The Everyday Play of Collaboration


We collaborate...a lot. We have for a long time. Over the last fourteen years we have worked together on close to 50 publications, two dozen grant proposals, and scores of scholarly and public presentations. We have also curated a host of exhibits, and built one of the largest working and open computer game archives in the country (the Learning Games Initiative Research Archive).


This is not to say that any of this work has been work of great genius. We mention it only as evidence: over the course of these years and projects, we have become less callow and in the process learned something of the art and practice of collaboration. The key is play.


When collaboration is good—when it is productive, rewarding, and interesting—it is playful. Freedom, fun, and vital energy pervade it, from its deepest processes to its most mundane practices, vivifying projects and participants alike. When collaboration is bad, it is profoundly painful, even mortiferous. Poor collaborations are restrictive, boring, and negatively productive, wrecking goodwill, hope, and opportunity (often permanently).[1] In other words, they are not collaborations at all.


What does the play of collaboration look like, especially in its everyday instantiations? How is it manifest in the work of doing, and in the pleasures and pains that result?[2] To get at these questions, think operationally, noting the principal types of routine play at work in collaboration. Play manifests in three different and often interconnected forms: theoretical, processual, and pragmatic.


Theoretical play is just as it sounds—the play of negotiating new ways of seeing, understanding, and explaining. It is quotidian experimentation with and hybridization of ideas and epistemologies that come with shared work, the daring of trying something new, of breaking with tradition, expectation, and assumption. Among many examples, theoretical play happens in formal settings when time is specially slated for brainstorming at the beginnings of projects, and in more unpredictable circumstances such as road trips, conversations over lunch, even funny-then-significant text message exchanges. Theoretical play can happen anywhere, on purpose or by accident, in person or at a remove.


The processual play of collaboration, by contrast, is the play that structures the practice of collaboration. What are the roles collaborators assume on a given project, and how do these roles shift and transform over time and from project to project? Do the collaborators first work independently, then share their efforts with each other for input and modification? Or do they work side-by-side in real time, writing/editing/revising all at once as part of the same process? Perhaps they even do both over the course of a single project, depending on what needs doing. Processual play is the dynamo of the approach, the decision-making involved in selecting the right process for the right job at the right time, then seeing that process evolve along with the project. What makes this “play” and not just “organization” is this: in the processual play of collaboration there is a fundamental understanding among participants that the decisions structuring their interactions may either be wrong or go wrong and that such failures are part of the challenge. No collaborative project is without a hitch, so the more rapidly everyone can adapt, the more fun (and productive) will be the project.


The pragmatic play of collaboration is also vitally important. This is where many collaborations fail, whether due to the devilish complexity of institutional or bureaucratic details, or to the gross social maneuverings required for the ends of collaboration to meet an audience. Pragmatic play comes in the form of questions such as Whose name appears first on the publication? Through which institution’s office of sponsored projects does the grant flow? Who is the primary contact person for the project, and who handles the money? How will recalcitrant, shiftless, or well-meaning but unproductive collaborators be handled? These are vulgar decisions that nevertheless powerfully shape the success of a collaboration, the personal and professional fortunes of collaborators, and the possibilities for related and future work. Recognizing that even these pragmatic considerations have playful potentials makes addressing them intriguing, if not always fun.


As helpful as operational thinking about the everyday play of collaboration can be, it is not particularly exciting. It is a serviceable if somewhat boring means of analyzing the magic of expressly synthetic work. A potentially more illuminating way to consider this magic and its meanings is a relational approach: what other phenomena share the same kinds of habitual play with collaboration?


One such phenomenon is religion, or rather, religious practice. Like collaboration, religious practice is often broadly, conceptually, and regularly playful (in the most expansive and important senses of the term). Consider the play involved in ritual, for example, the routine stepping outside of time, place, and expectation into a temporary realm of rules, community, and custom which are meaningful in their own right apart from (and also as part of) daily life. As Johan Huizinga famously explains, human play in “all its higher forms...always belong[s] to the sphere of festival and ritual—the sacred sphere” (9). Play and ritual are part of the same continuum, part of the same human technique for coming to understand and flourish in the world.


Collaboration and religious practice share more than just the play involved in carving out distinctive and rejuvenating spaces (or “intermezzos,” as Huizinga also calls them [ibid.]). Sacrifice and faith too are intrinsic to both, and also fundamentally playful. An unwillingness to give up one’s own ideas, perspectives, concepts, terms, or methodological approaches may well be part of the theoretical play described above, a seriously playful moment when one interlocutor presses hard from one angle to see if the other players can meet the force with something brighter, stouter, more alluring. But it may also be a sign that a collaborator isn’t—that the unwillingness to sacrifice is more about the protection of one’s self or the project per se, than of the collaboration. This is where less practiced collaborators often make an understandable misstep.


When collaboration is viewed as play, collaborators are playmates. Sometimes rules, conventional practices, comfortable working conditions, and even one person’s better idea, must be sacrificed in order to preserve the playful relationship that ultimately founds whatever collaborative project is in the offing. Friends tend to get into (rather than avoid) trouble together.


Sacrifice is particularly vital for grown-up collaborations. While it’s tempting to prioritize projects over people, it’s important to remember that the project will only be as good as the energy that goes into it. This reveals two well known but little understood principles in the calculus of collaboration: (1) more people working together is harder than fewer people, and (2) more people working together can yield a much worse or better result than fewer people. The determining factor here is sacrifice. For collaboration to be playful, everyone needs a chance to play, to get their hands on the ball, to make a contribution. This means that other people have to let this happen, even encourage it—which also means that they are ceding control, sacrificing their own immediate satisfactions for other rewards. This is not to say that playful collaborations must be equal, but rather that the sacrificial motive in the everyday play of collaboration must sometimes be reciprocal. If only one person’s ideas are ever encouraged, there may be collaboration but chances are it is not very playful.


Which brings us to faith, perhaps the most important component of playful collaboration. All collaborations begin with faith. There is much to be said for the certainties of trial and error experience and rationally determined methodologies. The expertise that collaborators—be they chemists or quilters—generally bring to the table have often been hard won and deserve respect. Here, then, is one form of faith, a belief without personal and absolute proof that the people with whom you have cast your lot will do right by you, alternately pushing and sacrificing when appropriate, in short, playfully collaborating.


But there is another kind of faith, one that extends beyond one’s colleagues and comrades and rests with the supernal power of collaboration itself. So enabling is this faith that even when one knows nothing about one’s collaborators—their expertises and attainments—it permits not merely hope but knowledge that if the people play well together good things will emerge.


Finally, if this coordinated faith in one another and the process itself prove not to have been misplaced (and we admit they sometimes are), yet another faithfulness may surface, one that believes against all reason that the miracle of good collaboration can happen again sometime down the road. And more faithful still? That after a bad collaboration, good collaboration with the very same people remains yet possible. The play of everyday collaboration is funny that way. It occupies a point where faith, sacrifice, and ritual meet theory, process, and pragmatics. There, collaboration itself is play, and its laboring oars truly work to support the play. Yes, collaboration is work too...but that is a discussion for another time.


Works Cited

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1955. Print.

[1]An arguable benefit from bad collaboration is knowledge, i.e., “I now know not to work with that person or on that type of project.”

[2]Even the best collaborations can be painful: pushing past currently accepted epistemological limits tends to require the bringing to bear of a great deal of intellectual, cultural, and even political capital.

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