In a world where time and resources are scarce, playing a computer game seems perverse: it expends time and money without any goal beyond itself. In the worlds of business and economics, this can appear an almost wicked misallocation of productive capital. Play is, by definition, something childish. But yet that isn’t quite right.
The bigger an animal’s brain, the more time its species spends playing. Rather than a toy for mediocre minds, play is a biological marker of mental vigour. That is the clear message of evolution, shown in a 2001 study by Andrew Iwaniuk, John Nelson and Sergio Pellis. So perhaps play isn’t something to be so ashamed of after all.
As that study reminds us, play is not unique to humans, but we do, so to speak, take it to a new level. In his 1938 classic, Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga argued that our highest cultural products were a form of play: “Civilisation 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”.
Play is fertile: offering a risk-free space for limitless experiment, it is highly creative as a consequence, which may be why companies like Google have such playful office designs. At play, the mind has space to breathe. Huizinga called it a zone of ordered freedom. Even for adults, such play refreshes us for the real world, where we only have one life and no easy way to keep score.
While play is profitless by nature, its importance to our lives can be seen in the profits available to the ancillary industries of play. Despite Game Group going into administration this week, playing remains big business. As our creative minds keep disrupting the technologies we play with, business models rise and fall, but we advance from ZX Spectrums with rubber keys to Game Boys to PlayStations to streaming services like OnLive to HD Angry Birds Space on an iPad.
There was a time not so long ago when the rise of so-called casual gaming, which looks to a mass audience of occasional players, was seen as a threat to the creativity and depth of the computer games that could be produced. But an app like Angry Birds Space shows the fears were misplaced. This game is so smart it was launched in association with NASA. Every level is a hands-on tutorial in orbital mechanics. It has graphical wit and even a sense of drama as you battle the game’s iconic villain – a herd of maniacally snorting pigs.
Brave, innovative firms like Rovio, which produces Angry Birds, both enable new forms of play for us to enjoy and reveal the triumph of play’s creative products in their work. We should be grateful when someone gets the mix so right. And hopefully, after reading this, you won’t feel too guilty about the hours you’re about to spend cursing the laughter of smug green pigs.
Marc Sidwell is City A.M.’s business features editor.