If you’ve been testing software for any amount of time you’ll know how important words are. The words we use, how we say them, when we say them… We navigate a minefield of carefully chosen prose on a daily basis, ensuring we have communicated to the best of our ability what we actually mean. Semantics has become important in my career, as such, certain words have seemed off limits to me when talking about testing. Now a chance conversation with a developer colleague has forced me to reexamine and re-engage with a word I have avoided using for years: play. Often used by developers as a synonym for testing, I had blacklisted this word to the graveyard of my lexicon. It would seem this was a hasty and unfair decision.

What’s so wrong with playing?

I wasn’t always so appreciative of the importance of semantics. Early on in my career I scoffed at the importance of distinguishing between being asked to test or explore the software versus being asked to ‘have a play’. What does it matter? I know what that person means! It was only when a friend, and fellow tester, kindly pointed out the distinct difference, that it clicked. To be asked to ‘have a play’ or to ‘play around’ with a product or feature implies lack of skill or thought. The word play conjures images of screaming children running around blindly with no direction, purpose or goal. To be asked to test or explore gives proper credit to what we are doing; critically and laterally thinking about the product, using skill and insight to plan, execute and report our testing.

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It made complete sense to me. In an industry where it’s increasingly difficult to communicate testing’s value, language is our first line of defence. From that day on, whenever I have been asked to ‘have a play’ with a product I have attempted to, I hope politely, speak up and explain that children play, testers explore. Most developers that have been on the receiving end of that correction have dutifully nodded and visibly made a mental note not to upset the picky tester again. That was until I made the same correction to a developer in my team last week.

A different perspective

I had been sent a quick slack message ‘ Feature x is done, ready for you to have a play’. I thanked him and replied with the party line about the difference between playing and exploring. As expected, he kindly said he’ll remember that for next time, but then went onto comment, ‘Playing is exploring’. He then shared an article with me that he had recently read called The play deficit, written by Peter Gray, a psychologist and research professor at Boston College. By examining what ‘play’ really means and represents in a wider context, Gray tackles preconceived notions that playing and learning are mutually exclusive activities. He opens the article by referencing how the drive for a longer school day in the US is framed under the question ‘Do you want your kids to learn more or play more?’ He argues we’ve got it all wrong; playing is learning.

I had never looked at it this way before. The more I read the more I could relate what he was saying back to the principles of software testing. I highly recommend you read the article but these are some of the points that stuck out most to me:

Playing is exploring (as my colleague correctly pointed out).
Playing is observing and mimicking actions that later turn into skill.
Playing is practising. When we play we learn and as we learn we practise. He references Darwin and the animal kingdom as an example of where this can be seen, with the so-called ‘practice theory of play’ well-accepted today by researchers.
Whilst playing, you learn attitude, you learn to take responsibility for yourself.
Playing is freedom. You don’t have rules and restrictions to hold you back from your learning
Playing stimulates creativity and curiosity. Gray references examples of countries where children spend more time at their studies and less time playing and notes a distinct correlation with the level of creativity and imagination of those children.
The greatest inventors and innovators of our time retained childlike abilities of creativity- Albert Einstein who apparently hated school referred to his achievements in theoretical physics and mathematics as ‘Combinatorial play’
Freedom!

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Mind blown. Everything Gray discusses I see as part of what I do everyday as a tester. I have to learn, practise, explore, be creative and ask questions. The more I thought about this word and the notion of playing in a broader context the more it became clear that I had been short sighted, biased, by incorrect perceptions of what it meant. When you play sport you use skill, strength, knowledge and often tactics to win a game. When you play an instrument, you have studied, observed, practised and worked hard in order to do that. Chess players are some of the most intellectual, skilled and critical thinking people in the world! The word play and playing itself should be embraced!

So be free to play — learn, observe, practice, create, enjoy and explore. I’ve been doing it all along it would seem 🙂

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