Mapping the Pragmatic Imagination: An Interview with Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian (Part 4)

Let’s shift to a topic that is central to both of us -- why is it important that adults retain the capacity for play?  

There are six critical reasons that have to do with one’s relationship to the world in the world: for learning and unlearning that leads to new learning; for constructing and evolving meaningful social relationships; for experimenting with possibilities in order to imagine alternate perspectives and pathways; for its cooperatively competitive aspects; for its emotional aspects; and for resilience because all of the others build resilience.


For learning and unlearning-leading-to-new-learning: The smallest children play as a form of unencumbered experimentation. This is how they begin to learn about the world as unique individuals – playing on their own to discover the world and themselves in the world as a concrete thing. Then play becomes social. One plays to learn with others, then about others and how one fits into the social puzzle. For children, play is a way to learn about the world – concretely and socially – experimenting to see how things respond, testing boundaries, playing with possibilities. The world is a place of magic because the ‘rules’ of the world are not yet clear to them and so their imaginations are as engaged in making sense of it, as in seeing the possibilities in it.

A stick is as much a wand as it is a stick until one ‘learns’ that the normative rules of physics and biology declare it just a stick. But play is a space of permission to relax those rules. So, for adults, play is a space of permission to unlearn ‘rules’ in order to experiment with possibilities that re-imagine the world under different terms – concretely and socially – with different rules or with themselves in different roles. Imagining ourselves in different roles, playing with those roles, allows us to discover new capacities, new interests, imagine alternate pathways forward, and build new social relationships. Imagining different rules governing reality, playing with those rules allows us to imagine alternate contexts, how they might work, and entertain as viable, alternatives that would not have seemed so before.

Both of these are valuable – maybe necessary – in a world that will always provide us with unanticipated events and often-drastic unforeseen change. Unlearning through play allows us to open our minds to learning things anew. Playing/experimenting with alternate selves in safe spaces of play, allows us to potentially evolve an authentic, not default, self. In a world rapidly changing with radically contingent unanticipated changes, authenticity is one’s center of gravity.

Play is, by nature, social. We play with others. Play helps us construct social relationships that are meaningful and it helps us sustain and evolve those relationships. On the individual level, playing with self-authored instructions one lives by in order to find where there is play in the system, helps one evolve in a social body. On the level of personal relationships with others, one constructs and evolves relationships through play, tapping into the emotional aspects of play as a means to draw someone closer. Playing with someone else in an emotional/playful space to create intimacy, but also to probe for similarities and dissimilarities – Do we believe in the same things? Do we play by the same rules? – in an unthreatening way because these underlie the play. One is probing, not debating.


Play also constructs social groups and scaffolds learning through social groups. My good friend and co-author John Seely Brown, when he left PARC in 2000, asked the video game designer, JC Hertz to reverse mentor him in the world of MMOG’s (massively multi-player online games). This experience led to him writing “The Play of the Imagination” and then A New Culture of Learning with Doug Thomas. I remember one of my very first conversations with JSB was about World of Warcraft and the peripheral communities that have grown up around the game – the way role playing, emotionally charged collaborative efforts, invented means of review and assessment for learning, all of these contributed to social communities of highly diverse individuals from around the world. And had the capacity to amplify learning around collaboration and leadership.


So I want to come back to this idea of a space of permission. Play, by definition, and by nature, is a safe space because we agree that it is not serious. When we enter into play (Johan Huizinga called this the magic circle), we agree that the endeavor is without any of the consequences of our normal lives. While based in reality, it is not reality. Therefore, play is rarely free form or random. It advances by rules, be they well designed and articulated as in complex game environments (from Go to WoW), or tacitly accessed and lightly present (children’s role playing games or affectionate repartee). Rules create coherence for play. They create the logic for what one can do. Animals frolic for exercise and socialization. Humans do too, but early on in life, stories begin to creep into the space of play providing the catalyst and the coherence for rules of play.

Because stories (close to, or far from reality) provide coherence and the calculus of play, play is a space of permission that relaxes the constraints of reality, allowing us to play with our own concrete and social relationships to reality. Concretely, we can do physical things differently. Socially, we can try out different roles and relationships. This can, and does spill out into the real world for both good and bad, But on the good side, playing new roles, we can learn about ourselves and we can also imagine as viable, new possibilities for ourselves. We can also learn about the world as it is by playing with ‘simulations’ of it, but we can also test boundaries, jump boundaries, and push on them. But we can also use play to imagine as viable, new possible futures. This is important for evolving as individuals and as social groups.


Play is an emotional space. As a space of permission where one relaxes real world rules, there is a sense of emotional and even cognitive relaxation. And there is delight in a space of play. There is delight in the cooperative pact of ignoring reality’s rules, for fun, for the game of it. But play is also competitive. One plays to win, even if only in the breaching of reality. In games that are set up as specifically player competitive, whether one on one or raid team against raid team, there is both collaboration and competition, which creates an emotionally charged social space. This entanglement of cooperation and competition in an emotionally charged space heightens the experience, which can amplify learning and capacity for real life collaboration and leadership. In play and games, where the consequence is insubstantial, one will take risks they will not take in the real world. And one will play them out in a space that still has a story’s logic. Mistakes will have to be fixed or at least analyzed for learning. One can fail big, learn and live to tell about it.


So all of these – learning and unlearning, evolving meaningful social relationships, experimenting with possibilities in order to imagine alternate perspectives and pathways, the cooperatively competitive emotional aspects – all of these lead to resilience and adaptability. If only for this, adults should not only retain the capacity for play, but they should play more. Not merely recreate more, but play more.


And then there is innovation, novelty, and the evolving of society and culture itself, including novelty and innovation around things – technological and otherwise – but also around the institutions and systems that make up society, and around the ideas that evolve culture, especially in a problematic age. For innovation and novelty, one needs to find the play in the system – where rules can be bent, broken, written anew. And even more radically, create rules for new systems - writing new stories that catalyze whole new rule sets - and then designing ways to close the gap between the present and envisioned future.


The fuel of play is the imagination, in all of its colors – the full spectrum of cognitive activity from perception to improvisation, all mixed together and inextricably entangled with the action of the ‘play’ that is in play. (This is what The Pragmatic Imagination outlines.) In the opening of play, we create a break from reality that invites our imaginations to participate as dominant cognitive activity. It requires our imaginations to participate, first to help us break with reality, and then to help us participate in constructing new rules of play – new instructions for action. So for what we term, in our book, sense-breaking, and then sense-making.


In our book, we talk about the imagination like a muscle. In play we exercise the imagination and the more we exercise the imagination, the more we can engage in meaningful play. One of the baseline perspectives of our larger system of books Design Unbound is that the world has “just come together too quickly” (to quote one of our colleagues) and that “we need a new tool set” (to quote another one). But in addition to a new tool set, we need a new ontology – a new way to be. I would suggest that this is a triangular ontology.

Several years back, JSB began to speak about a necessary new shift for learning from Homo Sapiens to Homo Faber. Sapiens literally translates as wise, but implies scholarly knowledge, and faber translates as artisan. So from learning through scholarly pursuits to learning through the act of making, loosely conceived. While supportive of the Maker Movement, it was more about all of the tacit, but bodily-imbedded ways we learn about the world. A triangular ontology – a way of being that we believe is critical for the 21st century – would be the simultaneity of homo sapien plus homo faber plus homo ludens. Engaging the world – both learning about it and acting in it - through acquiring knowledge, making things, and playing. Homo sapien is about the world of the mind. Homo faber, the physical world. And homo ludens is about us as social creatures that engage in storytelling

So, adults need to play more because, from stories for role-playing to stories for 'what-if’ scenarios of new worlds, we interrogate the world through play, which leads to imagining and then prototyping new possibilities. This is critical not only for evolution of self, but also for evolution of society and culture. So we have a sixth critical reason for adults needing to play more. In addition to resilience and adaptability in the world, it is about agency on the world.

John also has been a great supporter of the Maker movement. In the earlier days he was supporting a shift. He used Homo Sapien to Home Faber as a construct – Faber being making. With all of his interest in WoW and my own interest in games and using them in studios . . . I became so fascinated with play and games, that I added homo ludens to the other two – not replacing but adding. Homo Faber is about the material world that we learn about through our hands/bodies, through making things. Homo Sapien is the world of the mind that we learn about through thought and reading and . . . Homo Ludens is the social world – the world of our relationships with others – that we learn about through play. Triangular ontology.


Ann Pendleton‐Jullian is an architect, writer, and educator of international standing whose work explores the interchange between architecture, landscape, culture, science, and technology within complex contexts. She is currently Full Professor and former director of the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University, distinguished Visiting Professor out of the President’s Office at Georgetown University, and periodically co-teaches world building studios at USC’s School of Cinema.

ApJ’s projects range in scale and scope from things to systems of action. Notable projects demonstrating this range are: a house for the astronomer Carl Sagan and his wife; award winning prototypical bioclimatic houses – one for Tenerife; various winning or placing competition entries including a New Congress Hall in Valparaiso, Chile, and an urban design project for the Miguelete River basin sponsored by the Municipality of Montevideo. Much of her recent work focuses on empowerment and economic development through various projects including the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh and an eight-village ecosystem conceived around rural craft tourism in Guizhou province in China. Currently she is working on a new Jesuit University for Eastern Africa, including its pedagogical model, the future re-imagining of the Pardee RAND Graduate School of Public Policy, and a house in an environmentally sensitive part of the Pocono Mountains. ApJ has five authored books and portfolios, including: The Road That Is Not a Road and the Open City, Ritoque, Chile by MIT Press (’96); Games for Shanghai (’08) published by CA Press in Shanghai; and Design Education and Innovation Ecotones (’09).