Play is a vital element in the psychology of human beings. As children, we learn a tremendous amount about how to be a person through playing with peers, adults, younger children, even imaginary playmates! Anyone who has spent any time watching or playing with children who are absorbed in their playtime probably agrees that play can seem very unstructured and chaotic, but there is an underlying method to the way play is initiated, carried out, and terminated. This looks different sometimes, but some elements are consistent: rules (spoken or not), a balance between exploration and control, some form of assessment of results, power hierarchy, etc. There are often clashes between playmates, and it is typically due to a discrepancy in the way that each individual conceptualized the expectations of these types of play elements upon entering the "game" - that, or one of the children is hungry or tired! At any rate, play - all forms of which can be thought of as more- or less-structured games - can be seen to have dynamic but manipulable facets that can enable one to take advantage of its benefits on our health and interactions.
At this point, the remainder of this article could go several directions: how to guide play in children, how adults can learn to play more, how to play with your kids, the health benefits of play, etc. However, I am choosing to focus on an intrapersonally-oriented application of play that is often overlooked as a helpful means of adapting to the difficulties of mental life. By intrapersonal, I mean the phenomena within the individual - mental phenomena. It is my view that we can tap into the innate human proclivity to grow through games by consciously (or not) applying types of "play principles" like those listed above to the way we interact with the our perception of sensations, mental images, emotions, and thoughts in our daily life.
Meeting our inner experiences with curiosity, openness, and non-judgmental acceptance is tough. It often seems impossible and some may even argue that it is; but through practice with monitoring and modifying our focused attention, we can learn to approach the way we sense, imagine, remember, feel, and think in the present moment with skill and discernment that can lead to ease, peace, and well-being. Focused attention is so important because of the way our brains respond to it. Focused attention can stimulate an area in the brain called the nucleus basalis to secrete a neurotransmitter (basically the stuff that allows neurons to communicate) called acetylcholine (pronounced eh-Seetl-KO-leen) which theoretically promotes connectivity between brain cells by increasing the likelihood that those brain cells collectively firing at one moment will activate simultaneously again in the future. Also, when neurons in the brain fire (a phenomena called "action potential" - the way neurons communicate by sending/receiving electrical charges to/from other neurons), another amazing compound is thrown into the mix: myelin. The brain has over 100 billion neurons and keeping those neurons tuned-up and squeaky clean are trillions of glial cells. When an electrical impulse is send down the shaft-like axon of a neuron to the synapse between it and an adjacent neuron's receptive dendrites, glial cells coat the outside of the axon with a fatty protein called myelin. When a neuron's axon is well-coated with myelin, the effectiveness (higher speed and lower refractory period) is boosted up by about 3000 times! These turbo-charged neurons are ready to fire together (because of the release of acetylcholine) and super efficiently (because of the cell's myelinization). The result of the process of myelinization is called neuroplasticity - our brains' ability to change in function and structure through experience - and this occurs most prominently when focused attention, aerobic exercise, novelty, or emotional arousal are present in the experience. Neuroplasticity, as it turns out, is extremely useful because it allows us to use some mental experiences (like focused attention) to change our brain (the tissue in our head and body) which can lead to an alleviation of mental suffering.
Whoa, wait... we were talking about kids playing, right?
So in keeping with the play theme, here's the simpler version: imagine several water slides at the top of a hill (the neurons) with kids (the electrical impulses - that is kind of what they are, right?) all trying to synchronize their jumps (the effect of acetylcholine) and some adventurous devil throws on some liquid soap (myelin). The kids now zip down faster, and the more they do it, the better they get at timing their jumps. So if there was a water sliding olympic game, they'd be ready!
This was all to say that the more respond to the perceiving of sensations, images, feelings, and thinking in certain ways, the more likely we are to skillfully recreate those responses. It works both ways too. If we respond to social anxiety by desperately trying to avoid social situations, our brains get "better" at initiating that response. On the other hand, if a toddler is painfully shy, but her parents are dedicated to COMPASSIONATELY guiding her toward experiencing more and more of the world of socialization, the child gets "better" at (and more comfortable with) socializing.
If we now take our game-playing method of approaching mental occurrences, and decide to be our own compassionate figures of guidance (like the parents to the girl above), we can find different, more preferable methods to handle mental suffering. The way games can help is to adopt a game-playing-like attitude about our own experience. Our calling it "game-like" does not indicate that it is unimportant. Games are extremely important, as we can see in the way our children develop. Say someone with runaway negative thoughts (the kind that are self-loathing and perpetually pessimistic) allows himself to enter into a "game" with those thoughts. He may decide that one object of the game is to notice when the runaway negative thoughts (let's call them "runaways") are encroaching upon him. The next level of the game may be to discern what the runaways want. Do they want to fight? Take over? Score points? Whatever their goal, he can decide the rules for his own goals and how to achieve them. Maybe he wants to stay with the noticing. Throughout the day he can keep track of the number of times he sees them coming. Even if the runaways overwhelm him, he still can "win" by noticing them occur. Another step, after the noticing skills have been build, might be to catch one or two runaways. Once he sees them coming, he can isolate one like a tiger in tall grass hunting a gazelle and pounce when the time is right. If he misses, he can just try again. Once he does catch one, he can investigate, interrogate, or just observe how he is impacted by the presence of the runaway. What happens to his body when he is holding that thought? Any emotional change? Specific images or imaginary scenarios? Once he ascertains the information he wants, he can then kindly let the runaway go again. It may stick around, but he now is familiar with it. He knows it.
This type of game playing can be taken in countless directions. Setting up rules, structure, goals, methods, pretending, and keeping score are some ways we can apply game-playing strategies to the perceptions of our sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts. By relying on the way our brains treat certain types of experiences involving focused attention, we can choose to allow difficult mental occurrences (even those we are plagued by) to serve as means of achieving the intrinsic value of play and gaining more control over our mental lives in the process.