Serious Fun

Illustration of adults playing a learning card game

Why is it so hard for adults to play? As soon as we get our first real jobs, using our time productively shoves play off the agenda. But why? Is adulthood really this boring?

Researcher Stuart Brown, MD describes play as “time spent without purpose.” That makes a lot of people very anxious, so we create purpose to fill the time: agonizing over presentations, picking them apart until they become meaningless, or drafting and re-drafting the same speech until we can’t remember what we wanted to say in the first place. We even turn supposedly fun things (like running) into workouts, activity-based problem-solving becomes a workshop, a bunch of like-minded colleagues transform into a workgroup. Why are we all working so hard? What happened to play?

The notion of play is something all animals have as part of our evolutionary drive for survival. Play connects us with others, which helps us increase our tribe and provides safety, and also helps us know we are not alone in the world. But somehow, human adults treat play as a thing to grow out of. In a culture where there is simply no time for non-productive time and where exhaustion (“too busy to sleep!”) and productivity are status symbols, goofing around is seen as, well, child’s play. Yet, adult play is important. It has the opposite effect on the body as stress—it often leads to laughter, which makes your blood pressure go down and your dopamine levels go up. Clearly play is good for your mental health, and vital for your sense of well-being.

Play can also make us more productive. Free time is at the core of creativity and innovation because it creates clear space where ideas are born. Playing and collaboration at work helps with team building and rapid solutioning, and it’s no secret that play is a huge part of the design thinking process. Watching kids play with blocks is the clearest example of how play leads to a better result: if a tower topples over, they don’t rebuild it exactly as it was, they frantically search for the nearest thing to stabilize it and build without fear of failure. In fact, they are never too attached to anything they build because they expect it to fall apart, and know each tumble is only a temporary setback before they scoop up the blocks and try—possibly fail—again. If it didn’t work, they don’t care, because now they can rebuild with wings this time, or five additional storeys, and doing it over is the whole point of the game. Playing helps them figure out how to make something stronger and better.

At Innovation Arts we know that if you can’t have fun with a problem, you will never solve it. In our consulting work we encourage people to draw big on large whiteboards and super-sized pieces of paper rather than perfecting PowerPoint presentations. Similarly, our creative communications work typically starts out with sketches literally on napkins. And through our emergent work around games science, we are building ways to enable collaboration through play in the workplace—convinced as we are of how group energy and productivity surge powerfully when people are purposefully engaged in creating and learning.

Our experience, combined with research into neuroscience, psychology and anthropology, has deepened our understanding of how to design play scenarios to help organisations with a spectrum of challenges from problem solving to bringing culture to life, to facilitating integration between groups. The sweet (fun?) spot is where people come to life in a safe and creative space, where they have permission to express themselves. Just imagine what happens when colleagues are at their most free, their most intimate, their most, well, human.

Don’t take our word for it: call us to arrange a free play-test of our pioneering values game Dilemma! Innovation Arts is the globally recognised hybrid strategy and design consultancy known for its work with some of the world’s leading companies, as well as a range of global NGOs and public sector organisations. Named by GQ as the ‘management consultant of the future’, Innovation Arts has enjoyed over 10 years of helping business leaders to successfully navigate transformational change and organisational challenges within their companies. On the public stage, Innovation Arts works with organisations as diverse as the World Economic Forum and TED where they support the emergence of new ideas through creative collaboration. Innovation Arts’ head office is based in London with satellite operations throughout North America and Europe