In previous posts I’ve written about the differences between the way adults would see a game and the way kids would see it. There are various definitions of what exactly is a ‘game’, but I’d like to suggest three main features, or constraints, that without them, most adults won’t engage in any ‘play’ activity –
A physical feature – there must be something saying that we’re in a ‘game’ environment, i.e. it’s separated from ‘real’ life (a field, a board, a deck of cards etc.).
A set of rules, known to all players – there must be a clear way in which the game moves on, and we need to know most of those upfront. We all know that shooting the ball through the hoop means that we scored. We all know that hitting other players means that it is a foul.
A known way to end the game – if there is no way to end a game, even in a tie, most adults would avoid from playing. It’d because we won’t know the the game's purpose and we fear that we’ll be sucked into something we can’t stop.
Even in video games, which are designed to be immersive and can be played alone, all three features apply. You sit in front of the screen (a physical feature), there are things and moves your character can and cannot do (set of rules) and somewhere inside the game there’s an end – running out of time, reaching the final level, killing everyone, getting killed, finding the treasure.
This set of constraints is quite basic, as evident by the many games available for adults, and the huge economic activity they generate.
Yet, these conditions are totally different for kids. In short, there are no conditions. Anything can be turned into a game – a tree, some pebbles, a can. As any parent would know, kids will jump, run, pick from the floor, climb and kick pretty much anything (until they are told to stop).
In the early 20th century many scholars still believed that children have a loose grasp of reality. This, so it was believed, allowed them to live in a fantasy world, where everything can be turned into a game or a make-believe. It was believed that adults could persuade kids that pretty much anything was real.
A male adult, telling it like it is.
But as psychology, sociology and neuro-science research has progressed, we now know that kids as young as age 3 are capable of telling what is real, and even question what adults believe is real. So kids ability to play all the time, using everything and everywhere comes from somewhere else.
Sadly, too many people still believe that fun and games are mostly for kids. Too many people think that games are a distraction from the important things in life.
As a result, most adults cannot engage in playing activities, until they put down their doubts, defenses, stress and fears. We seem to need a signal saying - “life is on the other side of this line, you can relax”.
Knowing that play is in our nature, that kids play naturally and freely even the in harshest conditions, means that what’s preventing us from playing more isn’t due to lack of time, resources or opportunities to play.
What’s stopping us from utilizing the many advantages of playtime – stress-relief, bonding with others, reigniting our creative spark - are our own doubts and fears. Our belief that play is in fact unimportant.
But our need to play, our inquisitive mind, doesn’t die when we get older. It just finds different ways to play.
How many times did you or someone you know noticed that they are hooked on a game app? That you've been playing it for hours, while ignoring everything else? Smart app designers know it – we are hopeless when it comes to resisting play, and once we're hooked, it gets worse.
Yet instead of doing it in public - which seems unserious - we regress to our smartphones and screens. Our screens act like an imaginary line between ourselves and the social norms, which lets our brain do what it wants to do – play.
Parents and society tell kids “it’s great that you want to play, but games aren’t what’s important in life”. And so, kids learn that what is expected of them is to leave games behind and to focus on other things. Like grades. Or their career. Or their social status.
We should be celebrating play, not hiding it. We should utilize what play is doing to our brain, at any age.
We should tell kids to keep playing, because playing help them become smarter, kinder and healthier.