Thinking playfully

I’m fortunate to have a facility with words and an ability to express myself confidently and clearly – persuasively, even. Combined with my other strengths, I can be a fearsomely effective communicator. But there are two things I need to work on to really make this fire:

  • Explaining my thinking and how I arrive at the conclusions I do

  • Being clear how, where and when to use my public voice, and to what purpose

One of the main reasons I’ve decided to pursue a PhD is to experiment with these things in a way I will find challenging. Most aspects of the academic world make me angry, and anger can often be a good way to become clear about what’s important and why. Clarity of thought, I trust, will lead to clarity of expression.

For me, the first hurdle is that I have never found academic writing to be a good language for thinking in. It’s easy (and fun) to point at all the usual stereotypes of bad academic writing, which in my experience is most of it. But I have read plenty of great academic writing too – the kind that gives you new categories with which to make sense of the world and which changes the way you think forever. But this sort of expression is not what I aspire to. Even at its best, something about the form itself rubs like sandpaper on my soul. I wish I could figure out what it is.

All this being the case, it is probably in fact monumentally stupid of me to be attempting a PhD at all, and really just asking for trouble. And yet… if I can become clear about why it irritates me so, maybe I will figure out how to find my own path. And if I can master the form, perhaps I can subvert it to create something truly different.

Anyway, for the moment, I know I work best when I can do my thinking freely. You can’t just chase down a great idea. You have to potter around amiably doing other things until it thinks you’re not paying attention. Then if you’re lucky you can suddenly shoot it a quick glance and for a brief moment you can see it clearly and candidly. At that point you’d better bloody note down everything quickly before you forget. And then the next day when memory is fuzzy and you can no longer be quite sure what you say, you can comb through your notes and assemble something from them.

So, thinking freely, what’s the PhD about then, and who cares?

It’s really about helping people to see systems. To many people, systems are invisible. UV rays are invisible but they will still burn you, and so will systems if you’re not careful. At the same time, since social systems are really just made of people, when ‘the system’ does something to do us, it is really people who are doing it. And this also means that each of us is part of systems that do things to other people. This raises questions of responsibility, especially when things go wrong. Because most of us are not good at thinking about systems, when something goes boink, we are usually tempted to assign responsibility either to an individual, or to ‘the system’. This doesn’t help us very much if we want to understand what went wrong, or how and why it happened. Instead of looking at objects (this person, this group, this system), we should be looking at the relations between objects. It is how the objects relate to each other that makes a system. If we understand how the different parts of a system relate to each other, then we can act to change things for the better.

At this point I usually jump to talking about games, which confuses people who think I am making a promising line of argument about society, ethics and politics. The crucial point to understand about games, though, is that they are systems. Games do not describe or depict systems like a book or a film does – they model systems in a way you can interact with. If done well, games can be designed in a way that makes visible the way parts of a system relate to each other, and allow the player to examine the effects and implications of taking various actions within that system. A game in which you are an account manager for Enron might be able to help someone understand how that system worked with greater effect than an award-winning documentary. Such a game might be an antidote to the sense of inevitability we get when thinking about social systems. If we play as the smartest guys in the room, we might understand not just how something like Enron was possible, but also how this was not the only possibility, and how even small actions taken differently might have produced different results. And if we recover a sense of possibility, we might also recover a capacity for ethical judgment.

Judgment and responsibility are at the heart of the ethical skill and imagination we need to do well in our societies. Games can help us learn these skills, and it is important that we do so with a creative and playful spirit – a lusory attitude that taps into human potential rather than a didactic instruction to arrive at a pre-digested learning outcome. Play can help us learn serious things, but play cannot by definition itself be serious. This is important and I suspect not well enough understood by the legions of well-meaning do-gooders from the social sciences who are increasingly descending upon the field of game studies. Have you ever met a social worker with a sense of humour?

Perhaps this is what really bothers me most about the academic voice – it has no idea how to be playful. Nothing underlines this point so clearly as reading the academic literature on play. Reading torturous academic definitions, descriptions and discussions of what play looks like makes obvious the limits to this way of engaging with the world. There are kinds of knowledge that cannot be rendered this way – some kinds of knowledge are simply embodied. The academic voice aspires always to high seriousness, but I think that if you are really serious about understanding the world then you have to be playful.

So I plan to design a playful experience around interacting with social systems in a way that facilitates an ethical imagination, responsibility and judgment. The game itself will be an argument for the wisdom of doing this – that is the point – and alongside the game I will offer a commentary in academic voice explaining my thinking and rationale for the whole thing to show that I have scholarly bona fides and can do that sort of thing if I really want to. Together, those two things should result in a PhD, which, having some understanding of social systems as I do, will be a useful thing to have.