Professional play: The physical aspect

In 2016 I organized a workshop on “testing and playfulness” at the software testing conference Let’s Test. These are my summation and thoughts behind that workshop.

In an earlier post I explained the classical set-up of the concepts “play” with how my daughter play-pretends to be a dog. Play is a lot more than pretending to be a dog. In this post I’ll talk about the physical aspect, and how it benefits adults, even if they are dead-serious and doesn’t play anymore.

Why the physical aspect of play is important

The physical aspect of play is by far the most immediate aspect. When we play, be it a free-form of play or a more structured approach through games or sports, we use our body. Sometimes a lot, like when dancing, running, wrestling, or pretending to be dogs. Sometimes a little, like when playing chess or poker, where even the slightest movement of a facial muscle can be decoded into millions of meanings. The amount doesn’t necessarily matter. Physicality is seen and interpreted by everyone, and is easy to relate to.

It’s such an important part of our being-in-the-world that virtual games often projects us into the game world to make it easier to navigate them. Take for example the player piece(s) in a Monopoly game, or how computer games uses customizable avatars. At least they show a hand, a gun, or a technical device on the screen, that we assume is a part of the player character. We first and foremost need physicality to relate to the world around us.

Physical training for different situations

Physical training and exercises are used quite commonly for a lot of things. From dealing with e.g. fear for a situation such as an exam, to training for an emergency. The physical enactment of a situation makes us both physically and mentally confident about the situation. We’ve done this before, we don’t have to think about every breath and movement, as this situation is already known by our body.

Even in situations where we theoretically know what to say, do and what will happen as a consequence thereof, a physical rehearsal is always a good idea. Before I give a presentation or a talk, I always think that I know what to say, and that I don’t need to rehearse it. And every time I pull myself together and do a rehearsal, I realize just how clumsy my first attempts at that talk are. It doesn’t matter that my brain know what’s going on. My body doesn’t. But as soon as I’ve rehearsed, my body can carry some of the burden. It’s been automated. That leaves more energy for my brain to think and perform beyond what I’ve planned. And that’s great!

It doesn’t have to be true-to-reality (boring) training scenarios either. Training for an exam can only be so much fun. It’s possible to prepare and train for quite reasonable real-life situations, through fantastical playful situations. I do it through LARPing. Once you’ve planned a magical ritual to save the world, instructed the people who are helping you, given an epic speech and carried out the ritual in front of 100 people who are watching, the thought of going onto a stage to talk about mobile testing isn’t so intimidating. To be honest, that real-life challenge now feels like a walk in the park. I mean, I just saved the world. What could be more important than that?

physical play
She’s holding a microphone. If it wasn’t obvious.

Physical awareness through play

When playing through a scenario, you take on a role. Sometimes a very defined role (It’s definitely a dog), at other times not so much (It’s just you, but you are practicing for an exam so you put on a nice shirt). When doing that, you change physically. Maybe it’s just slightly. Maybe you just move in different way. You can use physical aids, such as a costume for a game where dressing-up is necessary, or maybe just the nice shirt. Bottom line is that using your body in a play situation, gives you an insight into how you actually use it, and what it signals to others. This ties in nicely with the above section. Not only do you learn about the stuff you need to say, you also become physically confident. You relax more, your movements become natural. The more talks you give, the more physically aware you become. And when you look confident, others perceive you as confident. And when others perceive you as confident, you feel it, and become even more confident. It’s the circle of life.. or of physical confidence at least.

Physical contact through play

There’s often other people involved when playing, and here the physical aspect really comes into play (pun intended). Physical contact bring people closer together. There’s just something about skin-against-skin contact that skips some hours worth of small talk. Babies and kids need it, and I would argue that adults need it as well. It breaks down an invisible barrier between people, and you get a sense of intimacy that you don’t get in a conversation. Even if you’re not touching skin-to-skin, you’ve physically gotten closer to another person.

So physical contact through play establishes deeper relationships with the people you play with (You have fun together too, but that aspect is for a later post).

I guess the moral of this is that we should all hug some more.. At least if we want to make friends.