Non-Playing Play

Reading Stuart Brown’s excellent “Play: How It Shapes The Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul,” I came across an excellent statement that resonated deeply with me:

…the opposite of play is not work – the opposite of play is depression.

Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Brown and Vaughan (2009)
Dogs bow to invite us to play.

Earlier in the book, Brown asserted that the reason we are doing an activity defines whether or not it is play. His example: some runners run to get fit; others run because they enjoy it. While he is reluctant to define “play” too closely, he acknowledges that play is generally something that has no immediately apparent purpose. In other words, we play because it’s enjoyable and for it’s own sake.

This pairing of ideas helped me to realise that some of my games are not playful. For example, my current Mystamyr game has become increasingly difficult to continue and I realised that one reason might be because we are playtesting rules, not playing for the sake of playing. In contrast, my Hiraeth Open Table has proven immensely enjoyable over the past week or two because I am playing it in a different spirit.

Thus, I feel it’s important to recognise the times when we are engaging in non-play. Motive and purpose lie behind this distinction and have profound effects on the impact that our gaming has upon us psychologically. When I play spontaneously and because it’s fun then I am going to get a different result to when I play with the express intention of achieving a specified end.

While that seems obvious in hindsight, I found the insight useful. I immediately knew how to fix the games in which I am struggling to find joy. The trick, it seems, is to focus on the play and making the whole thing more playful. You do that by removing ulterior motives.

Coming back to the quotation above, the science suggests that when we fail to find moments of play in our lives we are setting ourselves up for a delve into depression. In response, I found that simply engaging in something playful before I ended my day, however small or brief, was enormously energising the next day. It’s something to experiment with further.

Game on!


  1. Anything that keeps the daemons at bay has to be good, why not play 👍🏼

    I thought we stopped actively playtesting Mystamyr months ago, but I supposed the turn undead dynamic reawakened that vibe.
    Hope u can find fun and play in Mystamyr again.
    If you’ve stopped enjoying it and u can’t make it ‘play’ anymore, then we should stop.
    GM is a role, not a job.
    Take care fella


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