An even less controllable and tangible part of making a playful festival is the atmosphere. After having organized thee CounterPlay festivals, the most important single thing I’ve learned, is that it’s not so much about the content of any single activity or session (not that these are not important), but about the overall playful atmosphere. It needs to be informal, relaxed, open, respectful and welcoming, so people feel safe enough to just be there without wearing masks (well, actual masks are ok, of course).
If the atmosphere is not right, chances are people won’t overcome all the social norms and conventions that get in the way of adults’ play:
Probably the biggest roadblock to play for adults is the worry that they will look silly, undignified, or dumb if they allow themselves to truly play. Or they think that it is irresponsible, immature, and childish to give themselves regularly over to play (Brown, 2009)
To change this, you need to put yourself “yourself in an environment that supports and promotes that play”. If the atmosphere is right, people act differently, and maybe, just maybe, they choose to engage in “playful play”:
“Playful play (as distinct from the broader biological category of play) is accompanied by a particular positive mood state in which the individual is more inclined to behave (and, in the case of humans, think) in a spontaneous and flexible way” (Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation)
The idea about “mood” is explored in more depth by Helle Marie Skovbjerg, who, argues that “play moods is the particular concept of sense and feeling of being, which is what we are drawn to when we play:
Applied to our play mood perspective what is important here is that play mood comes before any meaning can be articulated as something specific. It is the state of being where you are distinctly open to new meaning production and where the possibilities exist for that to happen. It is not something that comes from within the players or from the outside, but instead it is happening through our engagement with the doings of play and in our relations towards the people we are with (Play practices and play moods)
The atmosphere and the mood is reinforced by what Stuart Brown calls “continuation desire”:
play provides a continuation desire. We desire to keep doing it, and the pleasure of the experience drives that desire. We find ways to keep it going. If something threatens to stop the fun, we improvise new rules or conditions so that the play doesn’t have to end. And when it is over, we want to do it again
I hope and think most people at the festival experienced this to some extent. When I saw people, strangers, engage in deep, meaningful conversations and all sorts of play, even the most silly and rambunctious kind, I felt like we had succeeded in some way. These wonderful people were showing remarkable levels of empathy and respect for each other. The atmosphere was friendly, and everybody seemed curious, eager to learn, and also to enter the unknown:
What inspired me most was the camaraderie, the ease of conversation and exchange as if we had all known each other for decades, the lack of pretension anywhere
Now, it’s one thing to make these things happen when like-minded, playful souls get together. It’s obviously a significantly greater challenge to bring about a similar atmosphere, when play is a rare exception. That is, however, the conversation we need to continue: how do we help each other and our peers embrace their playful selves?