“Man’s maturity: to have regained the seriousness that he had as a child at play.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche

Social gatherings would be much more lively affairs if we asked and were asked more interesting questions. How I long to be approached at some networking event or casual party and have someone demand to know what my weirdest anxieties revolve around, how I imagine I might die, or when the last time was that I got really excited by something about which nobody else could give two figs. Alas we are, as a species, generally safety minded when it comes to conversation and so we tend to fall back on the tried, tested, boring but uncontentious openers such as “so… what do you do then?”

We are, as a species, generally safety minded

When, inevitably, I am asked this question my habitual answer is that I help my clients develop a better relationship with creativity. Which is true if a somewhat prosaic way of saying it. I consider my work to be successfully accomplished when my clients find themselves relating to moments of creative potential in fluid, positive, playful and dynamic ways, skilfully interpreting their embodied emotions, resisting the fears and imagined limitations that would narrow their horizons and undermine their potential, and essentially creating the shit out of life.

But that doesn’t tell people much about what I actually do. It tells people what the point of what I do is, I suppose. But it doesn’t tell people what my job actually entails. If I were a baker of fine artisanal pastries I might say that what I do is ensure that the well to do of London are never without a refined and delicious treat in which to indulge or of which to share with their refined and delicious friends. But the job probably entails a lot more mucking about with flour and eggs than this honest but incomplete description reveals.

I transport my clients to altered states of reality and muck about with their minds

So perhaps the next time someone asks me what I do I should tell them that I transport my clients to altered states of reality and muck about with their minds. This still leaves a lot to be desired but it certainly does more to bring to life the reality of my work.As an added bonus, it sounds all kinds of awesome.

As an added bonus, it sounds all kinds of awesome.

You see, my business is play. I say this now more broadly and more boldly than ever before because while I once considered play to be a part of my work, I have now come to realise that play is, in fact, all of my work. It all comes down to a wider and more complete concept of what play means.

All forms of play that I have ever come across can be described as an altered state of realityClick To Tweet

When you think of play it is likely you imagine games of various sorts. But the moment we begin to imagine these games we find that our concept of play gets tied up in all sorts of complicating factors. To illustrate, let me offer you a list of statements that are true about games.

Games:

  • Are single player
  • Are multiplayer
  • Are competitive
  • Are non-competitive
  • Are based on agreed, codified rules
  • Are based on emergent rules that have never been codified
  • Have scoring systems
  • Have no scoring systems
  • Are silly
  • Are serious
  • Use boards
  • Use fields
  • Use specially designed pitches
  • Happen entirely inside people’s heads

You see, games can be many, many things. But they are all vehicles for play. So to understand play we can’t simply dissect games just as we cannot understand beauty by dissecting paintings.

Play can be anything from the make-believe of children in the playground to world class chess tournaments, by way of improvisational theatre and Dungeons and Dragons, Tetris and Poker.

In Homo Ludens Johan Huizinga says that play has five essential elements:

  1. Play is free, is in fact freedom.
  2. Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.
  3. Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration.
  4. Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme.
  5. Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it.

I find these to be a powerful summary, defining play as something born of freedom, that you cannot be compelled to do, something set apart from the ordinary, bounded by time and space within reality but not of it, ordered in a way that allows for this separation from “normal” life, and of no direct material consequence to the rest of the world – either positive or negative.

Before moving on we should cover the question of how what happens in play affects the rest of the world, what we could call “real life”. I’ve argued that play can have no direct material impact on your life – that what happens in play remains in play. And the important word here is “direct”. You might observe that a tennis player may win a huge cash prize or that a game might give rise to some deep insight that could change the world. And you would be right. But these are not direct consequences of play. We may build rewards around play. We may reflect on play and use our experiences more broadly. But these things are not “of play”. Play itself must be free from “real life” consequences because if not it cannot be free. Once “real life” enters play it ceases to be play, for that moment, and becomes “real life”. Just as a mother intruding on her children, deeply engrossed in some fantasy play, to bring sandwiches and milk, causes reality to impinge on the fantasy, so too does real world reward or punishment cause “real life” to enter a space and for play to be temporarily suspended. Remember what happens in play, remains in play. If this were not so a boxer could be prosecuted for assault, Cards Against Humanity players for hate speech, and spin the bottle could lead to accusations of infidelity amongst teens the world over.

What happens in play, remains in play

So, while a group of children may immerse themselves in a fantasy world, becoming monsters or animals, or pirates on a creaky ship, and in this altered state they can have very real experiences, what happens in play stays in play. This time, this space, is sacred and unsullied by the ordinary.

Boiled down to a simple statement all forms of play that I have ever come across can be described as an altered state of reality. Which begs the question why exactly I feel the need to conduct my business in altered states of reality.

When I work with my clients to help them build a stronger relationship with creativity the central challenge is to provide a circumstance in which they can do two things:

  1. Experience their present relationship with creativity
  2. Fiddle with it and see what happens

This can take place in “real life” but it’s so much easier and generally more effective and fun for it to happen in an altered reality or, in other words, in play.

Play has a disarming effect on adults

For example, when I run No Wrong Answers, a pub quiz style event filled with hair-brained hypothetical questions, what I’m really doing is offering up bite-sized altered realities in which players can step into different types of creative behaviour and experience themselves within them. When I play Chaos Chairs I’m creating a reality in which the chaos of real life happens more clearly and in a more meaningful way, so the players can achieve more clear and meaningful insights into how the relate to the essential uncontrollability of the creative process. When I do Parse the Parcel I’m making an altered reality in which the invisible channels of creative flow are made visible. And even when I simply coach someone, in that session for that time I am helping to manifest a reality that is not ordinary, not of the outside world. In this reality questions can be asked, subjects broached and fears aired without consequence and without commitment. In all important ways a coaching session is exactly like play.

Play has a disarming effect on adults. In fact, one of my greatest joys is to see the adults who play my games begin to grow into children as they play.

The most direct path to creative genius is playClick To Tweet

George Bernard Shaw said that “we don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” If he is right then the antidote to adulthood and the most direct path to creative genius is play. Through play we can let go of our limitations and allow ourselves to change and be changed. We can be present in the moment in a way that we have not been since we were very young and fascinated by the simple miracles around us. We can be ourselves instead of trying to be who we are supposed to be.

So that is what I do. I play. I play to solve problems and I play to heal wounds. I play to explore the possible and I play to understand the limits. I play to be inspired and I play to overcome fear. And so should you.

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“Man's maturity: to have regained the seriousness that he had as a child at play.” - Friedrich Nietzsche Social gatherings would be much more lively affairs if we asked and were asked more interesting questions. How I long to be approached at some networking event or casual party and have someone...
Aran Rees
Founder and Coach at Sabre Tooth Panda
Aran is a creativity coach, facilitator and communicator, founder of Sabre Tooth Panda and creator of No Wrong Answers: the hypothetical quiz. He believes that expressing creativity is all about how you and those around you relate to creativity both at an emotional and intellectual level. He helps his clients to get cosy with creativity to solve big problems and have more fun.