2018-09-03 concepts


Hey all -

Play is an interesting thing: it just sort of happens as we’re growing up - but then - when we become adults, it mostly stops. No one asks why we stop playing, or why we play when we’re young, or why we humans play at all.

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but instead, various ideas and hypotheses and speculations I’ve gathered from reading and conversation[1]. Here they are.

+ what I learned or rediscovered recently

* Play

Play is a word that, like water in a bag, escapes precise form and definition. We can say that this is play, or that is play, but the reverse - play is … - well that’s more complicated.

Play is often characterized by a youthful energy, a carefree lightness, a creative spontaneity to the present. We see intense bursts of energy, but also periods saturated with rest and recovery. We see a comfort with risk-taking and an acceptance of failure; we acknowledge there must be winners and losers. Play often involves challenges - and frequently, these challenges are competitive. Finally, play is fun: when play becomes serious, it ceases to be play.

Play can be physical, as in competitive sport or roughhousing. Tackling a sibling or chasing an opponent down the field is physically invigorating and deeply energizing.

Play can be emotional, like teasing a friend or telling a joke or flirting with someone you like.

Play can also be cognitive, such as playing chess or solving a crossword puzzle or even reading fiction.

One thing we immediately gather from these examples is that, when we play, the outcomes aren’t real. When we roughhouse, we simulate what an actual fight would look like, without the bloodshed. When we play sports, we simulate who the most prepared would be in various environments, without actually experiencing those environments. Even when we problem-solve, we simulate competing ideas and solutions, without prematurely committing to any one of them[2].

More concretely, consider when you tease friends or family. If you don’t tease them - if you don’t simulate how they may react - you will never know how they will react in times of actual crisis. Teasing allows us to tinker with, cross, and ultimately zero in on that emotional boundary. And so, counterintuitively, we tend to tease those with whom we are closest.

Play then allows us to push the boundaries of what we know and what we can do. In this “simulation environment” - this sandbox for the mind - we are safe from serious consequences. And so we can explore, experiment and discover.

You may now think: “I need to play more!” Maybe, but maybe not.

Almost all mammals play less as they become adults, not just humans. Consider the dog: unlike its wolf counterpart in the wild, the dog stays playful almost its entire life. And how well-equipped is the domesticated dog to live in the wild, to survive “for real”?

The absence of play in adults may then be another example of the explore-exploit tradeoff[3]. We play when we are young to explore the possibilities of an undiscovered world, but as we age, we are better off exploiting what we already know to better adapt and survive.

That may be true in a static world - when things don’t change much over the course of our lifetimes - but that no longer seems to be the world in which we find ourselves. Change is accelerating. And if so, simulation - and a playful mindset - will be an increasingly important tool in adapting to this evolving world.

Thanks for reading,


[1] Thanks especially to Andras for having me reflect more deeply on this topic.

[2] As Einstein wrote: “Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”

[3] I wrote about this previously here.