Reading Response 6

Chapter 6 of Artful Design provides a few definitions of play. Principle 6.1 states that play is “by definition the absence of external purpose” (pg. 309), while Definition 6.9 describes play as “free, voluntary, uncertain, unproductive by choice; it occurs in a separate space, isolated, and protected from the rest of life” (pg. 330).

These definitions made me notice that many play-like activities that I've participated in, and have seen my friends participate in, were actually motivated by some external purpose. I know many people who were "passionate" about some artistic hobby and dedicated a lot of time to it... until they got into college and no longer needed a laundry list of achievements and extracurriculars. I have a friend who was really into chess in middle school but stopped once he realized he was never going to be that great at it. And I know another friend who plays piano, explictly because she wants to be able to show off at parties.

Maybe it's that I know a lot of a certain type of person. I grew up in the Bay Area and am now at Stanford in an engineering program. These places foster and select for people who are good at presenting themselves to others (according to a mainstream definition of success). The “holistic" admissions process used by many universities influences our idea of what a successful person looks like: somebody who does well in school, tests well, and has something else (a talent in the arts, a dedication to community service, etc.) that makes them stand out. This process creates a strong external incentive for activities that would otherwise be done because of pure, intrinsic value. It transforms play into a productive activity, and it triggers a form of self-evaluation during play that would otherwise be absent:

  • Am I good enough at this to put it on my college application?
  • Am I good enough at this already, such that I should spend more time on other aspects of my application?

    And this type of thinking leads to habits and behavior, such as:

  • Only investing time in activities that I am good at, because my hobbies are part of how I define my success as a person.
  • Not investing too much time in non-academic activities, because what’s the point of becoming an expert if I’m not going to pursue it as a career?

    Social media further reinforces the idea that your hobbies and activities are part of advancing a personal brand. Sometimes I will do fun things with my friends (baking, hiking, going to the beach) and feel like I am engaging in play with no external purpose. Then, I'll find out later that my friends were taking pictures or video and posting it on Instagram, and the activity that we did together has become a performance, a means of adding to their social capital and saying “hey, look at how cool I am, because of the cool thing that I just did”.

    Of course not everyone is this way, and people don’t necessarily think about what they are doing in this explicit manner, but I do think that these are emergent cultural patterns. As discussed in previous chapters, the tools we use “shape the way we think about and interact with the world” (pg 238): college applications and social media encourage people to think of themselves as a profile to present to others, and to evaluate the things they do as shareable (something that other people will like, and therefore worth doing) or not shareable. In other words, they create external incentives for activities that previously had none.