The will of the playground

by Redxaxder

It’s time for recess, and the teacher is absent. The kids are free to play however they want. What happens?

They sort themselves into groups to play different games. Children drift between groups. Groups drift between games.

Some kids try to keep playing with the same group, regardless of the game. Some try to keep playing the same game, regardless of the group. Some keep others out of some groups.

Sometimes a group gradually trades out all of its participating kids for others. A group dissolves. Another splits. Those fuse. A group is formed. Sometimes a group is open. Anyone can join it. Sometimes an open group closes.

This has some unwritten rules. Their general shapes are if you act like that, nobody will want to play with you,” and if you’re too picky about who to play with, you’ll rule everyone out.” They’re enforced by local rejection. If you break them enough, local rejection turns into global rejection.

When this process is left to run as it will without interference, it finds answers to the questions:

  • Which games are good to play?
  • Who is good to play with?

The answers it discovers are not universal. They’re specific to person, time, and place. They’re not guaranteed to be right, but they tend toward that direction.

This process is usually not left to run as it will. Some people don’t like the costs associated with it. There are injuries from re-discovering which games are bad. Some people get excommunicated for not adapting.

Messing with it also has a cost. If the process isn’t allowed to run freely it might find the answers more slowly. Or maybe not at all.

With literal children, we’re happy to pay the second cost instead of the first. It doesn’t really matter if they find a better version of their game or their group. In playgrounds for adults, I think the balance sometimes favors the other side. Some of the games adults play are pretty consequential, and it’s more valuable to find the best versions of these games and the best people to play them with.