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Why I Play

On the weekend of August 26-28 we are going to have the third edition of #play14 in Basel. It is an unconference where participants show each other games that can be used in professional contexts: in workshops, teambuilding, coachings, to make meetings richer, or just to collaborate creatively. On this occasion I offer a short reflection about the meaning of games at work.

No-fun environment
“We’re not here for fun, this is serious work.” I am sure we have all seen fun prohibited at work, either explicitly, or we’ve just felt it was not welcome. But why should this be so? Why do people assume that play is unsuitable for professional contexts? Sometimes I wonder whether it is not so much that play does not help, but moreover that it does not befit the professional. It disturbs the decorum, the fit of the tie is at risk, a gemstone could drop off one’s crown. What is certain: if people fear for the recognition of their professional value, they avoid the imponderability of irony, of play, of any deviation from the norm. However, that is not so much the play’s fault, it is people’s lack of appreciation and self-esteem.

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.” George Bernard Shaw

Geek alert
On the other hand, especially in creative environments “flow”, being lost in work, happens the same way as children being lost in play. Games have the power to bring people into the immediacy of the moment, into a state of mind where the outside world fades away and all concentration is focused on the here and now. And it is in this state that a new openness, a new creativity emerges. Most effective creativity techniques have playful elements. Negative brainstorming, for example, is about gathering why something won’t work, why it won’t succeed. In the impulse to outdo each other with scary scenarios, people find more and “better” ideas than if they are asked directly how the product or project could be made better. It is then enough to work out in a second round what needs to be done to avoid the threats, and you end up with an excellent collection of ideas.

A means to an end
Collaboration is always a means for a common purpose: to achieve a result. Games in a professional context are nothing more than excellent means to achieve certain ends. These games are not about engaging in purposeless activities. If people come together who don’t know each other yet, one possible purpose is to create a group that is able to collaborate. Whatever people are asked to do – a project, a conference – they should get to know each other as quickly as possible so they can work together. Playful ice breakers are particularly helpful here. One possibility is “Name the Circle“. You state your name, your preferred activity, and you make a gesture to indicate the activity. Each successive person in the circle must repeat all the previous names, occupations, and gestures, and add their own. This introduction serves many purposes: people remember the names better, they have a conversation starter for talking to each other, and without being told, people in large groups help each other remember all the names and gestures – a first step toward a collaborative team spirit.

While many of these purposes can be achieved without play, play has one significant advantage: alienation. The game shows something that occurs in our reality, but in a different light. It doesn’t matter who is usually the boss, who is the expert, etc. The usual veils such as jargon and procedures do not apply in the game – thus other phenomena, such as group dynamics, come to light more clearly. A good example of this is the X-Y game, which is about trust and cooperation. In the heat of the game, it becomes very clear who is more likely to give much or little credit for trust, who thinks short-term or long-term, who is resentful, etc. A good de-briefing of such games is crucial. In this case: what kind of structural factors like transparency, interdependence, communication etc. influence the possibility of trust to grow, what can be done to foster trust in an organization, what should be avoided.

About #play14
What makes #play14 special is that people from a wide variety of contexts come together: professional facilitators, consultants, coaches, people from the Agile movement, youth and social workers, enthusiasts for improvisational theater, and many who are only marginally involved with these topics in their work but are passionate about games. #Play14 is an unconference, which means that there are no predetermined speakers to share their knowledge with the audience, but everyone who has something to share suggests it. Together we decide which topics will be covered in up to 5 parallel group sessions. This also allows each participant to compose their own program. The sessions mainly consist of playing the games, and maybe explaining a bit on the side how to use and moderate the games. This creates a unique atmosphere, and most importantly – fun!

Further information and registrations here.

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