... It's an idea, a meme, a concept
The Play Ethic first came to me as a phrase in the early nineties, in the midst of a rehearsal with my neo-jazz band, in a moment when our drummer re-described his own 'work ethic'. (A few minutes' activity with AltaVista - an early search engine - would confirm that the phrase was hardly original). But as soon as I heard it, I realised that it had enough capacity in it to serve as a headline bringing together a wide range of interests of mine - cultural, technological and political.
In mid-summer of 2000, I left my position as a section editor at the Sunday Herald (of which I was a founding editor), and began work on a web-site and long essay (eventually published as a front-cover piece in the Observer's Life magazine, 22nd Oct 2000) which explored and developed the Play Ethic as a concept. The coverline was "why believe in work, when work doesn't believe in you?" The essence of the argument is captured in this extract:
Welcome to the play ethic. First of all, don't take 'play' to mean anything idle, wasteful or frivolous. The trivialisation of play was the work ethic's most lasting, and most regrettable achievement. This is 'play' as the great philosophers understood it: the experience of being an active, creative and fully autonomous person.
The play ethic is about having the confidence to be spontaneous, creative and empathetic across every area of you life - in relationships, in the community, in your cultural life, as well as paid employment. It's about placing yourself, your passions and enthusiasms at the centre of your world.
By clearing space for activities that are pleasurable, voluntary and imaginative - that is, for play - you'll have better memory, sharper reasoning and more optimism about the future. As Brian Sutton-Smith, the dean of Play Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, says, 'The opposite of play isn't work. It's depression. To play is to act out and be wilful, exultant and committed, as if one is assured of one's prospects.'
So to call yourself a 'player', rather than a 'worker', is to immediately widen your conception of who you are and what you might be capable of doing. It is to dedicate yourself to realising your full human potential; to be active, not passive.
The play ethic is what happens when the values of play become the foundation of a whole way of life. It turns us into more militant producers and more discriminating consumers. It causes us to re-prioritise the affairs of our hearts, to upgrade the quality of our emotional and social relationships. It makes us more activist in our politics, but less traditional in their expression. And most of all, the play ethic forces us to think deeply about how we should pursue our pleasures - and how we reconcile that with our social duties.
So, just like the work ethic, the play ethic is a set of feelings and principles. But the difference between the two is huge. Work is always (to coin a phrase) the involuntary sector - the realm of necessity, where men and women have to do what they have to do. But as Sartre says, play is what you do when you feel at your most free, your most voluntary. When every positive decision you make about your life carries both a risk, and a promise, of something new and challenging taking place. This is why the play ethic isn't 'the leisure ethic': the last thing it involves is slumped relaxation...
Certainly in terms of my early agenda for the Play Ethic as a new logic for organizations, enterprises and governance in the information age, my record on the practical application of this is fascinating, yet uneven. There has been a consistent interest over the last four years from national and local government in play as an input into high-level strategic policy perspectives. My presentation to Geoff Mulgan's Strategy Unit at the Cabinet Office in 2005 generated departmental discussion about the importance of sport, and of free-time, as elements of a strategy that respects the well-being of citizens, as well as their economic productivity.