Friday, 10 September 2021

Capitalism vs Play / Control vs Anarchy


Anarchy symbol, which is the letter A and a circle through it.
(Image from under CC-BY-NC-ND licence)

This post may be even more incoherent and rambling than normal, but I wanted to stick down a few thoughts that I may tidy up and extend at some point in the future!

I was partway through reading Rejuvenile by Christopher Noxon recently - this isn't a reflection on that book, but something it made me think about btw! There are plenty of examples he gives in that book about adults acting in "child-like" (not necessarily "childish") ways that are presented as though play is more acceptable in adulthood now - in all sorts of ways. I've also seen / read other stuff over the last few years that claims that play is now much more acceptable for adults. We can play on skateboards, collect toys, build Lego models, etc., that are often presented as "look, adults are allowed to play". 

But I've my doubts about the sort of examples that are thrown about to claim this, which made me think about what sort of play is really seen as "acceptable" and what isn't. About why adults generally aren't allowed to be playful in modern Western societies. (I know there is stuff about this in some classic play texts I'll have to go back to, just throwing a few ideas down here for myself!)

I've a hunch that the types of play that are generally seen as acceptable are fairly narrow - it's fine for adults to have hobbies that are fairly discrete in time and space (you can do it after work? Without scaring the neighbours?). It's fine for adults to play in ways that make them effective consumers (have you seen the price of Lego sets?!). It's fine for adults to do organised, controlled activities (clubs, sports, etc.). But if you aren't being a good capitalist consumer, if you are allowing playfulness to leak into other things, if you are making up your own rules about things (like a good player does), then those sorts of play are completely unacceptable.

Play in adults is generally allowed when it reinforces, or at least fits within, the rules set by those in power. It may even be encouraged when it results in increased profits and consumption. But I don't think playfulness is any more acceptable than it has ever been - we still need to be good worker drones 9-5, and a change in attitude could impact that. I don't think improvisational play is really encouraged - after all, if you start to play with whatever is around you, how will they fill those shipping containers with goods and keep the rich in the manner in which they've become accustomed? 

Is free / improvisational / creative play more aligned with anarchy than Capitalist societies would like? If you have a playful approach to the world, prone to changing the rules to suit yourself and your communities, is this inherently anarchist in approach? Bernie De Koven used to talk about changing the game to suit the players, this is the opposite to the way power works in countries like the UK, surely, where the powerful few set the rules of the game (and sell us the kit to play it too) - they want to force us all to play the game their way. So is any attitude that puts power (however small) in the hands of otherwise powerless individuals a threat to profits, to control? Is playfulness inherently anarchist in approach, which is why it's so disapproved of in adults, and stamped out in children as quickly as possible?

So games, hobbies, sports, etc are perhaps more acceptable in adults, as they are controlled, they are selling opportunities, they are neat and contained. Freer, more imaginative play, or even worse, a playful attitude are too much of a threat to control, to profit, to power. Games / hobbies / sports are "nice" capitalist ways of behaving. Playfulness is scary, anarchist, and seen as "wrong" by those with power... who heavily influence what we all see as the "correct" way of behaving.

So a bit vague and rambling I know, but at some point I'll try and come back to this and maybe write something a bit more serious on playfulness, anarchy, and why they are unlikely to ever be seen as generally desirable in capitalist society.

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

We Didn't Playtest this at all and Chaos versus Strategy


Logo for the game called We didn't Playtest this at all

Something that pops into my mind every so often was a conversation that happened in a pub a few years ago. It’s niggled me ever since. I’ve never really pinned down why I didn’t just instantly forget it, but it still lives in my brain rent free.

We were playing a relatively lightweight game of some sort and drinking a few beers. It was a  bunch of people interesting in play and games in learning, but still, it was social time and we were enjoying ourselves. Someone started to argue that they didn’t really count the lightweight games (fun, easy to learn, large elements of luck) that we were playing as “proper” games. The only “proper” games were the fairly hardcore “euro” type games (lots of planning / strategy, minimal chance / luck) and the less that chance or luck was involved the better. Their ideal game involved no luck at all, but was purely a test of skill and strategy from the players.

I was playing “We didn’t playtest this at all” with my children the other day, using the “chaos pack” expansion, when I realised why this has niggled me so much. We were working our way through the chaos pack parks and I said something along the lines of “this makes it too complicated and structured – it’s more chaotic without the chaos cards”, which is when the realisation struck. "Playtest" is very chaotic, almost completely luck, very silly, and very fun to to play. It would have been as far away from being a good game as it's possible to be (from that conversation above). But it's the sort of game I really enjoy playing (particularly with my children).

So that person in the pub was defining "proper" games as more like competitive sport than free play - if you've practiced (trained?), are the "best" player, you should always win. It's no fun if anyone could win just through luck. "Playtest" is the opposite - it doesn't matter how much you practice it, you are unlikely to increase your chances of winning (unless you keep hold of a banana - apparantly zombies HATE bananas). So the "structured" game itself isn't particularly important - it just acts as a vehicle for silliness and the comedy of the text and activities on the cards. So it's really just acting as a nudge, a prompt, a permission slip to be more playful. The game isn't important, it's the way it facilitates play that is the point of it.

So, I suppose that's a long rambling way of reflecting that some people see the structures of games and becoming skilled at them as really important - like becoming competitive at a sport. Some of us see the way games give us a structure to hide behind as more important, so it gives us permission to play. Most people are probably somewhere in between the two extremes. But there is no real right answer to how games (including learning games) should work - whether they depend on us building skills, or just enabling different behaviours. What matters is what the players want to get out of it, and for learning games, what the instructor wants to enable.

Friday, 23 July 2021

Thoughts on working around a pandemic


My old Campervan, a Hymer, sat in a field.
I'm sat in my old Hymer at the cost and scrawled down some of my random thoughts about working around pandemic times...


Travel to work, to meetings, to conferences. Travel across campus, travel across countries, travel time is extra, eating into time, into energy.

In the office, noise, fuss, “Have you got a minute?”, “I’ve a quick question”, background noise and disruption a constant.

Everything rushed, everything busy, everything fixed and structured.

Peak Pandemic

Travel to sofa, to the garden, kitchen table commute! Or get in the campervan, commute to a reservoir or beauty spot to work.

Only office companion, a pet. Sat nearby, watching, calming… until the post man arrives, the dog’s arch-enemy, and 2 minutes of barking ensues. Others are on chat, email, Zoom, Teams – they can be silenced and dipped into when necessary. Accessible, within reach, but not constantly, distractingly present.

Everything calm, often self-paced, flexible to suit the day.

Back to the Office

Confusion for me – why? For control? Fear of management? Habit? Might end up a mix of home and office, the worst of both worlds, or the best? I don’t know… but I fear it’s the worst, how can it be the best without clarity? Without focussing “office” activities around those that are best experienced in person? When you also box in and constrain the benefits of home working, clocking on and off religiously, adapting to fit around others sat in an office a few miles away?

I fear it might be the worst, perhaps simply because we are losing the opportunity to create the “best” for work, for the team, for everyone, because of the unarticulated fears of the organisation. We’re losing the chance to make the best out of an office environment, and the best out of homeworking, by hobbling both of them.

Saturday, 12 June 2021

Playful Management, players, and NPCs

Following on from some ponderings about Playful Leadership the other day, and a subtle but important realisation I had... I was thinking about how that came out in my management style and why I sometimes restricted reportees a lot more than at other times.

Most of the time I tend to be quite open and flexible in how I manage people - I give them lots of freedom to do things the way they feel is best. 

In terms of play, I try to set (as clearly as I can), the winning conditions - or at least the end point - of the game.

There are some rules that always exist around the workplace, both explicitly laid out, and implicit in the culture we try to inculcate, but I try to give a lot of flexibility in how they play that game. I try to support them in "winning" (or at least finishing) the game, or the task I've set them, but I'm rarely explicit in how they should do that. 

So I'm often more of a coach and expert advisor than anything else - I try to help people develop the skills to complete tasks in the way that they think is best, pointing out rules of the game they may have missed or mis-interpreted, but rarely telling them what move to make next.

Sometimes, however, I have to interfere a lot more - I have to be very explicit about what they can and can't do, about the approaches they should take to a particular tasks. I wonder if this is when I see the task in certain ways - when the person I manage isn't one of the main characters (even though they may think they are), but more of an NPC. They need to follow a much restricted path than normal, as it's about aiding the main characters arc, not theirs! It's my job as the manager to see these intersecting priorities, tasks, games(!), that are going on and try to make sure that members of our team play the appropriate role. To also see whether they are on a huge group quest, where we need to balance lots of demands, or in a little mini game to the side that is largely just about them.

That's hard on them sometimes - it's my job to have the overview, to see how things fit together, but some people will always see themselves as the main character, never the supporting one, or even the NPC. They can find it hard to see the bigger picture, as it's not really their role to do that, and feel like I'm imposing strange ways of doing things. Worse still, they can feel like I'm too vague sometimes, and too restrictive in others, but not understand why that is. 

They might also feel I'm being unfair when I point out "rules of the game they may have missed or mis-interpreted" (see above), as they are rules they don't recognise, and might not agree with.

I'm not 100% what I've said above in this post is true (for me), I'm just working things out as I type this, but I think there is an element of truth in it at least. This means I probably need to be more explicit in setting out when we set off on tasks and projects, the amount of freedom they have and why. Whether they are the main character, or a supporting one (or even an NPC) - but not using that language of course! 

It's complicated as well by the fact that they can be the main character, freely skipping across the countryside, doing things as they feel is best, and not realise they've stepped into a minefield - they were fine up to that point, but as soon as they've gone into dangerous ground, I need to be more explicit about what they do next. They'll resent this - why shouldn't they skip across the lovely grass? They may object to me telling them the exact path to take next - after all, they haven't been blown up yet! But as the manager, it's up to me to recognise the risks and have the tools to extract us all as safely as possible. Again, I need to consider how I flag these things up effectively, how do I interfere when I need to, without killing the playfulness and freedom that they'll normally have?

Tuesday, 8 June 2021

Playful Leadership Vague Thoughts

  achievement, adult, battle, black, board, business, businessman, check, chess, chess piece, chessboard, choice, competition, conflict, decisions, defense, focus, game, hand, horse, king, knight, leadership, management, mate, moving, pieces, plan, planning, playing, power, queen, soldiers, solution, sport, strategic, strategy, symbol, table, tactic, thinking, victory, white, wooden, games, indoor games and sports, board game, tabletop game, recreation, Free Images In PxHere 

 (This is a CC-0 image that came up in a quick search for "playful leadership" - don't know about you lot, but it doesn't look that playful to me!)

For several years I’ve tried to pin down what I mean by playful leadership, and I haven’t been able to do it. I’ve also been struggling to be playful recently, probably not helped by living through a global pandemic, which hasn’t particularly helped me articulate what I mean when I think of playful leadership.

I’ve read lots of leadership and management books and articles, as well as plenty of stuff on play and games. Sometimes I feel like I’m starting to get somewhere, when an idea or model triggers a small “a-ha” moment, but then I fail to pull it together into any sort of coherent whole.

Part of this could be the temptation to pin these things down into neat models, or a clear set of steps (“5 steps to playful leadership!”), which we can follow and magically become a “playful leader”. None of these models, or steps, or whatever I found seemed quite right to me, even when I found several that seemed to touch on play – they’d sometimes have play as an important element, but perhaps not quite at their core, or reflecting how I felt about play and leadership. I also struggled to mash some of these different leadership models together, as I couldn’t successfully pull out their more playful aspects to form any sort of coherent whole.

Then, while in a very low mood and generally struggling, I had an important realisation. What I think of as playful leadership is really about encouraging a playful mindset in others. It helps if I play too, but I don’t need to all the time – the important thing is that I can enable others to play.

One of the components of my management style at work that is quite important to me is (trying to) protect colleagues from institutional politics, from micro-management of others, from unnecessary blame and retribution when things go wrong. In effect, these are also ways I try to gently shift the workplace culture towards giving permission to try things and fail. To play with different ways of doing things, knowing that they will be allowed (encouraged) to do so, and that as long as they don’t cause harm, it doesn’t matter if there is no immediate benefit either – as they can learn from that experience and try something else next time that might work better.

So my evolving understanding of my particular flavour of playful leadership probably has something like this at its core:

Helping others to be more playful.

The bits that stood out for my in other play and management texts, probably did so as they were potential enablers for that to happen. It’s ok that none of them were complete answers for me, and may even have been contradictory. But all of them could be tools that help take me part-way to being a playful leader – as it’s not a set way for me to act, but the impact I have on others.

I don’t need a 7 step method, or 4 zones of playful leadership, or anything else that pretends to be a complete answer. What I need is a clear idea of what I’m trying to achieve, and then a kit bag full of possible tools to help.

I don’t need a routeplan and detailed map to follow the “right” path. I need a compass, maybe a vague map, a penknife, a change of clothes, etc., so that we can find a good enough route that depends on the people present at the time, where they need to get to, and have some help for the challenges we need to overcome together. It doesn’t matter which things we need from that kit bag, or the exact route, just that we have a selection of tools that are available to use if we need to.

So what sort of things do we need in our kit bag? What goodies can help to enable a playful attitude, so I can be my sort of playful leader? I’ll have to start thinking in that way over the next few months and see if I can pull something useful together!

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Library Instruction Network?

About 10 years ago Johanna Anderson blogged about setting up a "Librarians as Teachers" network. I've a vague memory of it lasting a few years (with Helen Blanchett and Jo driving a lot of it?) and having a lot of TeachMeet-y type things on it, but it sort of slowly faded, probably being nudged out of existence at the same time as a few other networks I was part of also faded, thanks to the platforms charging increasing amounts (particularly as membership, even inactive membership, figures grew). My memory is a tad vague though on it...

 [You can see it on the Wayback Machine... sort of! Snapshot from 2012]

I've just (finally) refused to renew my CILIP membership for next year, so wondered if it was time to start something similar, but updated? Using what I'd have paid CILIP to help fund it. Plus after a thoroughly depressing 2020, I need something positive for 2021! 

I've been playing with possible platforms for other projects, and "Mighty Networks" seems a decent platform for doing this sort of thing on. It has a free level which seems a bit rubbish, a fairly standard charged level of membership that has most of the functionality I'd look for in this sort of platform. Plus a "premium" level that also includes stuff like the ability to run courses through it. The middle level that seems ok is a little bit more than I'd have been paying for CILIP membership - so I could pay for that, offer free membership to anyone who wanted to join, plus a "premium" membership for anyone who felt able to contribute (including some sort of extra to make it worth people's contribution). If enough people joined as premium members we could even bump the subscription up to the top level and run courses through it, but helping to cover the basic costs ($28 per month) would be first! 

So would anyone be interested in a "Library Instruction" type network? It'd be an online network to ask questions, have discussions, perhaps host / organise TeachMeets, build sets of resources, etc. Free to all, but I'd welcome a few people as "premium members" to share the cost and make it sustainable. 

Related to this... what would make it worthwhile joining as a "premium member"? I'm thinking $15 a year (the platform charges in USD), or less than £1 per month. The default would be access to a seperate group part of the site / network, so I could put resources in there (a PDF of one or more of my books maybe?), or it could be used as a decision making part of the network ("premium" members get increased access to shape the network / decide on topics / etc?), or something else... (BTW - It'd need more than 30 people becoming premium members before it covered costs at that token $15 a year.)

This post is largely thinking aloud for now, but if I decide I've enough energy to set something up properly, I'll edit this post to include a link to the Network...

Currently being set-up, aiming for all the basics there the first week of Jan 2021, but the Network will be at:

Friday, 14 August 2020

Adult Play Network


After pondering this idea for a while, I've just set up a Kickstarter to see if anyone else would genuinely be interested!  

The aim is to fund a network (on MightyNetworks, a commercial platform) of people wanting to bring more play into all aspects of their lives. It will be a social network (so lots of chances to share), as well as regular playful tips and ideas from play experts. 

It will also be a training platform, with play experts able to host courses and events through the network. 

The hope is that the training will provide funding for the platform - but instead of taking a large cut of course fees, a membership fee will be bundled into the course for non-members. So once you've taken one course, or subscribed to the platform seperately, all courses will be discounted by the membership fee.

I'll launch the Kickstarter either 21st or 28th August, but to be informed when it goes live, just click on the "Notify me" button on the upcoming project page.