In a world overwhelmed by the demands of work, “Bluey” reminds us of the ethical importance of play

As the summer of cricket continues, Max Jeganthan writes for ABC Religion & Ethics on the hit show, Bluey and the importance of play.

“You’ve achieved success in your field when you don’t know whether what you’re doing is work or play.” Actor Warren Beatty would hardly have envisaged his words being lived out by a world-famous cartoon family of dogs.

Bluey — Australia’s blockbuster television show, about a suburban Brisbane family of blue heelers — recently became the most streamed television show in the world. In Australia, Bluey’s viewership has smashed any other series to air, including Married at First SightLego Masters, the State of Origin and even the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics.

The Chase’s Brydon Cloversale wrote:

in seven minutes Bluey can pack a bigger punch, more heartfelt moments, greater laughs and deliver far more depth, time after time. It is simply perfect storytelling.

Kids love it. Grown-ups love it. As behavioural scientists put it, Bluey is super “sticky”. But why? When you think about it, this children’s show pushes against a number of strong cultural currents.

Utilitarianism’s untrammelled march

Modernity’s intellectual mid-wives — Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, David Hume, among others — set a stage of progress with mastery and utility as its backdrop. Human flourishing was deemed to be about the greatest good for the greatest number through the greatest achievement. It was a call for society to prioritise things that have material benefits for people — things that make us healthier and wealthier. Now, propelled by repeated explosions in computing power, mainstreamed Artificial Intelligence, and a steady stream of scientific breakthroughs, the march towards utilitarian utopia continues.

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, Charles Dickens wrote: “In a utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales should be respected.” Dickens’s warning was as prophetic as Bluey is percipient.

Recently released research from the National Academy of Sciences derived from data taken from 140 countries considered how people spend their time. It showed that the vast majority of our waking hours are spent chasing “outcomes”. On the other hand, research from the Australian Securities and Investments Commission found that between 39 and 50 per cent of Australians are too financially stressed, physically exhausted or time-poor to have fun.

“That’s what cricket’s about, kid!”

Bluey marches to a different drumbeat. In every episode, Bluey and her family have fun for its own sake. Not to kill time. Not so other dog families will think well of them. Not to create Instagrammable moments. Just fun for its own sake. There is always fun, but that’s never the end of the story.

The widely acclaimed and wildly popular Bluey “Cricket” episode tells the story of Rusty, a red-kelpie friend of Bluey’s who is unstoppable in a game of neighbourhood cricket. Sprinkled with flashbacks, the episode reveals that Rusty’s batting prowess is due to countless hours perfecting his technique and overcoming adversity in the face of varying conditions. He worked hard but his mastery is underpinned by fun. As the narrator declares, “Rusty just loved cricket”.

In the penultimate scene, it’s the last ball of the day and Rusty has proved that no one can get him out. Then, he unexpectedly sacrifices himself, deliberately hitting a catch to his little sister and celebrating with her. Bluey’s father, Bandit, leans over to Bluey and declares, “That’s what cricket’s about, kid!”

Seven minutes sustained by fun, seasoned with mastery, and perfected with kindness. One US viewer tweeted that the “Cricket” episode of Bluey is “quite possibly the best 7 minutes of children’s TV ever created.” I don’t think he is wrong.

When McDonald’s rolled out the Happy Meal in 1977, it was based on a carefully researched understanding about what kids need in order to be happy: something to eat, something to drink, and something to play with and learn from. Modern utilitarian liberalism promises the first two, but is largely silent on the third.

In a real-life echo of Bluey, England’s cricket coach Brendon McCullum has pioneered a dynamic approach to batting. Referred to as “Bazball”, it is underpinned by the idea of fun over performance. According to McCullum, “If you get hung up on your performance and the end result, it paralyses your ability to play instinctively.” I don’t know if McCullum watches Bluey or eats Happy Meals, but he shares the same playbook.

Shrugging off the weight of the world

Perhaps the utilitarian deal was more incomplete than incorrect. The weight of achieving outcome after outcome is laborious. We are more educationally, academically, and financially empowered than ever, but according to the data, we’re restless, anxious, and conflicted. We’ve accepted the assumption that we have to choose between joy and utility. We’ve chosen the latter and it isn’t proving to be much fun, or particularly kind. Our measures of success tend to elevate achievement, devalue fun and negate compassion.

In ancient Greek mythology, the titan Atlas was condemned to hold up the sky on his shoulders. Modern society has made Atlases of us. Utility and mastery may have become our light on the hill, but it has also become the weight on our shoulders — diluting our joy and crowding out kindness.

Perhaps the demands of utility and self-reliance cannot simply be excised. Maybe they need to be replaced. From John Stuart Mill to Friedrich Nietzsche, utility has reigned supreme in our world. But from Charles Dickens to Bluey, something else has reigned supreme in our hearts. We need to enjoy things for their own sake. We need fun. We need play. And we need kindness. Our Nietzschean drives haven’t shaken our Blueyean longings. We need fun in order to achieve and we need kindness in order to render our achievements meaningful.

Long before Dickens warned against the dangers of utilitarianism and Bluey offered an inoculation against it, King David — in the biblical book of Psalms — wrote of the simple fun of smelling freshly cut grass. Then his son — King Solomon — wrote of the importance of diligence. Some years later, their descendant — Jesus — declared the heart of human ethics to be sacrificial love. The three pronouncements form an audacious vision of the good life that seeks to alleviate the Atlassian burden of responsibility, invert the Nietzschean task of conquest and diminish the utilitarian mission of techno-capitalism.

This is a vision that recognises the simultaneous importance of fun, excellence, and kindness, as well as their indispensability. Millenia later, we are offered a telling reminder of all three from a lovable community of animated dogs.

Max Jeganathan is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and is undertaking a PhD on the ethical foundations of liberalism.

This article first appeared on the ABC Religion & Ethics website.
Image source: (Fair Use)