Play, an Essential Superpower

Text and art by Stephen Fakiyesi, April 10, 2020

There was a time, not too long ago, where making art for me became hard. It was pure labour and not much love and I was getting very little satisfaction from what was mostly failed attempts at producing art pieces of interest. It felt to me like an existential crisis. My identity as an artist was in jeopardy. It was difficult to reconcile the very little artwork I was producing with my identification as an artist. The artistic part of me had died and I had died to art. It was a depressing state to be for one who had envisioned himself an artist for as long as I can remember. What I was failing to connect with, within my art practice, was a sense of play.

Play! That was what it felt like when I was at my most productive, when I was doing my best work of art. The kind of play I remembered from my youth when we had epic neighbourhood wide crab-apple fights, monumental games of dodge ball, hide and seek and other acts of free-play. Sure, making art required work and it is definitely time intensive – I’d easily spend months on pieces and worked 36 hours straight to finish a project. But the time went by fast because it was all play.

According to Dr. Shimi Kang, psychiatrist, author and University of British Columbia professor, play is not only a basic necessity of life, but free play “activates the frontal part of our brain. It stimulates pathways for abstract thinking, emotional regulation, for problem-solving, for strategy. Play makes us comfortable with uncertainty. It makes us take risks and learn from trial and error. Play is how we(as a species) adapt.”

Play restored my passion for art-making. It awakened all kinds of new passions such as writing and the daily habit of drawing. I attribute the successful outcome of much of my creative output to play. According to Peter Gray, Boston University professor, “Play is by definition creative and innovative.” And “The opposite of play, is not work” says medical doctor and author Stuart Brown, “it’s depression.”

So here I am in the above performance piece, “The Trump Challenge,” as my altered ego, Donald B Trump, engaging the community in some civic or community play. As one participant commented in the video “it’s fun.” Which is exactly the point of play. And in addition to fun, we’ve already mentioned that play is creative. In the case of the above performative piece the participants and I are creating a unique public safe-space to explore the complexities of our social-political moment.

Play alters our state of mind and thrusts us into the present. Though it was no surprise that the overwhelming response of the crowd to the Trump Challenge was an eagerness to dunk the sitting president, played by me, even at an out-of-pocket cost of $2 to participants. Being the target of that controlled hostility did produce something quite surprising, a realization and perhaps even empathy that the most powerful man in the world was after-all like the rest of us, just another flawed human being. Having a forum to release all that raw emotion is also the very definition of catharsis.

So play, and not the act of play alone but the altered state it produces can be mined as a creative process, as a working and thinking process in every aspect of our daily lives. The researcher Peter Gray surveyed anthropologists studying hunter-gatherer cultures and discovered that an abundance of daily play was how these societies equipped their young with the skills needed to take on the challenges of adulthood. And that laboratory tests of young rats deprived of play resulted in rats that were crippled by fear and flight responses when confronted with a novel, unfamiliar or slightly frightening situation.

Can you visualize the benefits of adding play into your daily routine and practice? A couple of ways play spills over into my own daily life is in this: As a recent instant father of two teens and one preteen youth we deliberately make time to play board games, games that require our various senses, and we’ve even transformed our dining room table to function part-time as a ping pong table.

So let’s channel our inner child and our natural superpower of play.

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