Playing with the Future

‘Hope is a gentle breeze, but fear is a whipping icy wind.’ So
explained 8-year-old Elsie, one of nine children between the ages
of 8 and 14 who took the stage in June at Minneapolis’ Walker Art
Center to demonstrate the Kids Philosophy Slam. The program, which
culminates in an annual contest, is designed to get young people
across the United States thinking about the big questions, in this
case, ‘Which is more powerful, hope or fear?’ It was clear from the
awestruck faces in the crowd that young people also have some big

The kids were one of the biggest draws at the 2006 PUSH
conference, a three-day idea fest that brings together futurists,
artists, technologists, scientists, policymakers, and business
strategists to explore what’s ‘pushing’ the future. This year’s
theme, ‘A New Life,’ was explored in talks on everything from
cosmology, global climate change, and nanotechnology to
humanitarian architecture, digital storytelling, and the emerging
field of ‘cooperation studies.’ And whether by coincidence or by
design, a leitmotif that emerged across many of the presentations
was another lesson learned from youth: the value of play as a
creative force.

Take the explosion of blogs, podcasts, and social networking
sites. According to Ze Frank, the comic genius behind the popular
video blog at, what’s driving this
torrent of online creativity is people’s innate desire to play with
new toys and to engage in conversations with each other.
Ultimately, this is ‘a social revolution, not a technological one,’
Frank said, warning businesspeople in the PUSH audience that they
ignore this wave of ‘user-generated content’ at their peril. ‘If
you don’t talk with your audience, they will talk behind your
back,’ he said. The Kryptonite Corporation, he pointed out, was
blindsided when a short film that showed how to pick one of its
bike locks with a Bic pen hit the Internet in 2004.

The business world, in fact, might do well to get into the game.
In a demonstration of their Croquet Project, computer scientists David
Smith and Mark McCahill showed how they created a virtual reality
that can merge the tiresome task of formulating spreadsheets with
the fun of using characters like those in a video game.

The open-source system builds interactive three-dimensional
virtual worlds in which multiple users can manipulate their avatars
to cooperatively edit text files and spreadsheets. Smith and
McCahill foresee language teachers using Croquet to create virtual
classrooms far richer than textbooks or CDs. Architects and
engineers may use it for three-dimensional prototyping of buildings
or machine parts. And work teams scattered across the globe could
use it to hold meetings with visual aids like a shared

Play is not only necessary to developing the creative
problem-solving skills needed in the information economy, it may
actually be a key driver of it. Speaker Julian Dibbell suggested
that the open-source software movement, popularized in the media as
a kind of mass exercise in software programmers’ altruism, is in
fact a product of play. Much like gearhead mechanics trick out
their cars, Dibbell argued, open-source programmers volunteer hours
of their time to coding out of a sense of good-natured competition,
a desire to solve puzzles by making the software work in new ways,
and the drive to win prestige among peers.

Play as a productive activity is different from traditional work
in ‘the sense that play is its own reward,’ Dibbell told
Utne. But play also can bring a lucrative financial
reward, as Dibbell proved during a year he spent supporting himself
largely by trading virtual objects for cold hard cash. By selling
swords, armor, cloaks, and even a castle from the game Ultima
Online on eBay, Dibbell earned as much as $3,917 a month, an
experience he chronicles in his new book, Play Money
(Basic Books).

That kind of play-as-work isn’t immune from exploitation.
Already, Dibbell said, sweatshop-like operations known as ‘gold
farms’ have appeared in China and Mexico, where legions of young
gamers are paid a pittance to spend hours online accumulating
experience points and virtual gold pieces for their employers. And
websites like are using contests to entice
unpaid programmers to produce software code, which the company
sells for profit. Dibbell even envisions a somewhat frightening
future in which work previously left to skilled professionals-say,
analyzing X-rays-could be ’embedded’ into video games and done by
joystick-wielding gamers with newly trained eyes.

Play, it seems, may be a positive source of innovation, but it
isn’t all fun and games.

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