Regenerating communities through play
Edgard Gouveia Jr is a master of play and through his practice mobilises ‘people, organizations and communities to deal with specific issues to take care of the environments around them, through playing.’ Edgard places an importance upon people collaborating to create better futures that are good for humans and nature. Whilst based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Edgard works globally.
Why is play important?
When asking Edgard to tell us how we can use play to regenerate our communities, we uncovered that humans are already always playing a game – it just isn’t always recognised as such. In Edgard’s words, we are all ‘tamed, like animals’ to play roles dictated by our culture and our environment. The rules of the game aren’t always explicit but we are all aware that in order to be considered successful in life we have to be the best that we can be. We often perceive that we are playing against another to achieve what we need in life.
The rules of the game are set and often dictated by social status, hierarchies, race, sex, economic standing, and, as our lively discussion with Edgard highlighted, playing these games often leads to a great deal of personal sacrifice – our time, our relationships, and indeed our wellbeing can be put on the line to find success in the game of life. So we asked Edgard:
How do we free ourselves from these barriers?
“Try on a new reality! So the fields of play naturally bring back imagination, fantasy, collaboration, joy, connection.”
When we play, we do what feels good. Culturally, we may not think this is the right way to solve our challenges. Try to avoid listing the stereotypes here, but we bet we can immediately think of different societies that seem more playful or more serious than others. ‘Oh, we don’t play around here—’ seems to be a common thread. Edgard recounts many examples of Harvard students and boardroom executives who are initially resistant to his approach and say that they don’t usually play.
Despite our social barriers, however, people are inherently creative and empathetic. In Edgard’s experience ‘we all crave play, fun, excitement and cuddling’. By getting groups of people to play what he describes are essentially ‘kids games’ and building fantasies of a better future together, their barriers get broken down. Edgard explained that the best demonstration of this playful approach exists in many Latin American countries through the practice of gymkhana. In this example, sometimes ‘the whole town comes together. And we create teams of 300-400 people – that’s sometimes a whole neighborhood and we play impossible missions. This impossible mission might be to find a pink elephant – well, initially we think that’s not possible, however, we know that it is meant to be impossible, but with the creativity of everyone, it can be done’. What was most exciting to hear about these games was how everyone comes together despite their social statuses, overcoming barriers for the collective good. Edgard enthused us by recalling his experience: ‘[in the game] we can be whatever we can; we can be silly, we can be kids, we can run into the hotel looking for things as if we’re crazy’.
Sadly, it seems that, from Edgard’s experience, the cultural practice is slowly dwindling and he tells us that ‘We still have maybe 20 cities in Brazil that play these games but when I was a kid, we had like thousands of them, where the whole town came together.’
“Play is what sets us apart from other species”
Of course animals play but can they reimagine their reality? With much humour Edgard told us ‘You can get a dog and you can pretend he is human. Oh, Peter, you called the dog Peter, you put it in the bed. You treat it like a human being, you’re sitting in a chair for dinner, whatever you’re doing, his being isn’t changed, he is going to be always barking!’ Humans are always naturally adapting to their environment. When you consider the barriers mentioned before, we are always asking ourselves how do we respond to the situation around me: What is my job role? Do I need to take on a responsibility here, do I need to be extra polite to this person?
Think: how easy is it for you to play the role of the dog, the model, the child? What about that of the curious collaborator?
“A community already has everything that it needs”
Edgard articulated his definition of a community as a group of people with a shared stake in something, which could be an organisation, or a place of living.
A community is able to recognise and thus reinvent the rules to maximise better outcomes within their existing systems. Articulating it superlatively Edgard summarises his outlook as:
“All the water for all the thirsty AND all the thirsty for all the water.”
In his experience of creating safe play spaces and through his natural engagement with people, Edgard concludes that, naturally, people are abundant: where you as an individual are lacking ego you can find that another in the community has too much.
It is Edgard’s assertion that we are fulfilled when we are able to give away that which we have too much of: ‘sometimes in life you feel that you are abandoning your flow of water, right? And it seems like it’s a waste of water. But in the community, there’s another thirst for that as well. Sometimes your need is someone that takes your water, your buoyancy I want you to have it. And so this abundance is just too much for me. There is something there that someone else needs. And the opposite: what you need you can find in the community.’
Global challenges create the opportunity to reimagine
On the matter of external challenges to our ability to play, Edgard is enlivened by historic patterns of innovation that often show how war, pandemic, and socio-economic breakdown force us to reimagine new possibilities. For Edgard, the innovations that have been created over time are an example of the power of our imagination. We learnt to fly, we learnt how to breathe underwater. First, we had to find the inspiration for it in nature and then we had to imagine it for ourselves!
Edgard’s work within organisations and social innovation fellowships focuses on creating leaders who are imaginative storytellers, who, he offers, ‘now, no matter the darkness, are able to create gardens in their own hands and share that. So they can lead us all to a different story. A different narrative, not the narrative of man cannot fly.’
“Play, not fight, to change”
Furthering the discussion that we are natural players, Edgard highlighted that, all too typically when we want to change things, we often think that we need a ‘winning mentality’; we need to fight against the bad things to get our changes through. This, he says, is the activist mindset.
“Actor or activist? There’s a similarity but the ‘activist’ is always fighting against something. Yeah. Not together with someone – for something.”
A revolution, however, as Edgard (and indeed many other systemic and regenerative leaders) tells us, cannot be won through fighting – this creates more fights. Indeed, a historic analysis will demonstrate that time and again, despite traditional activism changing history for the better, coalitions were required to eventually bring through the ecosystemic shifts needed for them to be embedded into society. We are therefore called to lead the way through the identification of our common needs, collaborative play, and experimentation.
Indeed, this type of leadership advocates for calls to the poets, artists, architects, builders, and musicians within to be unleashed. Edgard notices the gravity of the challenges of our times but also that we are surrounded by much potential and good news stories – the ones that do not sell papers but exist everywhere nonetheless and can be cultivated through a revolution of the imagination and the heart!
Please join us on pages 68-69 (of the virtual edition) to play our board game designed with Edgard’s approach in mind. We invite you to imagine who you need to play this game with in your game of life, and how can you playfully address some of the challenges that stop us from enacting change in the world.