Thoughts about play and engagement

A very stimulating two-day conference was put together by Pat Kane and Escape Artists this week called ‘The Play’s The Thing’.

To use his own words, Pat has spent years ‘researching, advocating and practising play as our enduring principle of possibility and optimism in the human condition.

The aim of the conference was to explore a wide range of dimensions of wellbeing and the role of play within the social agenda. It meshed very well with the ideas we have at Visceral Businesses about social business and how, ultimately, engagement, shared value and co-creation comes through doing things that move people to respond and make a difference.

So, play has never been a passive pursuit for us and it is also a highly creative one. It was therefore great to be involved in a line of enquiry about it that was so stimulating.

The conference was refreshing antidote to the somewhat overhyped, headline-grabbing nature of ‘gamification’ that has recently somehow managed to obscure the many other currencies of play on offer.

The levels of flux being experienced in community and commercial landscapes right now suggest that it’s time we conduct a very conscious consideration into how we develop the ways we can ‘do interaction’.

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. This is the summary, and the narrative that goes with it is below.

This is a story of our lives, and the curtain goes up at the very beginning.

In fact, it goes up before the beginning, because even before we were born, we were made to connect. We had umbilical cords to our mothers that gave us nutrients, where we learnt first of all what it feels like to matter and belong.

As we become cyberbeings, that kind of connection continues because, beyond the zero cost and zero return of automated digital transaction, that sense of connection is really what’s most valuable about the ability to be socially networked.

The same access to learning and nutrients we received as children, and we developed through play, we now get to experience hooked up to the web via the cables to our ISP. This is the digital connection and one reason why we seem to be umbilically wired up to our devices. Gut feelings and clicks are, at a very visceral level, connected.

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.

Because 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 similar versions of this. XFactor entertainment includes a handy little app that manages to turn the impact of an OMG moment into just another button to press.

It’s an infantile form of entertainment and creativity. 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.

And what happens to our sense of creativity when you can get ‘shiny’ and ‘distracting’ so easily at the other end of a login?

Facebook might be the biggest global heist of free thinking in human history. Last week this article made an appearance in the Guardian, and it leads me to the question if the way we are entertained today is reactionary, only serving to torpor and a form of temporary creative hibernation, instead of stimulating and offering the option of self-powered creativity.

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

The point when gaming becomes a generic value-add is only a matter of time. To  develop authentic well being, what’s needed are businesses that contain and enable a greater level of free expression as fully matured independent creative adults at deep levels, if we’re to develop people as more than replaceable, digital widgets.

Networked culture has a central nervous system to it but, unlike our own sensory and adaptive human systems, it tends to not be very responsive. Perhaps it’s because we’re still so close to the factory age that networked cultures around today are not that great at being shaped by external stimuli coming from without from participants and users.

The same is true of a large degree of online gaming; it has very limited scope for autonomous or co-dependent creation and is much more about you versus the central nervous system than collaborative, individually owned creativity and input.

I think this inability in our collective culture to go beneath the surface in what entertainment can mean, in game dynamics, and this failure to move on from our earliest days is of play, is perpetuating an adult-to-child instead of adult-to-adult society; great swathes of community is at risk of torpor, suffering as a result of restricted imagination and hibernated creativity. This could be potentially a big liability to our wellbeing, as organisations and in our own selves.

Networks, gaming culture and social businesses can all benefit from building relationships, not just in and out of the centre, but across participants as part of their social muscle so participants contribute to the overall shape of play.

Business models today can benefit from building in the space for synapses to fire and initiatives to come out of generative and formative experiences, instead of a reliance to cause and effect reactions.

Individuals can learn a great deal about themselves and expand the opportunities of the environments they’re in when they can be creative from within; being surprising is the best way we can all learn to be more adaptive.

Facebook interactivity is, by comparison, a very controlled activity. Potential suffocation of individual enjoyment is the risk here. If we’re on that path, how far off are we really from an unsustainable model, of 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 a gut reaction; 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 a strategy of pacification and programmable buttons. It’s the phenomenon we all know in various ways that’s summed up in the line, ‘when I hear music I just can’t make my feet behave’. We need that energy.

When passion within is denied, the paradox is the most frequent end result is it doesn’t die but it just gets stronger. Who’d bet against that as an asset in your workforce or against the odds of success of a passionate productive person? How can it be developed as an asset?

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.

So 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, and yes, get visceral.

From a networked and gaming perspective we’re beginning to see just how much the flow of ideas matters as much as interactions.

When gamification and stimulus/response play becomes something trite to grow out of, where will consumers and users find the trusted spaces online in which to grow… will it be in the environment of your brand? …and what do you find stimulating and fires up your creativity?

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Featured image by HannahWebb.





  • I like the phrase “something to grow out of”. It reminds me that play is connected to growth, and growth is connected to wellbeing.a wise friend sent me a book called “Going Mad to Stay Sane: Psychology of Self-destructive Behaviour” by Andy White (a challenging topic, but I need to read books like that).

    White tells the story of the soft-shelled hermit crab as a metaphor for our lives. The crab’s shell is its home and its safety, but periodically, it grows out of its shell – which means, in fact, it has to leave its shell, so that it can grow a new one. If we bwant to growm we have to choose a path of vulnerability, patience, and willingness to experiment. If we never grew out of our shells, we would never grow at all.

  • I haven’t read something this powerful in sometime.  Something that summed out what 
    I’ve felt eating at me for several, well, years now.  

    This gave me great pause: 
    “It’s the phenomenon we all know in various ways that’s summed up in the line, ‘when I hear music I just can’t make my feet behave’. We need that energy.”

    I think there is great power in social media – but just like anything that is powerful, there is great danger for it to corrupt.  I want to see it used for good, but I’m afraid too many people out there are consumers and voyeurs rather than participators.  Oh how I want to see this change!  

    We are all creative beings. And the potential for creativity is exponential in the cyberspace… but we need those spaces to be safe and I’m not sure people feel safe. I think a lot of people are scared.  And perhaps with good reason.  Still, I am hopeful…