I was recently in London for a conference in the brilliant and ambitious research project “Playing the Archive” (see programme). I had been asked to join their advisory group, and what an honor and privilege it was to spend a day with such a passionate group of brilliant, dedicated people so passionate about play.

Playing the Archive will promote empathy across generations by allowing children to play games that their forebears described to the Opies in the 1950s and 60s, while simultaneously allowing members of that generation to play today’s games, in an intergenerational exchange of cultural memory and play.

The project is built on the immense legacy of “The Opies”, Iona and Peter Opie, who dedicated their lives to documenting children’s culture, folklore, games etc. On a personal level, the whole story about The Opies resonates deeply, as when someone described them as “two people with no funding doing that on an epic and impressive scale”.

One speaker talked about “the collaborative research model of the Opies” as simply making friends with people as part of their research process. I *love* when this is possible, and have been fortunate enough to experience it many times in my own work. Let’s just say that maintaining a professional distance is not really my thing.

Another person remembered Iona as “life-enhancing”.

Think about that. “Life-enhancing”. Now, there’s truly something to aspire to.

Now for some of the interesting themes that surfaced through the day.

Respecting play:

I’ll start with a bit of a detour, but one that took me to the question that matters the most to me: how do we respect play?

Wendy Russell made an important comment early on:

“I fear adults taking play seriously means adults colonizing play”.

She was talking about that particular kind of “adult seriousness”, of course, where play is expected to demonstrate some measurable “instrumental value”; “do they learn anything useful?“.

I have that fear too. Oh, yes, very much so, and not just when it comes to children, but in general. Colonization, instrumentalization, exploitation, playwashing.

Problematic as these things are, it’s not, however, something that happens because we take play seriously. On the contrary, it happens exactly when we *fail* to take play seriously.

As my dear friend and play scholar, Helle Marie Skovbjerg, writes (in Danish, this is my translation):

“taking play seriously exactly means that we see the value in the meaning-making of the participants & understand it as something which is central to the life they lead”. “Here they tell us, who they are & suggest what it means to be human. Taking play seriously is to take everything that’s human seriously”

It seems to me that “taking play seriously” is exactly what The Opies did in order to understand the culture and lives of children; “the people on the playground”. Iona expressed that dedication quite succinctly in her book bearing that particular title (which I just started reading, and it’s wonderful):

“I wanted, above all, to call up the sensation of being surrounded by the kaleidoscopic vitality of the eager, laughing, shouting, devil-may-care people in the playground”

Kaleidoscopic vitality. My new favorite phrase.

Seth Giddings, writing about the Opies in “‘What is the state of play? The work of Iona and Peter Opie
in the age of postdigital play”, reaches a similar conclusion, worth repeating:

If we learn nothing else from the Opies, let us emulate their respect for, and belief in, children and play – their cultures and behaviours, language and nonsense – in the face of both disapproving and benign adult intervention.

Taking the Opies seriously, the entire “Playing the Archive” project seems to also take play seriously.

That’s a perfect start.

The Language of Play

In the very beginning, Andrew Burn asked: “How can we think about performance in historical terms when the archive cannot store the live event?””

As we know, play is “as an embodied, affective experience that cannot be fully conveyed using conventional language” (Shields, 2015). This creates an obvious challenge when building archives, but it also relates to the broader difficulty of capturing play in words. That happens to be one of my favorite challenges that can’t ever be solved. Words are simply inadequate. While this should imbue in us a sense of humility, it should never make us stop trying.

This theme was also mirrored in Steve Roud’s talk about “indexing the Opies”, and the inherent challenge of developing appropriate classification systems for digital archives. Developing an index that allows people to find, say, a rhyme or a game in the huge collection requires incredible attention to the language and the words you use. Maybe this attention to language can inspire our wider attempts to capture the sensation of play in words?

Play-lines & continuity:

The entire endeavor revolves around the connections between past, present and future, and in a very dynamic sense. The Opies’ work was itself building on earlier work, creating multiple links to the past, and now Playing the Archive continues that tradition. Jackie Marsh used the notion of the “palimpsest”, as a metaphor for the process of building on what came before, maintaining a sense of continuity in the history of children’s folklore and play.

She also quoted Tim Ingold, saying that “to lead a life is to lay down a line” & then argued that such a line can be understood as a “play-line”. I quite like that. To lead a life is to lay down a “play-line”. This reminded me of Richard Schechner’s work and maybe especially this particular quote:

“It’s wrong to think of playing as the interruption of ordinary life. Consider instead playing as the underlying, always-there continuum of experience”

When we’re able to see contemporary lens through the lens of history, when we understand that media and intertextuality as sources of inspiration for play is nothing new, the fear of the new is drastically reduced, because it is not so new after all.

As John Potter noted:

“The way people are talking on the radio about how imagination is dying, doom and gloom. We’re happy to report that it’s alive and well”

This bigger picture is a very important dimension in raising awareness of contemporary play through the connection to play as a fundamental human phenomenon. Or as my dear departed friend, Bernie DeKoven wrote in “A Playful Path” and demonstrated through a life of play:

“When we are playing together, despite our differences, we celebrate a transcendent sameness, a unity that underlines the illusion of our separateness. You could call this an act of love – an enacted love that lets us keep the game going. Many acts of love, in fact, many acts of compassion, caring, trust, assurance.”

Inspiring new forms of play:

Kate Cowan and John Potter presented their “Dynamic Multimodal Methods for Researching Remediated Play”: using a variety of methods and technologies to follow in the footsteps of the Opies, striving to capture a more comprehensive picture of the complexity of play. Getting new cameras, like GoPros and 360 degree cameras, out onto the playground and into the hands of children will eventually allow us to see aspects of play that we wouldn’t otherwise be aware of. Not only that, developing new methods to study play will also in itself inspire new forms of play. I thought of the “Hawthorne effect”, where those being studied alter their behavior because they are being studied. Sometimes, this is considered a thing to avoid, as it may distort the findings, but here it can also add new opportunities and layers to the play experience.

We hope to expand the idea of what play can look like” – Kate said, and this is key. It may well be that this is where we’ll eventually see the most important impact of “Playing the Archive”, not in keeping old forms of play alive, not in remembering and celebrating The Opies (however much they deserve it!) but in allowing old and current forms of play to meet and merge, taking on entirely new shapes and leading to fresh experiences for new generations.

I, for one, am certainly looking forward to following this project in the future!

The following two tabs change content below.

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.

Latest posts by Mathias Poulsen (see all)