TWEET: Play and playfulness

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February 01, 2017 at 01:09PM

This is one of those news stories that at first sight appears to be about expending valuable academic resources on trivial matters.  However, as with other areas of research there will be spin-off benefits in fields that perhaps have more benefits to society.

As the article points out Prof Sandholm said that the algorithm could be transferred to a range of other uses.  This is not just about poker,” he said. “The algorithms can take information and output a strategy in a range of scenarios, including negotiations, finance, medical treatment and cybersecurity.  Now we have proven the ability of AI to do strategy and reasoning, there are many potential applications in future.”

This playful approach to research can yield unexpected dividends and, as such, it would appear that the approach can be as important as the outcome.  The early research into Graphene at The University of Manchester, by Prof Andre Geim and Prof Kostya Novoselov is a story of playful experimentation.  “Andre and Kostya frequently held ‘Friday night experiments’ – sessions where they would try out experimental science not necessarily linked to their day jobs.”  The first time Graphene was isolated, their basic technique consisted of removing  “some flakes from a lump of bulk graphite with sticky tape”.  Today “Graphene is a disruptive technology; one that could open up new markets and even replace existing technologies or materials. It is when graphene is used both as an improvement to an existing material and in a transformational capacity that its true potential could be realised.”

Play and playfulness takes me back to the IDGBL (games) course and the work of  Johan Huizinga (1995) and Caillois (2001).  In Huizinga’s classic work, ‘Homo Ludens: Man the player‘ he defines play as a key building block of human civilisation’.  He shows how play can be seen in the arts, poetry, philosophy and even in the law and in war.  Caillois’ typography builds on these theories and categorises various forms of play, which have proved useful in many contexts, including in education.

I can’t remember whether it was in IDGBL that we looked at Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work (1990), but he defined an optimal state of being in adult humans (flow), that also seems to have a lot in common with play and playfulness.  Flow in this context is “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”.

So the lesson is, perhaps, that we shouldn’t underestimate the power of play and playfulness or dismiss them as trivial or frivolous activities.


Huizinga, J. (1995). Homo ludens: A study of play elements in culture.  Boston: Beacon press

Caillois, R. (2001). Man, play and games. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. (Preptint edition; original work published 1958)

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience

It matters because…

This post might come across as something of a ‘rant’, and is perhaps more relevant to the communities and algorithm blocks of this course, but it’s where my reflections have got me to over the past couple of days and therefore, in my opinion, relevant.

The last time I studied humanities as a subject in its own right (and here I use the word ‘studied’ in the loosest sense of the word) , was as a high school student in the early 1970s.  I am willing to admit that I didn’t really know what ‘humanities’ meant back then and it’s only since I’ve started to consider some of the bigger societal questions around technology through this course that the proverbial light bulb has turned on.

It’s not that I have been blissfully unaware, people and particularly their attitude toward technology are a crucial aspect of my job and I have strong opinions on some of the more worrying aspects of our interaction with automation and artificial intelligence, such as the privileging of certain information, ‘fake news’ and the altering of history.

On this latter point, and pertinent to the question of education and digital cultures, even the origin of the phrase ‘history is written by the victors / winners / conquerors’ (which is particularly apt in this context) has multiple and varying narratives.  The phrase is firmly attributed to Winston Churchill on many websites, to Walter Benjamin on others, George Orwell, Niccolò Machiavelli, Ramzi Haroun on others, and so on.  The phrase is also frequently attributed to William Wallace thanks to a version of it being included in the script of the movie ‘Braveheart’.

A more recent version of the phrase is ‘history is rewritten by the Internet’ and not only does this neatly sum up the issue, it points to a wider problem that everything, not just history, can be ‘rewritten by the Internet’.  Relatively recent examples of this phenomenon in the UK are highlighted in this article from Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of Guardian News & Media:

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Just a few of the many social media channels from

‘The word’ has always spread, with both good and bad intent, whether as knowledge passed between individuals, folklore, marketing or propaganda.  The difference today is, as Viner refers to in her article, that everyone is a publisher and everyone ‘has their own facts’.   As Viner’s article points out, quoting legal scholar Danielle Citroen, “people forward on what others think, even if the information is false, misleading or incomplete, because they think they have learned something valuable.”

So this matters in almost every context I can think of, but to bring it back to education and specifically to my own professional practice , it matters because trust or distrust in information provided, or perhaps more importantly, the skill or inability to critically appraise information, are crucial to belief and trust in the products and services we provide.  For instance, in the current climate will individuals be more or less willing to accept scientific evidence if it is funded by the company that developed the product?  How trusting will employees be of the company they work for when ‘fake news’ stories are circulating about it on social media?

Fortunately it seems that the issue is starting to be picked up by governments, the media and scholars, although it is my belief that this is an issue that, ultimately,  can only be resolved by the same means it is being perpetuated.

TWEET: How wearing slippers at school could improve perfomance

“Prof Heppell researched the topic for more than 10 years in 25 countries.  Shoeless learning has been carried out in schools in Scandinavia and New Zealand and learning centres in other countries.

“Mrs Tichener said: “We are noticing that the children seem more relaxed and calmer than usual, we hope that in time we can measure their progress and see if it has made a difference in their achievements.”

I wonder if there are some parallels here in gamification of learning, informal versus formal style of e-learning etc. in that they might also provide a more relaxed environment.