Thursday, September 5, 2019

Spirit of Play: Play and Humility

What is this?

Last year, I dedicated some time to thinking about my hobby on a grander scale. Inspired primarily by games like B.U.T.T.O.N. and J.S. Joust, I started searching for the intersection between technology, play, and spirituality, taking a deeper dive into the the works of people like Henning Eichberg, Bernie De Koven, Ian Bogost, and Johan Huizinga all of whom have been instrumental to my understanding of "play" on a grander scale, and searching through scripture to find where play belongs in Christian life. At one point or another I started up a google doc to take notes about what I learned and found, speaking from the perspective as if I were giving a lecture or a sermon, to try to help make sense of my own thoughts. The following blog posts, which I'm titling "Spirit of Play" are excerpts from that doc; thoughts that I felt were worth sharing. While I'm still trying to figure all of this out, I hope that these posts plant some kind of seed or start some kind of conversation about the importance of play in a world that is in desperate need of it...


I’d like to start off my this series of posts with an anecdote, one that I’m sure many of the parents in the room will be familiar with.
A man and his daughter were visiting the mall.  After doing some shopping, the man looks at his watch and realizes he is running late to rendezvous with his wife.  The man begins to rush through the mall to the spot where they had agreed to meet, trying his best to navigate through the mall traffic as fast as he could while keeping his daughter in tow.  As he pulled her along, hand in hand, he would occasionally feel his daughter pulling back in the other direction. Eventually he turned around he saw what she was doing: she was carefully placing her steps to make sure her foot would land in the center of each individual square tile that made up the floor of the mall, relying on her father’s hand to guide the direction in which she was traveling.
This is an anecdote from a man named Ian Bogost, a game designer and philosopher, who described this encounter in his book titled “Play Anything”.   
Bogost elaborated a bit on this experience, saying that his daughter had “made up a game; she was ‘playing,’ we say, often dismissively.  [Yet] she had made the most of a mundane situation. She turned misery into fun.” This small interaction with his daughter would become the foundation of the rest of his book, which is a read that I strongly recommend and will reference throughout the rest of this talk.

Related Scripture

Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” - Matthew 18:3
"I praise you father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” - Matthew 11:25

Child's Play

What comes to your mind when you hear the word “Play”?  Chances are you might have thought of a play as being something you watch in a theater, or maybe you pictured someone playing a musical instrument.  Most commonly, though, we associate the word play as being an activity for and by children. “Go outside and play” is a common phrase a parent might say to their child upon realizing they’ve been sitting in front of the television for hours on end.  I know I certainly heard it when I was younger. Sometimes I still hear it today.

There are good reasons for this association.  In a recent publication from the American Academy of Pediatrics, researchers emphasize the importance of play as a tool for growth and development in children.  

“...developmentally appropriate play with parents and peers is a singular opportunity to promote the social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills that build executive function and a prosocial brain.”

“Play is fundamentally important for learning 21st century skills, such as problem solving, collaboration, and creativity, which require the executive functioning skills that are critical for adult success.”
That’s quite a mouthful for a simple activity.
This is all very well and good, but what does play *actually* mean in this regard?  What are we actually asking our children to do when we say “why don’t you go out and play”?  We’ve already seen how the term could be applied in so many different ways.

Returning to Bogost, he had theorized that play, at its most abstract, is simply doing what we can with what we are given.  By playing with something, say a rubber ball or a stick you found on the sidewalk, you are accepting the fact that this thing you are playing with has some sort of structure; it’s own set of affordances.  You can’t truly discover this structure, however, until you give all of your attention to this thing, until you’ve truly explored all of it’s qualities and capabilities. At first glance a rubber ball can’t do very much aside from bounce and roll, but throw in a bat or a racket, and maybe a net or a basket, and you get the countless number of games that children play all around the world.  Discovering these structures and opportunities means turning your attention outward. To quote Mr. Bogost once more, “Living playfully isn’t about you, it turns out. It’s about everything else, and what you manage to do with it.”

In other words, play is an exercise in humility, where the byproduct is often “fun” or “joy’.


Humility is a common theme in scripture.  We often read of the rewards that await the humble in spirit, how God will exalt the humble and humble the exalted.  But this moment of the Gospels, when a child unquestionably runs up to Jesus when he is called, is one of the few places in scripture where we see what this humility should look like.  We are meant to humble ourselves as children do.

It turns out that there is something that we as adults could learn (or perhaps be reminded of?) from the way children view the world around them.  As Bogost was observing his daughter skipping steps to avoid stepping on any cracks in the mall floor (lest she break her mother’s back), he came to realize just how skillful children are at making the best of any given scenario.

He notes that “children are forced to live in a world that wasn’t designed for them, one that isn’t concerned with their desires and welfare.  And so children are constantly compromising, constantly adjusting to an environment that is clearly not theirs, not yet. That’s wisdom, not innocence. We are fools to think that we are in control of the universe.  Children are right to allow the humility of their smallness to rule the day.”

Like children, We are all a part of this same world that wasn’t designed for any one of us specifically; we all have to adapt and carve our own niches.  Bearing a playful attitude as we attempt to find our own place among all of God’s creatures, can truly open up the way we perceive life as a whole.
As an example of the humbling factors of playfulness,  I’d like to turn your attention to a woman by the name of Simone Giertz.

Simone is an inventor, but not the kind of inventor you’d expect.  She earns her living from making youtube videos where she designs and constructs robots that are, in essence, built to fail.
As an example, here is a demonstration of her robot designed to feed her soup:

It might surprise you to hear that Simone is a college dropout.  She studied engineering physics for about 1 year before she left, suffering from the overwhelming pressure to go above and beyond in every one of her classroom efforts.  But she was still curious about the subject matter, and discovered a way to continue learning about these subjects without the demand for perfect grades to weigh her down.
Simone took this very serious and result-centered image we have of the discipline of engineering, and turned it from this:
To this:

In 2018, Simone had the opportunity to give a “TED Talk”, titled “Why You Should Make Useless Things”, in which she discussed her experiences in this unusual career path.  She had this to say:
“I’ve stumbled across something bigger than engineering slapstick.  It’s this expression of joy and humility that often gets lost in engineering, and for me, it was a way to learn about hardware without my performance anxiety getting in the way. “

You see, Simone found an opportunity to learn about engineering and robotics in an entirely new way. She took this very strict and goal-oriented field of engineering and flipped it on it’s head - she figured out that she could continue her intellectual pursuits by exploring what it meant to be an engineer; by asking questions, and playing around with solutions. What she discovered was not only a form of entertainment to her nearly 2 million youtube subscribers, but an entirely new way to use her own gifts and talents. She removed her own desires for perfection; for a top GPA from a prestigious university, or a high status at a high-paying engineering firm, and simply started “playing with robots”, you might say.

Simone Giertz closes her TED Talk, saying that the “true beauty” in her work is in “this acknowledgement that you don’t always that you don’t know what the best answer is, and it turns off that voice in your head that tells you that you know exactly how the world works. And maybe a toothbrush helmet isn’t the answer, but at least you’re asking the question.” When we humble ourselves to the world around us, when we let our own smallness rule the day, just as our children do, the results often surprise ourselves and the people around us. Play is one of the many options we have in accomplishing this; it’s a tool for exploration and discovery. It’s not just a simple way to pass the time; it’s more than playing a game of tag in the park, more than playing a new song on your guitar, more than an actor playing a role. As Bogost says, to play means to “treat things as they are, not how we wish them to be”.