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“Activity oriented toward intrinsic goals, almost by definition, is play.”

I have been chastised. I posted a somewhat provocative question and then left it alone for over a month. Guilty as charged. In my defense, I’d like to point out that all the comments on the original post and in the reddit thread are available for everyone to see. Also. I plead grad school.

As I have been reflecting on everyone’s responses, I first had a moment of second guessing, wondering if I had asked the wrong question. Perhaps asking about your favorite toys would have been a better approach. I quickly realized that this question could easily introduce all sorts of factors beyond the essence of playfulness — sentimental associations that muddy the waters, as it were. I truly hope you all have toys that you love because of who gave them to you. But this wasn’t our purpose presently. I’m satisfied with my original question and very much so with the comments that came in response. Thank you everyone for sharing your thoughts.

In reviewing the responses, I wasn’t surprised by them. I was surprised at their consistency. The same few toys or sorts of toys dominated. Building blocks, toy cars, dolls, even crayons. I assumed going in that there would be unusual gadgets or doodads making surprise appearances. Not the case. Even the Slinky that was listed shares a certain similitude with the other toys.

According to psychiatrist Peter Gray, “Activity oriented toward intrinsic goals, almost by definition, is play.” The “classic” toys that made so many appearances in the comments and reddit thread all share a central trait. They facilitate an engagement with the world that is intrinsically rewarding — building, exploring, pretending, creating. The process is as much as or even more rewarding than the end goal. In a sense, building the castle is more playful than playing with the castle.

Most digital toys are extrinsically oriented. That is, there’s an end experience in mind that is the “reward.” That reward generally amounts to variations on sensory stimulation. The human sensory system adapts to stimulation quickly; thus, pressing buttons and watching blinking lights are novel experiences that taper off in their ability to stimulate. Video games have a similar arc; however, they stretch the time of engagement considerably by straddling powerful extrinsic rewards (points, status, rich sensory stimulation) as well as an intrinsic reward (discovering the rules of the system). Through the power of computation, video games are able to change up each of these components to remain comparatively fresh for a long while.

On the other hand, however, building, exploring, pretending, and creating are all rewards unto themselves all throughout. These are playful all throughout. Hence, the toys that are endlessly playful are those that facilitate these intrinsically rewarding, playful experiences. So this brings me right back to the question I have been wrestling with for several years now: how do we use the power that technology affords us to facilitate, enhance, and even supercharge the intrinsically playful? That said, I think I’m making progress.

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