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Serious Play


Slow - Children at PlayFew would argue we live in a time of almost unprecedented change. We watch uncomfortably as one problem after another grows in scale and urgency, our efforts to address them largely ineffective.

This growing rift between the size and complexity of our problems and the effectiveness of existing approaches to address them – termed “the ingenuity gap” by futurist Thomas Homer-Dixon in his 2002 book – calls out for new alternatives, new ideas. And yet one of our best weapons for generating new ideas and increasing creativity from everyone is routinely discouraged or dismissed.

No fun allowed
Research has repeatedly shown that children at play are not wasting time, they are engaging in an activity that is vital to their physical, social, and emotional development. Playing stimulates curiosity and imagination and encourages exploration of new ideas and behaviors in a relatively risk-free environment – conditions that are ripe for creativity.

As we become adults, we play less and less – and only in certain settings – undermined by our own self-consciousness. We grow embarrassed about sharing our ideas, fearing the judgment of our peers, and avoid any behavior considered outside the norm. This fear leads to more conservative thinking and behavior.

The problem-solving orthodoxies taught in school and the “best practices” of the business world routinely suppress ingenuity. We sacrifice play – and creativity – at the altar of efficiency.

Even in everyday language, play is stigmatized by society. We condemn the deceitful business owner who is “gaming the system,” or raise our eyebrows at the lothario and label him a “player.”

A powerful force
Despite discouragement at every turn, our basic human needs and desires don’t change as we age. We want to play. Based on the phenomenal growth of the gaming industry – measured by video game consoles, online games, and mobile apps – we will play.

In a good game, we play on the edge of our skill level, receive regular feedback and rewards, and live in a heightened state of energy and attentiveness. This sort of practiced improvisation mimics the mindset and neurochemistry of our most creative state. It’s exhilarating.

But it’s not as if we need any of that on the job, do we?

In his research, psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith argues that play is both misunderstood and vital to the well being of children and adults: “The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.”

Unleashing our playful nature
It’s commonly asserted that we learn from our mistakes, and yet every societal, educational, and workplace signal discourages us from making any. Mistakes could cost you respect, influence, or your job. If you make a mistake, someone might criticize or correct you. Mistakes cause people to feel ashamed or embarrassed.

Someone once asked Thomas Edison if he was discouraged by his numerous failed attempts to invent the light bulb. He responded by saying that he hadn’t failed, he just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Most of us don’t work in an environment that supports that kind of unbridled experimentation. A perception exists that there is simply too much at stake. Time is money, as they say.

However, John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, noted in a recent essay that “you increasingly hear large corporations and institutions now wish to act more like start-up companies, in order to innovate and become more agile.”

To encourage innovation, we must create environments where people feel secure in taking risks. When we can act as if there is nothing (or little) to lose, we are more willing to try new things. In making mistakes, we continue to learn, uncovering fresh approaches that expand our ability to solve problems. In other words, we are free to play.

Making play work
Trying to instill an innovative workplace culture, it’s easy to get lost in the trappings of “creativity” – installing a foosball table in the conference room and ordering everyone to wear Hawaiian shirts on Fridays – but it’s more important to understand what drives our enjoyment of playing games.

Play is a rewarding activity because it fulfills a basic human need to feel productive. In the context of a game, we enjoy our ability to make something happen. In order to translate those same feelings to workplace activities, you must have:

  • An environment that eliminates (or reduces) the fear of failure.
  • A clear goal.
  • Actionable next steps.
  • A more direct correlation between actions taken and their impact.

Feedback is key. Playing a good game is engaging because we receive nearly instantaneous feedback and rewards. We know what we’re trying to accomplish, we know what to do next, and even our failures fill us with optimism that we are getting closer to winning.

If we want to make work more meaningful – even fun – it’s time to get serious about play.

Related content:
Why is Play Important?
Tales of Creativity and Play
Reality is Broken