In praise of play

Leila Johnston, Managing Editor, The Literary Platform

TLP’s Managing Editor Leila Johnston explains why she believes unmotivated play is at the root of all worthwhile work, not because it’s productive, but simply because it’s fun.

I’ve noticed a significant shift taking place in the world of play and stories in the last few years. Even since I started editing The Literary Platform a year ago, the situation has altered substantially. The idea of play is no longer owned by games companies; interactivity is no longer a quirky annex to publishing; experimental making isn’t just for spare room hobbyists anymore, and storytelling’s own narrative took it into buzzword territory and out the other side, stronger.

And these things are now intertwined – which is, of course, what this website is about. But as the appeal grows and the forces pull each other into the spotlight of the mainstream, the danger of losing something quite fundamental increases. If we forget that the first reason people do things, more than nobility, more than for the community, more than anything else  – is fun – we risk losing sight of motivation entirely.

It is OK to do something simply because it’s fun. I think about this a lot, as I see people tie themselves in knots trying to justify a choice, or – worse – resist doing something pleasurable and inconsequential due to peer pressure and the expectation that, time being limited, one should spend it earning and delivering. And while justification is dangerous to motivation, it is probably not as dangerous as the appropriation of fun.

Google have had their 10% thing for a while, of course, but I’ve also noticed a sort of “technology playtime” turning up on the timetables of advertising agencies. Every once great and exciting, funny, silly or cool idea involving the application of the imagination to technology has quite suddenly become commercially viable. The idea of fun has become commercially viable. The inconsequential has begun to have consequences.

I recently held a workshop about making and creativity at the Literary Platform/Bath Spa’s “Making Day”. Several of the participants talked about the relief in being given permission to play. Of course, I’m just sanctioning fun in a different way – but there is a crucial difference: the buck stops with the player. I want people to remember how to play, invent and imagine, not because I’m hoping to get a good advert or some nice press or even happier staff out of it, but because play is enjoyable, and is the first step to making. Making things is not inherently fun and playful, but embracing play for its own sake without worrying about where it’s going leads to better things being made. In my experience, removing the pressure and goals from fun, counterintuitively, tends to lead to higher quality creations.

The pursuit of the pure, free, play is the true driving force behind the games, art, story, and experimental technology worlds I encounter in my daily work. Intelligent people simply will not spend significant chunks of their lives working on difficult problems unless they are motivated, and motivation is the art of remaining excited. What’s more exciting than the universe at your fingertips? Creative play is the excitement of infinite possibility.

What do I mean by playful projects? It might be art, it might attract the ‘what’s the point?’ question. It’s the kind of thing that makes you smile or think. It’s performers and artists like Matthew Herbert, and Sarah Angliss and Sydney Padua and Sinead McDonald, and web sensations like Ze Frank, and designers like Dominic Wilcox. What they have in common is that their work is lead by a curiosity. In fact, their need to see what’s possible is so strong they play in their free time. They practice play like they’d practice a musical instrument. They get so good at it – at thinking in terms of what’s fun and interesting – that their work and their creative rehearsal blends into one, often with wonderful results.

These people exist and are rightly recognised in the world of art – but what does that label tell us about their inspiring approach to creative production? Not all artists are playful; not all make for joy and curiosity. Not all are innovative, though I suppose one could argue, the good ones are. It’s facile but worth remembering that the only way to get good at anything is to do it a lot, and the only things most of us manage to do regularly are the things we love doing. Remove the pressure, inject the idea that anything’s possible, add a thousand natural accomplishments, and you have a recipe for a hobby that you can’t stop doing – and which might just take you places.

I don’t think this stuff can be said often enough, so this autumn I will be launching a magazine and event series called Hack Circus celebrating the fun in technology, innovation and invention.

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