Deep seriousness and deep playfulness are not opposites

Dr. Joost Vervoort is an Associate Professor of Transformative Imagination at Utrecht University. His work focuses on where imagined futures, games, and politics, policy and action connect. Email: j.m.vervoort@uu.nl Twitter: @Vervoort_Joost

Hotei and Child, By Sengai Gibon (1750–1837), a Rinzai Zen monk known for his lighthearted sumi-e paintings

Around eight years ago, when I was still working at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, our research group organized a two-day team retreat. In a small room in Somerville College, under the ominous glare of a Margaret Thatcher bust, we were each asked to come up with a personal adage or phrase that summarized our attitudes and interests in terms of working on sustainability issues. The one that came to mind for me was ‘deep seriousness and deep playfulness are not opposites, but very closely related’. Over the years, I’ve found that this idea has remained very useful as a way to think about sustainability work — especially work on games — as well as other areas of life. Others I’ve talked to have found it useful as well. So I thought it would be good to develop this idea more here and in future blog posts, especially in the context of the mounting societal challenges and crisis we’re all facing together.

You might have already worked out what I mean just from that one statement — it’s a pretty simple idea — but I have a mental visualization that helps me think about this a bit more.

A proposal to re-conceptualize seriousness and playfulness.

It is common to refer to seriousness and playfulness as opposites — and perhaps you’re inclined to think of yourself or other people as either tending to be more serious or more playful. But I believe that this denies the richness that can be found when playfulness and seriousness are both understood to be ways into the depths of life, as represented by the bottom half of the circle in the image — and that on top of the circle, the middle point between the two is a sleepwalking zombie existence that is not much of anything at all.

When it comes to seriousness, I believe that if we look at life and the people, problems and things we engage with more seriously, we move toward a greater realization that existence is profoundly mysterious and complex. Of course, a lot depends on what we mean by ‘deep seriousness’. I would say that it means many things, but among them is actually and earnestly trying to engage with the world around us. It also includes seriousness in the emotional sense as well: a felt sense of the tragedy of existence and its suffering, and of deep responsibility toward life. It includes honesty and reflexivity about our own assumptions and the limits of our knowledge. A phrase often repeated at Zen retreats summarizes deep seriousness for me:

Great is the matter of birth and death. Everything is impermanent, passing quickly. Be awake in every moment.’

If you dislike the mystical overtones of such a perspective, you may want to emphasize a recognition of complexity and the unknown and unknowable. Either way, I believe it’s important to mention deep seriousness as not merely a cognitive but also an embodied, experiential stance.

So what about deep playfulness? Can we let go of the associations of playfulness as the opposite of seriousness, and therefore perhaps also frivolous, superficial and not valuable? Playfulness can loosen us from the constraints of society and its norms and values, and help us to re-perceive what is simply considered to be accepted reality. It can subvert and invert the ‘normal’, it can challenge existing power structures and ideologies and spark the imagination needed for new societal alternatives. With playfulness, after all, comes humor, the breaking and hacking of rules, and imaginative pretending. The wisdom of deep playfulness also entails that many things we tend to worry about can be taken much more lightly, with some ironic distance, with a sense of perspective. When we’re playful, we are willfully not taking things as they are, not accepting their normal interpretations. Playfulness can be another path into the depth, mystery and complexity of life, with an emphasis on its absurdity and ironic hilarity. It also points to endless possibilities for imagining things otherwise.

The top bit of the circle is where we are sleepwalking. Maybe we’re serious, but only superficially so, because we’re not really earnestly engaging with what it means to be alive. We’re following conventions, common ideas and expected behaviors. Maybe we worry about them seriously, perhaps because we’re either not mindful of, or trying to distract ourselves from, a deeper engagement with life. We’re worried about keeping up with our peers in terms of material wealth, or worried about a work project that is essentially meaningless. Or we’re being playful in a superficial way — which sounds a lot nicer than superficial seriousness, but may still not really lead to anything like deeper change or deeper happiness. Maybe we’re sleepwalking through endless hours of numbing, uninspired game time, or through the same Friday night bar jokes forever.

A pretty simple idea, right? What I think is cool about this is how it allows you to rethink the design of interventions, experiences, and processes. Sticking with games since that’s most relevant for this blog, if deep seriousness and deep playfulness are both considered valuable ways to engage with societal problems, what does a game look like that’s at once deeply playful and deeply serious? I’ve mentioned the new Wolfenstein games in my previous blog ‘Games, activism and the art of destroying shit’, but part of the reason why I think their writing works so incredibly well is because they handle the horrors of Nazi rule extremely well for the most part, bringing in structural critiques of the Fascist tendencies in US culture for instance, as well as a deep empathy for human suffering, while at the same time being deeply audacious and ridiculous practically the next second. We’ve talked Disco Elysium to death on this blog, but its spiritual predecessor, Planescape: Torment, excels at being wildly crazy, funny, ridiculous and extra as well as managing to ask deep existential questions and create some intense, horrifying and deeply saddening moments around love and cold manipulation between the characters. Say No! More is an example of a very funny game that teaches players to say no in the work place, encouraging a break from just going along with existing systems, but offering that break in an absurd, over the top manner. Our own climate court game project aims to bring intense seriousness and intense playfulness together at all levels. The game is both about climate court cases, and its development raises funds for real life court cases happening right now. But we are aiming for a very wild, playful and funny style for the game, in the tradition of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. In the previous blog I’ve spoken about the joy of tearing down broken systems, and I think this is another example of deep seriousness and deep playfulness, if we recognize we are involved in real power struggles but we use playful means to be effective. Finally, to return to Zen for a moment, since it is part of the secret inspiration behind this idea — many Zen stories and koans are meant to mess with superficial conceptualizations and let the mind stumble into the depths of life through the combined use of deep seriousness and deep playfulness. In my personal life I want to be both more serious and more playful — two interacting pathways out of zombification and simply following existing systems.

This blog is just meant to put the idea out there, and I will be writing more about this in the near future. In the meantime, I’m very curious to hear people’s thoughts about this reframing of playfulness and seriousness, either in terms of your personal lives or your projects!

Anticiplay is an NWO Vidi-funded research project that aims to establish a new design paradigm for the gaming sector in collaboration with CreaTures EU. You can find our mission statement here! Follow us @anticiplay on Twitter, and feel free to engage us with any questions, games that you think are inspiring, and anything else!

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An NWO Vidi research project that explores how games can help imagine and realize sustainable futures - transforming governance and the game sector.

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Anticiplay

An NWO Vidi research project that explores how games can help imagine and realize sustainable futures - transforming governance and the game sector.