1950sUnlimited, via Flickr Creative Commons.

How weirdly dissonant our media landscape is, especially when you traverse it via content feed. Articles that may as well announce the opening of the fourth seal of the apocalypse sit alongside even more stunning revelations about Gwyneth Paltrow’s recent trip to the beach. And we’re supposed to somehow transition from these astonishments to the tedium of deciding what to have for dinner? Should I grill some grass-fed beef? Chow down on a bowl of raw fruit and nuts? Or start a fast in quest of an insane bikini bod?

One’s “better” nature may insist that the survival of life on earth should take precedence, but as cultural theorist Johan Huizinga points out in his 1938 book Homo Ludens (“Playing Man”), there is something very deep in our culture that connects us to the lighter side of existence. Regarding the connection between play and civilization, Huizinga writes: “We have to conclude, therefore, that civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play like a baby detaching itself from the womb: it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.”


KidZania International Airport by Masahiko Ohkubo via Flickr Creative Commons

Huizinga’s theories came to mind while reading a recent article about KidZania, a global theme park where kids spend the day “playing” at being workers. They earn theme-park money (called Kidzos), pay taxes, and spend the rest of their earnings on branded food and merchandise. Kids seem to enjoy it, probably because “in KidZania, you feel like you’re an adult, and you say what you want to do.” If only that were true, kid. If only. But it does raise a question: What kind of example are we setting for our kids about how “real life” should be lived?

Play is more important than we give it credit for. For one thing, it reveals the possibilities that reside right alongside the mundane. Like the works of “lightbomber” Peter Medlicott. Or the zany catalog illuminations of Ikea’s “children’s illustrator in residence” Sarah Horne, a job she got by—you guessed it—playing around. Even stunts which seem to defy death itself, like Nik Wallenda’s blindfolded tightrope walk last November at 500 feet, embrace the “just because” nature of play. Whether you call it courage or recklessness, there’s something about it that blows the corroded surface of reality clean again.

Soul of the City by Sola www.lightbombing.com from this_is_Sola on Vimeo.

Play can be a way of being heard in a world that doesn’t seem inclined to listen. This satirical piece by Shehzad Ghias Shaikh for Quartz“A Muslim finally has the apology the world has been waiting for”—is as funny as it is forthright, which makes its message all the more potent. Or consider Eddie Huang’s new ABC sitcom, Fresh off the Boat, based on the memoir of his Chinese-Taiwanese-American youth. The network may have sanitized Huang’s life for 22 minutes of laughs, but he finds that—despite the ordeals of compromise—having even a few minutes of his truth reflected in prime time is worth having the rest of his life reduced to “Panda Express.”


via Wikimedia Commons

All of this playing around is not to downplay the problems we face as a culture and as a planet. Our challenges are vast, perhaps dire, and they must be met—if not immediately, then at least very soon. But something tells me we can’t accomplish them by losing sight of what it is that we hope to preserve: a world with time enough to breathe and to laugh.

Innovation and creativity have long been linked to playfulness. But in a world that’s increasingly fixated on instantaneous results, we need to cultivate greater patience and open-mindedness. Even artists—typically on the vanguard of innovative expression—have gotten a bit lazy in this regard. We need to give more merit to playful ideas: the far-fetched, even the fantastic. We can’t change our playful nature, but we can start to take our playfulness more seriously.