It’s been a while since the third CounterPlay festival ended, but we’re still extremely excited that so many wonderful people came from all around the world to play and we still feel the energy. We’ve been evaluating and reflecting on the event, including question of what actually makes a play festival like CounterPlay truly playful?

In three posts, I’ll look at three related components that influence the playful attitude of the festival (and any attempt to create a playful culture in general, I might add):

The diversity of play

When you’re playful, you engage with the world as a possibility space, where anything can happen. There are no right or wrong answers and the roles, rules and very purpose can change while you engage with your ideas, thoughts, people and the world through play. You don’t necessarily need absolute freedom to play, but true play is unlikely to happen if you’re specifically told when, where, how and with whom to play. Hence, one way to invite playfulness is to abstain from giving simple answers or definitions of what play can be. The mistake we often make is providing pre-packaged play solutions (like games or toys designed for a very specific purpose) that leave little to no space to the imagination of the player. We know from Umberto Eco that “empty spaces” are part and parcel of a rich experience, as we are stimulated by “filling out the blanks”.

For play to really mean something and be potentially transformative, it needs to resonate with your sense of self.


IMG_1207 (Medium)For play to really mean something and be potentially transformative, it needs to resonate with your sense of self. It can definitely challenge you and your worldview, but not too much at once (think Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” and Csikszentmihalyi‘s “flow theory). To create a space where different people can experience this, it’s important to understand and respect the diversity of play:

“Play […] can manifest itself in many different ways in humans. It may be solitary, social, pretend, imaginary, symbolic, verbal, socio-dramatic, constructional, rough-and-tumble, manipulative, and so forth” (Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation)

Play is “paradoxical because it displays one quality and the opposite of that quality at the same time” (Henricks, 2009) and a highly ambigous phenomenon:

“We all play occasionally, and we all know what playing feels like. But when it comes to making theoretical statements about what play is, we fall into silliness. There is little agreement among us, and much ambiguity” (Sutton-Smith, 1997)

This ambiguity is exactly why we are concerned with play in the broadest sense, as any one narrow focus will miss out on so much. To understand play and to allow people to find out how play makes sense to them, the ambiguity and diversity must be built directly into the foundation. Representing the full breadth of play is obviously impossible in the span of just a few short days, but I nonetheless feel like we improved a lot in this area and at least some participants seem to agree:

Counter play was an unusual and wonderfully playful mix of experiences. It is the only conference I’ve been to that involved Marimba dancing before the first talk of the day, a (genuine) clown giving a keynote, and a summary of the conference by a giant cardboard rabbit. Playful, inspirational and invigorating, Counterplay was an amazing event to be part of. By the way, tig, you’re on.

Andrew Walsh

I think just the multidiciplinary diversity alone was amazing. I was blown away by how many people are working very methodically and seriously with what play can be.

Toke Laugesen

To participate in CounterPlay Festival is like entering into a candy store where you have been giving permission to try all your favorite sweets – also the purple squared once you did not know that you liked 🙂

Heidi Hautopp

When you embrace diversity, and you create something more like a sandbox than a linear and strictly controlled experience, you also inevitably design for unpredictability. When you play, and you’re immersed, really feeling playful, it’s impossible to completely predict or control the outcomes. It’s a point we’re trying to make, of course, and I hope that this comes across: you can make something extremely valuable happen without knowing what it will be like.

In the next post, I’ll examine the community part of CounterPlay.

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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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