Play and Innovation

I wanted to speak more on the question from Tuesday about how can aspects of play allow us to solve problems. I am taking a course centered around Science and Technology studies. Our most recent discussion was about how the way we produce scientific knowledge has traditionally been thought of as a retroactive process. The image the world carried was that a scientist came up with a hypothesis, went into a lab, proved or disproved their hypothesis, then left.

Anthropologists such as Andrew Pickering point out that this is seldom the case. Instead, ideas and new technologies are what he calls ‘temporally emergent.’ Instead of a scientist going in with a set goal, they go in open to a new goal, and usually come out with something different than what they started. To relate it a bit more to the general class, it’s like when you write a paper. If you start out with a thesis, it likely won’t be the same thesis by the end of the paper. There are an infinite number of factors at any given moment (both social and physical) than open up the possibility of new experiences, or ideas.

This idea of temporal emergence in the science field is very similar to what Spolin describes. Specifically, when she states that when is a moment where “the answer just comes.” I believe that as people grow older and switch from a “play” mindset to a “work” mindset, play becomes something almost taboo. Our reading on the Situationists International expands on this subject, arguing that society has created a dichotomy of leisure time and work time, leaving little to no room for play to be embedded in our lives.

But to tie it all together, I believe that the childish nature of play and improvisation, mainly that of being open to new experiences, and focusing on the process rather than the final product that in the way that Spolin describes, is essential to finding innovative solutions to problems. There is one story that I believe is a testament to this.

Srinivasa Ramanujan was a mathematician from the early 20th century. He never had a formal college education, but went on to solve problems in mathematics that were considered unsolvable. These theorems he came up with still have a deep impact on stem fields today. At first, no professor was willing to believe that this uneducated man just came up with the solution to an impossible problem that they had been working on for years. But once he was given the opportunity to explain himself, professors were shocked, noting that his methodologies were of the most obscure that they had ever seen.

Many note that the reason Ramanujan was able to come up with such great theories is because he was not confined to the same rules of mathematics that college-educated mathematicians were. There were no mental routes that seemed unworthy of pursuing for Ramanujan. One can say that he was more open and “playful” with how he approached math, and as a result, was able to solve incredible problems. There are more examples that I recommend looking into, such as George Dantzig, but the point is clear: “playfulness” allows for innovation and solutions to problems that could not be solved without this approach.

5 thoughts on “Play and Innovation

  1. I agree that playfulness allows for a kind of experimentation that leads to new discoveries that a narrower focus might obscure–and I think that’s a large part of the reason serious games have so much to offer. They encourage meandering thinking without restrictions because as games, they provide a safe place for players to leave their comfort zones. And without the consequences associated with failures, they become just a route towards finding the most innovative solutions for the game, which can then be applied past the game. Your post also reminds me of a small part in one of the pre-quarter readings on the syllabus, “Collaborating with the Audience,” in which Sean Stewart asserts that science is “the first…example of massively multi-player collaborative investigation and problem solving”.

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  2. The story you gave about Ramanujan was very interesting. It shows that in day, most people are confined by the way we are taught in schools and universities, and that we are only able to follow a certain kind of process of reasoning taught by the education system. I think this is an interesting way to look at how we learn, and how we could expand our learning to more of a style of “playing” rather than a style of “working”, and for facing a problem, we need to think more about the way, the process of solving it, rather than the end goal of solution. And I think that is what ARG excels at comparing to traditional video games. For a video game, there is a story, and there is a set goal, (namely, there is a certain set end to the story). Some video games tries to make it seem that there are certain choices you make throughout the game that changes the ending to the story, yet most of them are criticized for not up to their words. The few games that actually allows the player to explore different endings still has the notion that there is a good end, a bad end, etc. While in ARGs, while there is a certain set ending in the beginning, there are so many aspects to teh game that might alter that a lot of the times the creators had to change the narrative and thus changing the ending, In comparison, I think ARGs are more volatile than video games this way, and thus allows for a more individualized experience that is similar to “play”, while video games has a more objective gameply, more to that of “work”.

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    1. I agree with what you said about ARGs focusing more about process than traditional video games. I wanted to add that this becomes evident with the proliferation of video game achievements and completionist motivations. Some video games include elements that only serve for you to collect 100% of them, but have no true impact on the gameplay. It then becomes focused on reaching the 100% rather than what needed to occur to reach the 100%.


  3. I agree that Ramanujan’s nontraditional background allowed for more play and experimentation. He is clearly gifted, so I do wonder if he would have found proofs for different theorems if he’d had a formal college education. Well-known mathematicians often state that creativity is key for math research, and my own math professors have emphasized the importance of creativity (though perhaps they haven’t always facilitated this experimentation). Many mathematicians prove wonderful theorems, though they are recipients of traditional educations. They seem to have found their own ways to play with the rules of mathematics, and I wonder how this creativity differs from Ramanujan’s.


    1. You bring up a great point. My suspicion is that if uneducated people in the world took on tasks that are considered “only for those in academia,” these people would find unique and creative solutions to unsolved problems. Of course, there’s no way to verify this.

      I am not sure that there is a difference in these creativities insomuch as there are less inhibitions that stop people from finding creative solutions. It’s like the classic musical sentiment. “You don’t learn music theory to follow the rules. You learn music theory to break the rules.”

      But after learning enough music theory, stemming from the rules probably becomes extremely uncomfortable and keeps people from branching away from it. Then I guess the overall question is how do we encourage people to step away from the rules after teaching them the rules?


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