Many people ask: “What is “CounterPlay”? Why should I consider participating?”

Both are indeed good and relevant, if tricky questions. Or, rather, the questions are fairly straightforward, but providing the answers is a tricky business.

I always struggle a bit to come up with an appropriate reply, since it’s neither a simple thing to explain what CounterPlay is, nor why people should come and spend several days with a group of strangers, lovely and generous as they may be.

I acknowledge, however, that we should keep trying, and now, with CounterPlay ‘19 on the horizon, seems like a good time to make another attempt.

What is CounterPlay?

It’s an international play festival gathering a diverse, vibrant play community every other year in Aarhus, Denmark, and for the fifth time this April. Or maybe it’s not a proper play festival, even though we keep saying that it is. I guess it looks a bit more like a play conference when you see the programme, yet I sincerely hope that it feels more like a festival when you’re actually there. Less formal and stiff, more unpredictable, unruly, playful and alive. A “festiference” or “confestival”, if you like. An amalgam or hybrid, combining the intellectual rigour of a “serious” play conference with the life-affirming vitality of the play festival. We want to take play as seriously as any play conference, anywhere in the world, but without ever losing sight of play. The principles of play described in our manifesto serve as a compass, always guiding us in everything we do, while reminding us that this is a journey we can only take together, as a play community.

My friend and eternal source of inspiration, the late Bernie DeKoven phrased it delightfully:

“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.”

From the beginning, I intended to create a space where play was not simply the topic of investigation, but where it was woven into the fabric. As Iona Opie so beautifully writes in the wonderful “The People in the Playground”, “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 is exactly what we’re aiming for.

CounterPlay is supposed to be a living, breathing play laboratory, dedicated to a collective examination of the nature, principles, values and dynamics of play in all its glorious diversity. This investigation combines theory and practice, it requires serious talk and deep thinking, but it does so with the sensation of play always present in our bodies. Even in the midst of serious conversation, play should be in close proximity, ready to take over and send us in a new, unexpected direction, smiling, laughing and letting go. My friend, Helle Marie Skovbjerg, aptly captured this approach as she was writing about CounterPlay in The International Journal of Play:

“At the festival, the immediate is celebrated with those who are present, celebrated with all that is wanton and wild, unpredictable and silly. The festival invites you to surrender to the movement of play and to place faith in the future, without knowing where play will take you. In this way, the play festival inspires hope for the future of play and incites ‘play courage’ in all, because play is first and foremost with and for its participants.”

We assume that we will never fully understand play, it’s far too complex for any one person to grasp, and we never seem to develop a language gentle and sophisticated enough to properly capture the many nuances. This calls for a delicate combination of humility and perseverance, of accepting the audacity of the task, while pushing on towards a deeper level of collective insight.

Why should I consider participating?

Because you are, I assume, a living, breathing human being, longing for deep fun, joy and human connection.

If that is indeed the case, and you are not a Russian bot or an evil AI, contemplating world domination, then play is in your bones. To the best of my knowledge, any belief that “play is for children” is misguided and problematic. It’s a ruse, a lie we can simply deny. Play is human’ish, not childish. For humans, not (just) for children.

You can refuse to play, that’s your prerogative, but it comes with severe consequences. Can you really live a good, fulfilling life without play? I don’t think so.

Play, real play, sincere play, always becomes personal. When you feel safe enough, when you dare to trust in play and whomever may be there, playing with you, you open up, show who you really are and allow yourself to be vulnerable. This is perhaps my favorite moment at the festival. Whenever people realise that the professional identity they brought, like they do to any other conference, is insufficient. Being professional just won’t cut it. Play is not professional, the distance and the facade of “serious business” disappears, it is deeply personal. One participant left this wonderful comment a few years back:

“What inspired me most was the camaraderie, the ease of conversation and exchange as if we had all known each other for decades, the lack of pretension anywhere.”

As Schiller famously put it: “man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays“ (although it doesn’t matter which gender you identify with, of course, play doesn’t care about gender – though some toy companies and marketing agencies still want you to think otherwise). Play simply makes us more human and more in touch with what is shared among all humans, raising our awareness of that which we have in common across national borders, language barriers, culture, tradition, ethnicity, sexuality or religious beliefs.

Thus, any continued attempt to suppress our inner desire to play will inevitably make us less human than we could have otherwise been. In a time where so many are concerned about the spread of AI and robots, our humanity is exactly what we should cherish and nurture, full steam ahead.

Even if you find this talk about play and humanity a bit abstract, you might want to know more about what comes out of play? What is the outcome of play, the results, the promising potential that can be harnessed?

While we insist that play itself is more important than the outcomes of play (or what we tend to view as side effects of play), we acknowledge that these can also be valuable.

Most importantly, perhaps, we believe that playful people, who dare to learn, work and live playfully, are better equipped to deal with the unpredictable, chaotic and complex nature of the world. Or in the words of the eminent, late play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith:

“Play promotes the immediate liveliness of being alive and keeps us emotionally vibrant and capable of joy in an otherwise hostile and scary world”.

In play, the the realm of possibility is vastly increased and all of a sudden, what otherwise might seem silly, risky or downright impossible, takes a new meaning. When you get into that playful mood, you are more open to new ideas, curious how new combinations or experiments might play out; you are more courageous, less inclined to fear uncertainty or ridicule; more generous towards others; more present and sincere; less bound by rules, habits and expectations – all in the name of continuing the play experience, or what Stuart Brown calls “the continuation desire of play”.

Curiosity, creativity, imagination, generosity, empathy, agency, courage, hope; all of that and more will flourish when we play earnestly and openly, as humans. As such, there are endless beneficial “side effects” or “byproducts” of play, but any hope of ever achieving these, albeit, attractive results depends entirely on our willingness and ability to give play space to flourish and air to breathe. We can’t force play to happen.

In short: You might come to CounterPlay because you’re interested in the “usefulness” of play, but you’ll probably want to stay and maybe even come back because you realise, like I did, that it’s deeply, profoundly personal. It’s a life practice.

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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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