111 510 510 libonline@riphah.edu.pk Contact

The importance of playtime

One of the most famous legends in Greek mythology is that of the escape of Daedalus, a gifted architect and craftsman, and his son Icarus from the island of Crete.

As the tale goes, Daedalus had a falling out with King Minos, whom he had been serving, for what the king took as a betrayal. As punishment, Minos imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus in a Labyrinth, a maze, that he had Daedalus build earlier to imprison the Minotaur, a beast whose top half was a bull and bottom half was a man but that lay slain at that time. In the Labyrinth, the inventive Daedalus used wax and feathers to craft wings for himself and his son so that they may fly out of the Labyrinth and Crete to escape King Minos.

Before they took flight, Daedalus cautioned Icarus not to fly too low, for the water from the sea would dampen and weigh down the feathers nor too high for the sun would melt the wax bonding the feathers to his body. When they did take to the skies, the excitement of flying made Icarus disregard his father’s warnings. Eventually, Icarus climbed too high up in the sky and flew too close to the sun – where the increased heat from the sun melted the wax and made the feathers come off, plunging him into the sea beneath.

In today’s climate, this could be taken as a cautionary tale, reminding ambitious politicians not to get too close to the source of life and power in this republic, but today that is not why I am retelling it.

In 2016, Richard Browning, a long-time professional oil trader at British Petroleum and reservist in the Royal Marine, began working on a personal project at his home – developing a usable jetpack that allows for stable, controllable flight. It took Browning only a year to develop a working prototype. In 2017, at a demonstration in California, Browning secured seed funding to take his garage-built hobby project to the next level and founded Gravity Industries Ltd and began development of the aptly named Daedalus jet suit.

For the mythical Daedalus, necessity was the mother of invention, but for Browning the development of the jet suit was an enthusiast’s effort. Today, interest in his company’s product has spread from customers in the entertainment and marketing sectors to military services. The Daedalus jet suit is a great motivational tale of private-sector innovation that yielded some level of commercial success in an unusually short timeframe.

To be clear, for most people a hobby is the pursuit of a passion or talent, creative or otherwise. On the weekend, a commodity trader can build a jet suit, an engineer can be a painter, a doctor might be a Call-of-Duty player, a lawyer can be a motorcycle mechanic, a plumber can be a violinist and a truck driver can be a photographer. It is something to be enjoyed, not necessarily to develop it into an entrepreneurial venture. For builders, tinkerers, and makers, across much of the Western world, the basement or garage is the place in the house that provides the space for the pursuit of such interests and hobbies.

Browning’s success was enabled by curiosity, a willingness to tinker, physical space to pursue such an endeavor, spare money to spend on a hobby without the expectation of making any return and, of course, private spare time.

Ask yourself: how many of our fellow countrymen and women have the luxury of these elements in their lives? How many people renting their homes can afford to pay for space beyond fulfilling their basic needs? How many adult men and women have disposable income to spend on themselves? And after spending anything between 8 and 12 hours at work, surviving the hassle of commutes, dealing with all the other inevitable drains on one’s time that are part-and-parcel of life in this republic (arranging for a steady supply of water, gas, electricity, security, food, transportation), how much time does that leave people?

But let us put all of those factors aside, because they are largely manifestations of the tough economic conditions we are subject to. Instead, consider the social acceptability of a time and money consuming pursuit by an adult with responsibilities. Hobbies – play – are considered the purview of children, not middle and older aged people who would be considered immature and not to be taken seriously for maintaining such pursuits. Socially sanctioned activities include going out to eat, listening to music, reading, and the occasional game of cricket or, for those who have access to it, golf.

In December of last year, the University of Swat organized an auto-show on its campus which was very well attended. The cars on display were relatively modest, comprising mostly modified versions of the same cars you see plying the roads of cities up and down the country but none that would turn heads in major cities (with a handful of exceptions). And yet, some publicly decried this unticketed public event as ‘insensitive’ to the sentiments of those that could not afford to buy cars such as those on exhibition.

Let us put aside for a minute the unsustainability of granting people the right to not be offended (If your sentiments are offended by an auto show, don’t go there – if you cannot bear watching coverage of it, change the channel). If the standard of acceptability for how people spend their time and legal (and taxed) income is what the other 230 million people in this country can also afford, then nothing can be permissible.

And do not count yourself out of the ‘rich’! In 2021, Pew Research released a global income calculator (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/07/21/are-you-in-the-global-middle-class-find-out-with-our-income-calculator/). If you select your country, household income (in 2020) and number of household members, it will show you whether you fit into your country’s high, upper-middle, middle, low income or poor bracket. Were you making Rs50,000 a month in a household of two? Congratulations, you are a middle-income household. Rs100,000 in a household of three puts you in the upper-middle income bracket. For a household of four, Rs280,000 puts you into the high-income category. If you are reading an English newspaper or have access to the internet, chances are you fall somewhere above the middle-income bracket.

Once the number of people in a pursuit exceeds a critical mass, even a leisurely pursuit can turn into something more, something which can develop new skills, seed new technologies and industries (like Browning might) or solve problems (as Daedalus supposedly did). I was recently introduced to BattleBots, a show on Netflix about a competition in which, you guessed it, robots battle in three-minute rounds on a 48-by-48-foot steel floor of a closed-off arena encased in three-inch thick bulletproof glass. Robots are outfitted with creatively designed weapons ranging from spinning discs and axes, lifters (to flip over opponents), saws, clamps, projectiles, to torches and flamethrowers.

What really caught my attention were the profiles of the contestants. The teams behind the robots are an eclectic mix of hobbyists, enthusiasts, weekend warriors and professionals. Many of them comprise families (multi-generational) seemingly doing it as a bonding activity. Quite a few of them are professionals, running robotics companies. Almost all of them have multiple sponsors.

We appear to have been blessed with less than our share of the tinker-instinct that compels people to build and be creative. The aversion to all manual labour beyond picking up a pen to sign an authorization or push a file is a cultural overhang. It is the line separating those who are (perceived to be) of some importance from those who are not.

In a democracy, even one as imperfect as ours, it is necessary for voters to remain informed of, engaged with, and participate in its politics. However, that does not mean that every first conversation we strike up with a stranger, every spare minute of our lives needs to be dedicated to it. Playtime and creative pursuits for our own selfish selves are important – even for adults. God knows we could all have more interesting personalities if we had a little more whimsy, a little more playfulness in our lives.

Dr Ayesha Razzaque, "The importance of playtime," The News. 2023-03-08.
Keywords: Social sciences , Economic conditions , Social acceptability , Low income , Security , Food , Transportation , Richard Browning , King Minos