Homo Ludens, or “Man the Playful,” is a book written in 1938 by Dutch historian, cultural theorist and Professor Johan Huizinga. Huizinga wanted to discuss the importance of a play element in our culture and society and suggests that the playful state is a key driver for human motivation and a necessary condition for the generation of human culture.
Play is a voluntary activity…having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of
tension, joy and the consciousness that it is `different´ than `ordinary life´
You may ask yourself why it is important to talk about having fun. It is interesting because as Huizinga points out it’s an activity that encourages us as humans to keep doing it. We train and become better when the rewards and encouragements are strong enough. First the baby crawls, then it walks. Especially at a young age we seem driven by some sort of mystical force to explore the world around us. We quickly acquire new physical and social skills and we learn what is needed to be accepted as successful in our culture. We experience ups and downs but continue with an almost endless appetite for life. Later on our curiosity normally becomes less spontaneous and we start to increasingly use analytical strategies to understand the world - some would say we grow up. With the words of Romanian poet, playwriter and philosopher Lucian Blaga, our culture’s life cycle goes something like this.
The child is laughing: Game is my wisdom and my love
The young is singing: Love is my wisdom and my game
The old is silent: Wisdom is my love and my game
Blaga is probably trying to illustrate how the child learns and loves with a playful subjectivity, it experiments and are very open to the world. As we get older we settle on an acquired belief system and are passionate about things like love among many other. In the end we become old and wise. Our modern culture is in Blaga’s view a culture that gradually teaches us to choose wisdom and rationality over playfulness. We will of course mature as we get older, but it becomes very apparent with Blaga’s words that learning in our culture actually means learning how to interpret the world using our logic senses. Radically speaking we sacrifice the child in us along with our ability to be playful, spontaneous and subjective as to focus on other social aspects. At least that is the idea of not just Huizinga and Blaga but also a fellow named Keith Johnstone.
Johnstone began his career teaching kids at an elementary school, but later got involved in teaching improvisatory techniques at the Royal Court Theatre. He went on to develop many of the exercises used in theatre schools today to foster spontaneity and narrative skills. On emotion Johnstone writes:
“One day, when I was eighteen, I was reading a book and I began to weep. I was astounded. I’d had no idea that literature could affect me in such a way. If I’d wept over a poem in class the teacher would have been appalled. I realised that my school had been teaching me not to respond.”
Johnstone’s simple idea was that the key to unleashing creativity and self-development in his theatre students was to approach them in much the same way as he had approached his young kids at the first school where he was working. He believed that he and thousands like him had suffered an education that taught them to be primarily objective and analytical about their experiences, thus adding a layer to their experience of the world that in some way damaged their ability to be playful. If he could only bring them back to that playful state he believed he could push the boundaries for what these students could achieve. And so he did. His teachings went on to become world famous and so did many of his students. The amazing difference Johnstone noticed with his theatre groups occurred when they found their playful state and when they let go of their formal education. Suddenly the dialogue became full of emotions and felt real, the students quickly flourished both as a group and as individuals.
How was Johnstone setting his students free from their prison? Could it be that our formal education by focusing so much on our analytical and theoretical skills make it harder for us to connect to our subjective and childish side? Do we, at the same time as we learn, also lose other talents like spontaneity and creativity, and if so, what consequences does it have for us? As it turns out many of us suffer from similar diagnosis to Johnstone’s students. We grow up with the belief that our childish and subjective interpretation is somehow wrong and less valuable and that we should rather rely on our “adult” logic. It becomes our prison as far as it gradually detaches us from our own physical and emotional self.
That Johnstone developed these techniques for acting classes is very interesting. To be a good actor you in many ways have to be extremely successful in the social games we humans play. You need to be good to express emotions like love and anger and status in a group and you need to be able to communicate these messages clearly so that an audience understands them. Especially in improvisation theatre as Johnstone was working with social situations and emotions that the actors express is what makes or breaks the play.
Johnstone writes, by the end of his book, of how grotesque and frightening things are released as soon as people begin to work with spontaneity. They start producing very sick scenes: they become cannibals pretending to eat each other, and so on. But when you give the student permission to explore this material he very soon uncovers layers of unsuspected gentleness and tenderness. It is like if they at first were wearing an armour that sheltered them from showing their natural emotions, and by doing so they also suppressed a great deal of childish benevolence and tenderness.
In order to explain exactly what happens in the childish and playful act we need to look a bit to the right from Johnstone. Some 20 years ago, with an intention to explain happiness, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi started using the term flow. Flow described the feeling of complete and energized focus in an activity – providing us with a very high level of enjoyment and fulfilment. Mihaly probably hadn’t heard of Johnstone and vice versa but in Johnstone’s world, flow is exactly the feeling of playfulness that his groups experienced and what had transformed them. Flow occurs when an activity provides just the right amount of reward and challenge and you feel absorbed in the activity. Focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself – not its purpose.
A good example of flow is in modern computer games, now an industry larger than Hollywood – where the playful interactive experience and its designed gradual rise in challenge and rewards are a key component in encouraging experimentation. Ironically computer games is one of the only things that can make us adults act as spontaneous children – just think of the Nintendo Wii or the millions of adults that play World of Warcraft pretending to be wizards and elfs at night time. It turns out Csikszentmihalyi by accident stroke on one of the key terms to understand much of the playful experience that Johnstone was trying to create in his adult students in order to set them free from their logical education. Together Johnstone and Csikszentmihalyi form a strong argument for the idea that great positive energy can be achieved from releasing our spontaneous and playful sides – even as adults.
We could possibly achieve much better results if we were aware of the armour we have grown up to wear. Fun and playfulness is not - as you should believe from most schools and universities today - the opposite of learning. It is in fact a key part of learning because it makes us dare moving beyond where we have been before. As Huizinga claims it might be one of the very things that makes us human at all.
The key argument for a childish approach to personal development is based on Johnstone’s ideas of removing the sense of right and wrong in the students mind during classes and rehearsal. Once faced with the realization of how deeply our formal education systems limit us Johnstone was able to release the students from their armours and by doing so he created a fun learning atmosphere where the students used each other and all their senses and attention to achieve development. The results remain stunning on many professional as well as personal measures - perhaps because Johnstone’s ideas of the human development through a playful theatre world reaches so deep in our soul.
Johnstone’s idea of using all our senses, spontaneity and playfulness in pushing the limits for what we can achieve as humans have since been widely adopted in modern educational theory. But what we agree are best at driving the incredible developments we experience in our society’s youngest stands in direct opposition to how our adult world insist on logic and rationality as its key components. When encouraged correctly the child and the theatre student will walk courageous through life without armour on, but as adults we often experience our armour - holding us back for just a second.
When have you last REALLY danced? When was the last time you painted something? What did you pick up and bring home from your last walk in the forest? When did you last make faces of people? The curiosity and playfulness of the childish mind unleashes a great deal of productive social experimentation yet as adults we often seem satisfied in the formal educational prison we create for ourselves.
“I don’t see that an educated man in this culture necessarily should understand the second law of thermodynamics , but he certainly should understand that we are pecking-order animals and that this affects the tiniest details of our behaviour”
- Keith Johnstone