Purposeful play

The recent launch of Cambridge’s Raspberry Pi, a £15 credit card sized computer, designed to encourage beginners to have fun programming, reminded me of the days when I was a student at Churchill College. Most of my male friends seemed to spend most of their time utterly absorbed in playing around with computers, electronics and software.

A group of my friends started trying to build a communication system to piggyback off the college’s electricity system, so they could use it to send voice messages to each other across the college for free. They were hard pushed to explain exactly why they were doing it and I didn’t really see the point, because even though few of us had phones, it would have been far simpler to have walked across the college and left a message. The main result of their efforts seemed to be to make my partner’s home-made mains powered digital alarm clock run 100 times faster than it should have done, but they were clearly having fun, and learnt a lot about communication systems in the process. It seems they were onto something, because today “power line communication” is widely used for applications ranging from internet access to automated meter reading.

My partner then got a job developing the video driver software for the about-to-be-launched BBC Micro, the Cambridge designed personal computer that popularised programming. This involved a lot of late nights, so I remember him waking me up at about 2am one morning to ask whether the video driver software he’d just written was producing green or red lines. He was colour blind so couldn’t tell.

Some of these late nights helped change the world: the BBC Micro, Sinclair’s ZX81 and a small flock of other low cost computers ushered in the era of low cost personal computing, positioning the UK at the forefront of the emerging global industry and kick starting many successful careers in the process.

The enthusiasts of the 70s and 80s created a new industry, but as the creators of the Raspberry Pi have pointed out, the problem was that computers became so sophisticated that it was effectively impossible for ordinary enthusiasts to play around brewing their own programmes. We became consumers not creators. In schools, ICT became utilitarian instruction in how to use software packages designed by others, and we played with games designed by others. Because we took the fun out of ICT we now have a national shortage of the much more valuable software engineers.

Play is important, and not just in computing. Creativity works best when work and play are intertwined. “Purposeful play” is powerful.

This is because when we’re playing we feel free from rules and expectations, and this sets our imagination free. We can, at least temporarily, make our dreams come true, whether that’s a child pretending to be a pilot or an engineer visualising a new product, and this vision inspires us to put in the work to make it real. Sir Frank Whittle passionately wanted to be a pilot as a child, succeeded in very difficult circumstances and ended up inventing the jet engine.

Play lets us combine things in unexpected ways and create something new out of the ”old” things around us. I once had a wonderful afternoon looking after two small children at short notice, in which we built a pirate ship out of a large cardboard box, the broom, some tea towels and lots of string. The “children” are now doing A–levels / University, but we all still remember the fun we had. And Suzanna is seriously thinking about becoming an engineer.

We often constrain our creativity because we’re afraid that we’re going to be blamed for doing it “wrong”, or that our reputation will suffer if we suggest something that doesn’t work. This is why it’s very effective to explicitly give people permission to play with ideas. For example, in a meeting recently about a difficult budget situation, the Operations Director suggested a clever idea for improving use of the assets, prefixing his remarks with “if we’re playing….” His idea may or may not work precisely as outlined, but by continuing to think creatively he will undoubtedly come up with some good stuff.

Purposeful play is for everyone. Parents know that the way to bring up happy, healthy children is to give them freedom to play, within clearly defined constraints. It’s no different for adults. The degree of freedom may depend on someone’s level within the organisation, but if an organisation doesn’t give scope for purposeful play, the creativity will burst out in all sorts of unhelpful ways. I was once told by the head of HR for a big insurance company that one of the biggest challenges in managing their call centres was dealing with all the creative pranks!

I think we have a big “play deficit” around at the moment, so I was pleased to see that when Raspberry Pi first went on sale, even the huge Farnell and RS websites were overwhelmed by the demand. Google report that Raspberry Pi was briefly more searched-for than Lady Gaga!

Let’s hope that, just as with the purposeful play of 30 years ago, this is the start of something good.