CounterPlay is founded on a firm belief that the mere existence of play will make our lives better. We wish to contribute to the ongoing exploration of play in order to allow everyone to live more playful lives in playful societies. We insist that any such attempt must build on a deep and sincere respect for play, where we strive to fully embrace and appreciate the inherent and beautiful ambiguity of play with all its many possible meanings and perspectives.

Hence, this manifesto is not an attempt to capture the one true meaning of play, because there is no such truth. However, we do maintain that some ways of perceiving play are more beneficial and meaningful than others. While retaining a fundamental openness, curiosity and the capacity to always learn more about the nature of play, we wish to put a stake in the ground and make our position clearly visible.

Principles of Play:

Purpose

Play is never primarily a means to an end, but the end itself. To play is not to pursue a fixed outcome, but to simply enjoy and extend the current moment as far into the future as possible. We fully acknowledge that play has many, many extremely valuable side-effects, but they are always secondary to play itself.

Joy

We play, more than anything, in order to experience the immense joy it brings, to see the smiles, hear the laughter and sense the deep satisfaction that it instills in us. In a society obsessed with measurable outcomes, it can be challenging, even provocative, to insist that something as seemingly frivolous as play has immeasurable inherent value. When you’ve seen play turn on the light in people’s eyes, how can you need any other purpose than that?

Diversity

Play is a beautifully diverse, wild phenomenon that mirror the diversity of humankind and thus stubbornly resists our attempts to capture it, transcending our carefully prepared categories and definitions. Play can come in any shape or size, and there is no right or wrong way to play. To embrace and respect play is to insist on this diversity, and to maintain the necessary curiosity to keep exploring the many meanings of play.

Openness

When we really get into play, we drastically expand our openness towards the world, the people we interact with and the scope of possible actions. We don’t hide from the world when we play, but rather engage with it and reinterpret it to catapult the play experience further ahead.

Sincerity

While play invites us to experiment with our established roles and identities, it also encourages us to fully embrace our true and most playful self. We feel confident enough to come out of hiding, to shed the usual facade and be present in the moment.

Curiosity

As a consequence of the openness cultivated by play, we immediately increase our innate desire to explore and learn about our surroundings. We want to know more, see more, try more, be more and we are much less constrained in our pursuit, sometimes following our vibrant curiosity in surprising directions.

Imagination

In play, we shed the usual restrictions put on our imagination, we refuse “business as usual” and we supercharge our capacity to conjure up mental images of things and ideas that are not yet part of reality. Our imagination becomes a powerful catalyst of play, as it creates alternative worlds for us to explore and play with.

Courage

To step into play is to accept risk and unpredictability, and to present yourself to the world without the usual facade. This can be quite daunting and sometimes require all the courage you can muster, but in play, we are no longer limited by our otherwise prevalent fear of failing, as the consequences of failure can be renegotiated and have a completely different meaning.

Connection

Anyone can play with anyone, regardless of age and position, and in play, we transcend our many differences to reach common ground, where we can truly see eye to eye. Through these connections, communities of play emerge, and as we play with more people, the community is consolidated and grows.

Empathy

The deep human connections are only possible because play is also an exercise in empathy, where we can see the world through the eyes of the other. Setting aside our immediate needs, we become more dedicated to reaching a common understanding, so we can play in the world together.

Trust

Opening up to play makes you vulnerable, as To play with someone is to trust them, to trust that their intentions are sincere, to trust that they will reach out to you and that they will respect your approach.

Agency

Play bestows upon us a remarkable agency, the capacity to actively participate, to shape the course of play and, in turn, to change the world. Play always holds the potential to challenge existing hierarchies and power structures, making it a thoroughly political affair.

Negotiation

To play with others is to enter into a dynamic, unpredictable process of negotiation, a shared act of meaning-making and exploration. Together, we determine what the play can become, and we pay earnest attention to the other players, observing and listening to their actions and decisions.

Freedom

Play can take place anywhere, at any time, and we can play with anything and anyone. We all have the power to turn a space into a play space and to challenge rules and expectations. Play is a celebration of our freedom to act, and even to do so without a clearly defined purpose.

Unruliness

Players follow their instincts, their emboldened curiosity, and care less about the common norms and expectations. This can sometimes lead to play that is wild, messy, risky, full of conflicts and impossible to control or predict.

Transformation

Play is so intricately tied to our humanity, reaching such inner depths, that getting engaged in any act of play will inevitably change who we are. Play is transformational and has an intense impact on our path through life.

Generosity

Play is not primarily about competing or winning, but about keeping the play alive and everyone playing takes upon them part of the responsibility. This brings to the fore a certain kind of generosity, where we care less about our personal needs and more about contributing to the shared experience. We stretch a little bit more, take a few additional steps towards the other, trying to do and be a little bit better for the greater good of play.

Hope

Because play allows us to see the world differently, to imagine how there are always another way, play gives us hope, even in times of tremendous hardship. Any such sense of hope is amplified by realising that we are no longer alone, that we potentially belong to a vibrant play community, and that together, we can create magnificent things.

Love

All the other traits of play comes together in a show of our emotional dedication. To play is to express and nurture a strong affection – for the people playing, for the freedom to play and for life itself. Play is, in essence, a manifestation of love.

Dimensions of Play:

Our work and this manifesto relates to three connected dimensions of play:

Play can be seen as a more or less structured activity you engage in for any given period of time, alone or with other people. At some point, the activity ends, you step out of play and back into the world in which it took place. Play can also mutate into something less tangible, better understood as an attitude and approach to life and the world. This is similar to what we call “playfulness”. Finally, play can inform new images or models to inspire the way we organise everything from workplaces and organisations to cities and societies. If you look at our “principles of play” on the following pages, you may also see the contours of this, where play becomes a paradigm of its own.

Play as an activity is usually the first and most concrete step you can take to turn your life in a more playful direction. To develop a playful attitude and pursue play as paradigm, you must dare to play, for it is only through the act of playing that we can hope to become (more) playful in our everyday lives and only deeply playful people can create a playful society.

Call to Play:

This manifesto describes the way we at CounterPlay see and frame play. We are on a long-term voyage of discovery, exploring the diverse nature of play to better understand it and, in turn, better support the transition to a more playful society.

More than that, we also see the entirety of this manifesto as a “call to play”, an invitation to take action and choose a more playful direction. At the heart of our work lies the hope that we can help more people embrace their inherent desire to play and to be the playful person we were all born to be. We can’t teach people the right way to play, but we can provide a wide range of invitations and the encouragement to pursue play in your life.

We’re all too painfully aware that many people are indifferent towards play. It’s not for them, they tell us. They don’t have time for these silly, frivolous matters. Life is short, there’s no time to waste, and play is often thought to be just that: a waste of time. While that’s not exactly wrong, it is a deeply meaningful way to waste time; “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time”.

When you dig a little deeper, we usually see that the resistance is mostly the kind of facade we all learn to put between us and the world, substituting our vulnerability with something resembling certainty and confidence. This makes us able to pretend that play is something you outgrow, a phenomenon strictly limited to childhood, even when doing so poses a risk to our well-being.

Whatever the reason for avoiding play, it is no easy task to change the course if you feel like it’s a journey to be taken in solitude. While playfulness is a kind of “true north”, the direction we’d instinctively pursue, the state in which we feel at home, it’s not a journey we should embark upon alone. It’s a ludicrous thought, really, that the responsibility to live playfully lies on the shoulders of any one individual when we live in a society that effectively resists play.

What we need is a play community. Well, many play communities, actually. Cultivating a diverse play community where people are actively participating to explore and spread play is probably our best bet break down the barriers we face as individuals. When we know for certain that we are not alone and that other people feel the same urge to be playful, then we can more easily muster the courage necessary to challenge the non-playful structures around us.

Let’s reach out to each other, and do what play does best; let’s connect deeply, let’s see across barriers and differences, and let’s step into each other’s lives to join forces in the movement towards a more playful world.

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Mathias Poulsen

I think a playful mindset is essential for us to live better lives together. I organise the CounterPlay Festival to cultivate a #playfulsociety.

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