The theme of CounterPlay ’19 is “playing at the edge”, and we welcome different forms of proposals that reflect this in one way or another. As always, we are eager to explore play from as many different angles as possible, building on our three pillars: playful learning, playful working and playful living. The theme is open for interpretation and fresh ideas: we invite you to play with the theme and identify your own ways of approaching the edge.

The edge of certainty

When we’re playing at the edge, we give up on certainty. We can tip-toe, jump, and dance at the edge, and no one knows exactly what will happen. Will we stumble and fall or regain our balance? Playing like this is not without risk, and while that may hold us back, it might be worth it for the thrill alone? Take the Scottish trials cyclist, Danny MacAskill, who made a living out of playing at very literal edges. In his aptly titled biography “At the Edge”, he describes the fear of “facing the unknown”.

The unknown. That’s exactly where play can take us, right to the edge of the unknown, staring into unfamiliar territory. Is it here, right at the edge, that we can see the farthest? Can the edge be a unique vantage point? It takes courage to pursue this distant horizon, leaving the familiar behind, to where you risk exposing yourself, laying bare your vulnerabilities and insecurities. Sometimes, we find ourself playing at the edge of our current capacity. Perhaps it is at the edge that we reach the much desired “flow state” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), but then, as play encourages us to “de-stabilize (our) own understandings and inhabit new circumstances” (Henricks, 2016), we stretch a little more.

This is where playing at the edge might eventually take us to the edge of play, and “noticing where play leaves off also offers a view of where play begins” (Eberle, 2009). The edge can be a very literal, hard edge, a clear delineation between where you can and cannot play. You can play at the playground, but not outside of it. You can play on the sidewalk, but not on the street. You can play at home, but certainly not at work.

Blurring the Edge

The edge of play can also be a more blurry, intangible one, resulting from conflicting notions of what it means to play. Whereas some forms of play enjoy widespread awareness, much play takes place at the edge of sight, almost invisible to most of us as it might fall between established categories, and is thus deemed as irrelevant or unacceptable. To some, play is not supposed to contain “conflict, noise and the unpredictable” (Skovbjerg, 2017), and there is often a preference for orderly rather than disorderly play (Henricks, 2009). Others are playing with ideas on the edge of what is currently accepted:

Sometimes, the blurring means we’re not sure when we’re playing and when we’re not: many pervasive/street/community games draw on this confusion (Montola, 2009). Maybe we can even use that to our advantage: to flit into play when times are too serious. We ‘game the system’ or perform acts of minor subversion – a form of “critical play”? (Flanagan, 2009).

Crossing the edge

At one point, we arrive upon that complex, often somewhat obscure situation, where play ceases to be play and mutates into something else. Maybe we run out of energy, falling flat on the ground, maybe it’s just not fun any longer. Or maybe we experience an undesirable shift in power, like the “false play” (Huizinga,1955 ), “that perversion of human creativity that occurs when organizations take over and manage play for their own ends” (Henricks, 2006). Then, all of a sudden, you’re playing someone else’s game, and are expected to follow someone else’s rules. Not everyone in society has been granted the privilege to play freely, (Henricks, 2015) and there are several forms of control and regulation put in place, including a kind of affective governance (Reestorff, 2017), where even happiness and who is allowed to experience it is dictated by forces outside our control (Ahmed, 2010). Another kind of regulation takes place through representation in toys and games, since “representation provides evidence for what forms of existence are possible” (Shaw, 2014), and the common forms of representation only represent a narrow subset of possible identities. What is the message to all those people, who can’t find anything or anyone to identify with in common ways of framing play? What are the barriers that prevent us from making playful experiences more accessible and inclusive?

As Hannah Arendt argued, happiness can’t be relegated to the private realm only, but hinges also on being “participator in public affairs” (Arendt, “On Revolution”). Playing in public is exactly to be a “participator in public affairs”, sparking our imagination to see new forms of social possibility, opening up the realm of civic participation through play. Cultivating play communities by demonstrating our willingness to play could also be a way of building trust (Svendsen, 2018) and deepening social connections:

“As the world becomes an ever lonelier place, it is sustaining relationships, in whatever form they take, which must become ever more important. An act of defiance, even.” (Segal, 2017)

Creative friction at the edge

According to the so-called “edge effect” in ecology, there is potential for increased diversity where the edges of two adjacent ecosystems overlap. The edge provides an interface to another edge, bridging the gap between two (or more) ecosystems, cultivating a sphere where new forms of life can emerge (assumed that there is still sufficient “interior habitat” for the species that need it). We like to think there is a similar “play edge effect”, when “ecosystems of play” collide, where new ways of playing, and, consequently, new ways of being are possible.

The edge of our grasp

Perhaps play is always situated right there at the edge of all the many disciplines required to understand it, and of understanding itself. Play remains at the edge of our grasp, “as an embodied, affective experience that cannot be fully conveyed using conventional language” (Shields, 2015). What happens at the edge of what we know about play, and how do we push that edge together, making our collective understanding deeper and richer?

“the continued advancement of play studies depends on the recognition of varieties of disciplinary contributions and on strategies to integrate these” (Henricks, 2016)

What we call for is exactly that – bridges to be built between the different disciplines and domains, bringing people together from across the edges, to talk, think and play together. There are edges between research and practice, between public institutions and private companies, between children and adults.

Let’s tear down the barriers and insist that edges are interfaces rather than boundaries, allowing us to create new connections, foster new ideas and cultivate new possibilities.


Ahmed, Sara (2010): The Promise of Happiness
Arendt, Hannah (1963): On Revolution
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990): Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Eberle, Scott G. (2009): Exploring the Uncanny Valley to Find the Edge of Play
Flanagan, Mary (2009): Critical Play – Radical Game Design
Henricks, Thomas S. (2006): Play Reconsidered – Sociological Perspectives on Human Expression
Henricks, Thomas S. (2015): Play and the Human Condition
Henricks, Thomas S. (2016): Playing into the Future – in “Celebrating 40 Years of Play Research Connecting Our Past, Present, and Future
Huizinga, Johan (1955): Homo Ludens – a Study of the Play-Element in Human Culture
Reestorff, Camilla (2017): Culture War: Affective Cultural Politics, Tepid Nationalism and Art Activism
Segal, Lynne (2017): Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy
Shaw, Adrienne (2014): Gaming at the Edge Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture
Shields, Rachel (2015): Ludic Ontology – Play’s Relationship to Language, Cultural Forms, and Transformative Politics
Skovbjerg, Helle Marie (2017): Play revolts and breaks in the service of time and conflict
Svendsen, Gert Tinggaard (2018): Trust

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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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