Spielwarenmesse: Born to play, condemned to play!

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Born to play, condemned to play!

from Ulrich Texter

Play is a basic human phenomenon. And it's more than just that. For games scientist and head of the Berlin Institute for Ludology, Professor Jens Junge, play is the origin of all our skills. Without play, nothing would really work in life. He explains why in this interview.


Professor Junge, is play increasingly intruding into all spheres of life?

Prof. Dr. Jens Junge

Jens Junge: Oh yes, I sense that in the work our institution does. The enquiries we get are so wide-ranging that they also prove that play is a basic human phenomenon and that it permeates all areas of life.

Which areas in life are the enquiries coming from?

J. J.: From the social, medical and even economic sectors. The Leben Pur ['Pure Life'] foundation takes care of children with complex disabilities and their parents. The task here is to modify games so that they can be played by this target group. We also deal with games that are fun for everyone, so-called inclusion games. In the case of cross-generational games, we work on projects that bring the young and the old together. Another topic is health games to prevent dementia or help stroke patients to reactivate their brain functions. Increasingly, however, industrial groups, for whom a four-hour Power Point presentation is simply too boring and inefficient, are knocking at our door. For them, contents have to be more emotional and playful to make them more memorable. Because from the point of view of methodology, play is much better than just a Power Point presentation.

Reading your texts, one might think that the ability to play is an anthropological constant. Isn't it rather an expression of how open a society is?

J. J.: In any event, play signals how open a society is. This is evident in authoritarian regimes. Just think of the games that came from the West and were copied in the GDR, which stood in the way of building the socialist utopia. No Monopoly, no Top Secret Spies, they weren't allowed to play anything like this there. The rules of the game were painstakingly written down by hand and the boards of interesting and exciting games were copied. Even dictators can't prevent and forbid people from playing, but they can and do fundamentally restrict it.

How do toys and games support learning processes?

J. J.: For every human development, for every childhood development, it is essential to be playful, because, this way, we seek to communicate with our environment and our fellow human beings. We learn to adapt, vary and weigh up our behaviour. Toys and games help us do this. Because if we haven't learnt to acquire these skills through exploratory fantasy and role-playing games, then this will automatically lead to behavioural deficits or even personality disorders. A lot of psychological problems have to do with emotional instability, too little composure or fault tolerance. There’s often a lack of openness and curiosity. They are all qualities that characterise the process of play. This applies to everything – from toys and analogue board games to digital games.

What can digital games do that analogue games can't?

J. J.: An immersion that analogue games cannot provide in the same form. Digital games combine moving images with music and so open up completely different spheres of adventure. What they aren’t so good at is what I call the socialisation of human interaction.

Historian Johan Huizinga probably developed the most comprehensive definition of games. For him, everything was a game: culture, religion, economy, law, literature. What is the definition of game researcher Jens Junge?

J. J.: Play really is a primary human phenomenon, one with which we learn to deal or try to deal with the basic phenomena of nature, work, domination, power, love and death. This has led to many intellectual games such as the roughly 1,400 different approaches taken by religion. Literature also goes over the themes again and again; hits tend to concentrate more on the fundamental phenomenon of love. Nevertheless, all areas of culture – whether we're talking about theatre, film, music and so on – make the topic of play their theme. We talk about playing musical instruments, about actors playing a role, everywhere we play so as to escape reality and to reflect. In this respect, I'm a follower of his point of view, because it also enables us to change things. We live in a time of upheaval, in a time when it's becoming ever more vital that we deal with innovations and changes. Play can be an important way of doing that.

Three young people play skat.

For Huizinga, play is free activity, an escape from life in a fixed space with clear rules and within a certain period of time. Parlour games have been booming for years. Does that possibly mean that we are living in an increasingly unfree society?

J. J.: We are living in an increasingly free society. It has now reached such a level of complexity that many people feel overwhelmed and are looking for simple solutions – which don't exist. We feel that changes are needed in our society, but we are desperately looking for a playful way to deal with these changes. Just think of the feudal society that was replaced by the industrial society. The German card game of skat, invented in Altenburg in 1813, has become the symbol of this change. The Congress of Vienna was able to divide Europe once again, but this regal house of cards collapsed. Skat anticipated this and recognised the signs of the times. In the game, the king is no longer worth anything; he's just there.

Is it more than just coincidence that cooperative games have been booming for years, or are they just a reflection of the social trend towards cooperation?

J. J.: In no job advertisement in the last 40 years has the word 'teamwork' not been present. In the meantime, we know that individual people often don't have the best solutions, which is why projects are often put together in a heterogeneous way: different levels of knowledge, different age structures, various sources of ideas, and so on. A project becomes a success if it integrates divergent perspectives and bundles unequal know-how. In our complex economy, we have more and more moving targets. When we start walking, not even our target is clear. This requires iterative adaptation processes, and this agility can only be achieved through good teamwork. Of course, games publishers adapt. Kosmos did this very cleverly with the Exit Games.

You are constantly dealing with games. What changes or trends has your Institute of Ludology seen in recent years?

J. J.: The topic of socialisation and the search for human interaction is crucial for me. That's one of the central trends. We recognise that prosperity has spoiled us, but, at the same time, we feel that it seems to be threatened by climate change and, currently, by the pandemic. In times of crises or upheavals, people tend to come closer together and think more about themselves, their future, their family and society. This is exactly why the sales figures for board games have been rising for ten years.

Professor Junge, thank you for this interview.


Interview published with kind permission of the German trade journal planet toys.

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Author of this article:

Ulrich Texter

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