Before the year ends, I should post up an essay I wrote for the D8 design consultancy in Glasgow, celebrating ten years of talking about The Play Ethic (my chosen anniversary date was the appearance of my major essay in the Observer newspaper in October 2000). It's not a heavy theoretical read, has some clues towards my next burst of intellectual activity. All comments welcome.
Playing well: ten years of the Play Ethic
There's nothing like the tenth anniversary of your own cultural meme to help you mark the passage of time.
My Observer magazine cover article on The Play Ethic, titled "Play For Today", first appeared on October 22, 2000. The dot-bust was just reaching the peak of its fall-out, but had still left us all living in a new, weightless, connected world. Blairism was in its high pomp, heading for another New Labour landslide; meanwhile, a brand-new Scottish Parliament was stumbling to its feet.
And I was hoping that walking out of a well-paid editorial job with a brand-new newspaper, The Sunday Herald - and betting on a zeitgeist change - was the right thing to do.
I'll never regret the last minute panicked call to the editor: "make sure the website address is at the bottom of the piece!" A bit bemused, she assented. And thus my own meeting-place for thousands of global souls (or whatever over 220,000 page views translates to), increasingly intrigued by the power and potential of play over the last decade, was founded. (And yes, the web address will be at the end of this piece). It's been a fascinating lens through which to peer at some of the civilizational tumult of the Zeroes.
In a sentence, the Play Ethic was intended to be what comes after the Work Ethic. Whereas the latter was a legitimating creed for the duty, routine, steady production and social self-restraint appropriate to the industrial era, the former was a mentality to help us get the best out of the informational era.
I wanted a new generation of "soulitarians" to exult in the flexibility of new kinds of employment, to be excited about the transformative power of digitality and networks, to recover a child-like sense of optimism and creativity that could now express itself in the mainstream of our lives. Even in the ruins of the Dot-Bust, and in defiance of the weird "new work ethic" promulgated by the even weirder Gordon Brown, it seemed to me like a major shift in the common-sense of our public and private lives was underway.
And then halfway through the write up of the Play Ethic book, in September 11, 2001, a screaming came across the sky... That delayed the book, which finally published in late 2004. But what it also had to change was a sense - something that I've been struggling with ever since - that the "playfulness" I'd been counterposing to a stiff, commanding-and-controlling, experiment-fearing world of organisational orthodoxy was perhaps too culturally specific.
My first year of the Play Ethic had seen me fielding major advertisers like Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Lowe Lintas, or esteemed organisations like the British Council and the Cabinet Office - all of them part of the blithe, post-Fukuyama 'market-democratic' over-confidence of the times. And all of them looking for the next new sexy idea to help them govern electorates, or sell to consumers.
But with the Twin Towers bomber Mohammed Atta's suicide note in my ear - "the time for play is over and the serious time is upon us" - I realised straightaway that to think about the role of play in the human condition was to do more than provide some fizzy buzz-words for some corporate business strategy.
When Will Hutton reviewed The Play Ethic in the Guardiani, he fascinatingly bundled it in with books on idleness and slowness, and then connected it to Joseph Nye's concept of soft power. These visions of squashy, messy, bucolic, non-coercive Western-ness, concluded Hutton, "might be doing their small part to help our image and limit the appeal of al-Qaida... The happier we are, the better - not just for ourselves, but as a reason to be copied rather than opposed".
Mebbes aye, mebbes naw, as the magister ludi Kenneth Mathieson Dalglish might have pronounced. But in any case, I hit the book-stands with a sprawling monster that felt it had to consider the Buddhist network path as seriously as New Labour workfare; the indeterminacy of the quantum on a par with the elegance of the Lego brick. No, a mega-bucks period of zeitgeist-surfing at Malcolm-Gladwell speaking rates did not quite ensue for me.
But what did ensue was points of contact with a growing constituency of people for whom "play" became an important keyword, signifying a crisis of meaning or purpose in their domain. For example, I've talked to so many educators and the educated over this period - everyone from Australian and British government ministers to Kilmarnock play workers and teachers, from New York academics to Bristol primary school kids.
I have no real idea what impact these conversations have had - but it has been a delight to see the growing importance of playful experience to educational reform. Until the Con-Dem coalition slashed it for deficit reduction, there were hundreds of millions of pounds being devoted to playparks in the UK - the rationale based on the kinds of multidisciplinary studies of the health and neuronal benefits of play that I'd highlighted in the book.
And almost every educational establishment now gets the benefits of extended kindergarten, or active-learning-through-play, for the development of future learners. It's taken nearly a century and a half, but Dickens' Gradgrind is gradually being evicted from the British classroom.
We're also in something of a "wellbeing" revolution in public policy: no ambitious political figure in the UK, on any part of the ideological spectrum, can now get away without condemning those philistines who know "the price of everything and the value of nothing". And from my commissions and engagements, I'm beginning to perceive that for many people, play puts meat on the bones of more abstract considerations of "happiness" or "quality-of-life". At least in its active, sociable, physical mode, play gives a taste of what the "good society" might actually feel like.
But there are other dimensions of play - what the scholars call "dark" or "ancient" play - which I've become increasingly aware of over the years. One deficiency in the 2004 book, and one which I'm still ambivalent about, is the steady rise to commercial and cultural predominance of computer games culture in the developed world. I've literally watched its rise over the shoulders of my daughters, who have both grown up playing god-games and simulated worlds in the last decade. But I'm not a natural gamer - and I wonder whether it's because games are all too easily deployed to reinforce a rampantly martial and competitive spirit of society.
My own play-guru, the psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith, isolates "contestive" play, or play-as-power, as only one form of play's "taking reality lightly". I'm consulted regularly by games-makers and professionals these days, who sense a crisis in their own burgeoning sector. It's not just in terms of the costs of blockbuster games leading to high risk and bankruptcy. It's also about the narrowness and oppressiveness of the "win-state", "power-up" mentality that so much of games culture generates.
Watch organisations like Hide And Seek, or go to events like Playful, or note games-makers like Jane McGonigal, and you'll see a generation of gamers who want to do for their medium what alternative filmmakers did for French and American cinema from the 50's onwards. But I'm finding that a "play ethic"- a sense of experiment and openness leading to a sustainably good life - is being actively sought out in this community - yes, even by the coders of out-of-control robot soldiers and vengeance-wreaking fantasy trolls.
Where next for the Play Ethic? One further omission from the 2004 book was any real grappling with environmental limits, or the necessity for a low-carbon future, other than with a kind of blithe hope that technological innovation - fuelled by the best spirit of scientific play, of course - would get us out of our resource hole. I'm now fascinated by play as both a window into the eternal sources of human inventiveness, and as a soft-spot that opens us up to addictive interaction and lifestyle narcissism.
On some mornings, I wake up and exult in a networked world that's like a giant "ground of play": robust but loosely structured, enabling a surplus of materials for us to freely combine and morph, allowing new parties and voices into the process of building society. On other mornings, I fall out of bed, attend to my flickering smart-phone, and wonder whether I'm holding in my hand a weapon of mass distraction - something that ensnares my character in a matrix of "fun", allowing me to acquiesce in the charcoaling of the planet.
The very energies of play - not exclusively our own as a species, but something we uniquely retain right to the end of our lives - shows that we are a radical animal. Play gives us the capacity to flexibly respond to almost any situation that our environment throws at us. My aim now is still to explore what an "ethic" for play might be - but one which picks through its wide range of potentiating options, and tries to develop the best ones for a sustainable society.
The rise of "maker" culture - what the hackers (who I began to pick up on in the 2004 book) did when they moved from coding to concrete reality - is an example of a dimension of play that could really help us get beyond a wastefully consumerist society.iiMakers promote a sociable tinkering, where we use hi-tech to skill ourselves and provide for ourselves more and more, rather than a lazy, brand-directed consumption.
As it seems to have taken a decade for the first incarnation of the Play Ethic to move from the curious fringes to somewhere near the centre of debate about the qualities of the good society, I'm expecting this greener version to take at least as long to get to the same place - by which time it might be called something completely different.
But the principle of freedom and openness that play represents means that, whatever happens, the debate will be rich, inclusive, sprawling and never-ending. It's been a great perch from which to observe the beginning of the 21st century. Let's see where the societal carnival takes us in the next ten years. Leg godt, as the Danish say: play well.
iWill Hutton, "Slow down, tune out, make peace", The Guardian, 11 September (!!), 2004 http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/sep/11/sportandleisure.highereducation
iiSee Cory Doctorow's novel Makers, or Make magazine (http://www.makezine.com)