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Serious Fun at Playtime

I had an amazing day earlier this month at the Playtime event organised by Tim Wright at 01zero-one as part of the London Games Fringe. I first came across Tim’s work at Warwick University when he was one of the guest speakers on the MA in Creative and Media Enterprises, and showed us his amazing games combining books, websites and mobile technology. It’s hard to explain how they work, but if ‘imaginary total fulfilment’ sounds like your cup of tea, check out Tim’s XPT site.


For Playtime Tim assembled an excellent lineup of speakers covering a range of disciplines and meanings of the word ‘play’. And refreshingly for an event involving computer games, there wasn’t a console in sight.

Pat Kane set the scene by talking about the social and cultural context of play, based on his book The Play Ethic: A Manifesto for a Different Way of Living, which argues that in rich countries the work ethic that has governed societies since the industrial revolution is now giving way to a ‘play ethic’ – so work is becoming more like play (particularly in creative industries) and playfulness pervades business, the arts, education, politics, education and family life. So far so fluffy – but his talk got really interesting when he highlighted the dark side of play, in the ‘addictive’ quality of computer games, the coercive behaviour of crowds at football matches, and even the treatment of war as a game, in the rhetoric of US officials who have frequently talked about ‘changing the rules of the game’ in the war on terror.

I couldn’t help thinking about my first experience of paintballing on a recent stag weekend – at the beginning of the game, we were just a bunch of hungover thirtysomething blokes lumbering around sheepishly (and getting wiped out by a squadron of 12 year old boys), but by the end we had all somehow become possessed by the spirit of the game and were hell-bent on using all our aggression and cunning on taking out ‘the enemy’.

Listening to Pat speak, I had the sense of recognising an idea that was very obvious, yet which I hadn’t noticed until he pointed it out. I could also see parallels with creativity and flow – on the one hand flow can be a liberating experience, but Mihahly Csikszentmihalyi has pointed out that “It is important to realize that the flow experience, while personally rewarding, is socially neutral. Like physical energy, it [psychic energy] can be used for productive or destructive ends” (1978 essay on ‘Intrinsic rewards in school crime’). Pat also spoke about his experience of blogging, on the Play Ethic blog. I’ve bought his book and will post a review when I’ve had a chance to read it.


Next up were two online games developers – Jamie Cason from the BBC, talking about the corporation’s online games such as Jamie Kane and the forthcoming interactive soap Wannabes, which look to be spearheading the games side of the BBC’s web 2.0 transformation. He was followed by Dan Hon from Mind Candy, who talked about a ‘story/game/puzzle hybrid called Perplex City that is “played” simultaneously by thousands of people around the world’. I haven’t yet got my head round Perplexcity, partly because I’m terrible at puzzles and missed the ‘how to play’ session in the afternoon, but I’m definitely intrigued. It’s hard not to be curious about a game that involves an online city, beautifully printed puzzle cards, a board game and 300 players taking part in a real-life conga around Trafalgar Square. The photographic evidence backed up Dan’s claim that it’s a game for players of all ages, with kids joining hands with twentysomethings and pensioners. Apparently the police were the only ones who weren’t amused.

As a poet I was delighted to see a section of the day devoted to ‘playing with words’ – and even to find a poet on the bill! Gavin Stewart showed us some of the interesting things he’s doing with with poetry and ‘computer-mediated textual art’ online. Then Tim Wright talked about his ‘90% true’ interactive story Oldton and his ambition to play golf on the moon with David Bowie, complete with some hilarious spoof Bowie videos. ‘Don’t leave space to the professionals’ says Tim – if you want to join him on his mission, take your protein pills and go to Golfonthemoon.com.


The next section was about ‘playing with pictures’ with Tom Hume of Future Platforms and Rob Bevan of XPT. By this stage my mind was definitely starting to boggle, but I managed to grasp that both companies are doing some very unusual things with mobile phones and social software online, and I scribbled down lots of interesting-looking sites for future investigation. Rob has written a book with Tim Wright, Unleash Your Creativity: Secrets of Creative Genius (52 Brilliant Ideas) – if the results are anything to go by, their approach to creative thinking must be worth investigating, so that’s another book for my reading list.

After lunch I regressed about 25 years when Stuart Nolan gave us a chance to play with Lego, as a sample of his approach to Lego Serious Play. Once we’d got over the excitement of rediscovering the feel of Lego (and made a mental note to Santa), Stuart introduced us to the metaphorical possibilities of Lego, asking us to build a metaphor for ‘a journey’ and showing us examples of people who have built metaphors for their job, their life, their organisation etc. Have a look at this Flickr group for some pictures. The process reminded me of the work I’ve done using metaphor in hypnosis, based on David Grove‘s work – with the obvious difference that the Lego externalises the metaphors that are experienced internally in hypnosis. And I can testify that Lego is definitely trance-inducing!

I had to leave at 5pm, so was disappointed to miss the final sessions, including one from Stuart Nolan on magic. The last sessions I saw were both theatrical, with Tom Morris of the National Theatre giving a fascinating talk about play and improvisation in the theatre, and Tassos Stevens taking us on a mini adventure with Rabbit. If you don’t know who Rabbit is, I’m not at liberty to tell (all very hush hush) but if you’re feeling adventurous go to irabbit.org.

It was a shame to miss the end, although in another way it was almost a relief to emerge from the rapid flow of ideas and applications. The day has given me a lot to digest and to explore. As well as the links on this page you can find out more via Tim’s Post-Playtime post and del.icio.us bookmarks. Others who have blogged the day are Tom Hume, Frank Boyd, and Shrinkwrapped.

Overall then, a mind-expanding day and I met some very nice people. I was also interviewed at lunchtime by Steeve Laprise of Le Lien Multimedia – but as the site is subscription-only I’m not sure whether I’m Big In Canada yet.

Enjoy the links and play nicely…

PS – One thing the day inspired me to do was set up the Creativity Group on Squidoo – feel free to join and make a lens about your creative project or company. Here’s your invitation.


  1. This is great.

    Seeing play as a discipline sheds a new light. Great post.

    Have Fun

    FMD (Writer for the World Famous ‘The Thursday Blog’)

    FMD’s last blog post..Don’t Mess With The Godfather


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