Do you often feel that you are not yourself? That your actions do not mirror your spirit and the core of who you are, and that you are engaged in a repetitive series of motions that do not originate within you? This is a feeling often felt by most adults, and yet rarely by children. Children at play are free; adults at work are constrained by job descriptions and the expectations of others. We ask ourselves at times: “What would I do now if I had the freedom to be myself?” We understand the answer implicitly: I am not myself any time I do things that I don’t want to do, for reasons that are not mine, in a place not of my choosing, and for reasons outside of myself. To re-become me, I need the freedom to be who I am, and for that I need play as a condition of being. We play because we need to determine our own boundaries for freedom, to discover pleasure, and to explore.
We play because we need to discover how it feels to be ourselves, how it feels to be free from expected utilitarian results and oppression. Every play activity we engage in is a one-of-a-kind laboratory for our instincts, insights, and intuition. We create the freedom to work the way we need to, on whatever we desire.
As I explained in my 2006 book, The Imagination Challenge, while play behavior has historically dominated human consciousness and defined human values, society has systemically removed play from the equation by manufacturing and maintaining a dichotomy between work and play. We have all been participants and accomplices in this organized death of imagination after childhood by removing play from everyday life and work. In doing so, we have created regulated channels where play as profession is subcontracted to specific adult groups – such as professional athletes, actors, or musicians. They are socially allowed to play, though it is not without a cost to the rest of society. How much of what we feel passionately about – the things that inspire or excite our curiosity and imagination – is found in our daily jobs? For many of us, a gap exists between our role as outputs in an organization and our role as humans. As adults, we must retrieve our imagination, integrating it into work by redefining what work can be. But what are the tools at our disposal to accomplish this?
Our relationship with tools is instrumental in nature – the interactions we perform with our tools are goal-oriented, finite, and focused on accomplishing a task. Play objects – toys – engender affinity-based relationships. We identify and engage emotionally with such objects and express our inner selves through the actions we perform with them. Such actions are not goal-driven, but rather, they are exploratory. The questions that drive our interactions with play objects are, “What else can this object be?,” “What else can this object do?,” and “How else can this object make me feel?” In exploring the answers to these questions, we employ our imagination. By imagining and experimenting, we reveal latent needs and possibilities in both the object and in ourselves. In this way, qualities of emotion, self-expression, identification, and connection are all latent within a play object. These are the transformative qualities of objects, spaces, and ideas, and they transform the individual because they are compelling in their engagement.
Transforming a piece of technology into a behavioral object – something that invites use via stimuli, directs the user, and responds and provides feedback to their actions – is very much what a good toy does. Toys are perfect examples of behavioral objects; by themselves they mean and do nothing. They are designed for relationships, for the experience of use, and not simply for their movable parts or aesthetic form. The functionality of a toy resides in its potential for creating a relationship, either between user and toy, or among users.
If you think about it, this very fundamental idea might well have been the development brief for the iPhone. When we intentionally add elements for behavior to any object or system, we are purposefully transforming that object into a playful behavior space. It is this transformative attribute that makes the experience of using the iPhone compelling, and it is also transformation that maintains the relationship with the device and results in satisfaction. The iPhone is an invitation to bring play into “serious” life, reuniting the accomplishment of goal-oriented tasks with the experimentation and self-expression of play.
A New Conceptual Model
To create a compelling experience with products and technology, we must look at a new conceptual model – one that places play behavior at the core of the creation of user experiences and products. Indeed, two books – Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga’s 1938 study of play among Europeans, and anthropologist Roger Caillois’s Man, Play and Games – describe play as our precise interactions with ATMs, email, and mobile phones. By designing with play behavior and interactivity as the experience providers, we create the benefit of the best toys: They are fun, engaging, challenging, rewarding, non-frustrating, and the value of the experience is both repeatable and cumulative. Play should not be seen here as a trivial activity that’s performed by hands and objects, but rather as a highly spiritual activity dependent on imagination and creativity, more than on any play artifact. The artifact for play is the human brain. Hands do not initiate play; the mind must do it first. In my 1995 book, I coined the term “ToolToy” to emphasize the importance of consciously reexamining the design and development process in the context of an improved conceptual and behavioral model in which play, and the values it represents, has a pivotal role.
When we intentionally start adding elements of manner and relationship – behavioral play characteristics – to any object or system that contains elements of purpose (that is, any object that must help human beings in the performance of tasks) we are transforming a tool into a ToolToy. Think Apple Watches, Nike shoes, iPhones, smartcars, and the like. Tools are designed for what we do with them; ToolToys determine the way we do it – which involves our physical technique as well as our imagination. The ToolToy is the aesthetic of the possible.