Wonderland Podcast with Steven Johnson: Episode 4

Airplanes, Zoos, and Infinite Chickens

Or, why do humans like to play?

11 min read

An exploration of the power of play, from screen-based games like Pokémon Go or Minecraft, to the imaginative worlds of children inventing playgrounds out of everyday life.

With special guests Alison Gopnik, professor at Berkeley and author of The Gardener and the Carpenter; Youngna Park, head of product at Tinybop; Clive Thompson, journalist and author of Smarter Than You Think; and Ian Bogost, philosopher, video game designer, and author of Play Anything.

Hosted by Steven Johnson
Produced by Kristen Taylor
Audio engineering & music editing by Jason Oberholtzer
Theme music by Steven Johnson

Listen to the previous episode: Strange Loops and Circuit Benders (Or, How New Music Comes from Broken Machines)
Listen to the next episode: “
Greater Than Zero (Or, the Politics of Serious Games)

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IN-FLIGHT ANNOUNCEMENT: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard American Airlines express, departing soon, this is flight six”¦

STEVEN JOHNSON: A few years ago, my wife and I decided to take our kids on a family vacation to Hawaii. The trip started off completely normal. We were all excited, we go to the airport, we get on board our plane. It’s a Boeing 757, and I’m sitting next to my son who’s 10 years old at the time. We take off and everything seems fine until about 10 minutes into the flight, and all of a sudden from the left side of the plane, there’s a sound like a mini explosion, and then, even more alarmingly, there’s no sound at all from the left side of the plane.

IN-FLIGHT ANNOUNCEMENT: Good afternoon, this is your pilot speaking”¦

STEVEN JOHNSON: A minute or two passes, and then the pilot gets on the speaker system and says, “I’m sorry folks, we’ve lost power to the left engine and we’re going to have to turn around and make a landing in SFO and get ourselves another plane, and I got to tell you, this landing, it’s not going to be a non-event.”

Now, my 10-year-old is sitting next to me and he’s old enough to understand everything that’s happening, and he’s terrified. He’s in tears. In a way he’s kind of confronting his own mortality for the first time in his life. I try and reassure him, I say planes land on, you know, with one engine all the time, but he’s really upset by the experience. And fortunately, we land and everything’s fine, and in fact another plane shows up and we take off about an hour later and I’m sitting next to my son again, and at about 10,000 feet they say that can use your electronics. And then something extraordinary happens. My son opens up his computer, launches a flight simulator game, and simulates taking off from SFO in a 757 and experiencing left engine failure 10 minutes into the flight.

So just think about what was going on there with my son on that plane. He took a moment of genuine terror and potential tragedy and transformed it into play. And there’s something familiar in that strategy. We all know that children like to play. But why is play so important to us?

I’m Steven Johnson, and this is “Wonderland.” “Wonderland” is brought to you by Microsoft, and also by Riverhead Books, publisher of my new book, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World.

ALISON GOPNIK: Well it’s one of those things we just take for granted, that play is fun. OK, so yeah, of course play is fun. But if you think about it from an evolutionary perspective, it’s a little odd.

STEVEN JOHNSON: That’s Berkeley developmental psychologist, Alison Gopnik, author of a new book about parenting and education called The Gardener and The Carpenter.

ALISON GOPNIK: I think a way of thinking about it a bit, is it’s a bit like sex being fun, right? So sex is fun, so that you’ll reproduce, because the relationship between actually having sex and having children is so indirect that you’re not actually just going to do it in order to have children, so it just becomes something that’s fun itself, and in the same way, this kind of paradoxical fact that in many circumstances doing things without a goal is actually a better way of achieving many, many long-term goals further downstream, means that you have a motivation for just making that exploration fun and enjoyable and something that you want to do for its own sake.

I think of it as this kind of play paradox. If you’re measuring outcomes, like, you know, does play make you do better on some academic test or something like that, by definition those are the sort of things that play isn’t about. If you have a specific goal, then you’re more likely to get to that goal by not playing, by working to achieve that goal. So if you’re trying to assess how, what play does, by any particular measure, it’s not gonna look as if you get there as well by playing as by working. But on the other hand, if you’re looking at all the different things that you can do, all, and particularly the things that are new and creative and kind of by definition you don’t know what they’re going to look like until you actually get there, then that seems to be where play is, is playing a role.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Increasingly, of course, the open-ended exploration of play is happening on a screen.

YOUNGNA PARK: Screens are a medium, it all depends what you put on it. My name is Youngna Park, and I’m the head of product at Tinybop.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Tinybop makes a collection of apps that explore phenomena like the digestive system, or the weather. They call them, “Playscapes for curious kids.”

YOUNGNA PARK: We model a lot of our apps after what people call sandbox toys, which is toys that are open-ended. The whole idea behind that is that, if you can give kids a set of blocks, they’ll sit there and be like, “I don’t know what to build, I have no idea, I’m bored,” and then you’re like, “Hey, why don’t you build a zoo?” And even though it’s still the same set of blocks, all of a sudden they’re like, “Oh yeah, this black block and this white block is a zebra, and this gray block is a rhinoceros, and this here is a elephant cage, and all of a sudden it becomes a whole thing because you gave them two words, “Build zoo.”

STEVEN JOHNSON: The Tinybop games are remarkably free of official rules, or even textual instructions.

YOUNGNA PARK: We don’t feel a need to put it in the app and be super explicit about what to do.

STEVEN JOHNSON: But no rules doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all.

YOUNGNA PARK: I think that what we’ve seen over and over again is that you still need to have very clear cause and effect. So whether it’s feedback from a piece of UI, some kind of button or navigation, or whether it is, “Hey, when I do x, what happens?,” kids are really looking for a lot of input and corresponding output.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Probably the most famous virtual space that combines the idea of building blocks and exploration and open-ended rule structure is the hugely popular game Minecraft.

CLIVE THOMPSON: One of the things that, that you find with Minecraft, when you, when you watch a lot of kids play it, is that there’s very quickly, that there’s a lot of really interesting intellectual layers.

STEVEN JOHNSON: That’s Clive Thompson, author of a fascinating New York Times Magazine piece from a few months ago that looked at the educational benefits of playing Minecraft.

CLIVE THOMPSON: There’s this stuff inside the game that’s called “redstone,” and a significant, probably I’d say a majority of the kids that I talked to, all discovered it and used it, and it’s kind of like a wiring inside the game so you can, you can use it to like attach a button to this wiring into a door, so you push the button, the door opens up, and so they’ll use it to sort of create kind of cool systems and little machines inside the game. You can also, you know, use it, you could put like a little pressure plate, so if someone walks on something then, then the lights turn on, or a trap springs on them, and this wiring is, when I looked at it, it’s, it’s exactly the same circuitry as the stuff you’d see inside a computer.

You can make little, what they call an AND gate, you know, if this switch and that switch are triggered, then something happens. You can make an OR gate. If this switch or that switch is triggered, then something happens. And this is exactly the logical circuitry basis of an Intel chip. It’s also exactly like the thinking, the sort of what they call the Boolean thinking, that you do inside programming where you’re writing a program and if this happens or that happens, I have to make this happen, and I would watch kids do these very complicated things. So first off, I thought, well, this is amazing. This, this reminds me a lot of these desperate attempts that educators have, have, have mounted over years to create games or toys that will lead kids towards programming, that never really take off, because they’re bad games, they’re boring games. Right?

So that struck me as interesting, but one of the things that was really particular too is how much time kids have had to spend debugging these things. They would make something and it wouldn’t work, and it, and it never worked. It’d be like, “All right, so what’s going on?” They’d call their friend over and they’d look at it, they’d sort of go through the circuitry, they experiment and they figure something, “Oh, now it’s sort of halfway to working,” and they beaver away at it and then after an hour later, it’s, it’s really working. And this type of, like, persistence is, I mean, a, it’s just this is the classic grit thing that everyone’s talking about with kids, but b, again, it’s, this is exactly what programming is. Programming is not making something and then going, “Oh, that was awesome,” and then making something else. Programming is making something and you start it running and it doesn’t work and it never, ever, ever works the first time. Every programmer knows this. Programming is not making things. It’s, it’s fixing the busted thing you made.

STEVEN JOHNSON: One of the things I thought when I was reading your piece is, one of my favorite stories is as a parent, is one day, about two years ago, my nine-year-old and probably seven-year-old comes in to our bedroom on a Saturday morning and he’s sobbing. He’s in tears, and he’s, and he’s talking about his older brother Clay, and he’s like, “Clay filled my castle with an infinite number of self-replicating chickens.” He was, he was in Minecraft and somehow his brother had decided to like taunt him by, by filling it with all these chickens, and I thought, “This is a problem that my parents did, did not have.”

CLIVE THOMPSON: No, no, yeah, no. This is the thing about Minecraft. When kids play the game, you know, they’re building a world with these little virtual blocks that they can have an infinite amount of if they want. And so they can build anything they want, but, you know, they can, they can also, in the same way that you would see kids play with blocks in the real world, do weird, mischievous things within it, right? You know, which is, as kids are want to do.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Yet in this age of virtual reality and smartphones, we should remind ourselves that play isn’t always something that happens just on a screen.

IAN BOGOST: You know, one of my interests in the book is the ordinariness of play, and its, its capacity to work on anything. On the, on the wall, on the floor tiles in the, in the mall, just as much as on, on tennis or on World of Warcraft.

STEVEN JOHNSON: That’s Ian Bogost, philosopher and game designer, which is exactly the job description I would have wanted to have when I was in college, if I’d known that was even a possibility. Ian’s the author of a new book called Play Anything. In it, Ian makes the argument that we can, in a sense, use the power of play to animate ordinary life outside the official play spaces of games or sports.

IAN BOGOST: There is something actually quite unspecial about play. That it happens all the time, it happens when we don’t notice it, it doesn’t need to be about pleasure or delight or leisure or media, but, you know, when you’re on a phone call, like a boring conference call and you start doodling on the post-it note making rhombus shapes, then you’re, you’re also playing. “OK, I’m inside of this space where I’m stuck on the phone and I have what I have in front of me, oh, and it’s this size and now I’ve got a pen and what can I draw?” That’s play, no less than the, the guild in World of Warcraft.

It’s a book about learning to tolerate, and even to love, the arbitrary, stupid world around us. Which is the same thing in my mind as living playfully, but that wouldn’t come across until you’ve read the book.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Listening to Ian, I couldn’t help think of this year’s mega phenomenon, Pokémon Go. All those players hunting imaginary monsters through their smartphones were effectively turning the public space of the city and the sidewalk into a giant play space. I asked Ian whether he thought Pokémon Go was a step in the right direction.

IAN BOGOST: Everyone wants there to be an answer. Like, is this a glorious way for kids to discover the world around them, or is it a distraction that’s preventing them from seeing the world around them, such that you need Pokémon Go to walk down the hill to town, right? Rather than just walking down the hill to town for its own sake.

STEVEN JOHNSON: The way we used to.

IAN BOGOST: The way we used to, right. Not to mention Pokémon Go is a way of, like, communing with this, this, you know, now two generation-long game franchise of Pokémon. And the answer is it’s both. I mean it’s, it should be dead simple to us, right? And the, the, the notion that something can be glorious and ghastly at the same time, and then, then even the gloriousness and the ghastliness can swap places, this strikes us as impossible, but it’s absolutely not. And this is why I think so many folks are having trouble with, with, with something like Pokémon Go, because they, on the one hand they want to, they see all the kids out in public in town and it’s, it’s lovely and delightful. But then they, they remark correctly that the thing that got them out into town and on the streets is this weird, imported, highly corporatized, highly monetized, monster game franchise. And that feels kind of disgusting.

And, yeah, I mean like, the, they’re both true. But then the reverse of each of those positions is also true, in that there’s glory and delight in the, the ghastly franchise. And there’s also something kind of grotesque about being outside, you know? Like what is wrong with taking the car to town some of the time? So, you know, I don’t want to kind of come down in this in some sort of Aristotelian way where it’s like, “Well there’s this, you know, everything in moderation, you know, some days you Pokémon Go and some days you walk to town fully, fully in, taking in the walk, and some days you drive.” Rather, it’s that, and this is where this concept of the playground or the, you know, the circumscription comes into play, you know, you can draw a circle around a bunch of stuff in the world and then, and then you can erase it, and draw another one and say, well, I’m going to look at what’s inside this circle now.

And sometimes it’s the walk, and sometimes it’s the game, and sometimes it’s the walk and the game together. And sometimes it’s none of those things. Pokémon Go is like an interesting object lesson in learning to overcome our need to, to be certain.

STEVEN JOHNSON: One of the things I love about Ian’s approach is how it blurs the line between adult and childhood play. It turns out that this is part of our evolutionary heritage as humans.

ALISON GOPNIK: Not only do we have this very long period of immaturity, but we continue to have a lot of childlike features both physically and, and biologically and psychologically, all the way up through adulthood. We, even as adults, seem to have this capacity to shift back into a state of generalized exploration and play, and that’s part of the reason why we continue, continue to be innovative.

STEVEN JOHNSON: That flexibility and resilience is ultimately the answer to the mystery of why play is fun.

ALISON GOPNIK: If you look at either games with older children, or pretend with younger children, and to some extent with the older children as well, one way of thinking about the cognitive processes that are involved in doing that is that you set up a premise and then figure out what the consequences are. That activity, that philosophers talk about it as being counterfactual thinking, thinking about what the world could be like if it were different from the way it is now, is central to being able to innovate.

STEVEN JOHNSON: New ideas come from counterfactual thinking. From imagining a world that’s different from the one we’re in. From imagining what life would be like from a different perspective. That’s what play is all about. That’s what my son was exploring, flying that virtual 757 out of SFO. And I think that’s a great metaphor, for parents watching their kids play on screens or in real life. Play gives all of us a space where we’re no longer only passengers, strapped to our seats, just along for the ride. In the play space, we get to fly the plane ourselves.



Listen to the previous episode: Strange Loops and Circuit Benders (Or, How New Music Comes from Broken Machines)
Listen to the next episode: “
Greater Than Zero (Or, the Politics of Serious Games)

The logo for the Wonderland Podcast with Steven Johnson

How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. Wonderland is a ten-part podcast series from Steven Johnson about the past and future of play and innovation. Featuring conversations about creativity and invention with leading contemporary scientists, programmers, musicians, and more, the show is brought to you by Microsoft, and by Riverhead Books.

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