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Homo ludens

By Dave Snowden  ·  October 17, 2013  ·  Reflections

We had a lot of fun in a intense one day workshop at the Worldsview Academy today and my thanks to Craig and his team for making it happen.  It was a roller coaster sort of day and I probably put too much content into the afternoon but they were such a responsive audience!  You can also do a lot of debunking with a South Africa audience which always adds to the pleasure of speaking to them.  In the main I was taking a top skim from the full four day Cognitive Edge accreditation programme.  A few participants want to attend that and don't want to wait for the planned running in South Africa next May so for those who were there, reading this post, the London Course is an option and I have also made the slides from today available here.

In that packed afternoon I started to use some of the new material I am developing on the nature of humanity and its implications for organisational design in this case, but I could equally well apply it to research, strategy and other areas.  I have already hinted at homo faber (man the creator of tools) in an earlier post and it is something I will return to shortly.  I referenced that material today but also added homo ludens to a cannon that includes homo narrans and even (under strained conditions) the homo economicus beloved of too many economists for society's own good. 

There is a tendency to contrast homo faber with homo ludens in common thinking, childrens' literature and the like in reality they are just different aspects of the social identity of humanity.  Yes at times we approach the Wicket Gate and have to make choices but good work should include play and overall fun.  We use humour, especially in cultures that understand irony, to enable profound meaning to be created and communicated.  It can also be destructive which can be positive or negative; I am becoming increasingly intolerant of fools but try and operate a three strikes and contempt rule where possible!  

Now this can go to far and for many play means play, not a playful aspect of work.  This is an important distinction as the former can perpetuate a false dichotomy, the latter suggests a dialectic.  Yes we can do a lot of play on its own, but a game is known as a game and will never fully reflect reality.  I am talking more here of playfulness, or introducing an element of novelty and difference into what might other be tedious, of the side comment, the relieving of tension by a quip or the use of trivial wagers to move things along.  We have a regrettable tendency to take one aspect of our lives and then emphasise it on its own, rather than developing it in context.  There are a lot of examples of that: we are natural story tellers but trying to make everyone a performance artist is probably a mistake; play as children prepares us for adult life, but removing experience into a virtual game demeans us through limited stimulation.  I could go on but you probably get the point.

What all of this illustrates is the social identity issue (a lot more on that over the next few days), we are not atomistic individuals who choose to assemble into communities based on a personal focus on self-interest.  That particular Randian myth has been pretty much dispelled by both science and practice.  We are defined by our interactions, by the spaces between people and things.  We create artefacts of beauty through art and we are creatures with a profound aesthetic sense and need.   All of these capabilities are part of our emerging and developing social identity and are a part of the divine confusion that is humanity.