September 3, 2021

Play Against Isolation

4 min read
By Khairunnisa Mohamedali PhD

Say you were an astronaut selected to go on a mission from Earth to Mars. How would you prepare for the two-year round-trip? It’s a very long time, during which you’d have minimal variation in what you see out the window, and limited variation in your social life. To boot, you’d basically be living, sleeping, and eating only footsteps away from where you work.

The answer is: you’d go to Antarctica and stay in a bunker with a handful of other astronauts-in-training for a long while.

Now, you might be wondering why I’m talking about astronauts and Antarctica. You might also be wondering why life as an astronaut or bunker-dweller in Antarctica sounds oddly familiar to you…

Astronauts and Antarctic bunker-dwellers all experience intense and prolonged isolation. And you may have been feeling this same sense of isolation over the last few months to a year due to enforced lockdowns, social distancing, and limitations on travel both near and far.

Studies of people living in space stations, polar bunkers, and even submarines have found that they all reach a point where behaviours get erratic, interpersonal tension increases, and mood decreases. Clinical psychologists call this the third quarter phenomenon’, because it occurs three quarters of the way through a fixed period of isolation. So, as a space-farer on a year-long mission, you’ll begin to experience the third-quarter phenomenon at the eight-month mark. Psychologists have been finding the same erratic behaviours, mood declines, and increase in tension have been taking place among the global population during lockdown.

Unfortunately, while COVID has led to extended periods of isolation for many of us, it isn’t a mission with a fixed length. Many of us don’t have the luxury of a fixed end-date for our self-isolation and limited physical contact with one another. However, with vaccine roll-outs, there is a sense that the end is near and this may lead to some of those third-quarter effects cropping up—for many of us, in ways that are profound and out of our control.

So, isolation—and this is no revelation to any of us at this point—is challenging and the third-quarter is no picnic. However, we have reasons to be optimistic about what may come from being forced into isolation. The same psychologists who study the third-quarter phenomenon have found that people who have been through isolation value the experience for what they learn from it. Namely, a clearer sense of what matters to them, and a stronger commitment to acting on this. We re-evaluate how we engage with each other, the world, and even ourselves.

In the context of this, we’ve been thinking a lot about play this week.

From an anthropological and sociological perspective, play is incredibly powerful in lifting us from the confines and concerns of our everyday.

Play is one of the great under-used skills of adulthood. It is something many of us shed when we leave childhood behind, and yet from an anthropological and sociological perspective, play is incredibly powerful in lifting us from the confines and concerns of our everyday. Play moves us into a space where we can be creative, experimental, open-minded and mindful. Play could be a key for navigating the third-quarter phenomenon of COVID and working through what is next for us. Importantly, play can free us up to re-evaluate how we engage with each other, the world, and even ourselves.

There are three ways play can do this:

1. Play to Learn

We learn the world through play, from when we are children through to adulthood. Consider the games of pretend kids play. Cooking and preparing tea for stuffed animals to learn social practices, stacking and then destroying towers of blocks to understand gravity and spatial physics, taking turns and arguing over board games to learn cooperation and conflict, etc.

When we’re adults, we continue to learn about the complex elements of social interaction and culture through play. Consider how we talk about love and courtship as a game. Work is a challenge to beat. Finding the fastest route from point A to B in our cars (or on the Tube if you’re a Londoner) are competitions we have with others and ourselves. And we still play boardgames that teach us about cooperation and competition. The list goes on.

Play is critical for learning because it takes place in a space outside our everyday. The space of play is one with its own agreed-upon rules, its own codes of conduct, its own expectations and practices that every participant voluntarily agrees to. As a result, the stakes are lower for failure (by which I mean no one dies, is exiled from society for life, or is branded a failure forever). So, we can let go and not worry about the consequences of getting it wrong. Instead, we can invest in learning how to get it right. This is not to say break a lot of hearts and engage in business fraud, but do create spaces where you can be playful. Who knows what you might learn by just letting go.

2. Play to Experiment

Another benefit of play is that it opens us up to experimentation and creativity. As above, the stakes are lower in play and the rules can be very different from real life. For example, if I punch someone in the face on the street, I will be in serious trouble. If I punch someone in the face in a boxing ring, I’ll get cheered and increase my chances of winning the match.

This exceptionalism from the everyday encourages us to be creative in how we try to avoid losing (and there are usually winners and losers, even when we’re playing solo). In sport, for instance, individuals and teams exercise unbound creativity when adapting to new rules, in order to win. The results are often unexpected and unanticipated for the rule-makers. For the sports fans out there, consider the impacts of introducing the three-point rule in basketball, or increasing the area behind the net in hockey. For those of us fascinated by human behaviour, rule changes in sports are birthday presents because they offer a front row seat to epic human experimentation and creativity.

Play to win, and that will often introduce creativity and experimentation into your approach. The results might even astound you.

3. Play to Be Mindful

Consider what play, including solo play, is at its core: being intrinsically motivated, intensely focussed, and engaged in testing our skills in order to achieve a task or beat a challenge. According to psychologist Mihael Csikszentmihalyi, all this is the key for entering into a state of flow and being at our happiest.

Poet and essayist Diane Ackerman borrows and co-opts Philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s phrase of ‘Deep Play’ to name those almost transcendent moments we can experience through play where we connect deeply with ourselves, our surroundings, and the moment we are in. We let go of everything else—expectations, norms, values, rules—to enter that space where we are only wholly immersed in our play. Only the present matters. Acting on a stage. Swimming with dolphins. Assembling a particularly challenging puzzle…the range and variety is extensive because what a person is doing matters less than the mood they can enter into while doing it.

Put more prosaically: when we’re immersed in play, we aren’t knee-deep in the worries, anxieties and mood-dips caused by our forced isolation during the pandemic.
Play because you can experience meaningful moments and connect with those moments. If you truly give in to play, you’ll enter a state flow and maybe even capture that elusive state of transcendence.

How can you be better at play?

It’s simple: just get stuck in. Take out a boardgame or a puzzle. Set yourself a scavenger hunt on your next walk. Challenge someone to a thumbwar or a staring contest. Try out a new recipe and swap out ingredients to experiment. Embrace the exceptional world of play, with its own rules and expectations. Unselfconsciously embrace your inner child. Set yourself challenges. And approach life with the mindset of play. Everything is there for the winning.

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