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A colleague and fellow play scholar recently brought the work of Jean Piaget to my attention, specifically his work around „double consciousness“  in the learning development of children.  Connecting this idea to the concept of the “Magic Circle” of Huizinga yields some powerful insights indeed on the role of games in negotiation.

Piaget focuses especially on the second stage of learning development in children, which is that of “symbolic games and make-believe play or pretend play”. At the age of 4 to 7, and employing intuitive reason rather than logic ,children learn to simplify actions and assign roles and meanings to objects. One thing literally becomes another:  a banana is a telephone, a shoe a bottle.  Whole story lines emerge, sometimes with fairly sophisticated character acting. The child is totally immersed in a fantasy world, and blissfully and wholeheartedly at play.

What is interesting, however, is that, at the same time, the child also knows that she is playing. With no undue effort, she can mentally step outside the game to reflect on how it is going. There, she exercises some remarkably advanced capabilities:  planning, prioritizing, flexibly changing course, reasoning, emotional intelligence and empathy, all skills that are critical for negotiation success.  She learns how to craft and agree on rules for competitive play, and how important that is for keeping the game fair and fun.  And she learns the difference to cooperative games. It is a very sophisticated meta level on display.

Personal ego needs are curbed, the child learns to self-regulate. Tension in the play helps to solve tension outside the play.

Compare this to Huizinga’s notion of the playground, a sacred place divorced from reality, bound by time and space. The arena, the stage (especially the famous red circle on the TED stage), the card table, the temple –  these are all temporary worlds where everyday rules are suspended and special rules apply, all dedicated to enhance the performance.

But this circle is porous. Huizinga (and Eric Zimmermann after him) goes on to discuss the power of the Magic Circle”, the fluid boundary between the game and the “real world” beyond it, which in adulthood is more difficult to keep clear. If face, he argues against a strict separation between  life and games.  We play and we know that we play, just as we did as children.

This is, course, the place where immersive theater emerges. Where does the game stop? What can it teach us in real life? How does it help us be better negotiators?

Heady stuff indeed.  Comments welcome!

image by freepik


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