Do you still play?

We’ve all heard of an activist, but have you heard of a playtivist? In an ever more polarised world filled with bad news and extreme protest, it’s hard to find hope and even harder to act. Or is it? After a revelation at Goodfest 2023, Hannah Pearce explores whether, in fact, an answer might be hiding in our long-lost big kid energy…

By: Guest Contributor,   5 minutes

I’m at Goodfest 2023, in a workshop hosted by dedicated playtivist Lucy Hawthorne. As I build, she explains that our outcomes are not meant to be playful, but our process is. And honestly, in that moment, nothing is more important to me than building the tallest tower in the room. I’m laughing as the pieces start to wobble. I feel calm and focused as I experiment with different shapes. I feel joy and mischief as I nab ideas off my neighbour.

Hawthorne facilitates workshops that use play (and often LEGO ®) to make the climate crisis a less polarised issue. She is the brainchild of her own business, Climate Play. “I was previously a campaigner and at my most successful, I was involved in the ban on fracking in the UK,” Hawthorne explains about the impetus behind her business on the Facilitation Stories podcast. “When I should have felt most pleased, I was actually at my most jaded. We were winning those political games, but we weren’t truly shifting people’s hearts and minds.” Desperate to engage people more deeply and authentically, she abandoned ship to build her own LEGO kingdom of active and inclusive climate solutions.

Play = creativity = innovation

Much like Hawthorne, I started my own eco-friendly business. In 2018 I was frustrated by the lack of plastic-free options, so I opened a zero-waste shop. I talk to people all day at work. We care deeply about the climate crisis, and we are active with our passion. Taking to the streets to protest new oil and gas. Growing our own food to reduce carbon miles. Studying PHDs in conservation. But too much information often leaves us feeling overwhelmed. Activism can be exhausting and anxiety inducing.

As my tower nears head-height, Hawthorne reminds us that when we’re kids we fail endlessly. With reading, with monkey bars, with swimming. But we keep playing, which demands we find creative new ways to try, which eventually leads to a solution. It turns out there is a formula for this: play = creativity = innovation. One leads to the other. We win as children because we are not afraid to lose (hundreds of times). Where has that mindset gone? Why do we stop playing as adults? The sum got me thinking, could I adopt play as a mindset in a polarised world? Could I be a playvitist rather than an activist?

“When we’re kids we fail endlessly. With reading, with monkey bars, with swimming. But we keep playing, which demands we find creative new ways to try, which eventually leads to a solution.”

Could play be the best medicine?

Play theorist Brain Sutton-Smith famously said, “The opposite of play is not work, it is depression.” There are natural antidotes to depression and anxiety: exercise, meditation, therapy. ‘Play’ has never been prescribed. Hawthorne points out that engaging in play can be a form of resistance to overwhelming negative feelings. Nothing lights up our brain like play, which can be helpful when coping with eco-anxiety and activism burnout. Maybe playing more could improve my mindset and help me support my customers…

Five years ago, I designed a brand with a hopeful and modern approach that gave customers freedom of choice. I wanted to build a beautiful welcoming place that enticed people to try more sustainable products. As the workshop with Hawthorne unfolds, she gives my branding decisions structure and theory. I had no idea about playtivism when I opened up un_rap, but it turns out my logic is very similar to play theory. I didn’t set out to tell people to join in or make them act through guilt. I wanted to build a fun and interactive experience that enticed people and happened to do good.

Join the gang

As Yana Buhrer Tavanier explains on her TED Talk, “When we play, people want to join in.” This doesn’t just apply to children, it rings true with adults, activism, and even activist businesses. Many people are nervous when they first arrive at un_rap, wondering how the food dispensers work and staring longingly at the peanut butter machine. But as they start pushing buttons and pulling levers, their joy overflows while their containers fill. It’s a joy for me to witness their joy. And it’s this energy that fuels my fight for the environment. Even on the darkest days, in a small corner of town, we’re giggling.

And it turns out we’re not alone. Other businesses feel the power of play too and have used it to create brands that strike the balance between activism and enjoyment. The toilet roll brand Who Gives a Crap?, with its oxymoronic play on words, literally asks people to get involved. Their campaings are bursting with toilet jokes and the product itself is ultra playful, in its look feel and tone. Finding a basket popping with colourful print-covered bog rolls in a friend’s loo is enough to make anyone crack a grin.

“Humour is an incredibly effective tool for getting information across that people wouldn’t otherwise consume in a ‘serious fashion,” comedian and podcast host Dan Ilic explains in the Guardian. “Humour has an ability to cut through.” The business has deep sustainable values, but it is the playful brand that makes us want to be a part of them. To reference Hawthorne’s point at the beginning: serious outcome, playful process.

Perhaps I could follow in Who Gives A Crap’s footsteps and take a funnier and more playful approach with my marketing too? I want my customers to want to join in, rather than feel like they should. “Clever brands also understand the value of taking themselves a little less seriously,” Ilic continues. “It give customers a reason to listen.” Suddenly it’s all making a lot of sense. A wider audience will pay attention to jokes, even if they’re touching on existential-dread inducing issues. And humour, of course, is a fundamental part of play.

Everyone has a role to play

Back at the Goodfest workshop, my tower is nearing the ceiling. It wobbles, bends, then crumpling under the pressure it crashes to the floor. I shriek with joy and a chorus of laughs echo across the room with mine. People edge towards me, collecting LEGO bricks on their way, joining in. Play has created a positive energy and allowed the space for everyone to get involved.

As the session draws to a close, Hawthorne reveals there are eight types of play personality. She puts herself in The Explorer camp, and encourages us to think about our own personalities too. “Discovering how you and your teammates relate to play, can empower you to be more active in it,” she explains.

I leave mulling over my own personality and the part it can ‘play’ in my approach to activism. Perhaps I’m The Director, as I love managing my shop. Maybe now I am becoming The Storyteller because I’m writing this feature. One thing I’m convinced of, after an afternoon in Hawthorne’s company. Play has power. We can use it to cope with negative feelings and eco-anxiety. We can use it to find ways to engage a wider audience with climate change. And we can certainly use it to implement more sustainable values at work. Everyone has a different role to play in this crisis. So the only question that remains is this. Which type of playtivist are you?

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