Been A While, Crocodile!

Apologies for the extended hiatus on publishing anything in this blog. I’ve been pooling an ever-mounting mountain of resources which I intend to dole out in heavy doses. I have not been idle while this blog was asleep. Recently, I have been making my rounds, meeting play advocates local to the US Mid Atlantic, New England and Canada. Each new connection sparks many more, which propel me further along this whimsical web of ideas, inspiration and insight.


Today I would like to direct your attention to an article published in Playground Magazine. You can find the PDF here. The inspiration to post this article comes from my long-standing advocacy for “immersion” in video games. However,  any act of play can be immersive so long as players engage their imaginations – this doesn’t require much. That said, there is something uniquely charming about a theme park, derived largely, I believe, from its immersivity and spectacle. This is a very hard thing to achieve, and Disney definitely demonstrated a mastery of it, but it doesn’t come cheap and takes a lot of smart and creative people working together to get it right. If you’re on a budget and working from scratch, designed immersion is probably not the way you want to go. There are many cheaper, less heavy-handed options one could employ that children would dive right into. Children are clever inventors, with imaginations many of us bigfolk envy, and if we let them run the reel, they’ll inevitably surprise us with how lost in play they can become. If you’re going for designed immersion, though, make it massive or move on.

Our kids throw around the word ‘epic’ like they are in Mythology class. To them the word describes an essential quality so awe-inspiring one is lost for words. That’s what you have to be to design for immersion. Museum exhibits sometimes approach this quality, though suspension of disbelief for me is easily shattered by informational signage. You have to try really hard to sell your world to an audience, because a robot-shaped jungle gym isn’t fooling anyone. That robot needs context – where was it made? – what was its purpose? – does it still function? – is it missing parts? – can you fix it? – what was it doing before it stopped moving? – does it have any friends? – why can you go inside it? … I would discourage anyone from explicitly answering these questions in the design, but the environmental context must complement the world you’re trying to immerse someone in. This term is not literal; immersion is a metaphor. Immersion requires surrounding someone in an idea, as if immersing them deeply in water to see what’s in it, and blurring out anything ‘outside.’ For homework, I recommend you go watch the movie Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki. You’ll be fully immersed in the spirit world for the better part of two hours. Be compelling and sell us your story. Sell us your world by enveloping us in something rich and breathing, hopelessly inextricable from its surroundings, of utmost purpose and sincerity. Build that, and we will come.


“If you watch young children play, you will notice that they create games, characters, situations, whole worlds in which they immerse themselves with intense concentration.”

–Daniel Greenberg


The Philosophy of Play

IMG_4703

Once upon a Central Park, 1969, Richard Dattner of Dattner Architects set forth a manifesto called ‘Design for Play.’ Not long ago, I posted similar sentiments that as designers we are beholden to the imperative to design for play – not how to play. Dattner’s book of the same substance is one I am currently pouring over. Dattner’s words have coaxed forth numerous questions in me concerning the essence and meaning of play.

A recent professor of mine, to whom I owe a great many things – not least of which the inspiration and encouragement to pursue the design of ludic environments – used to run an exercise with our class on definitions of key words and concepts. Rather than regurgitate the (albeit considered) dictionary’s laundry list of popular uses, he recognized the process underlying the construction of definitions: experience. A friend of mine once described dictionaries as historical documents useful as starting points, but not to be referenced as instruction manuals. The importance of experience in defining anything is fundamental and essential. The exercise our professor ran us through was not unlike the exercises I imagine dictionary authors must also engage in.

With a concept like play, simple definitions are contentious and its philosophical variations rather divided. Dattner attempts a definition of play in his first chapter, and outlines his philosophy of it immediately. For him, work and play are opposite ends of a dichotomy. He writes that it is the ‘reason’ for acting, rather than the ‘activity’ itself, that determines whether someone is working or playing. This is one philosophy of play which I think is important to earmark, because I encounter it often.

In his elaborations of this philosophy I found that Dattner defined and redefined play frequently. In the spirit of my former professor’s exercises I challenged myself to indulge the author’s philosophy and play at extracting his definitions of play. In this way, I took on the role of my professor, observing and recording, and Dattner became my subject positing his experience as definition. Here are Dattner’s definitions of play, extracted for you from his chapter on the philosophy of play:

Play is:

  • supremely voluntary
  • doing what you want to do when you want to do it
  • a manifestation of internal needs and wishes
  • a necessity we require of ourselves
  • a full expression of personal freedom
  • exercise or action for amusement
  • freedom, room or scope for action
  • similar to magic
  • extraordinary
  • a process of mastering
  • concerned with the achievement of goals
  • about process not product
  • its own reward
  • freedom or abstinence from work
  • re-creation of ourselves
  • engaging in freely chosen activities that restore our sense of completeness
  • impossible to “do” – it is an end in itself
  • a manifestation of choice; [choice manifestation]
  • freedom
  • theatrical

Dattner also briefly defines what play is not.

Play is not:

  • professional athletics
  • bound by reality
  • deprived of freedom of action or expression
  • restricted or hampered

Reading this chapter certainly fanned the flames of my pursuit of play theories, and had me filling the margins with notes. Rather than agreeing or disagreeing with Dattner, I observe that these are some of the many definitions and negative definitions of play, and hope to discover many more from you and other readings.

If this post had you considering your own definitions of play I encourage you to post your thoughts below. I also gratefully welcome recommendations for further reading.


 “Work can be forced, but play, like love, is a supremely voluntary undertaking.”

–Richard Dattner