Analog games – interactive, real-time, educational, creative

At various times this blog has featured articles on analog technology, and the importance of making time for play. My theme this week returns to these topics – and quite appropriately as the holiday season and gift-giving are upon us.

As part of the run-up to the holidays, last week my wife and I were at a local restaurant to meet with friends who were visiting from overseas. Among the party were four children, all aged under 10. Now, I’m sure many readers will be familiar with the situation – friends who haven’t seen each other for a while want to catch up and enjoy some good conversation over a relaxing dinner, and more often than not, the digital pacifier (smart phone, tablet, portable DVD player or games console) will be brought out to keep the children occupied.

Well, I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised that our four younger diners were fully engaged in each other’s company for nearly four hours – and not a screen in sight. Instead, they happily played together with the following toys and games:

  • A board game of Ludo
  • Some LEGO mini-figures
  • A box of alphabet flash cards

They even managed to invent their own game using the flash cards.

I’m not saying that younger children shouldn’t be playing with apps or video games – but screen time has to be used constructively, not as a default setting. I’m also aware that many apps and games can be educational and interactive. But I don’t think we place enough value on enabling and encouraging children to play games in real-time, with real friends, using toys that they can easily understand and control.

On a related note, another friend recently bought his wife a record player, so they could rediscover their vinyl music collection. Their young daughter, on seeing and hearing the gramophone in action asked, “How does the sound come out of those round things?”

How often do children display the same curiosity about how mp3’s or YouTube work?

On that note, I would like to take this opportunity to wish you a safe and peaceful festive season. In particular, I would like to thank all my regular readers who have each given me feedback on what they like about this blog, especially those who have been generous enough to either comment on or critique specific content.

Why it’s important to make time for play

Do we spend enough time playing? As adults, have we forgotten how to play? Have we in fact been conditioned to stop playing once we “grow up”?

Bigshot Front View

Most of us would probably recognise that a lack of play during our childhood can have serious consequences for our psychological development. Dr. Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play makes the case that a lack of adult play has a negative impact both on our energy levels and on our mental well-being. Again, most people would appreciate that taking time out from our daily tasks and routine can lift our spirits and put us in a better frame of mind – it can also help us with problem-solving and creative thinking – but few of us make a conscious effort to schedule some dedicated and regular play activity into our day. (And I don’t mean simply spending an hour or two playing computer games.)

How we play is just as important as what we play with, and the type of play activity that engages us – in short, we are what we play. So the absence of any play may suggest something is missing in our lives.

When I was a child, some of my favourite toys enabled me to design and build things, to construct working models with clockwork and electric motors, to assemble, disassemble and re-assemble simple electronic circuits for radios, light-operated switches and walkie-talkies. I even built a rudimentary synthesizer using parts stripped from an old TV set, and a keyboard made from an ice cream tin. OK, so I wasn’t going to get a gig with Kraftwerk, but I did learn about capacitors, resistors, transistors, diodes, rheostats, transformers and relays, even if I couldn’t get a recognizable tune out of the instrument itself.

This avid curiosity about how things work once caused me to take apart a clockwork motor, which I was then unable to get to work again. My father, an engineer, simply said, “Never take something apart unless you know how to put it back together”, sage advice which is helpful even today in my role as a strategist, executive coach and business consultant.

I would suggest that there is a link between abandoning play in adulthood and a growing lack of curiosity about how things actually work once we get older, coupled with our increasing passivity towards new technology. For example, how many of us would know (or care) how to repair simple mechanical or electrical appliances in our homes?

While there has been an understandable effort aimed at encouraging children to learn how to write code, this emphasis on software comes at the expense of learning how machines work, how hardware is designed, how electronic and mechanical components combine together. This software bias has prompted a team of educationalists to launch the Bigshot digital camera kit designed to help children learn through play by making a real digital camera, and to understand the relationship between software and hardware. Others are teaching summer schools that combine software programming with engineering and robotics – but the broader goal is to develop problem-solving, logic, comprehension and reasoning skills.

Our pursuit of creative or constructive play in adulthood is not helped by the obsession designers and manufacturers have with producing “sealed units” – hardware that comes with “no user serviceable parts inside”*.  Even if we succeeded in taking the back off a gadget and having a look inside, it would probably invalidate the warranty and extinguish our consumer protection rights.

If we don’t understand how the things we use are designed to work, how can we tell if something is wrong, how can we learn to improve them, how can we find new ways of using them?

Smart companies and organizations understand the importance of learning through play and actively encourage their people to spend time “playing” – either through the pursuit of pet projects, or through creative, collaborative and social activities designed to instil innovation and fresh thinking.

As such, I’m very interested to hear from organizations that incorporate “play” into their regular activities, to understand why and how they do it, and to learn about the outcomes and benefits it delivers. I can be contacted via this blog, LinkedIn or Twitter.

*Note: Software is often just as bad with so-called “default” settings that get in the way of our ability to play around with and explore the programs we use.