Tuesday, 24 May 2016

A few random thoughts from Counterplay 16

The most terrible things, war, genocide, and slavery, have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.
I haven't written up the Counterplay conference / festival at all, but I've lots of thoughts swirling around my head still from it. I don't think I can write it up like I do some conferences (session x covered y...), so instead I'll just pop down a few "random" thoughts that have stuck with me. I ended up with 3 pages of handwritten short notes / bullet points immediately after the conference, so these aren't everything... and aren't about the conference / festival itself, but a few thoughts about play itself that stuck with me!
I've pulled out 5 from my long list of points I wrote - hopefully they make sense:

1) "Play is in the mind." This was said to me as a throwaway statement by someone, but it really struck a chord. I'd been getting slightly confused thinking about how playfulness could be measured as the tools in the literature seem to emphasise extroversion and socialness (is that a proper word? You know what I mean...) as a major component (but I'm very introverted and think of myself as playful). I also think you can be playful without visibly playing... playing on your own, as a group, externally, internally all seem equally valid to me. So play being "in the mind" was a bit of an "a-ha" moment for me. Play isn't something you do, it is how you think. If you think playfully, then you are playing... no matter what you are doing externally. This can be individual as much as part of a group. Also, if you are taking part in a game but grudgingly so, then even though it looks like you are playing, you aren't (harking back to Play is voluntary - you can't force someone to play). I've a feeling this will colour a lot of what I do and write in the future.

2) "Play is a political act." This came out lots during the festival. Choosing to play in public is a definite, often scary, choice. It says a lot about how we want (public?) space to be used, what is socially "normal" to do, how we approach the world, what sort of people we are. Adult culture seems very anti play - to dance to Marimba music at 9am before a keynote, do a conga line from the hotel to the conference venue, take part in performance theatre in the middle of a public library (just 3 public play examples from Counterplay) invites censure. It isn't sensible. It isn't "grown-up". What would "people think"? To play in public makes a statement that play is valuable, for all ages. It makes a statement that fun and creativity are more important than how we may be perceived by others. It makes all sorts of statements that I can't rant about in a short blog! (Part of the wider stuff is summed up by the Howard Zinn quote shown in the artwork I took a snap of at the art gallery in Aarhus shown at the top of this post!)

3) "We need permission to play." I'm fairly lucky that after my angst ridden teenage years I've never cared too much what people think of me, and I've been able to (helped by white male privilege no doubt) get away without caring too much. So I've been able to give myself permission to play, partly because I don't care if people think I'm bonkers... especially as being an Englishman I can claim to be eccentric as I get older and so conforming to historical social conventions anyway ;-) (I aspire to be Rowley Birkin from the Fast Show in my dotage btw.) But linked to play being a political act, I've a much clearer idea that really, one of the best things we can do to make the world more playful is just give people permission to do so. Create environments that encourage it. Lead the way by playing publicly ourselves. For me in particular, I need to find chances to try and frame play as giving academic value in my workplace, so play is seen as beneficial by senior management, not a distraction, so we are "allowed" to play.

4) I should be doing things to make "work more playful". I do playful things in my work. I try to teach in a playful way. I try to encourage others to do the same. I try (largely unsuccessfully so far) to make our library space more playful. But I've never tried to bring it directly into "everyday" work. So I need to try and make my own and colleagues work more playful in general rather than thinking "I can do x teaching activity as a playful one".

5) We don't always need a serious reason to play. Its okay to play because its fun. I've tended to have the attitude that I can bring play into a particular activity, for particular benefits. Playing a referencing game will help students see patterns in referencing themselves and they will learn more effectively. Using Lego in teaching will enable some students to reflect more effectively on their academic practices. I pick a serious reason for each intervention... even though there is often a secondary reason of making work more interesting and varied for me! A strong message I took from Counterplay was there are lots of benefits from playing and giving others permission to play... so you don't always need a serious or worthy reason for any particular instance of play. Sometimes you should just play, and encourage others to play, because its fun. You'll probably get other benefits too, but sometimes you can forget about them and just treat them as a bonus :)


  1. Thank you for writing this, Andrew, I really appreciate your thoughts on this. Organizing the festival, it is very inspiring to hear how you have interpreted various elements into your own work and life.

    This process is so incredibly interesting for me to follow: what happens when people go back home after the festival? Did we leave any kind of trace? How do the many bits and pieces fit in with what everybody are already doing?

    It's not so much about the very specific tools and methods, but more about how the thinking and practice change, also over time and this post provides a little window into that.

    Thanks again!

    1. Cheers Mathias! I often write up summaries of conferences for colleagues at work that tend to focus on tools and methods I've taken from sessions attended... but Counterplay seemed to justify something wider (and public) about how I think about play :)