I hate wasting time. I’m all about maximizing results for time and effort spent — if it’s not productive, I don’t do it.
TV? No time, I’d rather read a book. Shopping? I’d rather hit the gym. Take a nap? I’d rather sweep the floor. It’s just a matter of having too little time to do all that I want to do, so I try to do things that are as rewarding as possible.
But I’ve been feeling worn out lately. That’s how, on a long weekend, I found myself staring at the screen of my Mac, without the motivation to do anything productive at all. My friends had just been talking about playing video games, and it’d reminded me of the RPG ‘Pillars of Eternity,’ which I’d bought ages ago and never played. I grew up with video games, but I hadn’t been playing video games for years, ever since I deleted all games off my Mac in a sprint of productivity spring cleaning.
I logged into Steam and installed it.
As I got into the game, I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time: enthusiasm. When it came time to stop, I left my Mac with a big grin. I was happy – and confused. Weren’t video games supposed to be a big waste of time?
I knew research has shown that play is crucial for children, it helps them to learn how to navigate the world, take risks, be creative and build social bonds. A lack of play can even make children more anxious and depressed. I started to read about how important play is to adults – and it turns out that the importance of play doesn’t diminish with age.
Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute of Play, argues in his book Play that while play looks counterproductive, it can actually be very productive. Brown describes how, in the 1990s, the United States Cal Tech Jet Propulsion Laboratory faced a problem. Its experienced engineers were retiring, but its young and academically accomplished new hires weren’t as good at solving practical problems.
Cal Tech discovered that the engineers who were good at solving practical problems had a rich history of play. They loved to take apart things to see how they worked, or build things in their spare time. Even though these may have looked like frivolous, they actually increased these engineers’ ‘practical’ abilities.
While it turns out that play can be practical, the paradox is that play has to be impractical for it to be play. Brown describes play as "purposeless and done for its own sake," as well as having "an inherent attraction," you’re not doing it to get something, you’re doing it for its own sake.
Play has also been discovered to relieve stress, boost creativity, and improve brain function in adults. That’s not a bad list of benefits, and lends weight to the old saying that, "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." I’m still careful not to let video games take over too much of my life, but I can now appreciate how wasting time for fun can also be a productive use of time. Now excuse me while I go play.