Playing Works!

Here’s a quick word association test: When I say work what words pop into your mind? Think of a couple of words before you continue reading.

Our survey shows that these words are typically associated with work: pressure, boredom, deadlines, chores, office, salary, drudgery, nine-to-five, overtime, and goals.

What words do you think of when I say play? Think and respond. Our survey reveals that these words are strongly associated with play: fun, enjoyment, game, laughter, choice, spontaneous, relaxation.

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 they 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 playtime and increase your work time. Finish your work before you play.

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

Here are just a couple of sample 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 to think creatively.

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 of this gamification approach:

  • A wellness program requires participants to exercise 20 minutes every day. A manufacturer designs fitness equipment that requires two people to work out in a playful manner. The chore of solitary jogging is converted into interactive play.
  • An aptitude test is used to select employees for an international project. The mechanical paper-and-pencil test is replaced by a dynamic cross-cultural roleplay in which the candidates are encouraged to have fun with people from other cultures. The candidates’ behaviors provide objective and valid assessment data.
  • A troubleshooting job aid in the form of a complex flowchart is converted into a Snakes and Ladders game board. This game board presents the same content as the flowchart but more people enjoy using it.
  • Employees in a fast-food restaurant receive a 50¢ bonus for each day they arrive on time. This incentive system is replaced by another in which employees receive a playing card for arriving on time. At the end of the 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 designs Straight Shooter, a 3-D computer game, that lets players accumulate score points by answering review questions. Dull content suddenly acquires 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 reports amazing success with internet game shows that promote new products from such companies as H & R Block.

Got the idea? Go play with it!