Serious Play

The Magic Circle of Management Training

The websites of many management training institutes state that playfulness is an important mindset of many of their courses. According to these websites, playfulness gives leaders and managers a mindset and ways to playfully interact with the organization and its environment to improve their competitive position and to create new opportunities. With this mindset, it is argued, during the management courses an atmosphere of togetherness and connecting is created. Next to this, it is believed that the ‘play ethic’ is very important nowadays for management, explicitly referring to the idea of the homo ludens.

         The above described idea of on playfulness is what the Dutch historian, cultural theorist and Professor Johan Huizinga described as a community of play. Huizinga wrote in the 1930s about this community, which bounded a space and set it apart from normal life. Inside the community, different rules apply, and it is a space where we can experience things not normally allowed or sanctioned in regular space or life. It is this play-community that Huizinga described in his work Homo Ludens as the ‘magic circle’, a ‘sphere of activity’ characterized as being voluntary, superfluous, separate from material interest, yet potentially serious. For Huizinga the ‘magic circle’ creates the feeling of being ‘apart together’ in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms, retaining its magic beyond the duration of the individual game.
Within the recent discourse of play, Huizinga’s idea of the ‘magic circle’ has been applied to a number of phenomena, from ‘play in cultural environments’ to serious games and ‘pervasive (mobile) games’.
         What all these authors addressing can be summarizes as play takes place in a self-enclosed ‘sphere of play’, which is separate from ‘the practice of everyday life’ through temporal boundaries. Inside the magic circle players take liberties with the rules and practices of everyday life. They set customary behaviours aside. Inside the circle, they can practice life, parody it, fantasize about it, and they can even resist it. And during these explorations, they understand that what happens within these play gets judged only by the rules of the ‘magic circle’. Free of life’s usual consequences, play takes on the appearance of speculation, mimicry, and make-believe. In all these ways, the classic texts consider play special.
         Huizinga explicitly sets the ‘magic circle’ apart from ‘actual’ life by stating that the ‘magic circle’ creates a temporarily real world on its own. However, as the myths and rituals – a matter of performances and representations of imaginative actualizations with an element of repetition – of the ‘magic circle’ ends its effect is not lost, It tends to become permanent. According to Huizinga, it continues to have an effect on the world outside, an influence that creates order and success for the whole community until the rituals of the ‘magic circle’ comes round again. Thus, the ‘magic circle’ functions as social ritual. So, within the discourse of ‘play ethic’ it seems no wonder that the training of managers based on this more than 70 year-old model of thinking attracts many management training institutes.
         However, in this article I will argue that the attraction of Huizinga’s notions on the ‘magic circle’ and playfulness within management education and the idea of the ‘play ethic’ constitutes a fundamental misreading of the idea of Huizinga’s.

‘Play Ethics’
According to contemporary management literature, the key organizational figure is a lean company that includes a combination of prescriptions such as decentralization, small flexible working units, management by contract rather than by hierarchical control, a small core of permanent employees who hire independent contractors and consultants as they need to, the importance of innovation and flexibility, the centrality of creative teamwork, empowerment of the individual, employee participation, flattened organizational hierarchies with few layers and the reduction of formal bureaucracy, where the real employer is the customer. Within the visionary ethos of the entrepreneurial management theorists, managers are inspirational leaders and manipulators of culture. They try to encourage personal identification with corporate goals and values, high motivation and internalization of constructive attitudes which lead to financial, status and other rewards and appeals to the values of self-actualisation and knowledge derived from personal experience. Within this organizations the catchphrases are ‘authenticity’, ‘activity’ and ‘flexibility’, ‘innovation’, ‘play’, ‘playfulness’ and ‘creativity’, with an increasing managerial interest in incorporating play into everyday working life, with a special role for the creative man.
         Some scholars notice a complete turnaround from ‘play’ being viewed as subversive to being the source of management’s most precious commodities, creativity and innovation. The blurring of boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘play’ echoes contemporary managerial discourse dominated by the obsessive recurrence of ‘change’ and ‘progress’. This emphasis of constant change in modern organizations is important, argue these academics, because this continual change is the only stability in these organizations. Another researcher argues that management has entered into a kind of ‘Dionysian’ mode, what might lie behind the increased use of ludic technologies in management. Last, it is the English business magnate Richard Branson, best known as the founder and chairman of Virgin Group, who states that entrepreneurship is a big adult word that probably boils down to something much more obvious like playfulness.
         This ideas of playfulness create a popular trend among management academics, consultants, and practitioners of prescribing ‘cultures of fun’ to enhance productivity. This management approach suggests among others that organizations should break with the conventional wisdom of separating work from play and instead create an environment of fun and humour.
         According to management gurus, managers should revitalize employees by creating an environment that is favourable to play, fun, and humour. However, where by the end of the 20th century, the benefits said to develop from making work fun were increased motivation, flexibility, and competitive advantage, in the beginning of the 21st century, the message was much the same but with the added emphasis on innovation, creativity and customer service.
         If, as suggested, there is a highly favourable environment to play, fun, and humour within organizations, then employees will be more committed to their tasks and everyone will benefit. Cultures that promote a childlike playfulness and frivolity are especially important nowadays following the wave of corporate downsizing. Although it refers here to the ‘workforce optimization’ in the early 1990s, this importance of a playful environment can also refer to the twenty-first century layoffs because of the global economic downturn. Echoing the current organizational interest in appealing to the values of self-actualization and knowledge derived from personal experience, the authors claimed that managers must now try to counter labour dissatisfaction by fundamentally changing the meaning of work among employees and managers. Here, play is a license to 'be yourself' in a way that leads workers to love being in the company rather than love the company. This ‘be yourself’ encouraging of playfulness can be framed as a kind of ‘formalized informality’ in which the space of play is captured as a productive resource, it seeks to render the informal congruent with the formal economic rationality. This is especially evident in the planned spontaneity of team-building, consultancy and management training.
         While many of the ideas of gurus can be treated sceptically in terms of their translation into organizational practice of everyday life, there is significant evidence that the management of ´play´ has become quite widespread, as Scottish musician, journalist and political activist Pat Kane indicates in relation to the rise of the organizational ´play ethic´. An ‘play ethic’ that stresses adaptive, passionate and imaginative action, according to Kane, might be much more valuable than a Protestant work ethic that stresses a conservative or even inactive attitude.
         Play is now ‘serious business’, and many organizations are staging playful activities to cultivate experiences of personal authenticity and self-fulfilment. The construction of the self is organized around playfulness, where the individual must be fulfilled in work, understood as an activity through which we discover and experience ourselves. According to Professor of Political Science and Philosophy Charles Taylor, this culture of self-fulfilment can even result in a sort of absurdity, as new modes of conformity arise among people who are striving to be themselves, and beyond this, new forms of dependence, as people insecure in their identities turn to all sorts of self-appointed experts and guides. Because of this insecurity, people start to look for explanations to understand ‘what and why’. And it is this understanding that is often addressed by management gurus and management training centres. It is this role management training centres play in the organizational ´play ethic´ that I will explore in this chapter. However, I first want to discuss the reason for the popularity of the managerial interest in incorporating play into everyday working life.

The playful man
The introduction of managed play into the official discourse of organizational life fits well with the ideas of my PhD thesis. I describe, following the ideas of sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, that the legitimation crisis of capitalism was averted in the 1990s by managerialism co-opting the artistic criticism of the avant-garde artists of the 1940s and 1950s and the criticism of the countercultural movements of the 1960s. Then I argue that this artistic critique is particularly responsible for the neo-management discourse of the late 20th century. Following this line of thought, the attractiveness of play in the context of a traditionally non-play environment can be explained by an attempt to respond to the artistic criticism.
         The response to the artistic critique creates in contemporary organizations an image of managers and professionals who are innovators and take artists as their model, while play is the central source of management’s commodities. The activities of an artist are described as a form of play, spontaneous, free and pleasurable of itself, where play’s ‘dysfunctionality’ or ‘inoperability’ has been conceived as paradigmatic for artistic practice, the potential of the aesthetic and political emancipation.
         The ideas of the organizational ´play ethic´ seems to be based on the radical attempts of the avant-garde artists of the 1940s and 1950s to criticize the logic of capitalism. This ideas manifests itself most clearly in Constant Nieuwenhuys’ notion of creative play as homo ludens (the playful man, or as Constant stated, the creative man). Inspired by Huizinga, Nieuwenhuys (known primarily as Constant), one of the founders of both Cobra and the Situationist International, developed an architectural proposal for a future ludic society, New Babylon, as a form of propaganda that criticised conventional social structures and opposed the utilitarian society of the 1940s and 1950. It envisaged a space where people were free to engage in creative work, shaping the world in accordance with their desires and in which they could invest all their energy in a playful experience of freedom. For the avant-garde artists, with Constant as the spokesperson, play became the ‘radical act’ of revolutionary rejection of the existing society. And it is this critique of the avant-garde artists that is mainly responsible for contemporary neo-management discourse and, among others, its ideas of playfulness and creativity.
         Very important to Constant in understanding the concept of New Babylon and the concept of the ludic or playful society, as he stated at a lecture at the Delft University of Technology in 1980, is how to understand the concept of ludic. This concept was originally used to refer to alternative behaviour, to represent life as creation as opposed to life as duty. In Huizinga’s original meaning, according to Constant, the word ‘ludic’ was always used in a social context, in other words, not for the behaviour of a particular individual, but for the interaction within larger groups of individuals, and was therefore always used in connection with the concept of ‘collective creativity’. This collective creativity is a theoretical concept that is closely connected with the idea of a ludic society. In his creative activity, the homo ludens is in direct contact with his peers. This action will become an ‘authentic collective creation’. Constant finishes his statement with the argument that, it goes without saying that a culture produced by collective creativity is on a higher level than a culture made by only a few, and which the majority of people experience as a mere spectacle or do not notice at all.
         It is therefore no coincidence that contemporary scholars and management writers refer to the idea of the homo ludens. According to Professor of Organizational Science and Innovation Management Mathieu Weggeman, an organization is not a money machine but a playground for homo ludens. It is about the playing man, not about the market, states Weggeman, with a key role for leadership and authenticity. Professor of Entrepreneurship and Organisation Daniel Hjorth writes that the neo-liberal homo oeconomicus is manipulable, both a product of and a target for managerialism, and that there is the need for a different idea of the individual to develop concepts for entrepreneurship as a tactical creative process. He concludes, if management cannot learn to live with homo ludens as neighbour, it is difficult to see a role for management in organizational entrepreneurship. And in Play Ethic Kane is convinced that by embracing the homo ludens we can all become more creative and playful.

Huizinga’s Homo Ludens
In 1938, Huizinga wrote a book titled Homo Ludens or ‘Man the Player’ (alternatively, ‘Playing Man’). Since then, this controversial pioneering work of cultural history has become a landmark in the growing literature on the concept of play. Huizinga uses the term ‘Play Theory’ in the book to define the conceptual space in which play occurs. He suggests that play is primary to and a necessary condition of the generation of culture. Important sources of Huizinga’s theory of play are Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, Schiller's Aesthetic Education of Man and Plato's view of play. Although Huizinga was not the first to discover the value of play in explaining human behaviour, he was the first to attempt an exact definition of play and the ways in which it infuses and manifests itself in all spheres of culture, the arts, intellectual life, politics and even legal institutions and warfare.
         Huizinga’s book introduced the word ludic to the Dutch language. Derived from Latin ludus, which literally means playful, ludic connotes anything that is fun. Huizinga needed the word ludic, according to his own explanation, to describe the playful element of culture in a neutral way. By playful he meant not only the game element, but also the qualities of freedom and intrinsic satisfaction. In his book, Huizinga describes the significance of play in areas of culture such as law, war, knowledge, art, myth, poetry and sport, providing a picture of play as a free space within the culture, a place with its own order. Play is an activity outside of the sphere of material utility or necessity. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings that tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means. For Huizinga, play has an important creative function. The notions of play, freedom and creativity are intertwined. The essence of play is fun, and the man who plays is called homo ludens.
         According to Huizinga, play must remain pure. It should be open and honest, deliberately cultivating certain uses of play, to realize ends that are unidentifiable. The real game does exclude all propaganda. It has its own ends.
         Next to this, Huizinga notices a tempestuous desire for originality, which is derived from romanticism and becomes the main impulse of production. He argues that art is especially open to this constant striving towards the new and its adverse effects mean that in this type of production, the play element is hard to find. At the same time, he saw the possibility of making more of the play aspect of art. With the artist as genius and his audience of admirers, sympathizers and modern publicity, it is possible to create a community of play.
         It is here that I will argue that Huizinga’s idea of a community of play connects with the culture of ‘play ethic’ in management training. To react to the demand of their clients, management training courses have to answer to the ‘play ethic’ in contemporary organizations. Because the distinction between work and non-work has been blurring and therefore a focus on ‘personal or even leisure activity’ tends to replace the conventional work ethic, this makes the ‘play ethic’ indistinguishable from ‘professional activities’ within organizations and management training courses.

The ritualization of the ‘magic circle’
Based on the organisational ‘play ethics’, where the construction of the self is organized around playfulness, where the individual must be fulfilled in work, understood as an activity through which we discover and experience ourselves, people insecure in their identities and therefore turn to all sorts of experts and guides. Because of this insecurity, people start to look for explanations to understand ‘what and why’.
         Within the practice of management training the participants turns to ‘experts and guides’ with a ‘learning question’ to understand ‘what and why’, to investigate alternatives and possible transformations. The participants look for explanations, where they try to reassert control in the face of unpredictability, and therefore these training programs are perceived to be sense-making activities, the most important characteristic of how organizations and their members make sense of their environment. And play seems a good answer, as play creates order into an imperfect world and into the confusion, and brings a temporary perfection.
         Learning within management training thrives on questioning and openness, doubt and investigation, reflection and searching. To understand the ‘what and why’ a space of ‘psychological safety’ is provided where the participants can question, look, and reflect on organizational circumstances. This space is required for learning and change to be developed and shared, supports interaction as innovative and circumstantial, instead of routinized and prescribed. In this ‘psychological safety’, the participant feels free to question, doubt, criticize and change practice(s). It is here that the ‘magic circle’ seems to connects with the space of ‘psychological safety’ of management training.
         Play seems to be identified by Huizinga and Kane as a set of actions trough which education take shape, a pedagogical tradition as a method of developing ethical sensibilities required for leadership. Drawing on the work of Huizinga’s concept of ‘play ethic’ argues that playing together in a ‘sphere of activity’ the ‘magic circle’ is as an attractive form of collective identity, creating an imaginative, symbolic freedom as a saving sense of humour and subversion. This ‘magic circle’ is therefore a more fruitful way for highly capable managers to reflect their self-perception of their everyday identity within organisations. Play in the ‘magic circle’ introduces the managers into the ethics, rituals and practices of management and promotes the creation of social groupings in an aesthetic parallel world, which allows man to elevate things into a higher spiritual domain. Huizinga thinks there is no clear distinction between creating a space and time for play – here in the context of management training – and doing so for a sacred purpose.
         The ludic function is manifest in both play and religious belief in that both there is activity outside the necessities of everyday life that must be taken seriously; and in both there is always an element of ritualized make-believe. Within the ‘magic circle’ the mythical system of particular doctrines, rituals, practices and ethics that are reproduced. And as the discourse of management and leadership is laden with the kinds of faith, presuppositions, irrationalities, paradoxes and symbols that that are often directly associated with a mythical system, management and leadership can usefully and credibly seen as a kind of a magical phenomenon reproduced by the ‘magic circle’ of management training.
         It seems here that the idea of the ‘magic circle’ of management education as a ritual within the discourse of management and leadership is very important for that same discourse. Where the attribution of magical qualities and powers usually emerges from the uncertainty that marks situations, the ‘magic circle’ of management education gives managers and leadership insights in this uncertainty, the rituals of management and access to knowledge and competences necessary to be(come) a successful manager or leader. According to professor of Religion Ethics and Practice Stephen Pattison, the implication from gaining this knowledge from management training de-materializes this knowledge and becoming therefore mystical.
         Management education creating a ‘ludic’ manager as a richly potentialized individual, energetic, imaginative and freely intending is appealing and attractive, the ludic play is about freedom. And, according to Kane, this freedom became possible through the sixties' counterculture, and avant-garde artists such as the Beats and the Situationists of Paris and Amsterdam like Guy Debord and Raoul Vaniegem and Constant Nieuwenhuys’.

The spectacle of management training
In New Babylon, Constant wrote that the liberation of man's playful potential is directly linked to his freedom as a social being. The ability to play was an ability that Constant and other Situationists felt had been suppressed. In order to address this, Constant proposed that living as Huizinga’s homo ludens would respond to this human need for play, as well as the conditions that facilitate the free creation of his own life, otherwise there will be no place for the authentic play at each moment of daily life.
         It seems here that the idea of the connection between playing and learning is closely interconnected with the ideas of Huizinga’s homo ludens and ‘magic circle’. Based on the interpretation of Constant and other Situationists of Huizinga’s ideas it seems obvious that the concept of playfulness have been co-opted by management education.
         The goal of the management education programmes seems to create play as real life, not as something that stands apart, to learn professionals and managers to play with their changing environment instead of trying to control it, because it creates freedom to act, and to be creative in uncertainty. Perhaps the concept of play and playfulness extracted from the avant-garde artists that was most meaningful to management training institutes ideas and practices is that of play being equal to freedom and creativity.
         However, it is precisely this understanding of the playfulness of the homo ludens providing a liberation of each moment of ‘real life’ within management education that I believe constitutes a fundamental misreading of the idea of Huizinga and the Situationists’ interpretation.
         Early in the book, Huizinga is quite clear about his theory that play stands outside of daily life in both space and time, has the limitations of both, and in this way is able to construct its own meaning. As seductive as Huizinga's conception of play is for management education, as it was for the Situationists, there is a problem in the way the play-mood was thought to be fragile and in the way it sat in a separate sphere to the everyday. Huizinga's concept perpetuated the division of this spheres, which the ‘play ethic’ is focused on eradicating. Instead, for management education, as for the Situationists, play has to flow spontaneously from the desires of each individual so that finally there would be no rupture between moments of play and non-play, between professional and private life. Play and the everyday would move from one to the other in such a way that their separateness would finally disappear in a creative stream. However, for the Situationists playfulness was used to transform the ‘real world’ and to challenge established forms and called for rebellion against the repression of creativity.
         And for Debord, Vaniegem and Constant in their time play was turned into nothing more than amusement that carried the same forms that dominate the working life, and used only to alleviate the tensions created by the dominant culture. Play, and therefore creativity, was in danger of being eliminated altogether by the capitalist work ethic. To challenge this ‘bastardization’ of play the Situationists created a ‘magic circle’ that provokes order using an alternative logic, characterized by playfulness and creativity.
         The Situationists interpretation of Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and its playfulness closely resemble the idea of carnival in Russian philosopher Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin’s line of thought. Carnival builds its own world in opposition to the official world, that playfully subverts the rules of the everyday. It is based on this idea that a management training institute is described as a meeting place for experimenting, innovation, playfulness and creativity, as if it is carnival.
         However, it is here that a dilemma arises. I will argue that while the Situationists believed that a ‘rediscovery’ of man’s instinct to playfulness could be used to inform revolutionary praxis, the way in which this ludic ideals are utilized in practice of management education tend to ignore essential elements of Huizinga’s theory and the interpretation of the Situationists. Playfulness is no longer a carnivalesque act of opposition; rather it is a performance of an act of strategy by the manager.
         This redefinition of play and playfulness within the ‘play ethic’ as an act of strategy is all based on ‘the iron law of performativity’ as one of the bases of legitimation and therefore, leaves little room for an Other, i.e. for alternative points of view. This characterization relies on French sociologist Jean-François Lyotard’s idea of performativity as the optimization of the relationship between input and output, with a demand for a cost/benefit analysis of each use of human resources. This strategy sets out to achieve performance improvement with increasing control, thereby minimizing complexity, risk and unpredictability. By valuing the ideas of the Situationists in contemporary management education, but at the same time redefining playfulness into an act of strategy, creativity, reflection and imagination are restricted, even though it is exactly these qualities that are important for the current idea of playfulness and the ‘play ethic’. Following Lyotard, this redefinition of the Situationists’ interpretation of play leads within contemporary management education, where this education is connected with innovation, creativity and playfulness, to mediocrity at the cost of excellence, constrains imagination and creativity.
         This strategic perspective creates an image of management education as essentially a creative affair in which the participants and trainers ‘enact’ roles, work in ‘scenes’ and ‘act’ towards ‘plots’, interpret ‘scripts’, use rhetorical and dramaturgical styles, and address an ‘audience’. As a result of these performances of the ‘play ethic’ and playfulness, management education has become more of a spectacle; management education is theatre, in Professor of Management David Boje’s line of thought creating a ritualization of practices of capitalist organizations.
         It's interesting that Huizinga spends much of Homo Ludens situating ritualization of practices in the world of play. And, according to Huizinga, in the ‘magic circle’ of this ritualization of practices rules are very important. The rules within the ‘magic circle’ are absolutely binding and permit no doubt. According to the French poet, essayist and philosopher Paul Valéry, no scepticism is possible where the rules of a game are concerned, for the principle underlying them is an unshakable truth. Indeed, as soon as the rules are disobeyed, the whole play-world collapses. The player who trespasses against the rules or ignores them is a ‘spoil-sport’. The spoilsport, Huizinga observes, simply breaks the ‘magic circle’ and is regarded by those within the game whatever that game may be as worse than the cheat, who at least pretends to be engaged.
         Hence, the ‘spoil-sport’ must be cast out, for he or she threatens the continuation of the play community. The community is not concerned whether the spoil-sport withdraws because s/he dare not stay in the game or because s/he is not allowed to stay. Rather, the community is unaware of the possibility of ‘not being allowed’ and therefore describes it as ‘not daring’. According to Huizinga, the problem of conscience and conformity is no more than fear of punishment. The ‘spoil-sport’ destroys the magic world of play and therefore s/he must be ejected.
         However, according to Huizinga the spoilsport may also have a very different function. When play being viewed as being the source of management’s most precious commodities, creativity and innovation, the spoil-sport, here called by Huizinga the ‘innovators’ or ‘conscientious objectors’, the spoil-sport can open a vista of creative play that integrates explanations of play from a wide variety of perspectives. The role of the spoil-sport as described by Huizinga closely resembles the idea of the ‘Shakespearian fool’.
         Historically, the ‘Shakespearian fool’ is an ironic and paradoxical figure who enjoyed unusual toleration and relative freedom in speaking his mind. He was often able to offer strange insights through his foolery. Shakespeare was fascinated by this freedom. He used his fools not only for the spectacle, but also to deliver humorous critiques and to enlighten his audience with crude observations about other characters and events in the play. The ‘Shakespearian fool’ is understood to be effectively different from the clown, who was described as a ‘natural idiot’. Shakespeare used the fool’s freedom to offer critical observations that coming from any other character, would have been rebellious to the system. Behind his foolery, the fool could cover up sharp comments on contemporary discourse. Basically, the ‘Shakespearian fool’ serves to offer an overlooked or otherwise unspoken insight in a thought-provoking manner. The character type is important mainly because it can express a dissentient point of view. The paradox is that the fool must not only be authentically intelligent, observant, practical and insightful, but he must be aware of being truly foolish in either going too far beyond the fragile limits of toleration or being confusing and unclear to the audience.

Although the concept of ‘play ethic’ within management education adopted the Situationists’ ideas on playfulness and creativity as a primary source, their use of it cannot always conform to the logic used by Constant to craft his theories of play. Partly as a result of this, management training institutes create an ideal of a ‘magic circle’ that could never be accomplished. In fact, many of their ideas on playfulness could not be practiced, as there was no practical way to do so without creating a contrast between play as an act of opposition and play as an act of strategy. It creates the catch-22 of the Situationists who viewed strategy and playfulness as two diametrically opposed principles and refuses to engage with the complexities of their interdependence and management training institutes.who views playfulness as a mindset to interact with the strategy of the organization to improve their competitive position and to create new opportunities.
         The role of the ‘innovators’, ‘conscientious objectors’ or ‘homo ludens’ within contemporary organizations with its ‘iron law’ of performativity seems therefore a complex ‘role’. Therefore, within management education and contemporary organizations the playfulness of the spoil-sport or the ‘Shakespearian fool’ is an important one, as s/he can show the ironic and paradoxical gap between playfulness and strategy. After all, this is certainly what Constant and Debord have done.