Play to Order and the Gamification of Parenting

One of the most difficult and awkward things about being a youth minister was billing […]

David Zahl / 3.20.14

6-13755-brumleby-1343420564One of the most difficult and awkward things about being a youth minister was billing the events we would organize. We would tell kids about how much fun or profound something would be, hoping they would come, and we wouldn’t be lying. We knew the retreat/camp/outing would be a great time; they always were. But the second those words escaped your mouth (“the most fun you’ll ever have! the trip of a lifetime!”), they rang hollow. You could see it in the looks on the faces of whomever you were addressing. How fun could something be if you had to tell them it would be so? Who was I trying to convince? Even if you loaded on the sarcasm and self-awareness, there was an inescapable tinge of desperation to these appeals, a reason why so many sitcoms and movies have latched on to the trope of friends getting together for an ostensibly good time only for disaster to ensue. (The ‘Beach House’ episode of Girls this season being one particularly brilliant recent example). Looking back, it is no coincidence that the most successful youth ministers tend to be the ones that value silly (or hyper earnest) over cool. Most constructs of ‘cool’ involve underplaying the potential of a situation in way that feels dishonest when it’s your job.

You don’t have to have worked with teenagers (or planted a church, or even been to a church) to know what I’m talking about. Nothing precludes a good time, or an important time, like the guarantee of one. Not because we ‘jinx’ ourselves somehow, but because part of what makes something enjoyable is the lack of expectation, or at least the freedom from introspective measurement that expectations so often produce. The last thing you want a person thinking when they show up to something you’ve put together is, am I having fun yet? How about now? Has my life changed yet? Perhaps this is why the best times we have in life are almost always accidental. We know when they’ve happened, we just can’t seem to engineer them.

Those are the thoughts that sprang to mind while I was reading Heather Havrilesky’s recent truth-bomb, “Play, Dammit!” in The Baffler. We’ve heard before about the death of ‘play’, how the forces of performancism are winning the war against recess, how internships and training camps and smartphones have encroached on the idleness required to foster play (and creativity). We’ve spoken elsewhere about the psychological havoc wrought in a generation that’s never had a chance to engage in activities apart from their utility on the good ole’ college transcript. Havrilesky traces the pushback we’re seeing at the moment, and laments how, in the name of restoring play as a vital element of childhood (and life), we may actually be digging ourselves deeper. So ensconced are we in our utilitarianism that we can’t help subverting the very thing we’re trying to salvage.


Naturally, her observations are extremely germane to those interested in how law and grace, er, play out in everyday life. The essay as a whole is an incredible piece of writing and very much worth your time (her characterization of Miley Cyrus is one for the ages), but if your playtime has already been accounted for today, some of the relevant excerpts include, ht JF:

The vigorous exhortation to “play” now haunts every corner of our culture. Typically issued as an imperative along with words like breathe and meditate and dance and celebrate, the word play, in its catchall generic form, has a curious way of repelling the senses, conjuring as it does all manner of mandatory frivolity, most of it horribly twee and doggedly futile. Yet Johan Huizinga, the Dutch cultural theorist who tirelessly examined “the play element in culture,” asserted that the one defining feature of play is that it’s voluntary. “Play to order is no longer play,” he declared flatly. “It could at best be a forcible imitation of it.”…

The American state of play is terminally confused. Much of it feels grimly compulsory, and carries with it a whiff of preemptive failure to achieve the target level of revelry… The mirror image of this play-as-drudgery problem is Silicon Valley’s utopian vision of all-purpose “gamification.” The notion of converting social goods into digital playthings is a beguiling goal for lucre-sniffing software designers. But as a solution to the inequalities of wealth, education, and life chances that are now sinking whatever remains of the American middle class, the deployment of game incentives—chits for losing weight, acing a school exam, or mentoring an at-risk kid—is less empowering than demeaning… Here the idea of play isn’t so much serving non-play pursuits as mastering them—fostering the illusion that the stubborn social ills of our day can be miniaturized, incentivized, and frothed up into delectably familiar morsels of privileged consumption. These pursuits are thus “gamified,” in the most pejorative sense of the term…

The palpable longing for simpler, less stressful pleasures among our reluctantly aging urban elites certainly possesses a kind of poignancy. Maybe those who endorse the ethos of lost play the most vehemently are just trying to secure some safe ground that hasn’t been polluted by the defeatism and hypocrisy of adult life.

If so, they’ll find a ready-made cure in the crash course in regression known as American child-rearing. Hipsters may frantically jury-rig diversion out of kickballs and board games, but nothing brings a person face to face with our culture’s incoherent quest for joyful play and perpetual engagement quite like parenting. Sadly, though, the whole exercise of amusing our offspring feels more and more like, well, thankless work…

The point, apparently, is to stop reasoning with children and instead join them in a rollicking land of make-believe. And to be fair, most parents already engage in these practices with their four-year-olds, if only to slightly offset the learned helplessness that arises from being bossed around by adults all day long. “Oh, you’re so strong and powerful and I’m so weak and afraid!” is the natural follow-up to “Stay in this dark room by yourself and sleep for two hours, or else.”

So why does reading the commonsensical instructions for [psychologist and play expert Lawrence] Cohen’s exercises still incite feelings of revulsion? For starters, making a formal, scripted effort to connect with one’s children and calling it “playful” feels like a pretty disingenuous approach to parenting.

91scFc-a95L._SL1500_Then there’s the tacit message for parents behind the play-at-all-costs industry: whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it wrong. One of Cohen’s central points is that parents create a great deal of anxiety in children—a strange and sweeping indictment considering that a large slice of that anxiety arises from the pervasive suggestion that parents are fully responsible for every dimension of their children’s development. If anything goes wrong, parents are to blame. Yet if parents have the audacity to behave consistently like grown, responsible adults, they are, perversely enough, failing their kids…

Learning about… playful methods of taming a child’s anger and fear and anxiety has a curious way of inciting anger and fear and anxiety in a parent. Because unlike former generations, who could comfortably issue the command “Go play outside” without invoking the wrath of Child Protective Services, today’s parents are commanded to “get down on the floor”—and stay there, or else…

Ironically, tedious work-like forms of play may be the easiest for the productivity-fixated adult to embrace. Angrily searching for the optimal thirty-point word at Scrabble, for example, appeals to one’s competitive drive and obsessive leanings. Constructing giant houses out of Legos might feel both redemptive (Who ever had enough Legos as a kid?) and soothingly repetitive. And nothing can quite match the inexplicable gratification of digging a giant hole on the beach and building an enormous sand castle next to it.

This is what we want from our amusements…: we want the passing moment to linger, and become truly the present. In this light, play looks further than ever from another though-the-motions bender at Dave & Buster’s—and, not coincidentally, it recovers at least the spirit of Huizinga’s directive that while play must serve something beyond itself, it can’t be mandated. This is what we might teach our children, rather than joining them in on-the-nose exercises triggered by invading emotions. Because nothing soothes the anxieties of our existence quite like total engagement in an experience that lies far outside our gamified, rejuveniled compulsions.

Havrilesky is not dumping on play, remotely. She’s exalting it! Yes, we may play games–we may play nothing but games these days–but that doesn’t mean that all games are play. That is, play is not practice; the notion that you can become the best at playing is absurd. Morever–and this is really important–“play” cannot be mandated. It has to be elective, otherwise it’s not really play. We all know that there’s nothing less playful than worry about whether or not one is playing well, or enough. There is something fundamentally unselfconscious about it.

As an aside, I learned a few years ago that when I was a child, my parents took me to a play therapist to help me deal with my aggression. If I had been told at the time, ‘Son, we’re dropping you off here for an hour so that you might stop hitting people so much–play hard!’, I doubt the therapy would have been nearly as effective as it ended up being. It would probably have made me more self-conscious and, well, angry. It was only in my thirties that it occurred to me that those afternoon play-dates with a sweet old lady and her awesome collection of Star Wars toys might have been a little fishy. At the time, all I remember thinking was that it was really fun, that I felt cared for, and that I looked forward to going back each time. There may have been a ‘purpose’ to this play, but these were pros: if the play was to be of value to me they knew it had to be purposefully purposeless.

Needless to say, I’m struck by the similarities in how we talk about grace and how we talk about play. Both are good things–the best things!–that we are right to want more of. Yet neither can be commanded. They are as potent as they are resistant to instrumentalization, as transformative as they are immune to being subsumed as means for transformation–and thank God for that. Like play, the second you attach grace to a desired outcome, or the second it becomes a tactic or strategy that must be followed, it is no longer grace. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t exist or that, like play or fun, it doesn’t make all the difference when we do experience it. Indeed, it is the air we breathe! But the power of grace in producing such amazing fruit lies precisely in its open-endeness, or you might say, its lack of an end. In one sense, grace is the proclamation “it is finished”, that the end has come, and there is nothing left that needs doing. Play, in other words, is all that remains (cue Robert Capon). And nothing could be more fun than that. But there I go again…

P.S. Almost forgot to mention how totally radical and life-changing our upcoming conference in NYC will be!