Given my own interests in play, I pay close attention as designers and businesses put more and more effort into "reclaiming" the productivity of play. Rational voices ask us not to continue belittling or trivialising play as something unproductive or childish: Just look at all the amazing work being done by amateurs and hobbyists! We are homo ludens! And we're making tonnes of stuff!

In a recent post on Design as Play, Ulla-Maaria writes that play deserves a place in design process, that play can be a resource for decision-making, that play is, in point of fact, "a legitimate form of work". In other words, she claims that play is productive and should be harnessed by organisations and businesses:

"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."

Now several things strike me here. What if we actually belittle or trivialise play by making it productive? What if the great potential of play is actually to resist - to work against - these incessant calls for productivity, efficiency, legitimacy? I mean I can't be the only one wondering what people stand to lose when capitalist production has access to their paid (work) and unpaid (leisure) labour?

You see, I'm not at all certain that I want play to be invaded, colonised, appropriated, legitimated, administered or regulated. I'm not sure I want it to be organised.

I remember at Ubicomp 2003 a panel asking Can Ubicomp Come Out to Play? During the discussion, Barry Brown - who also does really great work on the intersections between technology and geography - pointed out the simple but brilliant point that leisure play is non-productive in one crucial way: the means are often more important than the ends. Bill Gaver also advocated non-utilitarian play (which I've never quite been able to reconcile with playful design and designing for play or the rumour that he doesn't like people playing the wrong way with his cultural probes).

Going further back and crossing disciplines, Cedric Price's Fun Palace was to be a "laboratory of fun" - a place not just in which to play productively, but to have fun:

"Choose what you want to do – or watch someone else doing it. Learn how to handle tools, paint, babies, machinery, or just listen to your favourite tune. Dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky."

In contrast, the kind of utilitarian play that finds so much favour in organisational economics and politics is always already productive and profitable. Of course there is nothing inherently problematic with this; working for the advantage or benefit of something or someone in particular can be quite positive. But the sense of profit tied to organsational production also requires that the value acquired exceeds the value expended. It's a game in which competition and mastery are rewarded, and where the end result is more important than how we get there. In this scenario, play is only productive insofar as it can generate profit or, as the current language would prefer, as long as it helps us be innovative. To innovate simply means to introduce novelties or create new things - but what is the organisational value of the new, the innovative? Why competitive advantage, of course! Progress! Growth!

But nowhere in all this talk of play and innovation do I see anything substantial that I can describe as fun. Ulla-Maaria talks about play as "excitement, joy, and the feeling of freedom and self-development" and those are all wonderful things. But 'fun' involves diversion, trickery, and ridicule too. It isn't serious and it messes things up. Fun is something we have, as well as do.

Gadamer warns English-speakers not to confuse play with fun, and in Seduction, Baudrillard writes:

"Obviously, the ludic cannot be equated with having fun. With its propensity for making connections, the ludic is more akin to detective work. More generally it connotes networks and their mode of functioning, the forms of their permeation and manipulation. The ludic encompasses all the different ways one can 'play' with networks, not in order to establish alternatives, but to discover their state of optimal functioning."

This is the kind of productive play that organisations stand to benefit from - not you or me having our own fun. Now that doesn't mean we can't or won't have fun along the way. I'm just saying that not all play is fun, and when you get paid for playing, it becomes your work just as much as your work becomes play. And sometimes, while you're just having fun someone else is just waiting to profit from it. Of course You Too Can Profit From Having Fun! Just Look At What Happened With Ebay!

Yeah. It turned into a mall with "power sellers". Yay capitalism!

From the archives:
When collaboration becomes appropriation (Apr 06)
Promoting social, not individualist, ethics
(Jan 06)
Co-opting the DIY ethic
(May 05)
In favour of boredom
(Feb 05)
Seduction as play
(Dec 04)


Anonymous rowan said...

An interesting post, Anne. And of course, in addition to Walter Benjamin's fascination with child's play, according to Elizabeth A. Wilson (in an essay in the collection Prefiguring Cyberculture) Alan Turing also maintained a lifelong interest in child's play and the inquisitiveness of children. This interest was prompted, so the story goes, by the gift at age 10 of a book called Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know, which included chapters with titles like, 'Things That Don't Have to Be Learned', 'What Plants Know', etc.

Also, further to the Cedric Price material, I'm presently researching architecture's early engagement with computing technologies, and have been reading Nicholas Negroponte's (unintentionally hilarious) The Architecture Machine (1970). In one section, Negroponte (after McLuhan) remarks on the value of games for design research. He states, 'Games have fixed rules; gaming involves deception; gamers have opponents. The general game fabric, therefore, is not necessarily consonant with design.' Although, a little later he goes on to suggest that games 'involve the amalgamation of strategies, tactics, and goal-seeking, processes that are useful outside of the abstraction of gaming, certainly in design.' Kind of a cute passage 30 years later, but interesting nonetheless.

Blogger Phil said...

[Baudrillard's 'ludic']

This is the kind of productive play that organisations stand to benefit from - not you or me having our own fun.

What JB describes sounds more like soak-testing a new bit of infrastructure hardware than anything that could be called fun. Perhaps we need to use different words. After all, there is a kind of pleasure in ticking every single box on a test plan, particularly if you wrote the test plan yourself. When people used to ask if I enjoyed programming (me being an artsy old-hippie English graduate), I always used to say I enjoyed it in much the same way I enjoyed doing a crossword. But that's certainly not playing - Baudrillard's ludic is the ludic of sudoku. (Conference paper titles, get your conference paper titles here...)

The other thing that strikes me, in a half-formed second-coffee-of-the-day kind of way, is that Baudrillard describes a process of route-finding, cleaning and smoothing subsequent passes of the network - the 'player' gets lost and goes down dead ends so that subsequent users won't have to. This is, if anything, the very reverse of play, which is all about taking the long way round and valuing the stuff that you find on the way. (Quite literally in some cases. When my daughter was four and five she would always stop to pick up interesting bits of junk and litter on the way home from school; there's still a small collection of urban flotsam washed up outside our house.) Thoughts about obduracy go here. Perhaps we can think about obduracy as a property of journeys as well as objects; an obdurate route would be one which repeatedly demands different kinds of attention and rewards playfulness.

I've got to write some of this up...

Anonymous anne said...

rowan - exactly, scientists have long equated their love of work with a certain playfulness, and we know too that many scientific discoveries were the result of 'play' rather than rigourous and objective scientific methods. and negroponte's comments are interesting: the structure of gaming isn't conducive to design but the practices, or plays, are. good stuff - thanks!

phil - you are absolutely right. baudrillard's sense of seduction should not be so easily encapsulated within the concept of fun. (as the book jacket says: "Seduction speaks of the sudden reversibility in the order of things where discourse is absorbed into its own signs without a trace of meaning." man, that doesn't sound like fun, does it?!)

but i did want to highlight the idea that 'ludic' doesn't mean fun either. (the wikipedia entry for ludic also equates play with fun, and there is nothing in the etymology to support that.) the oxford english dictionary says the development of "play" is hard to trace, but almost always refers to dancing, leaping for joy, rejoicing, etc. (i.e. movement) and somewhat conversely, taking charge of, attending or cultivating.

much to think about and please do let me know when you write somethign up - i'm looking forward to it already!

Anonymous Francois Lachance said...

Something tells me that this entry was influenced by the week spent with teens. N'est-ce pas? Where the author of the entry got to witness a whole series of moves involving both game and play and the fun of both.


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