As a designer I spend a lot of time thinking about experiences, so over time I dig up a lot about what it means to play. I don’t have any answers, but join me in a playfully meandering exploration of a few thoughts that might help us anyway: 

1. There’s this incredibly fascinating Radiolab episode on laughter with with a psychobiologist who spends his time tickling rats and exploring the kinds of audio cues creatures across the animal kingdom give each other. Pointing to the way young creatures of all sorts engage in mock fights to practice useful skills for being later in the wild, his research suggests that laughter is perhaps the best tool evolution has given us to communicate “Yes, this is just play.” 

2. “Obligation is the only difference between work and play.” Mark Twain never said this, but I always imagine it’s what he chuckled to himself while writing the bit where Tom Sawyer has been set to work painting a fence, and manages to convince all the neighborhood kids to do it instead.

3. At one point in my life, I was obsessed with drawing these overly philosophical charts and graphs. I drew this one when it occurred to me that another way to think about the difference between work and play is as an illusion of what is sometimes called scope. An easy way to think about scope is simply “the range of time within which you consider causal relationships between the cause and effects of an action.” So an easy way to think about work is “the stuff you do when trying to get a result (feedback, in the above) within a range of time you’re considering.” And likewise, an easy way to think about play is “the stuff you do when not trying to get a result within a range of time you’re considering.” By this account, homework is work because someone expects to see a tangible product relatively immediately, and games aren’t work because no one expects that you get anything tangible from them anytime soon.

(There’s a vertical line in the middle of the chart above, that’s the point at which our brains naturally stop trying to make reasonable connections between cause and effect. If you’ve ever heard of the butterfly effect, that’s your brain trying to imagine a cause-effect relationship with a super-long scope, miles to the right of that line. It’s because of this that it’s worth noting that neither work nor play guarantee that the results are useful at some point down the road or not, as that’s an entirely different conversation.)

4. It’s not hard to find examples of how the technology and marketing worlds are obsessed with “seamless” experiences. It’s worth considering whether this too is just a failure to recognize the deceptively subtle difference between work and play. Yes, it’s true that when doing work it’s best to get from start to finish as quickly as possible — after all, as we can see in the chart, it’s work precisely (only!) because you expect an end to it. But when you’re engaged in play, seams are precisely the kind of thing you want to experience: a game that’s not childishly simple, but challenging instead (Game designer Jane McGonigal often notes that if golf were really about putting a ball in a hole, we’d just pick up the ball and put it there). Or a book that’s not a mindless drivel of expected clichés, but characters that meaningfully challenge your views of the world instead. Beautiful, poetic, difficult, engaging seams. 

5. If you like intelligent play, I can highly recommend taking a look at Kill Screen magazine, a publication dedicated to the culture of games. I was recently at their yearly conference Two5Six, which included an arcade of games crafted by clever game designers across all range of devices. This year included many fantastic games that are bright and playful and casual, but I have to give special mention to a darker piece called Lie To The Devil because it’s a game in which the computer is playing with you, and it is full of all the right kind of seams. 

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Kyle Studstill is the designer behind Composure — quality scarves in a rare balance of silk and wool, handmade in NYC. Alongside each scarf, the vision and virtues that foster creative independent business.

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