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All Work and No Play...

This blog post is about acknowledging the presence, importance and pervasiveness of play in work and its potential to enhance education from the perspective of a literature academic who occasionally writes for role-playing games.

Glyn White, Blogger

March 16, 2018

8 Min Read

I’ve decided to put a blog on Gamasutra because nobody around here hesitates to discuss games and gaming. I write for professional tabletop role-playing games publishers (Chaosium, Modiphius) but if I add ‘see bibliography’ you’ll guess I’m also an academic. That’s my day job. I thus produce two types of writing; one associated with work and the other which I associate with play. Until now, I have kept the academic and the gaming outputs entirely separate. Why, you may ask, given that there are lots of practitioner academics straddling the border?

I don’t teach gaming, game developers, or students who have chosen their degree looking for employment in these areas. What I do -as a literature academic- is analyse storytelling from physical books, frames, narrators, style and their effects on the reader. When I write for tabletop games, I’m trying to create my own effects on the players. Despite the fact that both involve me spending large amounts of time in front of a computer before interaction with groups of other people (whether teaching, presenting a paper or playing the game) I’m usually very clear about which work and which is play. The activities are not apparently that different and yet VERY different in how I categorise them. Work is work and play is play.

I don’t seem to have moved beyond thinking that play is something children do, something adults are allowed to do with children, one of the reasons they love their kids, but at the same time not something serious and responsible; an escape from seriousness.

In the role-playing game I write for, Call of Cthulhu, the participants play in a world where everything is imagined, provisional, virtual. Failure, death and insanity are possible, but not serious. This is play.

In work, by contrast, everything is real, fixed and actual. It is all serious. Every mistake, error or ambiguity is serious. It’s NOT a game.

My embarrassment is –of course– ridiculous; play, pretend, the ‘non-serious’ is the core of film, television, the video game industry, fiction, theatre, and performance i.e. the entertainment industries. I can easily justify some play if I put a dollar value on it, but I don’t actually do it for the money.

But because there is a lot of money involved, certain types of play are validated by the media in a way that gaming isn’t: some types of play are apparently serious.

Professional sport is the key example. It contains numerous professional bodies and leucrative franchises within competitive leagues where the fan follows the trials and tribulations of their team. The teams are real (and produced at great expense), but in media coverage you can notice the amount of speculation involved about what eventually becomes solid fact (win, lose or draw) as if by the roll of a dice. In the case of professional football, Football Manager video games and Fantasy Football Leagues (i.e. play versions of the actual leagues) are usually seen as play piggybacking on the sport. They might be seen as feeding the engagement with play that sport provides and is at the core of the industry. Once again there is a hierarchy in which the play version is less important version than the one that is work for professional sportspeople.

But that can’t hide the pervasiveness of play in (almost all) our lives.

Think of the lottery syndicate at work – a shared fantasy of ‘what if’.

Think of the football sweepstake (‘Who are you?’ ‘I’m Finland’).

Think of the really boring meetings where (some of you) play buzzword bingo.

Think of the team-building exercises that use play and operate on a huge variety of levels. It doesn’t have to get to the point where people shoot each other with lasers or paint pellets.

Consider any work-based use of the phrase ‘worst case-scenario’.

A recent Higher Education Authority external examiner training session that I attended used scenario-based learning to involve people from very different discipline backgrounds encountering generic problems.

Play is there in work in a variety of guises, but seldom announces itself, because it seems to be the opposite of work. We can’t do without play but it is always –almost ritually– cordoned off from work, even though the two frequently interrelate.

It has been shown that the gamification of work, of the type that keep the same targets but makes them a competition and keeps score, is counterproductive. Certainly the winning team gets a boost but the playing field is seldom level and participants quickly understand how the rules mean they can never win, or are designed to push them to exhaust themselves utterly for little tangible reward.

Certainly, play works best by pretending to be an end in itself. This does not mean it isn’t relevant to work.

Play exercises skills that can be used in other real world contexts. If I hadn’t learned how to play role playing games in the first place; hadn’t taken responsibility for preparing some of those games, running them and keeping them going with everyone participating getting involved to the degree that best suited the group, I would have lacked the foundational skills for running seminars when I became a lecturer. Learning how to make a role-playing game work, and then work better, turns out – in current academic parlance – to be a transferable skill.

Currently, we hear a lot about ‘real world experience’ in Higher Education, and in Britain the return of Apprenticeships indicates some governmental desire for qualifications to be matched to specific jobs because it is ‘what employers want’.  Certainly there are people saying that, but it’s not true of all employers. What most employers want is committed, adaptable employees. If they can’t get them, one with off the peg skills (who is ideally also committed and adaptable) will do. But an employee who can adapt to different situations, consider different ways of solving problems and understand when the rules change is a good employee. Lots of these things can be learned and experienced through interaction driven role-playing.

The fact that people play with my gaming work rather than work with it (as they perhaps do with my academic articles) seems rewarding. Rather than constructing a reasoned argument clearly signposting readers to a foregone conclusion as in the scholarly essay, the scenarios I write are designed for a Keeper to guide a group of players into an imaginary situation where their choices have significant consequences for their fictional avatars.

In Call of Cthulhu these consequences can be catastrophic but it is the players’ choices that determine whether they do or do not succeed in their objectives. There is the possibility for them to get lost, go wrong, and wonder whether it all makes sense, let alone being injured, killed, driven insane or failing to prevent the end of the world as we know it. Try filling in a Health and Safety assessment form for that if you are going to do it in ‘the real world’.

In contrast, working in higher education today, the tutor notices that even the possibility of making mistakes which impact on grades is something our risk-averse students dislike. Is this good preparation for employment?

Too much in education is now about the outcome rather than the process. It should be the other way around. In a typical English lecturer’s move I’m going to crudely invoke Shakespeare and say that the play is the thing, not the results (which is dead bodies in Hamlet).

Work and play are both areas in which people develop and grow and, as all good teachers know, different people have different learning needs and modes of study through which they can flourish.

Walter Ong in his book, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, recounts the anecdote of a Central African’s response when ‘asked what he thought of the new village school principal […:] “Let’s watch a little how he dances.’” (1982: 55) There is so much more to us than our official role. How can we see it? Wait a little; watch how he or she plays.

Toilers in ‘the creative industries’ who get to play at work are, or course, having the times of their lives. But rather than think ourselves lucky if any element of creativity occurs in our working lives, what we should all be doing, I think, is valuing the potential of play, imaginative, creative play, to make work more manageable and less monolithic in our lives. We may continue to choose to keep the ability to work and the ability to play entirely separate in education and employment but doing so ultimately restricts our view of a person’s capabilities, even our own.



Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrop-Fruin (eds), Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media, Cambridge, Mass., MIT press, 2007.

Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, Methuen. London. 1982.

Sandy Petersen, Call of Cthulhu (1st ed.), Chaosium, 1981

Sandy Petersen, with Mike Mason, Paul Fricker, Lynn Willis and Friends, Call of Cthulhu (7th ed.), Chaosium, 2015

Glyn White, ‘Goodnight Vienna’ and ‘Thracian Gold’ in Glyn White (ed), Shadows of War, Chaosium, 2008, pp.6-67, 134-85.

Glyn White, ‘Death By Misadventure’, in Gary Sumpter (ed), Terrors from Beyond, Chaosium, 2009, pp.36-63. Translated by Olivier Fanton and John Grümph as ‘Mort accidentelle’ in Terreurs de l’au-delà, Éditions sans-détour, 2009, pp.36-61.

Glyn White, ‘Return of the Hound’, in David Conyers and Glyn White (eds), House of R’lyeh Chaosium, 2011, pp.63-125.

Glyn White, contributions to Cthulhu by Gaslight (3rd edition), Kevin Ross, David Hallett and Glyn White (eds), Chaosium, 2012.

Glyn White, Contributions to Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa, Lynne Hardy (ed), Modiphius, 2013

Glyn White, ‘Pandora’s Box’, in Mike Mason (ed), Pulp Cthulhu, Chaosium, 2016, pp.176-203. 

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