It's nice to be pulled out of the depths of scholarship and enterprise around play and be asked to do a definitive interview on the subject - it forces me to think and speak in a way that makes public sense of my private musings and specialised consultations. This is from a Dutch magazine called Viewpoint, which is a bi-annual consumer trends journal. I'll be part of a bigger article with a number of ludocrats speaking, which I'll post here in November.
Interview with Pat Kane for Viewpoint magazine, November 2012
Why do you think play is gaining currency right now?
I think play is becoming important because of a number of crises in the way we habitually do things. Certainly in the decade before the recent financial crash, many economists and thinkers were talking about how "the Protestant work ethic" was becoming irrelevant to a networked and game-oriented generation. My 2004 book The Play Ethic suggested that these "soulitarians" would become conscious of their creative power and digital skills, and start to demand changes in social, political and occupational structure. It's hard to look at our current tumult of social-media driven protest, at all kinds of levels, and not see the proof of that. But I think play is also becoming central because it's a component of even bigger arguments about what growth and prosperity mean - on one side from the period of indebtedness we're about to endure, but on the other side from the crisis of consumerism, and the carbon consequences of all that material throughput, that a moment's contemplation on the climate-change statistics would incite. We need to find new motivating narratives in our lives, beyond status anxiety and lifestyle excess. Play, as a planet-friendly, convivial way to bring thrills and pleasures into our lives with others, is a prime element of those new "wellbeing" narratives.
What’s your philosophy on play?
Always evolving and changing, like play itself. But in recent years I have drawn a lot from evolutionary accounts of human nature in my understanding of play. My great guide on play theory, Brian Sutton-Smith, calls play "adaptive potentiation". Play helps neurologically-complex, deeply-sociable mammals (like us!) refine and rehearse living with other creatures like ourselves. And given our human capacity for self-reflection and conceptualisation, play in humans - the more distant from raw need and survival we get - becomes more and more the central action of our lives, rather than a practise zone for it. Play is the prime indicator that we are (as the title of my next book has it) a "radical animal" (www.radicalanimal.net) - but that this natural inheritance is dynamic, experimental and inventive, rather than just our savannah-era limitations constantly tripping us up - which is my problem with all this "nudge"-style behavioural economics. Presuming we're Homer Simpson, rather than homo (et femina) ludens.
How is the role of play changing, both in individuals’ lives and in society?
As above, I think play is becoming the central activity (arguably, alongside care) of healthy, better-educated, more self-determining people in the developed (and eventually the emerging) world economies and societies - rather than the degraded Puritan residue that the "work ethic" defines it as. There's also a very strong argument for its social centrality in terms of basic public health. For educationalists, it's a global given now that we must extend the play-moment in early years education, in order that neurological and physiological development happens to their fullest degree (the Scandinavians with their world-beating educational scores proves that, as does the brain science). But this will move beyond the kindergarten, into later years, and eventually out of the school and into wider organisational life. The general paradigm of purposefulness and value-adding activity that comes from gamer culture will get stronger and stronger, as a logic for running companies and organisations. How does an activity satisfy our demands for meaning, mastery and autonomy - as the best games do? Might genuinely committed, actively learning and relatively-free-to-decide employees be a real competitive edge in an economy where consumption becomes less important than experience?
What do you think of the idea of play being co-opted by brands and businesses?
Play can't really be co-opted by any form of social organisation - as it is one of the elemental processes that lead to any effective social organisation itself. But I'm happy to see play being invoked as a positive term or signifier by corporate brands - as I think it is a term which has radical implications for how we think of time, space and resources in our lives. Genuine playfulness is not leisure, something you do after the daily grind - it's an open, experimental and socially joyful way of being that, if embraced, has incalculable consequences for the norms of how we produce and consume. Play will as easily co-opt big biz!
How has digital gaming influenced play?
Answered at points above, but digital gaming is to the 21st century what printed books were to the Renaissance - it's a fundamental reorienting of how human beings see reality and how its elements interrelate. It's as profound as the shift from seeing one's life as a narrative line, a story running through a book, to seeing one's life as an element in a system, in which one's actions are profoundly wrapped up in others. The question for me now is the degree to which we can teach games-making literacy, in the way that the study of literature encouraged new literary genres - the systems that we enter into with our games are too much scripted from above, it's interpassivity as much as interactivity. But that will come.
How do you see the role of play evolving?
My small moment of pride recently was the news that my work has been exhibited on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York - or to be precise, an axiom about play I've been promoting for years was part of an exhibiton called Century of the Child that showed there this autumn. The axiom runs: "Play will be to the 21st century what work was to the Industrial Age - our dominant way of knowing, doing and creating value". I think it's going to be as important to that in our daily lives.
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.
Here's a recent review for Scotland on Sunday of Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget and Ken Auletta's Googled - ridiculously small word-count, so apologies for the compression, but I will be elaborating on both in a bigger post (and doubtless later presentations & consultations) later on. The Lanier book is brilliantly and provocatively wrong - I want to engage with it in terms of the Digital Economy Bill in the UK, and what an technologically-friendly artist's perspective should be on the debate. Later! [This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday on April 04, 2010 - below is the unedited version]
YOU ARE NOT A GADGET Jaron Lanier (Allen Lane, £20)
GOOGLED Ken Auletta, Virgin Books, £11.99
Reviewed by PAT KANE
In case you hadn’t noticed, the war for the future of the internet has reached the peak of battle. On the shimmering plains of cyberspace, Rupert Murdoch and the music multinationals are sandbagging themselves against the oncoming waves of news-surfers and file-sharers. Paywalls are being erected, the regulatory arm of Peter Mandelson is being seductively bent - anything to get a regular buck off those rapacious, intellectual-property-despoiling hordes.
To the philosophical rescue of hacks and A&R men, in a tangle of dreadlocks and perched on a silver surfboard, comes Jaron Lanier. Lanier was a pioneer of virtual reality in the early 90s (remember those goggles?) and is now the author of a carnaptious yet brilliant denunciation of The Way We Network Now.
You Are Not A Gadget is hardly a Luddite tract from some defender of old technologies and even older monopolies. There’s not many non-fiction “talkers” that plausibly invent an entirely new form of human discourse (“postsymbolic communication”, if you must know, seemingly a fusion between software and the behaviour of octopi) in the last few throwaway paragraphs.
So when Lanier says that our beloved Twittering, YouTubing and Facebooking is about reducing our personhood to fit the limitations of software, about “becoming a source of fragments exploited by others”, we should at least put the devices to sleep and pay attention.
Happily for Rupe and the satin-jacket brigade, Lanier says that one of the ways that technology can express a “digital humanism” is to allow musicians and journalists to make a middle-class living again. How? By turning every current (and neutral) click on the internet into a tiny monetary transaction between seller and buyer, enabled by a very deep change in the internet’s operating code. For Lanier, this would clean out the witterings of what he calls “the hive mind”, and allow those who live by their craft and skills in symbols to flourish in the Net, rather than see their royalty cheques reduce to zero.
Lanier notes the paradox that an exponential rise in broadband and computing power hasn’t resulted in the cyber-equivalent of a Mozart, an Orwell or a Thelonious Monk, but much more culture-as-nostalgia – the “YouTube” evening watching classic tv clips, or Spotify as a rummage through three generations of record collections.
As someone who plays between both of the industries that Lanier focusses on in this book, music and journalism, I can appreciate his Romantic angst about the dimunition of originality. Yet I think he’s wrong to suggest that a more closed, narrowed-down and marketised internet will foment genius or even just excellence.
Creativity is as much about reading and listening, as it is about writing and composing – and my own creative experience with the new digital plenitude, in all its cost-free ubiquity, is that of swimming in a sea of permanent inspiration. The end of the old business models means that both music and journalism will have to boil down to what is enduring and scarce in their professions: the live performance and the heartfelt, self-produced song; the necessary investigation and the unfettered comment. Rather than the hype, flash and churnalism that clogged up too much of both professions in the good old days.
The point is to use the wild and free internet to connect these moments of cultural integrity to communities who only have time for the best: and then, eclectically figure out how to monetise their intense interest and commitment. It can be done.
Something that Lanier refuses to do – but which exercises the Digger greatly – is to condemn Google as the cuckoo in the nest of content. Ken Aulietta’s meticulous account of this huge company’s fundamental geekery should encourage Lanier that the basic infrastructure of this new era is being driven by insanely creative individuals.
And Googlers know fine well that they’re in the position of the old railroads and private utilities of the 19th century - in the queue to be nationalised when they become too big and infrastructural to fail us. Our future might not be the "digital Maoism" that Jaron deplores – but something more akin to a digital social-democracy. Let’s have a debate about that vista, rather than worry too much about Kevin the teenager in his downloading frenzy. A war against enthusiasm could hardly be more pointless, or less winnable.
Pat Kane is author of The Play Ethic (www.theplayethic.com) and one half of Hue And Cry
Thrilled to find that my 2001 interview with the estimable left cyber-libertarian R.U.Sirius has made it to a new paperback out in the US, called True Mutations. I'm in there (talking about play) with many other highly (dis)reputable neophiliacs - indeed in my section, 'An Open Source for the Self', I am sandwiched in between Genesis P. Orridge, the late Robert Anton Wilson, Richard Metzger, Daniel Pinchbeck, Howard Bloom and D.J.Spooky. I have never felt so happy to be among such peers (though just slightly creeped out also).
R.U. is also a burgeoning podcast titan, with his shows on the Mondo Globo Network, which are feeding automatically to my iPod as I speak. His blog, Ten Zen Monkeys, is a superior entity also. Anything he does is thoroughly recommended - his personal mix of stoner diffuseness, and Frankfurt-school analytics, is quite irresistible.
My books of the year for the Sunday Herald (not online, so reproduced here):
A strange year of non-trendy reading, squeezed around musical projects. Barney Hoskyns' Hotel California: Singer-songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the L.A. Canyons 1967–1976 (Fourth Estate) does exactly what it says on the tin, and reminded me (like I needed reminding) of just how impure the sources of the purest pop can be. From Edinburgh University, Claire Colbrook's Gilles Deleuze: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum) also realizes its promise about the most difficult of modern French philosophers. And some fiction (though not enough): Jonathan Raban's Surveillance (Picador) is like Dickens revived to witness the Age of Terror; and Micheal Gardiner's Escalator(Polygon) is an elegant collection of short stories about life in Tokyo, from one of the most original minds in Scotland.
Been here for a few days at the Brisbane Festival of Ideas, at which I'm speaking this Friday. This is my third trip to a major Australian city since the Play Ethic launched as a website in 2000 (Sydney in 2001, Melbourne in 2002), which is at least some evidence that its themes find resonance here. I'm preparing my lecture at the moment, which I'm intending to be a kind of assessment of the idea after nearly ten years of thinking about it - a pretty shocking realisation for me. (Should I change my tune, or sing it better? Hmm). I'll be posting it here on Friday, fully hotlinked, and with an invitation for as much commentary and response as possible.
In the meantime, here's some local press I've been doing:
firstly an interview with Time Off, Queensland's "premier street magazine". And it's my luck that the writer used to be a student when I was Rector of Glasgow University...
This is the official release date of the Play Ethic in the US - welcome to all and any readers. If you want to know more about the project, please visit the main website, or dive into this blog and its archives - the entries are organised by chapter theme.
Almost forgotten I'd written this, as part of the new paperback version of the PE's promotion - a long over-due (and far too short) appreciation of James Carse's Finite and Infinite Games as my 'Book of a Lifetime' (it has supplanted yet another small black book, Adorno's Minima Moralia, as my primary life-saving carry-around). The piece doesn't seem to be available online, so it's on extended post below.
I must admit, after our recent London Tube bombings, and particularly the mistaken assasination of Mr. Menezes, this quote from Minima on the bourgeois nature of walking (how Adornian) is all too relevant:
Running in the street conveys an impression of terror. The victim's
fall is already mimed in his attempt to escape it. The position of the
head, trying to hold itself up, is that of a drowning man, and the straining
face grimaces as if under torture. He has to look ahead, can hardly glance
back without stumbling, as if treading the shadow of a foe whose features
freeze the limbs.
Once people ran from dangers that were too desperate
to turn and face, and someone running after a bus unwittingly bears witness
to past terror. Traffic regulations no longer need allow for wild animals,
but they have not pacified running. It estranges us from bourgeois walking.
The truth becomes visible that something is amiss with security, that the
unleashed powers of life, be they mere vehicles, have to be escaped.
body's habituation to walking as normal stems from the good old days. It
was the bourgeois form of locomotion: physical demythologization, free
of the spell of hieratic pacing, roofless wandering, breathless flight.
Human dignity insisted on the right to walk, a rhythm not extorted from
the body by command or terror. The walk, the stroll, were private ways
of passing time, the heritage of the feudal promenade in the nineteenth
And here's some lefty satire to polish the insight off, thanks to Red Pepper magazine.