SIMAGES 2015.2 – Playing Works!

Playing Works!

By Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan


Here’s a quick word-association test:  When I say “work” what words pop into your mind?

Think of a few words before you continue reading.


My survey shows that the words people think of are typically associated with work.  Examples are:  pressure, boredom, deadlines, chores, office, salary, drudgery, nine-to-five, overtime, and goals.

What words do you think of when I say “play”?  Think for a minute before reading further.  My survey reveals that the following words are strongly associated with play:   fun, enjoyment, game, laughter, choice, spontaneous, and relaxation

Convert work to play.

In her wonderful book, The Power of Mindful Learning, Ellen J. Langer shows how work and play can be converted into each other.  When the same task is presented to different participants, Langer and her associates found that people’s minds wandered more often when it was called “work” than when it was called “play.”  Participants enjoyed difficult tasks more when the same tasks were presented as play than when they were presented as work.

Over the past millennium, hard work has been the universal prescription for improving human performance:  If you want to earn more and learn more, reduce your play time and increase your work time.  Finish your work before you play, right?  Not so fast.


Research Findings.

Current research by Langer and others suggested that we have it all wrong:  Research on such diverse areas as stress, anxiety, creativity, self-efficacy, and neuroscience shows that we need to play more to improve our learning and performance.

Here are just two of the typical findings:

Eric Jensen (in his book, The Learning Brain) points out that when you are enjoying yourself and laughing, changes in the chemical balance of your blood boosts the production of neurotransmitters needed for alertness and memory.

Renate Caine and Geoffrey Caine (in their book, Making connections:  Teaching and the Human Brain) point out that when you feel threatened, tired, and helpless, your brain downshifts into more primitive instinctual responses.  You lose your ability to recall information, notice things around you, ask questions, and think creatively.


Samples of What You Can Do.

Play is one of the most powerful and least used strategies for improving human performance.  You can add playful elements to any program to improve the impact of other strategies.  Here are some real-world examples:

  • A wellness program requires participants to exercise 20 minutes every day.  A manufacturer in India designs fitness equipment that requires two people to work out in a playful manner.  The chore of solitary jogging is converted into interactive play.
  • The Institute for International Research, Inc., uses an aptitude test to select employees for overseas projects.  Recently, they replaced the mechanical paper-and-pencil test with a dynamic cross-cultural role play in which the candidates are encouraged to have fun with people from other cultures.  The candidates’ behaviors provide objective and valid assessment data.
  • A local computer company converted a troubleshooting job aid in the form of a flow chart into a Snakes and Ladders game board.   This game board presents the same content as the flow chart, but more people enjoy using it.
  • Employees in a Chinese restaurant received a 50-cent per hour bonus for each day they arrived on time.  This incentive system was replaced by another in which employees received a playing card for arriving on time.  At the end of each month, the employee who assembles the most powerful poker hand receives a $1,200 bonus.  The cost of the incentive system is the same, but the impact is more powerful.
  • Bankers go through uninspiring reading materials to learn facts, policies, and concepts related to derivatives.  My friend Marc Presensky designed Straight Shooter, a 3-D computer game that lets players accumulate score points by answering review questions.  Dull content suddenly acquired thrilling relevance.
  •  People are bored with traditional mass-market advertising.  In an interview in the April-May 1998 issue of Fast Company, marketing pioneer Seth Godin reported amazing success with Internet game shows that promote new products from such companies as H&R Block.

Got the idea?  Go play with it!  And don’t forget to let me know what you come up with.



Reprinted from The Thiagi Game Letter, August 2008, Volume 1, Number 5, published by Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer and used by permission.

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