I’m not an expert in brevity, to say the least, but here I’ll try to clarify one little thing without too many detours and without going deep into the (important and fascinating) available literature: the purpose of play.

Easy, right?

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.

Both are entirely legitimate positions, often overlapping and intertwined in less clear-cut ways, and I’m aware framing it as a dichotomy ignores a lot of nuances. For the sake of the argument, stay with me.

Over the years, I have found myself veering increasingly towards the former: play for the sake of play.

Why is that?

Well, for one thing, play is, by nature, an autotelic activity; “having a purpose in and not apart from itself“. Play only ever really works 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. When you see play only or primarily as an instrument for learning, for instance, and you know where the process of play should lead, you will inevitably squeeze the life out of play.

At the same time, I agree that for play to be considered as important as it should be, for all the work being carried out to have meaning (and for me personally to spend this much time on the subject), we have to explore and show the value of play. We need a better language, a deeper understanding, a greater sensitivity to all the nuances and complexities inherent to play.

The tricky thing is to demonstrate this value without pointing to something outside of play. It feels like a gordic knot, an impossible situation. Even writing “the value of play” rubs me the wrong way, like I’m already too far down a very slippery slope that is almost bound to end too far away from play.

The path I have followed for a while is to try to frame and see play as a means and an end, the process and the goal, the journey and the destination. Instead of considering play an instrument, instead of looking to “harness the potential of play”, I believe we should play, quite simply, to live, and to live playfully.

Yes, when you play, you participate, you have agency, you open up to people and the world, you exercise your empathy, you embrace the unknown and unpredictable, you no longer fear contradictions or dissonance, you nurture your imagination and creativity, you experiment with identities, all of that – and more, so much more. Both research and practice provide many, quite compelling arguments that should be paid due attention.

…but those are merely side effects of living a playful life, of cultivating a playful personality and culture. Focus too much on these side effects, and you risk losing sight of the thing that matters, the catalyst of it all.

The best reason for playing, I believe, is that you get better at it, and you connect more deeply with your playful self. That’s the purpose, that’s the reward, that’s what we should be pursuing.

What do you think about this issue? Let me know in the comments below!
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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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