Play can be a tool for serious work and is beneficial in solving tough problems. Photo: Stockphoto

Playtime has a serious side

Wednesday, 8 August, 2018 - 09:34

Playful practices can help with the serious work of business, from product development to team building, or problem solving.

Playfulness is increasingly being recognised as an important characteristic among those seeking to thrive in an uncertain world that requires constant innovation, creativity, and problem solving.

Play underpins all of these activities and, as such, the ability to play and be playful is a key future skill.

The connection between play, innovation and creativity was one of the key findings in a 2012 JWT Intelligence report on play as a competitive advantage.

Similarly, as eminent game designer, educator and author Bernie De Koven has argued, play triggers creativity and innovation and helps people see problems in new ways.

Even developmental psychologists such as Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky have shown the fundamental value of play in healthy human development.

But the way many of us live these days might lead you to think that play hardly mattered at all, given the bad rap games and play still seem to get.

Gaming disorder?

Take for example the World Health Organisation’s recent high-profile decision to make ‘gaming disorder’ a disease, despite the views of numerous experts in the field that the research used to support the decision was inconclusive and of low quality. In fact, 26 of these experts were so concerned they wrote an open letter to the WHO in the Journal of Behavioural Addictions.

And guess what else? Other research, including a comprehensive review of more than 200 research papers carried out by the Young and Well Collaborative Research Centre in Australia have found that games can have many positive mental health benefits.

The problem is that the way games and play are viewed has become excessively narrow across much of society. It has come to mean only violent or deliberately addictive video games.

It excludes games that encourage open-ended creative play, or those that require being outside with your friends in a forest. It excludes board games that require teamwork, or games that immerse you in the most sublime and beautiful of worlds.

So, there seems to be a disconnect here, and it’s important to consider where this perception gap could lead.

Play deficiency

This negative view of games and play is perhaps contributing to another emerging trend – the decline of unstructured play and play-based learning in schools.

Writing in the American Journal of Play in 2011, researcher Peter Grey correlated the decline of play over the past half century with the rise of mental health issues in children and adolescents. In a time when we desperately need more playfulness, it looks we could be moving towards a play-deficient future.

What games can be

Being more playful doesn’t mean just playing more video games.  It doesn’t even mean spending more time with technology.

A few weeks ago, I led a project for the City of Stirling to co-create and run an escape room game with a group of 15 young people. If you haven’t come across them yet, escape rooms are physical world games where you get locked in a room and have to solve a series of puzzles to get out. They require problem solving and teamwork to play. They’re a wonderful example of what games can do and what they can be.

We made the game in just three days, and then ran it for the public. Tickets sold out before we had even finished it. Most of what we did was not using a computer. We worked together, experimented, made puzzles out of everyday objects, wrote stories and created characters. And, of course, we played.

The playfulness of the process made it safe and fun to experiment and make mistakes; to try something new, to be bold.

Together, we playfully created a playful experience for others. In both the doing and the outcome, participants used play as a tool for innovation.

The feedback from participants was that they felt more confident throughout the process, that it made them better at collaborating, and taught them new problem-solving strategies.

Play as innovation

As the JWT report on play argues, however, play isn’t just for kids; it’s a tool for serious work.

Imagine using this sort of playful process in your organisation for developing a new product, or for team building, or for figuring out new ways to tackle a tough problem.

In the future of work, playfulness will be key – no matter how old you are.