Playing with the Web

Play is an evolutionary advantage. According to evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray, young mammals play to develop the skills necessary to survive. They play at precisely those things which will aid survival. Not coincidentally, those are the things that the adults of the species “work” at. Lion cubs, Gray explains, “play at stalking and pouncing.” Zebras “play at fleeing or dodging.” The animals play, explore, get bored, play some more, explore some more. They do so with little to no supervision, left almost entirely to their own devices. By doing so, they prepare themselves for adulthood.

In hunter-gather communities (which included nearly all of us until, relatively speaking, not long ago), children spend almost all of their time playing (we are mammals, after all). Their play exhibits the same qualities as that of other mammals: they mimick adults.

The boys played endlessly at tracking and hunting, and both boys and girls played at finding and digging up edible roots. They played at tree climbing, cooking, building huts, and building other artefacts crucial to their culture, such as dugout canoes. They played at arguing and debating, sometimes mimicking their elders or trying to see if they could reason things out better than the adults had the night before around the fire.

This dynamic, of course, still plays out in modern hunter-gather tribes, but not exclusively so. At Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, children play all day long. There is no curriculum, just a loose set of rules, the goal of which is simply “keeping peace and order.”

Yet these students go on to lead perfectly normal, and sometimes exemplary lives. To a society which places increasing importance on early education, that can be alarming... and that’s Gray’s entire point. We are headed in the wrong direction. The obsessive tendency of our culture to put kids in school earlier, to test them more often, to, essentially, replace play with work at an early age, is doing more harm than good. We’re taking away the evolutionary advantage of play, and we do so at our own peril (and that of our kids).

Gray’s point (and it’s an important one) is that we need to rethink the educational system to incorporate more play, and return the advantage that play affords.

I’m interested, though, in how this concept plays out on the modern web.

Most of us who work on the web remember the world that predates it. We grew up without the web, and thrust ourselves into this brave new world as adults. In doing so, we lost the ability to, and the advantage of, play. The internet grew up too fast, and as a result, it sometimes feels like we skipped its childhood entirely.

Twitter and Wordpress, and even email, are young. Despite the youth of the web, however, we have established an incredible amount of rules for these practices. There are “proper” ways to tweet, to blog, even to email.

For many, the rules in place are necessary, even essential. Politicians who use Twitter to blast a minority segment, or journalists who publish their work on the web, should be held to standards, and should work within the bounds of our newly-created, largely unspoken guidelines.

And, true, there are plenty of those who doing nothing but play when they open their browser. But what of those of us who work and play here? Is more pageviews and quicker sells really all we’re after?

When I see a blinking cursor, I often think “what am I supposed to say?” Often, I simply write that answer. It happens when I tweet, it happens when I publish a post, it happens when I post to Medium. Who is my audience, and what do they want to hear? If I’m on Twitter, they’ll want to hear about that interesting thing I just read, or some snarky comment on whatever it is that’s happening today. If I publish to my blog (here), readers want to hear something uplifting, something that makes them smile, or see the world in a different light (at least, that’s my impression, but there’s the very real possibility that I’m doing this all wrong). If I put something on Medium (which I so rarely do), I’m sure that, inadvertently, I’m thinking of the posts I’ve read there, their model, their form, in order to emulate it.

But when was the last time I saw a blinking cursor and thought: let’s play? Forget how people will respond, whether it will get any clicks of pageviews. Just play. How far would it go in changing the ethos of the web if those of us who live, work, and play here would just loosen the fuck up?

There’s another repercussion of that ethos of all work and no play, too: it follows us everywhere, even—especially—when we close our laptop lids.

So much is available for us to learn. Coursera and the Khan Academy give us direct access to educational materials. Podcasts give us some insight into our chosen profession. We follow blogs and Twitter accounts of those whom we’d like to emulate. The information, and the ability to grow professionally, or even personally, is there, and always available.

And so it happens that when I sit at home in the evening, I feel its pull. I could unwind, watch a show, play a game, take a walk. I could play. if I choose to do so, though, I feel the nagging guilt of the MOOC or the podcast. I should be furthering my goals, should be growing, should be learning. I could be taking a course. I could be writing. I could be creating. I could be, should be an adult.

It’s not just the pull of the mention, the email, the notification that I feel. It’s the pull of the potential, the opportunity that I’m missing out on. The unintended consequence of my deciding to work on and immerse myself in the web is that I can’t get away from it. I’ve lost the ability to play.

All this is not to say that we should abandon the opportunity for growth that the web affords; quite the opposite. We should be doing everything in our power to extend it, to harness it. We must not let it overshadow the opportunity to play. As Gray mentions, play is as critical to our growth as is work.

They don’t necessarily think of themselves as learning. They think of themselves as just playing, or ‘doing things’, but in the process they are learning.

At Sudbury Valley, the consequence of letting kids play at what they wish is they often grow up to be the thing they spent their childhood playing at. A girl who played with boats is now the captain of a cruise ship. A boy who played at building things is now a machinist and inventor.

Play is not play, then, not really. It’s practice for the things we want to do when we grow up... and doesn’t practice make perfect?

So, then: build silly things. Write absurdities. Have a not-so-serious conversation. Assuming your work is done, do whatever the hell you want.

We don’t have to grow up just yet.

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