Or: thinking about all the beautiful castles for our dreams we are going to build together.
When I started working on the tiny, messy idea that would later become CounterPlay, and when I ran the first festival in an old library in April 2014, I couldn’t possibly anticipate where it would take me. Nonetheless, I had high hopes, for my personal journey, for the festival, and for society at large.
It’s been a beautiful and exciting adventure bringing me into contact with the most wonderful people from all around the world. I have learned that so many people are passionately fighting for play, and my life is better because of it. It truly is. Simply knowing that you are out there is (almost) enough. Yes, it has been tremendously hard work, frustrating at times (I’ve considered throwing in the towel on more than one occasion), but I honestly don’t think I have ever done anything that feels this important (or that makes me this proud).
From the outset, I wanted to cultivate a diverse international community of people from all over society that would allow us to explore games, play and playfulness from as many perspectives as possible. Without this diversity, we can neither say anything coherent about the meaning of a phenomenon as complex as play, nor can we argue about the importance of play for society as a whole.
The profile of the festival has become a bit sharper since then, as we are now more courageous, and dare to be more outspoken about the things we believe are important: play is for everyone, it belongs in all aspects of life, it is highly political, it needs a more prominent place in society, and we should focus on play for the sake of play rather than the perceived side effects (however positive and important these may be).
“societies need to reaffirm the value of a playful spirit in populations of all ages” – Thomas S. Henricks
More than anything, we are interested in playfulness. The main reason why we think play is so important is that a playful mindset and a playful attitude will (probably) enable you to live better lives in this complex, globalised and confusing world. More people should be allowed to play and engage with work and life in more playful ways. To achieve this, we wish to create more opportunities to play, cultivate playful communities across all sorts of borders and boundaries and drive a movement towards a more playful world.
While we have come much, much further than I could have initially imagined, this only means that we are now aiming higher. We can and should do more. We can take on a greater responsibility and we can make ourselves more visible, shaping the public agenda to a greater degree, hopefully contributing to achieving the ambitious goals set by people like Stuart Brown:
“When enough people raise play to the status it deserves in our lives, we will find the world a better place”
In the following, I’ll describe three areas which are important to us, now and in the future. All of them are to be seen as invitations for anyone who want to be part of our journey. I can’t say this often enough: we will remain open, inclusive and seeking conversation with each and every person who can enlighten and/or challenge us.
A Stronger Foundation
I don’t think of CounterPlay as something with an expiration date. I never did. On the contrary, we aim to stay around for as long as play is not given the attention and space it needs and deserves. As some of you know, I’m the impatient type, and it can be hard to accept that
things take time. Nonetheless, they do. They simply just do. No meaningful change happens overnight, and we can only hope to achieve anything real by maintaining momentum over a longer period of time, taking many small steps in the process. It obviously matters what we do, but it also matters a lot that we do it again and again, year after year, and that we are not deterred by all the things that make it seem impossible at times (this is as much a reminder to myself, because giving up frequently seems like the best choice).
There is no law of nature stating that we can survive to keep doing what we do, so we must build a stronger foundation for the festival. We’re a small (tiny, even) NGO with no secure funding (we mostly rely on registration fees), no real platform and no employees. This is often a strength, as we can maneuver freely, make the decisions we feel are right, and generally pursue our dreams and ambitions. Even so, being small and fragile also comes with a number of challenges when you’re aiming for permanence and continuity.
There’s obviously a financial side of this that we must focus on, since it’s quite risky to bet everything on the willingness of people attending the festival. We’ll need to develop a better, more robust “business model” (man, I hate that term) that allows for increased financial sustainability. Money is not my biggest concern, though, since it’s even more important that we get more people involved, spreading the ownership and desire to make this work.
Do you know something about building an organisation and securing the foundation? We would love to hear from you.
Increase the diversity
Like play, diversity is important in and of itself, and we don’t need any other reason or justification than that. We want CounterPlay to be inclusive and diverse just because. Period.
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.
At the same time, cultivating diverse communities is a necessary component in our effort to explore all the different ways people can play and be playful. Play is full of ambiguity (as described so magnificently by Brian Sutton-Smith), such a complex phenomenon in so many shapes and sizes, and our community must mirror this. If we only invite people who are similar to us, we limit our thinking and our understanding of play. Beside the obvious Being John Malkovich’ish implications of having to many people who look like yourself, it simply obstructs our view and gets in the way of our ambitions.
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.
By bringing different people with different backgrounds and experiences together, we also hope to create better conditions for new things to happen, new ideas to form, new connections to be established and new friendships to develop. None of this is easy, as we, like most people, often default to what we know, feel comfortable with and have tried before. We clearly still have a lot to learn, but we are doing our best.
Make play unavoidable
This is where it counts, and where we need to really step it up.
We shouldn’t be able to avoid play, just like we (usually) don’t try to avoid things like water, food, education, work, and social relationships.
I dream about a world where play is an essential part of life, and where you don’t have to make excuses or go to great lengths to hide your playful endeavours. In this future utopia, we are not afraid of embracing play, and playing in public is nothing out of the ordinary. Living a playful life doesn’t make people consider you any less serious or ambitious – perhaps rather the contrary. When the world is more playful, you are free to play around with habits, traditions, rules and power structures, challenging them and asking critical questions.
I consider the festival an early prototype of this society, and I believe we have shown that it is possible to create an atmosphere, where play and people thrive – if only on a microscopic scale for three days.
Outside the festival, too many people steer away from play for fear of what their family, friends, colleagues and the wider society might think. While I don’t want to force anyone to play, I believe everybody should have the opportunity to consider going down the playful path (with more than an implicit nod to my inspiring friend Bernie DeKoven). While this may seem like a little thing – asking for people to simply consider play as an ingredient in life – I think it would be a huge step. If we can break down the social and mental barriers, we have come a long way. Even if we can just help a few people reconnect with their playful selves, seeing their eyes light up, that more than justifies our effort.
Have you noticed that, by the way? The light in the eyes of people playing? When they’re just really there in the moment, and their eyes shine? It’s like magic.
It should be possible for all of us to explore how we like to play, what feels good, and how our playful life should look and feel.
That is my dream.
If you have requests, ideas, comments or want to join the adventure, comment below or get in touch!