Alibis to Play
Framing as a practice of empathy
Quick question: What do the following have in common?
Answer: According to Professor Sebastian Deterding, a Senior Research fellow at the University of York, they are all ‘alibis’ for adults to play.
Writing in the peer-reviewed journal ‘Games and Culture’, Prof. Deterding defines alibis as:
a motivational account that deflects negative inference from displayed behavior to a person’s identity.
In other words, alibis are social contexts where adults can behave playfully without fear of being judged or embarrassed for it.
It’s not appropriate to utter depravities in front of your mum, unless you are playing ‘Cards Against Humanity’. Sure, it was a grotesquely filthy image you just conjured up but you were merely reading out what was written on the cards. There’s your alibi. And everyone laughed, so you come across as funny rather than off-key.
Bursting into a rendition of ‘Unchained Melody’ in the middle of the office (remember those?!) — not cool. The same behaviour at the office Karaoke party could score you ‘hidden talent’ points, and even if you’re completely awful, you’ll still come across well for getting stuck in.
Colouring-in books are for kids, but if it’s explicitly for relaxation then adults can do it. They wrote this alibi on the front cover just to make sure it’s clear (Farrarons, 2015).
Charity fun runs and festivals give you an alibi to dress up, with the reflection that you are ‘noble’ and ‘liberated’ respectively. Deterding suggests that “an overt ‘good cause’ reframes an otherwise embarrassingly strange, even criminal offence into ennobling care for others” and that festivals provide a “well-instituted frame for temporary extraordinary behavior in public” (Ravenscroft & Gilchrist, 2009).
So the alibi protects you from people thinking badly of you, and indeed you thinking badly of yourself.
But hang on a minute, why do adults need an alibi to play in the first place? Because, Deterding argues, adulthood and play claim fundamentally divergent identities.
Adulthood Vs Play
At the heart of the thesis is the recognition that the way we behave reflects upon who we are – it’s an ‘identity claim’.
Some identity claims are shared by all adults — we’d all like to be seen as someone who tells the truth. Other identity claims are more person-specific — if I see myself as ‘a good cook’ it’ll feel painful to serve up a mediocre supper. It’s why it’s embarrassing for the guy who turns up to the party in a brightly patterned shirt only to find out that there’s someone else there with exactly the same shirt. The wearing of the shirt is making an identity claim in the vicinity of ‘I am a uniquely free spirit’, which is then revealed to be an off-the-peg sham.
We are always seeking congruence between our behaviour and our identity claims, and this is why adults are limited in their opportunities to play.
“To some extent the identity claims of adulthood and play are incompatible.”
Adulthood stands for being in control of yourself and behaving responsibly towards others. Adults are expected to comply with social norms such as waiting for their turn in a queue and wearing clothes in public.
Following these norms helps everyone to feel safe. I used to play ukulele on the tube — not as a busker, just to entertain myself and remove the temptation of mindless phone widdling. My brother told me that it might make other tube-users feel uncomfortable. If he’s breaking that social norm, might he break other social norms? Will he try to strike up a conversation? Ask me for money? Even though I had no intention of either, they weren’t to know that and I had to accept that it could feel unsafe for some folk.
At it’s core adulthood stands for stable values and predictability. Play, on the other hand, can lead towards impulsivity, letting go of usual conduct, exploring other roles. Play submits adult self-governance to the spontaneous flow of events. In contrast to the purposeful nature of adult life, play is often done for it’s own sake — as Stuart Brown says: “play is purposeless, all-consuming, and fun”. It’s pointless to build a snowman or a sandcastle. It’s ‘just for the fun of it’ Alibis therefore allow adults to engage in play without questioning their ‘adultness’ or any other of their identity claims.
Playful approaches are helpful if we wish to explore unchartered territory, generate ideas and innovate. Lego Serious Play is an example of a beautifully crafted alibi for adults to engage in behaviour which would otherwise be regarded as childish.
As we have seen, the social context is crucial when it comes to checking behaviour against identity claims. It’s not embarrassing to admit that you don’t remember everyone’s name in a group of 20, but it is in a group of 4.
The innovations in theatre over recent years have provided new alibis for adult play. Immersive theatre companies such as Secret Cinema and Punchdrunk provide new frames in which the audience are encouraged to dress up and get involved in the ‘play’. Just as theatre requires us to ‘suspend our disbelief’, so play requires us to suspend the usual identity claims of adulthood, and that’s why we need an alibi.
From 2015–2018 I was part of an immersive theatre collective called The Spiritual Playground, based on the idea that spiritual development can be playful. Our ‘show’ was at least 50% audience participation and by the end onlookers wouldn’t be able to distinguish the audience from the actors.
As 21st century superhero ‘Captain Lavender’ I would go about my day giving ‘spiritual fluffings’ with my feather dusters and lavender massage oil. These were essentally opportunities for me to meet guests and draw them into our show, whilst subtly pitching a new social frame — this is a place where everyone joins in, not because they’re a performer, just because it’s best for everyone if we all get involved — you’re one of us now!
The UK lockdown in March 2020 led to an explosion of social innovation as many of us were looking for ways to connect to overcome physical distancing. My ‘philosopher of parties’ friend Ed Cooke gathered a huge group of creatives, artists and technicians which became known as the Co-Reality Collective. We started innovating with the potential for immersive online festivals. Twelve Zoom rooms were connected via an interactive map with different venues and events, with everything from all-night raves to lectures from the likes of Marcus du Sautoy. Our motto: #thisisreal
Just like the Spiritual Playground we wanted to move from a model of passive ‘TV watching’ consumption to interactive participatory co-creation. For example, Michael Ronen hosted mixed-reality hot tub gatherings with everyone getting into their baths at home as they were taken through a soothing guided meditation. The collective grew as the guests turned into hosts — you could run off and join the circus without leaving the house. We cross-fertilised networks with other groups doing similar things, united around a belief that the new online context can be a new frame within which to innovate, rather than a poor substitute for a ‘real’ party.
The Co-Reality Collective became an innovations lab out of which grew a new platform called Sparkle, with the promise to ‘turn your conference into a party’. Sparkle collaborated with events companies such as Hire Space to host Chritmas parties for the many companies who would ordinarily have hired out a big venue for their staff. Having facilitated many of the ‘entrance experiences’ at Co-Reality parties, I was invited to do the same at these events.
Meet Kevin the Cabbie, a new alibi to play…
Equipped with nothing but a flatcap and a coathanger fashioned into a steering wheel, Kevin the Cabbie ferried coporate teams to their online Christmas party. The task is to prepare the group to enter into the game of ‘let’s pretend we’re actually going to a party’ because if they do the banter will flow and everyone will have more fun. The context of a taxi provides a familiar social frame and a set of norms which provide a level of comfort to new audiences. In a series of carefully curated interactions, the guests tacitly accept the invitation to suspend their disbelief, whilst also getting a tech-tour of Sparkle’s platform. By the end the guests are leading the banter — “Hey Kevin, can I get a lift home at the end of the party”. Kevin was picked up by Reuters and is still available for hire, recently adding ‘cabbie yoga’ to his reportoire.
Designing alibis as a practice of empathy
In the process of designing alibis for play there are two major variables — the identity claims of the potential players, which is outside of the designer’s control, and the social frame, which is within their control. The designer’s task is to create a social frame where participation becomes compatible with the player’s identity claims.
In order to be successful in this the designer needs to understand the player’s identity claims. Some adults have roles which are identity-congruent with play. For instance, it is the kindergarten teacher’s adult job to play Patty Cake with children for their edification. I’m a celidh (Scottish folk dance) caller which is a well-established frame for adult play, and this gives me a cast-iron alibi which extends throughout my life. Other folk might feel comfortable being playful when watching a football match, or with their children, or at Friday night drinks, but not within a work context.
Covid-19 offered a disruption to the incompability between play and work. Maz Cohen invited me into the ‘Play Collective’, a group of cultural innovators with a shared conviction to bring playful approaches to corporate audiences. Sensing the need of businesses for innovation and ‘pivoting’ in response to Covid-19, we collaboratively designed a process called The Game: Playing together to build a better world. The Play Collective delivered The Game with urban events company Shoobs in July 2020, which generated a ‘Humanifesto’ of how the company could broaden their reach beyond events and re-position themselves as the beating heart at the centre of their loyal community. As part of this process Kim Arazi, founder of sensory innovation studio Innosensi, hosted a multi-sensory ‘virtual table’ where guests are invited to imagine that they are sitting around a physical table and eat their dinner together. Again, a familiar social frame where we open up, ‘let our hair down’ and play, refashioned for a new context.
Designing good alibis therefore requires therefore the ability to feel our way into another person’s life experiences and value systems, to imagine the world from another person’s shoes. It requires empathy. For those of us who believe in the power of play to innovate and change the world for the better, we need to strive for empathy when cultiviting alibis for adult play.