In April and May I spent eight weeks working as a part of the Joy exploration group, a research group exploring movement online run by parkour philosopher Flynn Disney.
As part of this group, I have been working on a personal project exploring what obstacles prevent us from fully engaging with play (whether in a movement practice or in life). In particular I have been playing with the idea of low vs high stakes (the risk-reward relationship), sometimes talked about as “having skin in the game”, might have on our ability to be playful.
The primary idea that I am going to argue here, is that play is a low stakes activity: another word is that the risk is low and that the reward comes from the activity itself. I contrast this with the idea of work. In the context of this project I am defining work as any activity we undertake to maintain our personal sense of safety and gain resources. Any activity that has high risk naturally puts some pressure on a sense of safety, and therefore moves away from Place and towards work. Any activity that is done primarily for the sake of reward (whether that reward is financial, material or social) also moves into the realm of work.
This post is a slightly longer one. At the end you’ll find the key ideas summarised.
I stumbled across the idea of low stakes play because I was experiencing highly anxious periods throughout the month of April. Over these weeks, it was very difficult to engage in play: partly because my mind was elsewhere.
In Todd Hargrove’s book “Playing with Movement” he writes “Animals and babies generally stop playing when they are sick or stressed out… Play, almost by definition, never compromises the recovery dimension of movement health.”
From this idea we can extrapolate that humans tend to require space to feel relaxed before they can easily engage with play. Of course we can’t always control what is going on outside and movement practice (although we may have more influence over it than it at first appears) so it seems to me to make sense to have some kind of softening and relaxing practice to help us ground and reconnect to ourselves before we engage in moments of play. Similarly, this points to the importance of developing good stress management practices, such as mindfulness, journalling, gratitude lists or therapy, if we want to live a more playful life.
However the stressors that make play a difficult state to connect with may not necessarily stem from the outside world. Sometimes the game itself may prove a stressful experience to the player.
I will illustrate this point with two different examples from my own practice. The first example is a game of table tennis I played with a friend and the second is a movement improvisation performed during a workshop I attended recently. Both playing table tennis and movement improvisation are both activities in which I personally find a great sense of playfulness and joy (most of the time).
In the first instance I was playing with a close friend, on a day off work, after a good night of sleep and a really good breakfast. Although the two of us were evenly matched and I didn’t know whether I could win the game, I knew that no matter who won I had nothing to lose (socially, physically, emotionally, professionally). I quickly lost myself in the game and we spent three or four hours playing multiple games that felt like minutes.
In the second example I was at a workshop where (although it wasn’t my workshop) I was surrounded by many of my private students and so felt a certain amount of pressure to do a “good job”. I felt, for whatever reason, that as a movement professional I needed to show some level of mastery over the proposed content on display - even though much of the content was new to me). It became much more difficult for me to switch off my mind and immerse myself in the state of flow and release that leads to a real state of playfulness enjoy: my critical brain was engaged and kept dragging up thoughts about what I could’ve done better and wondering about how others may have been judging me. Or do they still think I was good at what I do? Would my work suffer from the quality of play I was demonstrating?
I’ll add another example here: two social situations. Small talk or banter is a great example of playing, no purpose is being played out and we engage in it purely for the pleasure of social connection. I recently noticed the difference in my awareness when chatting with my closest friends and meeting some of my partners friends for the first time. In the first instance, low stakes: I trust completely in my closest friends and know that no matter what is said our friendship will only continue to grow. In the second instance, perceived high stakes : my partners friends may not like me, I could give a bad impression, and this could potentially affect my relationship to my partner. I say perceived high stakes: I have no real idea about how other people may be judging me, and what is important here is the fact that I believe there may be high stakes, regardless of whether I am correct or not. We act based on our subjective perception, not reality. The ease with which I am able to communicate in these two instances is therefore different. I am able to be much more relaxed playful and authentic with my closest friends whereas I tend to overthink interactions with new people.
All these examples are simply stories that illustrate the key facts that the perceived consequence of the game has a big influence on how easily we are able to immerse ourselves in the act of playing. If we think that a failed attempt may lead to us losing social, professional, physical or material resources then we may struggle to find the experience playful. I suggest we are here by definition working. If we deem the risk too high we may even avoid the situation entirely!
A third factor that may influence our ability to play is the level of challenge within the game. If the challenge is too far above our current comfort zone and the success to fail ratio is too far off, we may feel easily discouraged and unable to feel the thrill and excitement of trying to figure things out. If the level of challenges too low, we may find the experience rather dull or boring.
This is where the importance of scalability comes in. For everyone to have fun, the rules of the game need to be scalable to everyone’s level, so that everyone has a chance to win at least from time to time. This topic brings us to the difference between play and competition. Play is intrinsically motivating (you do it because you enjoy it) where is competition leads to some kind of award or reward, or an avoidance of some kind of loss. This doesn’t mean that play can’t be competitive, but there is a difference between competitive play and a competition.
Another example, again from Todd’s book playing with movement, is that when animals are play fighting “the stronger animal will let the weaker one win from time to time, by lying on its back, or otherwise handicapping itself.” Competitive sports often have a mixture of play and work. I think most of us know intuitively when the boundary between the two is crossed.
“Play should probably be considered work when it becomes more than moderately painful” or “if losing makes you feel ashamed, depressed or stressed.”
When designing exploratory games, we should therefore leave enough openness to the directions to allow anyone to engage in playing with the games at their own level, or to provide different levels or options that people can choose to play with.
When designing competitive games, we should try to think of different types of possible handicaps that players can use so that players of different levels can play together in a way that is fun and engaging for both players and gives both players a chance to win.
(1) Play is low stakes, work is high stakes
(2) practicing stress management could help support a more playful approach to life
(3) starting game sessions with relaxation should help players let go of worries and reduce external high stakes
(4) exploratory games should be scaleable: keep instructions open and loose or provide multiple options for different levels
(5) use handicaps to level players in competitive games so both players or teams have a chance of winning