The Problem with “Play”

Marshall Rosenberg suggests that we “don’t do anything that is not play”(1). He does so in the context of considering the nature of what we do with our relationships and why. He suggests that our purpose “is simply to do so to make life wonderful for others and ourselves, then even hard work has an element of play in it.” When I imagine the workplace and pronouncing purposeful  “play” I cringe. It has nothing to do with Rosenberg’s recommendation but with the word itself.

“Play” in English seems to carry the sense of being frivolous. The notion of play in English is unlike many other languages and cultures through history. Whereas cultures such as the Ancient Greeks differentiated between different types of play, English has but one word. J. Huizinga in “Homo Ludens” (2) looks to etymology to begin to understand how different cultures view different forms of play.

“When speaking of play as something known to all, and when trying to analyse or define the idea expressed in the word, we must always bear in mind that the idea as we know it is defined and perhaps limited by the word we use for it.”

Huizinga seems to complement English in bringing together the many types of play to single word. I think it has been a hindrance to reconsidering the importance of play in relationships at work. Different cultures have distinguished different forms of activity from the play-sphere. In Ancient Greek, play and “agon” are separate ideas with the former attached more to childlike activities. The latter being applied to contests. Huizinga states that agon “bears all the formal characteristics of play” while living inside the realm of festivals which itself exists within the sphere of play.

I work in various roles within Agile development teams and believe Agile fits inside play-sphere as defined by Huizinga:

“Play is voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is “different” from “ordinary life.”

When you look at the characteristics used to describe Agile teams, I see a lot in common as long as the ordinary life is that outside of whatever the team considers it context. However when I consider the type of play, I would not not say I see it as childlike play but more agonistic. I find the Greek distinction both helpful but problematic. Am I to suggest to teams that they should orient themselves towards competition rather than collaboration? Our preconceptions of competition as bad vs. collaboration may not be valid.

I could find a study to justify any point but one such study (3) leaves me with the thought that collaboration and competition are just two sides of the same coin. We are neither inherently competitive or collaborative.We adapt to the situation at hand, preferring collaboration or competition depending on what best suits the context.

The study reveals that “In accordance with evidence from evolutionary psychology as well as from developmental psychology, we argue that cooperation is a socially rewarding process…”. The act of collaboration requires more self merging between the collaborators. I would say it requires establishing greater mutual empathy. This suggests that this empathy requires more effort than competition. The study suggests the opposite. A purely competitive state requires more effort because the behavior of the competitor is less predictable. That is, collaboration takes less mental effort or executive processing (sic).

Should we always be promoting collaboration or is there a place for competition inside an Agile team? I say there is space for both and I should have no part in dictating their interplay. While I see the relaxed state of collaboration described in the study when the needs of the team members are aligned, I also see improvement come from individuals attending to their own need to find mastery in their craft. That is, to become better in an act of competition within the team. As they explore options for their own improvement they provide insights to others who may then chose to follow. Agonist activity spurring new alignment with an emergent rite of passage. After all the origin of the word competition is from the Latin competere  meaning “strive in common” or “to strive together”.

The more I read, the more I find there is a rich history of the the “play” element of culture. One that is helping me discover another dimension beyond Agile. I have attempted to introduce notions of play in my work and have seen it, not some instantiation of Agile, create the glowing embers of a different culture. I believe the heat that generated those embers came from both chemistry and friction. The challenge now is to find who cares to fan them?


(1) Marshall B.  and Arun Gandhi. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

(2) Johan Huizinga. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture

(3) Jean Decety, Philip L. Jackson, Jessica A. Sommerville, Thierry Chaminade, Andrew N. Meltzoff. The neural bases of cooperation and competition: an fMRI investigation.


About guywinterbotham

An Agile Buccaneer navigating the corporate storm
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