Pat Kane on The Play Ethic

Pat Kane is one half of Scottish pop duo Hue and Cry. Famous for hits in the late 80s and early 90s like Labour of Love, the brothers are still making music today and released Open Soul in 2009.

Aside from music, Pat is also a writer, consultant, play theorist, and activist. He is author of The Play Ethic: A Manifesto for a Different Way of Living which was a big influence on my book Screw Work, Let’s Play.

While I was writing the book, Pat kindly agreed to an interview to bring me up to date on his mission to convert us from the work ethic to the play ethic.

Welcome Pat. I’d like to kick off by asking the dinner party question “What do you do?” (It’s a very worker-oriented question but I’m interested to see the creative ways players find to answer it)

I sing, I make songs; I write reviews, commentary, and theory; I parent, love, and (as the footballers say) try to keep my engine going.

What is the play ethic?

The play ethic is what comes after the obsolescence of the work ethic. The work ethic is an ideology or belief-system which asserts that any job has dignity and worth, despite how alienated it makes you feel or how disjunct it is from your desires and aspirations, because society recognises this submission to the job as the basis of social order.

The play ethic is an alternative belief-system, which asserts that in an age of mass higher education, continuing advances in personal and social autonomy, and ubiquitous digital networks (and their associated devices), we have a surplus of human potential and energy, which will not be satisfied by the old workplace routines of duty and submission.

The identity of a ‘player’ – optimistic, willing to try and experiment, open to participating with peers in a multitude of projects – fits this new landscape, this new social order, much better. But we need to forge a convincing ‘play ethic’, particularly for organisations and government, which will help them to change their structures (or make way for new ones) to accommodate the expanding constituency of networked players.

What’s the state of play 5 years on from the publication of your book? How is your mission going?

I feel that my project has contributed its small part to a much wider legitimation of the power and potential of play in mainstream British and American society, particularly in organisational studies, education, social policy and even advertising (I did a lot early consultation with advertisers!). I look at initiatives like the UK government’s nine-figure commitment to encouraging play in schools and early development, and I see a lot of the research I was adducing about the cognitive and civic benefits of keeping play at the centre of children’s lives being quoted.

I know that there are a few initiatives – like The School of Life and the The School of Everything – which were directly inspired by my writing and advocacy. And the continuing invites to speak at events from Sydney to New York, from primary educators to Nokia and Lego, tell me that I have carved out a reasonable expertise, and am having a reasonable impact, on a wider variety of sectors.

Several of the players I have been interviewing and studying come from a background in the music industry (Tim Smit of the Eden Project, Derek Sivers of CDBaby). What does the world of pop & rock music in particular have to offer to the play ethic?

Making rock and pop regularly gives you an unalienated experience of expressing your passions through technique and technology, in collaboration with other people – which is the definition, it would seem to me, of a play ethic!

The trendy management term ‘ad-hocracy’ was tailor-made for the music business: there, people demand enough time and space to experiment, try things out, follow their noses. And they will construct the situations, however provisional or fragile or flaky, that enable them to get the result they have an investment in. All of life is a ‘gig’ for a musician – an event where you perform with and before others – and I think that this prepares you for a life of self-starting, flexible working and enterpreneurship. We’re all players in the most profound sense – courting possibility, living with its openness, not fearing it.

If you could get one message through to the worker – someone feeling trapped by the work ethic – what would you say?

Going back to musicians, I would say that you have to accept that there’s a price you pay for living a profoundly playful life – which is that there is less stability in some of the more recognised features of an adult life, but more stability in others. Clearly, if you’re chained to a mortgage/big-car/foreign-holidays/high-consumption lifestyle, then you need a constancy of income – which usually only comes from the kind of occupational commitment (one company, one building, one practice) that most players are unwilling to make. If you can downshift some aspects of your life, you can “up-shift” many others – for example, pouring your energies into a practice or project that makes you feel more alive and purposeful than you’ve ever been; finding more looseness in your life into which can enter new relationships, the opportunity to reinforce old ones.

I’ve come to believe that the players’ life is what you could call ‘post-consumerist’, or participative – and in an age where we might well be looking at ecological limits on consumption, a play ethic might be one of our main hopes for building a sense of positive identity about ourselves, when the status items lose their status.

Social Media has moved on since you wrote the book and is becoming an even more powerful force for change in both business and society. How do you see it supporting the play ethic now?

When I was completing the Play Ethic in 2003, one could see the new eco-system of networks and participation growing – mostly in cutting-edge hi-tech areas like open source and free software. But the expansion of that into everyday life is extremely encouraging to me. It’s almost as if tens of millions of people are voting with their attention spans, when they engage with everything from Twitter to Facebook to You Tube to whatever blogging platform they have. They’re asserting their joy in mutual communication, in tailoring their public identities to exactly the specifications they want (and also opening that identity out to commentary by others), right in the heart of networked capitalism – those ‘homing from work’ behaviours which so infuriate the key-stroke counters of management and business. They should be (and some are) responding positively to this mass desire for people to enthusiastically build structures and networks around themselves – tapping into this energy in order to make productive life more satisfying, and its products and services more meaningful to both producers and consumers. But it’s usually rendered as just “playing around”. A shame, but it will incrementally change.

What does the recent financial meltdown mean to both the work ethic and play ethic?

I think the ‘ethical’ part of the play ethic is about placing the idea of creativity, activity and collaboration – rather than being programmed, being defined by consumption, taking orders – at the centre of a society. I do think this means a shift of energies and commitment from a society with a certain model of growth, to one with a different model of growth – where it’s a growth in happiness, or the richness of one’s interactions, or the satisfaction in one’s labours and projects, that becomes our collective target for the future.

I think the coming age of fiscal and financial austerity – the hangover from our days of credit-fuelled consumerism – could provide the necessary conditions for that to move from the margins to the centre of policy, politics and daily life. We won’t have the money to solve our problems and assuage our existential angsts – we’ll have to innovate, act and collaborate to fill those wholes. I hope the idea of a ‘play ethic’ is useful in that scenario.

I’m interested in the internal shift a person needs to make to move from worker to player – beliefs to question, habits to transform. What do you think is the biggest part of this?

I’m very interested in that too! The more I deep-dive into the psychology and neurology of play, the more I think that one of the main tasks for the play ethic is to engage in an argument about human nature. So much of the story of play for advanced mammals like us is that it’s necessary to keep us adaptive – Brian Sutton-Smith calls play ‘adaptive potentiation’, the testing-out and prototyping of behaviours and possibilities, so that we can endlessly refine and improve our response to everyday challenges and opportunities. And I think that modern people, living in societies that have many resources to support our actions, can actually bring play as a rehearsal for real life, and real life itself, a lot closer together. But yes, there needs to be an internal shift to match all the external shifts that are inviting us to a playful life. I think we have to try and listen to this deeply-constituted inner dynamic of play in our selves – and I think we can become profoundly deaf to that. I’m certainly interested in meditation, whether contemplative or as a result of some active practise, as a way of getting ‘above yourself’, so you can see the patterns of life that you’re trapped in.

I have to say personally, that my life with my children – not just playing with them as they grow-up, but also in terms of the miracle of their autonomy, the glory of watching their gradual self-empowerment – was also crucial to deepening my sense of myself as a player. That’s not available for everyone, but it was essential for me.

How does play sit with hard work in your own working life and in the lives of the other players you have met? Can play be hard work?

I like to use the terms of the philosopher and theological James Carse, when he talked about finite and infinite games. “Hard work”, committed labour through a field of activity heading towards a determinate goal, is what Carse would call the ‘finite game’ – a series of tight victories over necessity and urgency.

In my own life, I compare it to the singing practice I have to do every day as a musician – a kind of exacting, pains-taking self-labour, a struggle to improve technique and control. But I do that in the service of Carse’s ‘infinite game’ – the game not oriented to victory, but to extending and enriching the game itself, to seeing new horizons and new rules through playing the game itself.

If I stay on top of my technique, I will maintain the possibiity of having those transcendant gigs where my voice, myself and the whole room merges – or where something genuinely new and unprecedented pops out of my mouth. But I have *chosen* this ‘hard-work’, this finite game, because it serves the ‘infinite game’ of expression and exploration. See it as the circle of hard work within the bigger circle of the horizon of play. And incidentally, to reverse those two – to put infinity at the heart of the finite, or to see victory as something to be endlessly toiled for, the intoxication of the ‘winner’ as worthwhile in itself, is to me a kind of hell on earth.

Players, it seems to me, will naturally tread on other people’s beliefs and taboos. I’m sure you must have met some controversy and disapproval in your own work. How do you respond to it?

Most of the controversy comes from people who have invested so much in the work ethic, and have suffered the psychic injuries that result from living a heteronomous (not autonomous) life, that you literally pain them when you express or display a players’ sensibility or preferences. I understand that rage and annoyance – and often my response is to try and point to long-term social, technological and cultural trends which show that a life of purpose and productivity doesn’t have to be lived in a state of grim determination to succeed, or acceptance of one’s conformity.

One of the things I tried to do in the book was to point out what I thought the complement to play was, in a healthy society. What happens when an exuberant player fails, falls, gets exhausted or broken, runs out of ideas, hits a crisis of health (mental or physical)? So I’ve been attempting to say that ‘care’ is what should complement ‘play’ in the ideal society – not the ‘work-leisure trap’, or the ‘work-life balance’, but the ‘play-care continuum’.

If we grow into our identities as players, we should also value the care that’s required when our playful enterprises do not go as planned. And this is real ‘care’, involving the open-ended use of time and space, not just repairing people to be chucked back into a labour-market which has caused the damage in the first place.

One way to assuage the rage of a ‘worker’ is to say that we need collective regulation to increase these spaces of care – eg, four day weeks, a robust parental and sabbatical culture, a revitalised public provision of housing and facilities – to enable properly the players’ lifestyle. That is, everybody should get the benefits – not just jumped-up creative freelancers!

I want to follow your lead and help reclaim the label “Player” as a positive one. From your experience of adopting the word, what do you think are our chances?

I think we have a good chance, John – but I think it has to be founded on a deep and broad understanding of what we mean by play. We already have a discourse about players which is, in my view, narrow and agonistic – the big City “plays” and “players” swinging their dicks in the halls of Capital, the “playas” hustling for supremacy in the ghetto, never mind the empire of sports spectaculars coursing through our mass media. Play isn’t just about competition for victory – far, far from it. If we keep people attentive to the dynamic, plural nature of play in our species-being, the aim to reclaim ‘player’ as a positive term might be worth trying for.

What’s next for you and the play ethic project?

My aim for the next few years is to come to a deeper synthesis of my researches into, and experiences of, play – whether through writing, consulting or just living. It feels like a lifetime interest has opened up for me around this topic – and to walk my talk, I expect to be surprised by what it turfs up next for me!

Get The Play Ethic from Amazon UK

Read more about Pat Kane on his website and blog

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