In this post, I try to capture the essence of CounterPlay, the principles underlying the festival and the connection to play. Part of it is a description of what we have been doing since the beginning, while part of it remains more of an ideal for our future work. There is always potential for a deeper understanding of play and a closer link between the festival, the way we organise it and the nature of play.

The Festival

From the outset, CounterPlay exists only because we simply believe play is important throughout the lifespan, for all of us, and that playful people are better equipped to live good lives in this messy, chaotic world.

The CounterPlay festival cultivates an international play community to explore the nature of play and to support play all over society with our main pillars being “Playful Learning”, “Playful Working” and “Playful Living”. We are proud of what we have achieved, and we firmly believe that we have made several unique contributions to the field of play. The festival is pushing the boundaries of our understanding of play, and we are expanding the perception of who can play when and where. It has become an internationally renowned event with a thriving community, who are both shaping the festival and spreading traces of play around the world.

The experience

We have been surprised time and again by the tremendous courage of our participants, who overcome whatever initial reservations and anxiety they may have had. Remember, this is strangers stepping into an unknown space where many unexpected and maybe even intimidating things might happen. In the best moments, the festival cultivates a very special, playful atmosphere, where everyone come together as a community. These situations feel truly magical, as the usual barriers and masks fall away, people open up to each other and the world, showing a remarkable trust in strangers. They are present in ways you rarely see, committed and sincere. In play, it becomes deeply personal.

In these moments, the festival is a safe space where everyone can participate and contribute, develop a sense of ownership, where all kinds of thoughts, ideas and experiments are welcomed and elaborated upon, where people say “yes, and…”, where the silly is completely intertwined with the serious, the personal, the deeply emotional. It can be hilarious, sure, but it always has a serious side to it, and this seems to resonate profoundly.

It demonstrates how play and a playful mindset enables new ways of being and living together. When a group of people join each other in a playful atmosphere, the realm of the possible expands drastically. More things can happen, simply because people are more open, say yes to more, unleash their imagination, show a greater sense of empathy, are more courageous and willing to take risks.

Or, in the words of the community:

“CounterPlay is one of the few public events that brings together people from widely divergent disciplines, and yet are united by their devotion to making the world a little more playful. Bringing them together like this, to play and talk and share each other’s vision, creates an unforgettably playful, creative and productive environment and helps all of them to find a larger and more inclusive perspective on their work.”

“I have no idea what happened those three days, but within the first five minutes strangers hugged me, crawled over me and I loved it. Counterplay has the unique ability to create a safe atmosphere immediately and has the right balance between theory and practice. I am a fan for life!”

“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.”

“I was inspired by the variety of people – ages, nationalities, interests, approaches – for whom playfulness and play are so key. There was such a powerful sense of a global community and a growing movement. I brought back renewed energy and enthusiasm and lots of happy memories.”

Design principles

We intend to let the values of play be our only point of orientation, so all our design principles grow out of our understanding of play. To design for a playful atmosphere, the entire process must mirror the principles and values of play, creating a safe space for people to explore the meaning of play and playfulness together.

Insist on play

There’s this constant discussion and distinction in the field of play: play for the sake of play, or play for the sake of something outside of play. Either you think play is important because you think play is important, or you see play as valuable because it can lead to other perceived benefits. While both positions are perfectly legitimate, we find that play only ever really manifests as play when it is all about the here and the now, the playful moment. If you focus on something outside play, you dismiss the true purpose of play: play itself. If you direct and control it too much, it will lose it’s potential, the magic will disappear and it will become something else entirely. To us, the primary focus is play and the playful approach to life.

Cultivate a play community

Our attention must always go further than the festival itself to include the play community, which is the beating heart of the festival. Cultivating a diverse play community where people are actively participating to explore and spread play is probably our best bet to foster a strong movement towards a more playful world. When we know for certain that we are not alone and that other people feel the same urge to be playful, then we can easier muster the courage that is necessary to challenge the non-playful structures around us.

Seeing the play community as a whole is relevant, as it transcends the limitations of any one person or organization, who can only do so much to improve the conditions for play to thrive in society. As a global community, on the other hand, we have the potential and power to utterly transform the role of play in the world.

Be open & sincere

When we play with each other, we stop hiding who we really are. Play invites and encourages a certain kind of openness, sincerity and honesty, and we strive to live up to those ideals when organising the festival. We don’t have hidden agendas or dark secrets, and we try to share openly, inviting the community right into the engine room.

Invite participation throughout

When we play, we become participants, as we engage in an ongoing negotiation with the other players about purpose, rules and roles. Players are participants with agency to shape the course of the experience, and we insist the same must be true for CounterPlay. We always listen to suggestions on every level, from the big visions and hard questions to specific activities. This continues during the festival, where we always invite everybody to “hack and steal the festival”:

“Remember that the more you participate, the more you put yourself into play, the more you will bring home with you. The festival should inspire you to be active; to be present in the moment; to let your guard down and open up towards the other participants and to new thoughts and ideas; to take yourself less seriously; to set your imagination free; to dare to be joyful and hopeful. To make this possible, we all have to do our best. We all have to stand on our toes, to bend towards each other. We’ve got a lot of things scheduled for you, but please feel free to break the rules, to hack the program and take over the festival. It’s yours to play with.”

This makes it impossible for us to accurately define the potential outcomes for our participants, and we merely create a framework where people can explore the nature of play. This clearly raises the bar for what we expect from our participants, as we encourage them to really step up, and to do and be their best. While this can probably seem rather intimidating, we believe it is the only way the festival can be truly meaningful for everyone.

Embrace the ambiguity of play

Definitions possess a magnetic allure, pretending to convey complex phenomena in simple, clear-cut ways, but they always simplify, and when it comes to play, the trade-off is quite frankly not worth it. As a consequence, we embrace play as a complex phenomenon full of (beautiful!) ambiguity that effectively resist any one definition. Instead of trying to find the “one true” meaning of play, we invite as many perspectives and meanings as possible; from all over society, and from research as well as practice. There should be no privileged position for any one person or position, and we must keep reminding ourselves that we don’t know and will never know exactly what play is, what it looks like or how it feels.

Play is mysterious, and any attempt to define it and tie it down tends to be met with resistance. At CounterPlay I saw the participants handling this mystery with respect. We prodded at play, massaged the edges to try to find out what we could about its shape, but resisted the urge to go at it with a hammer in desperation to find out what’s inside. This gentle approach felt the right one to me – I was welcomed by other play-explorers and invited to be vulnerable, to share, to experiment, and to do all this with heart. – The Flying Raccoon

Take play seriously

Play can lead to the most unrestrained, rambunctious and silly situations, where people are quite literally rolling on the floor laughing or smiling on the inside. These aspects of play should absolutely be nurtured and welcomed, since they bring with them incredible energy and joy. At the same time, we always seek out the back and forth movement between the silly and the serious, as we wish to create a space for playing as well as thinking and talking about play. Due to the immense ambiguity and diversity of play, there is no real contradiction here. Play is more often than not taken very seriously by those playing, and it easily, effortlessly accommodates for more introspective and reflective play practices.

Design for surprises

Play can be completely unpredictable, as we interact with each other, the world and our own thoughts and bodies in surprising ways. Sometimes we’re moving around, touching each other, exploring the physical, tangible world, while on other occasions, the surprises come from thoughts and ideas colliding, reshaping each other, merging. In either case, you never know exactly where it takes you, and the same approach is embedded in the festival. There’s no sense in hoping to control everything, so we always try to embrace the unexpected, and consider it a success whenever something happens that we hadn’t planned for or even fully understand.

Spreading Play

While there a moments during each festival that truly feels like magic, it is simply a matter of choice and design. If we can create a space where this atmosphere thrives at CounterPlay, then it should be possible to do the same all over society: in schools and universities, libraries, museums, urban spaces, private companies and more. We are always encouraging our participants to reflect upon this and make an effort to cultivate a similar culture in their workplace and daily life. With small steps, anyone can cause real change.

It was always our intention reach outside the festival and to increasingly support the spread of playfulness everywhere. Do you want to learn from our experiences and maybe even organise your own local CounterPlay festival?

Let us know what you think in the comments – or send us a message, get in touch via @CounterPlayFest on Twitter or Facebook.

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