A few thoughts about play and engagement

A very stimulating two day conference was put together this week as a line of enquiry led by Pat Kane and Escape Artists called ‘The Play’s The Thing’. Pat, as he himself puts it, has spent years researching, advocating and practising play as our enduring principle of possibility and optimism in the human condition. The course of the two days explored a wide range of dimensions of wellbeing and the role of play as part of the social agenda, so it meshed very well with our ideas about social business, that ultimately engagement, shared value and co-creation depends on comes through doing things that move people to respond and make a difference.

So, play for us has never been a passive but a highly creative pursuit, and with that in mind it was a great opportunity to be involved in both the conference and a line of enquiry that was both stimulating and at times moving.

Those two days, and the number of dimensions explored in them, were a refreshing antidote to the massively overhyped, headline grabbing nature of ‘gamification’ that’s somehow managed to obscure many currencies of play on offer that are less lightweight, more nuanced and in the long term, almost certainly more sustainable.

The enormous level of flux we’re experiencing in communal and commercial landscapes right now asks that we conduct a very conscious consideration into how we develop the ways we can ‘do interaction’. And what happens when ‘gamification’ becomes a generic, what then?

For the conference I was asked to think about the question ‘what possibilities for sustainable wellbeing does networked and gaming culture bring us?’, particularly as we see an emergence of cyberbeings and cyberbusinesses, and this is a summary.

A short story about entertainment, torpor and all things visceral

The title of the talk I prepared (and, should add, didn’t actually give as it ended up – we went to a great panel discussion instead, it was improv) was ‘A short story on entertainment, torpor and all things visceral’, a story to some extent that is designed to question a few of the narratives and assumptions we might hold unknowingly around play, colouring our thinking and that maybe should now be investigating (as usual round here, it’s about going a little deeper).

This story is a story of our lives, and the curtain goes up at the very beginning, in fact, before the beginning, because even before we were born, we were made to connect. We had umbilical cords to other mothers that gave us our nutrients, it’s where we learnt first of all, what it feels like to matter and belong.

As we become cyberbeings, that kind of connection continues. In fact, beyond the zero cost and zero return of automated digital transaction, it’s what’s most valuable about the ability to be socially networked and what it offers . The same access to learning and nutrients we received as children and developed through play we are now hooked up to via the cables to our ISP, it’s a digital motherlode. (This is one reason why gut feelings and clicks are, at a very visceral level, connected).

And there’s something about the way we consume and participate in screen-based media that’s an important element in this story, that touches on things that go back to our earliest days.

From the moment of birth, our parents focused primarily on two main things to do to look after us; they were there to entertain us and to pacify us.


These days, you could argue, we’ve got grown-up versions of this. There’s certainly an ‘orb’ theme at play here…plus over the top shiny and a handy little app, too, that manages to turn the impact of an OMG moment into just another button to press. This is a very infantile form of entertainment and creativity; and you’ve got to wonder what’s happening to that cognitive surplus Clay Shirky wrote about as people are nudged into spending hours and hours on Farmville, Bejewled, Skyrim and the others instead of relying on their own generative faculties. Is Facebook possibly a global scale heist of the free mind?

Last week this article made an appearance in the Guardian, and I guess the question here is ‘is the way we are entertained today creating torpor, a form of temporary creative hibernation, more than it’s stimulating us and offering the option of self-powered creativity?’

There’s a level of creativity and flow of ideas that goes well beyond clicking our way to the next video game level up, and our economy needs to be tapping into developing it, and fast.

When gaming becomes generic is only a matter of time. What we need to do to  develop well being, I would argue, is to enable more expression of our inner selves at deeper levels as fully matured independent creative adults; to generate at a deep level, and to be visceral.

Networked culture has a central nervous system to it but, unlike our human networked systems, it’s not very responsive to being shaped by external stimuli coming from within via participants and users. The same is true of gaming. It’s about you versus the central nervous system, with little room for individual creativity and input.

I think this inability in our collective culture to go beneath the surface in entertainment dynamics, this failure to move on from our earliest days is of play, is at risk of creating a degree of torpor, of restricted imagination and hibernated creativity that’s a potentially a big liability to our wellbeing, both as organisations and businesses collectively, and in our own selves. And I’d like to suggest networks, gaming culture and social businesses can all benefit from building relationships, not just in and out of the centre, but across participants collaboratively as part of their social muscle; peer to peer networks contributing to the overall shape of play, far more than they tend to do now.

What’s required in the model today is space for kinds of synapses to fire, and for initiatives to come out of generative and formative experiences, not just a reliance on cause and effect reactions. Individuals can be creative from within, and being surprising is the best way we can all learn to be more adaptive.

Facebook interactivity is, as a comparison, a very controlled activity. A potential suffocation of individual enjoyment is at risk here. If we’re on that path, how far off are we really from sleepwalking our way into a zombie economy.

At a fairly deep intuitive level, people tend to know when they’re being gamed, unless they’re being gaslighted. It’s that gut reaction thing again…and we know that physiologically, the visceral reactions that happen when imaginative synapses fire bring with them a big degree of action potential far more than through a strategy of pacification and programmable buttons. It’s the phenomenon we all know in various ways, ‘when I hear music I just can’t make my feet behave’. We need that energy.

When passion within is denied too, the most frequent result is it doesn’t die but get stronger. Who’d bet against a passionate productive person? So leaders that can set in place a strong purposeful direction and then get out of the way so =others can co-create around it, have the chance to foster deep, productive and lasting social impacts better than any others. The big hairy audacious goal is the antithesis of the torpor that a culture built on child-like entertainment and passification will create.

The moral of the story for social businesses and brands is, if you’re going to try and collaborate with users, have deep relationships creative with them first. Put space into the business model for people to connect with each other freely to generate surprisng creative next steps and opportunities.

From a networked and gaming perspective we’re beginning to see just how much the flow of ideas matters as much as interactions, and in trusted spaces, the online environment of your brand.




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