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
. 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
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
Promoting social, not individualist, ethics
Co-opting the DIY ethic
In favour of boredom
Seduction as play