All Play is Meaningful

David Seelow, Ph.D.©

Preface on the Many Pleasures and Purposes of Play

“Summerhill might be defined as a school in which play is of the greatest importance.”- A.S. Neil

“When we unlearn how to be judgmental, it is possible to achieve spontaneous, focused play.” -W. Timothy Gallwey

Some years ago (2012), I attended a bi annual conference called Meaningful Play at Michigan State University. The event was meaningful, if not entirely playful, but what really piqued my curiosity as a student of the English language, was the adjective “meaningful” in describing play. Redundant. All play is meaningful. Yet, I discerned, as the conference primarily concerned games, game-based learning, and video games in culture that meaningful play served a purpose like “serious games”. i.e. it is a justification for something that needs no justification. Scholars, educators and game designers who either design or apply games for more than entertainment purposes use “serious” to distinguish what their work from designers and companies or studios that design entirely or primarily for entertainment, i.e. making money. Yet, even this idea of “serious games” seems odd to me. Does anyone not think Twelfth Night is serious? How about Some Like It Hot? Maybe Citizen Kane but not Annie Hall? Watchmen and Maus but not Superman or Archie? In other words, the “serious games” appellation replays an old debate about whether art is entertainment or instruction. That’s been long settled, at least, I should hope. Art- as literature, drama, novel, film, comic strip or video game- will, if successful, be both. Shakespeare, our greatest writer, wrote for The Globe Theater, including those nasty, ‘serious’ drinking- proto bleacher seat- types, the groundlings. If nobody shows up at the theater or cinema that play, or movie would not prove to be very educational or transformative. Let’s get over the need to justify art- some is good, a few great, most mediocre, but all are serious, and all entertaining- to greater or lesser degree, depending upon an audience’s taste.

In addition to the “Meaningful Play” conference, I also call attention to the “Serious Play Conference” and even the “The Intentional Play Summit” where redundancies abound. Play is, not only always meaningful, but also always serious, and intentional; even more so than art since art can be considered a sophisticated manifestation of play or make believe. That’s why we go to the play of Hamlet and watch the likes of Sir Lawrence Olivier play Hamlet who, in turn, “puts on an antic disposition” (iv). My interest in this curious term “meaningful play” and by extension “serious play” and “intentional play” emerges from the numerous social media groups and game conference mailings that come my way and often use “meaningful play” as topic for discussion, panels, talks, symposia and such. There are two problems with these applications and events that this extended essay, published in a series of short blogs, that I want to explore in depth. The first and primary issue concerns the unnecessary adjectives. In other words, I will argue all play is meaningful and if we let play be play and play then the academic self-justifications will evaporate into the air like Shakespeare’s spirits. Second, these three conferences I have referenced, though all excellent events; nonetheless, all conflate, perhaps subconsciously, play and games. For example, “The Intentional Play Summit is a San Francisco Bay Area conference that explores games and emerging tech that promote experiential learning and social impact.” That’s great, but why is the title “Intentional Play” then immediately reduced to “games and emerging tech”? I think playing with Lego blocks can be tremendously productive and no emerging tech is necessary for such constructive play. The Serious Games Conference announces the same conflation of terms. “We are a leadership conference for people who design, manage and implement serious game programs.” The play has already dropped out of the conference mission which replaces the “serious play” with “serious games”. Again, I value these conferences immensely, but they do not need the adjectives “serious,” or “meaningful” or “intentional” all of which are superfluous and turn play into a bit too much of an academic discourse and academics and academia often have a way of draining the fun out of experience, thus turning games into material for theorizing that can easily lose sight of the actual experience of playing the game or activity being talked about.

Anyway, my second point is that games and play are cousins, maybe even first cousins, but they are not synonymous and should not be thought of as collapsible. Play is bigger than a game. I would argue play is what makes a game possible. It is the foundation and that foundation, the fun-da-mentals of play, will be the object of this exploration.

In addition to my Derridean play with language, I take as another in road to play a short article by British educator and game scholar Nicola Whitton. In response to a article in the Times Educational Supplement by an educational psychologist named Anthony Pellegrini, who apparently argued play belongs only on play grounds and not classrooms, Professor Whitton takes him rightfully to task. In fact, in her British civility, Professor Whitton is much more pleasant than I would be because frankly the idea play only belongs on the playground does not merit consideration. On the other hand, Professor Whitton identifies why the idea of play fit only for the playground applies to British education when she writes, “…the conclusion that play has no place in the classroom is based on certain assumptions about the state of formal education in the UK-namely, that it is currently fit for purpose. It accepts that a system of teacher-led, externally dictated curricula and regularly assessed learning is the best way to manage an education system and engage young people in meaningful learning.”1 Professor Whitton exposes the folly of such assumptions and then proposes a more playful attitude toward learning.

What Professor says about the UK formal K-12 system applies equally well to the U.S. system of formal education between K-12. It is exactly the opposite of what meaningful learning requires. Washington D.C. and the federal bureaucracy starts the ball rolling down hill and it ends precisely where it should start, with the learner. Unfortunately, the rapidly accelerating ball shoved down through layers of centralized curricula and standardized assessments has crushed the students’ spirit of discovery, i.e. play, as bureaucracies often do, and we end up with little meaningful learning. I admire Professor Whitton’s call to, “Imagine…a classroom where learning is dictated by students’ interests, exploration, curiosity and experimentation,” but “imagine” remains just that fancy- because the U.S. formal system- here congruent with the U.K., allows little place or space for discovery and imagination. This has been the case for over a century, so I do not foresee much change on the horizon. Consequently, I will address why all play is meaningful both to dispense with the need for “meaningful” as an adjective, and to provide a spectrum of playful learning ideas for both formal education and life more generally.

Spontaneous Play, Unruly Fun

Play has meaning well beyond the playground and the classroom and across the lifespan and outside our species too. As I compose some of this essay, I am watching the New York Yankees play baseball against the Minnesota Twins. It is entertainment for me, but the adult play is very meaningful for these teams. The players make a living and support families by playing. Additionally, I pause now and again to watch, then join, my little dog Rodrick play. Play has a significant role in many species’ existence. On his own, Roderick takes one of his numerous toys, a replica or a beer bottle- called Bark Beer. He alternates between licking the toy, which soothes him, and chewing the neck, which exercises his jaws and teeth. Both activities carry significant meaning, emotional and physical fitness, respectively. When bored, Roderick brings the toy to me and we play a version of tug of war. In fact, this mod of a classic game of strength can be claimed by Roderick. He designed the mod, which lessens the aggressiveness tug of war demands. Roderick drops the toy in front of me. The game requires us both to grap for the toy. If he wins, I must take the toy away “give that to me”, by batting its body or creating a diversion and then grabbing it. If I win the initial gambit, he pulls the toy away (sure, I let him win, he’s a pug not a mastiff). Silly, even stupid some might say, but eminently meaningful. The play maintains our close bond. We are companions. It is an exercise in care and respect, always reciprocal, always rewarding. I learn the value of providing undivided attention and he learns the value of being assertive, but not aggressive. This lesson takes place in my living room, and that’s the point. Meaningful learning too often happens on the playground, after school, or before school, but not in school.

The fact play can happen any where is a point made by play theorist Miguel Sicart in his extended investigation of play (2014). He refers to play as “autotelic” or existing without formal, fixed boundaries which correlates to something akin to “art of art’s sake.” I think watching Lionel Trains speeding along a track in my cousin’s bedroom while I watched as a child would be a perfect example of what Sicart means. I depart somewhat from his claim that “All contexts of play have rules of some sort,” and that “A rule determines where we play, when we play, when we stop playing, and we can reenter into a play context” (8). That definition is too loose to be useful. Roderick plays when he feels like playing and we end our play session when one or both of us are tired. Play can begin and end spontaneously so establishing rules does not quite capture its spirit. I can toss my tennis ball against the wall as I type this and begin play as I work, but rules in any formal sense do not apply or help explain why I am bouncing a tennis ball off the wall of my office space. The tennis ball can be part of a great game, tennis, but can also be appropriated, as I mentioned above, beyond tennis, I can bounce it against the wall as play or roll it on the floor and see if little Roderick can manage to retrieve this oversized ball. He can. Good dog, that Roderick.

There is also a certain inherent ambiguity to play that defies clear rules. “Stop playing around!” a parent or your partner might say because they find the context of your play inappropriate to the present moment, but that person’s attempt to construct a boundary is spontaneous not predefined. Maybe, dad was in a bad mood or your partner is focusing on something, say counting while she knits, and your play makes her lose count. We also have the notorious expression “I was just playing.” In this case, play offer up an excuse for some inappropriate behavior- here you pretend play is intentional, but not serious. “I did not really mean to call you a jerk” or “I did not mean to upset you by spraying shaving cream all over your face while you slept and then allow you to and walk out the door into the hall of a crowded New York City apartment tower.

The Playful (Blithe) Spirit: Sports, Gongs, and Toys

A prank is playful. A playful attitude, as opposed to play, is state of mind and with a playful attitude you can potentially turn non-play situations into play situations. Play is inventive and transformative. Think for a moment about the following two examples of play within a larger entertainment umbrella. First, professional basketball. The play, in this instance, is a part of a formal game and that game is work for professional players, so the attitude most often has a work bent, not a playful one. The famous Harlem Globetrotters, on the other hand, made basketball first about play- tricks, demonstrations, entertainment, and the game second. The Globetrotters were about the playing about the playing of basketball. Sure, they won in the end, but fans game to watch the player play at playing basketball or play around on court- the court entertainers-more than they did to watch the team compete. That’s a matter of attitude.

For my second example, I offer the classic game show/talent show The Gong Show, both in its original incarnation during the 1970s on NBC, and its recent reboot on ABC. The Gong Show can be considered an inversion and satire on the talent show, a form of Reality TV. In fact, The Gong Show is the opposite end of the spectrum from the current hit America’s Got Talent (AGT). On AGT, the contestants all compete seriously for a major prize money of a million dollars and a chance to perform in Las Vegas. That’s a major extrinsic motivator, and the contestants, for the most part, have considerable talent in some form or another. The contestants on The Gong Show compete for a minimal and arbitrary amount of prize money, around $712.05 on the original show and only inflated to $2,000.18 ironically presented as an over sized check, much like the winner of a major golf tournament might get, and a small gong trophy. The contestants have, for the most part rather dubious talent, certainly nothing that would constitute professional ability and the capacity to entertain a high paying Las Vegas audience. In fact, the acts are often absurd and ridiculous, but always, and this is my point, creative and playful. On both shows there are judges and an emcee (Tyra Banks and Chuck Barris/Tommy Maitland), but they have quite different roles. On AGT, the judges vote the acts forward or reject them where on the Gong Show, the judges vote 0-10 (ten being a perfect score). The Gong Show judges will often break the judge/contestant barrier and join the act on their own volition whereas on AGT, the judges will only be invited by the contestant to join an act as part of a preplanned performance. The Gong Show is highly spontaneous, zany, madcap. On the original show from 1976- 1978 (later in first run syndication) the brilliant Chuck Barris worked virtually unscripted and the show verged on improvisation. Barris pioneered much of what is now called Reality TV. He introduced stage personnel as performers- Gene Gene the Dancing Machine (Gene Patton an NBC stage hand being a precursor of how David Letterman used stage manager Biff Henderson to interview people) and Barris’s subversion of censorship and destruction of rules, such as the famous Popsicle Twins, performance anticipated Howard Stern’s NBC Radio Show and that show’s dismantling of rules, conventions, and tradition in general.

The current version of The Gong Show (2017-) has comedian Mike Meyers, famous for his fictional characters like the spy Austin Powers, play the emcee Tommy Maitland as an off beat, tongue and “cheeky”- make believe Brit. In the show, the emcee as performer comes first and the acts, second. What matters on this game show is not winning, but simply being on TV. That’s the entire purpose of Reality TV- everyone graves attention, so regardless of talent, bring a bunch of people together, film them as they are- as opposed to acting, but edit heavily for dramatic effect. Unfortunately, the lack of talent ends up not so much play as vanity run amok. The point is not play- the point for the people on Reality TV would be exposure. The entertainment drives the play, whereas on The Gong Show, the play drives the entertainment. The show is all about play, regulated and unregulated, and the bang of the giant gong, i.e., an end of an act, which can be more anticipated more than the acts.

Both the Harlem Globetrotters and The Gong Show are examples of play within play or the playful attitude. However, play can be dangerous. Chuck Barris’s flaunting of censorship led to his departure; one he playfully satirized through the final show where Barris appeared as a contestant and sang Johnny Paycheck’s song “Take this Job and Shove It” while giving the executives the notorious middle finger on live television. In general, if the other person does not share your playful attitude (NBC executives in the above case) the situation is not entirely playful and, at best, only half fun. The target of the prank or a joke is not always playing along. In extreme cases, like satire, the target may even be angered by the playful attitude and find the play a form of aggression and thus the playful attitude can be provocative and insightful. Satire is a form of social and/or political play that can transform attitudes and even institutions.

The danger of play has meaning outside of political situations too. When mom tells the kids “don’t play so rough” she fears the “roughhousing” might result in injury. My brother and I often wrestled vigorously growing up, but that play proved something about male or sibling hierarchy, immature as such rough play might seem. Daredevil play risks danger, even death. My brother would ride dirt bikes in such a dangerous manner (what less skilled or daring drivers would call reckless) simply to test his driving skill. Play pushes one’s motor skills to optimal level and can also test one’s courage or fortitude, but I would never encourage playing Russian Roulette, that’s the ultimate deadly play.

A final valuable insight from Sicart has to do with toys (Chapter 3). He defines toys as “embodiments of play” (46). That rings true. Toys are designed to invite play though sometimes they can be collectibles too. Let me quote his most salient passage:

Play matters when it is appropriative, taking over a situation and turning it into a context of play. Toys facilitate appropriation: they create an opening in the constitution of a particular situation that justifies the activity of play. Through toys, we realize play is possible, and we start playing. The toy is a gate to the world understood as play (36).

When I mentioned my bouncing a tennis ball off the wall above (I stopped a few minutes ago) that appropriation of a toy or play object or game piece turned a more work-oriented time writing about play into more play about play.

The Playful Lifestyle or Silk Pajamas as Business Attire, an Interlude

The late Hugh Hefner was a genius at using a playful attitude toward life and work. He turned play into a hugely successful business enterprise and made Playboy one of the most successful brands in the history of business. Hefner’s vision of the play-boy (a decidedly phallocentric vision by design) encouraged the single adult male to live his life as a form of play (Hefner himself exemplified the lifestyle to the max). Furthermore, Hefner erased the often destructive and rigid divide and opposition between work and play. For Hefner work was play and silk pajamas could be his business attire. The Playboy Mansion- his home, first in Chicago then in Los Angles/Beverly Hills, was an adult (albeit private) playground.2

Playful Spaces

You can extend, as Sicart does, the notion of toys and a playful attitude into playful design. Sicart focuses on the iphone. The objects on a play ground- monkey bars, teeter totters etc. are examples of toys or objects inviting play, but why not design much more of our work environments as playful? The ergonomics movement designs furniture and equipment for that fits specific workers’ needs. The design is worker centered. Incredibly, this is the exception not the rule. I have had colleagues who required a doctor’s prescription just to have a desk or work station that allowed them to stand! In other words, the business world has everything backwards. Office spaces and furniture are largely designed in standardized, dull, frequently uncomfortable ways and all workers must fit into the assembly line work space. This standardized approach is meant to be cost effective and productively efficient. It seems to me the opposite would be the case. If a worker is comfortable, and you invite his or her creativity you will end up getting more quality from the worker. The standard cubicle and walls can be left to robots. They do not care so much. But for many of us, a more playful environment would spur not hinder creativity. I am not suggesting we turn the office into Pee Wee’s Play House (more on that in a moment), but I am strongly recommending a more playful approach to designing work spaces and public spaces as well. The rise of professional UX (User Experience) designers provides a source of experts and a profession whose ideas can be applied to much more than just games and web sites.3 If you want to invite players to play a game and engage them you design an inviting interface. The same should be true of work situations, test taking and, no doubt, more others can think of.

In terms of schools, the same need for a more playful design remains. Over a century ago, John Dewey (1906) described the poor design of schools and how it contributed to the waste of human life (64). Dewey stressed that kids need school to connect to “the child’s need of action, of expression, of desire to do something, to be constructive and creative, instead of passive and conforming” (79-80). How creative can one be sitting in rows and columns of solitary desks facing an authoritarian figure who presides over the whiteboard or smart board? Again, as with the standardized work space, so to the standardized learning place. A.S. Neil’s Summerhill experiment, regardless of its flaws, approached the design issue the proper way. 4 The school needs to be designed to fit the students’ creativity and not the individual student stuffed into a uniform cloistered, regimented space. One good example that subverts boxed in learning would be the Shakespeare Set Free pedagogy coming out of the Folger Shakespeare Library. In this philosophy, you teach Shakespeare by playing Shakespeare- yes, I said, playing! Push the desks against the walls and play Macbeth or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 5 Students need to be on their feet not in their seats to have any genuine experience of Shakespeare, who wrote for a live, vibrant, popular theater not silent, solitary readers!

As for Pee Wee’s Playhouse, there you have UX at its optimal effectiveness. Everything in that playhouse- from the magic screen to the genie’s head-elicits play and play as creativity (the show’s chief designer, comics’ artist Gary Panther exemplifies playful design perfectly). Above all else Paul Reubens stressed creativity, enjoyment and tolerance. “I’m trying to tell kids to have a good time and to encourage them to be creative and question things.”6 The Playhouse embraced nonconformity. That should be the practice of schools. The Globe Theatre was a playhouse too. Play is the thing, to play a variation on Hamlet’s plan to solve the mystery of his father’s murder. Yes, play often discloses the truth hidden beneath layers of deception.

In a subsequent series of blogs or mini essays, I will discuss a variety of key thinkers on the meanings of play. These include Freud, D.W. Winnicott (Object relations psychoanalysis), Jacques Derrida (philosophy), Ian Bogost & Bernie DeKoven (game theorist/philosopher; play theorist), Mary Flanagan (game theorist), Johan Huizinga (medieval historian), Mikhail Bakhtin (literary/cultural theorist) and Shakespeare (particularly Hamlet). I will conclude the series with a few more thoughts on animal play as an emblem of liberation from the “mind forged manacles” of modern standardization.

1. “A Playful approach to learning means more imagination and exploration,” The Conversation, 4/25/2018, Nicola Whitton.

2. The various conferences, symposia, essay collections and books on meaningful play leave out adult play, which is a curious elision, I do not intend to extend. However, I will return to adult play and the importance of Hefner to this notion of play in a separate chapter of projected book. The playboy lifestyle seems to me rooted most strongly in the James Bond character created by Ian Fleming in 1953 and played first and best by Sean Connery. If you look at posters of Connery and compare them to the iconic pictures of a young Hefner such as the one on a biography by Steven Watts (2009) you will see a striking resemblance. For a very colorful inside look at the Playboy Mansion as playground you can read and view the gorgeous photographs in Edgen (1998).

3. For a well written and relevant discussion and description of playful game design as a set of principles that can be applied outside game design into everyday objects and spaces, I recommend John Ferrara (2012).

4. Neil’s (1960) designs reflect a philosophy of natural learning or self-regulation, which he borrowed from psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Reich talked about infant development in terms of self-regulation, which means natural inclinations toward discovery and exploration that are not blocked and frustrated by authoritarian parents, care givers and structures like schools. The following passage from on play from Summerhill is telling and prescient,
“Granting that childhood is playhood, how do we adults generally react to this fact? We ignore it. We forget all about it-because play, to us, is a waste of time. Hence we erect a large city school with many rooms and expensive apparatus for teaching; but more often than not, all we offer to the play instinct is a small concrete space (38).
Keep that quote in mind and then look at some remarks from Maria Montessori on what she calls “the bench of the soul” and the confining nature of classroom seats for young children, “… the school seems blind to the transformation of the social environment. It behooves us to think of what may happen to the spirit of the child who is condemned to grow in conditions so artificial that his very bones may become deformed (10-11).” There are definite affinities between the Montessori Method and Summerhill, both blocked by rigid ineffective American educational models until the 1960s cultural revolution. Game designer and scholar Kurt Squire, former Montessori teacher has written insightfully on how her pioneering methods are applicable to good game design as learning (2011). The opening quote from tennis expert and coach Timothy Gallwey (1974) about tennis also reflects a belief in a players natural or bodily learning as opposed to authoritarian, “do it like this” instruction.

5. The Shakespeare Set Free pedagogy can be found in 3 volumes as well as numerous teacher adaptations edited by Peggy O’Brien. There are numerous contributors to this excellent series. I attend a workshop at Siena College near Albany, New Yok given by Michael LoMonico and used this performance-based method to tach Shakespeare ever since that experience. Volume 1 covers A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. Volume 2 covers Hamlet and Henry IV, Part I and, finally, Volume 3 covers Twelfth Night and Othello.

6. Fear, David. “Pee-wee Herman Returns”: Paul Reubens on Reviving ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse’”, Rolling Stone, October 20, 2014.

Dewey, John. The School and Society, Expanded Edition, University of Chicago Press, 1902.
Edgen, Gretchen. Inside the Playboy Mansion: If You Don’t Swing, Don’t Ring. General Pub Group, 1998.
Ferrara, John. Playful Design: Creating Game Experiences in Everyday Interfaces. Rosenfeld Media, 2012.
Gallwey, W. Timothy. The Inner Game of Tennis. Random House, 1974.
Montessori, Maria. The Montessori Method. Renaissance Classics edition, 2012.
Neil. A.S. Summerhill School: A New Vision of Childhood, Revised and Expanded, edited by Alfred Lamb, St. Martin’s Griffin, 1992, original publication, 1960.
Shakespeare Set Free, 3 volumes, edited by Peggy O’Brien. The Folger Shakespeare Library 2006.
Sicart, Miguel. Play Matters. MIT Press/Playful Thinking Series, 2014.
Squire, Kurt. Video Games and Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age. Teachers College Press, 2011.
Watts, Steven. Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream. Wiley, 2009.

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