You Design What Now?
You Design What Now?

A Definition of Play

“Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside of ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly…It proceeds within it’s own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner.”

Johan Huizinga, in Homo Ludens

I’ve encountered references to Huizinga’s examination of play in a few different contexts. I think it’s an indicator of how widely applicable his cultural characterization of play can be. A Dutch historian, Huizinga wrote Homo Ludens in the first half of the 20th century to theorize play as a formative element of culture and society. While I’m not sure if I’m convinced of the extent that the book credits play as the origin of most human activities, I do at least agree that play is a very important part of the human makeup.

Many have explored the incorporation of play elements in designed products and services. In recent years, there’s been a few different attempts to frame this practice, the use of the term “gamification” being the most prominent and most criticized. Other attempts include the concepts of “serious games” and “gameful design.”

I think the root of the debate is around identifying the qualities of games that make them meaningful. Huizinga gives three key characteristics of play: it is bound by limits and rules, it is entered into freely, and it is distinct from “ordinary” life. The first characteristic has been easiest to apply in design. The second has been more difficult and is related to issues of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The third presents an interesting philosophical challenge for games in design. Does the application of games to real-world design situations (i.e. “ordinary” life) negate the very things that make games meaningful? Huizinga provides a possible answer, stating that in being set separate from concerns of “ordinary” life, play provides a vital complement to it and performs a larger cultural function.

Another avenue for exploration of play in design is in process rather than product. The act of designing itself carries Huizinga’s qualities of play quite nicely. It’s an exercise that works best within constraints and that designers enter into knowingly and deliberately. We frame it as separate from “ordinary” life, in fact using it as a process to bridge our design concepts into “ordinary” life. Design methods should be approached playfully.


Design As Play


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