The rules of play

A look at the prerequisites for productive play

Karin Dames
Feb 17 · 8 min read

Play is how children learn. Play is a tool to master a new skill. It’s a tool to develop social skills like negotiation and teamwork. It’s a tool to innovate.

When children play, they subconsciously give their playmates permission to make mistakes. Something mostly unheard of in a corporate world where success is mostly judged by past successes with potential and possibility often disregarded as there’s too much risk involved. Allowing people to make mistakes is a too high risk for a professional environment.

Yet, it is in the risk-taking that growth and success lies. The skills provided by play — namely cultivating curiosity, learning, and social skills — is in fact what most organizations look for and need to stay ahead of their game.

The key to productivity

Allowing a team to play a game together will not suddenly transform a disengaged team into a productive, happy workforce. Similarly, adding points, badges and leaderboards doesn’t motivate everyone as often people are made out to believe. In fact, points, badges, and leaderboards is one of hundreds of game mechanics available that is designed to motivate only approximately 3% of all player types.

Definitely not the one answer to life, the universe, and everything.

In itself a game doesn’t transform work into play, just like dressing up like a superhero doesn’t make you Superman. For play to be productive there must be a few crucial things in place. Here are the most crucial ones:

1. Safety first

Your first, and possibly most important, goal as game master at work is to establish team safety.

Yes, that’s right.

Team safety first.

No safety. No play.

When your objective is to control people or manipulate people to do something they don’t want to do, don’t be surprised when they don’t buy into the game. Before you even attempt to play, the team needs to trust that you have their best interest at heart.

Only once you have gained the trust of your team can you engage in play, with one of the most important prerequisites for play being the ability to totally relax. If they don’t trust you, they won’t relax.

Play is essentially permission to explore and create in a safe environment where failure is not only acceptable but often even more spectacular and fun than winning.

There’s no shame in failing as compared to real life.

Creating an environment where it is safe to fail invites people to take risks. When people are willing to take risks, they are also more likely to solve problems more creatively and innovate.

Don’t

To destroy safety, punish people subtly when they don’t behave the way you want them to behave or when they make a mistake. Don’t do it. Also, don’t ever, ever, ever make promises you don’t intend to keep. Finally, don’t use ambiguous words like we when you really mean you. Be clear and concise with your vocabulary. Don’t leave room for confusion.

Do

To create a safe environment to play, the leader needs to consistently prove that it is safe for people to make mistakes. Take a quick anonymous poll at your next retrospective to evaluate how people perceive failure and how safe they feel to make mistakes.

As a leader, demonstrate imperfection and how to handle it. Let’s face it. No one is perfect, and everyone makes mistakes. It’s how you own those mistakes that earn you the respect of your team. Admit your mistakes and say “I’m sorry” when due.

Safety, however, requires authenticity. Safety is a subconscious mechanic and relies more on intent than behavior. The words “I’m sorry” means nothing if there is not a genuine intent behind it.

Don’t say it if you don’t mean it.

Once safety is established, it’s game on!

Let’s play…

2. There’s no such thing as forced fun

This brings me to the second rule of productive play, namely that it’s only fun when you, as the player, have a choice. There’s an entire scientific research paper written on the topic of forced fun, or rather, questioning fun in the presence of involuntary play. Long story short, it is not possible to have fun when it is forced upon anyone.

The second rule of play is that for play to be fun and productive it must be voluntary.

A player must be able to choose whether they want to engage in play, without any repercussions whatsoever. When the Scrum Master pulls out the Lego and says “Let’s play”, it is a forced activity with no real choice to the players. When the team has to play planning poker, there’s no fun in that. Merely calling it poker doesn’t transform it into a game, just like dipping broccoli in chocolate sauce doesn’t hide the fact that it’s a vegetable, not a sweet.

To gain any benefit from play or make it engaging and productive it has to be voluntary.

As the game master, when inviting people to play always include the law of two feet — whereby everyone is invited to leave whenever they feel they are not contributing — and mean it.

If there is any repercussion to a person deciding not to participate in play, however subtle, you, as the game master, have broken the most essential rule of play.

Game over.

3. Make space for play

While your primary goal as the game master is to create safety, your secondary goal is to reduce the workload to make space for play, a subject I am very passionate about. No one can have fun or relax when they are over-worked or has a deadline looming over their head.

To create space for play first reduce the workload and the stress. Don’t even attempt to play when there’s a deadline looming. Play is not going to take away the stress. Rather, it will possibly add to the stress. Having a little bit of fun is not enough to reduce the pain of the missed deadline.

The game master must first and foremost facilitate a team-wide clutter-clearing of work, specifically busy-work. Is what you’re doing really productive? Does it help you meet your objective? Or are you doing it because everyone else does it?

De-cluttering the workspace may take weeks or even months. In some cases years. Systematically work through each aspect of work and reduce the load until only value-add work is left over.

Once the workload is manageable, clear out your calendar and respond to playful gestures from the team.

You’ve got 30 seconds or less before the playfulness is gone. Use it.

Play is an attitude. It relies heavily on emotion. The good ones. Especially initially while you’re still trying to get buy-in from the team it’s crucial to have impromptu play-sessions rather than scheduled play.

4. Co-create

In improv theatre one of the fundamental rules is that of inclusivity. Each time someone comes up with a suggestion, the response is acceptance and inclusion. Yes and, rather than no but. When you don’t go with the story, you block it. The same applies for play to be fun. It’s more fun when everyone is included.

The best play sessions happen unplanned and is created, not planned in detail. Your role as game master is to create an environment for play and facilitate the session, not control it.

One of the most important aspects of fun is self-expression and player autonomy. When play is owned by everyone, with each individual an active co-creator, it’s really fun. When one person is responsible for all the rules and how to play, it’s less fun.

As game master, you may start with a suggestion and some basic rules, but always invite suggestions from the players. You know you’ve succeeded when the players shape the game.

5. Start small

So many things never get done because it’s simply too big. Small is beautiful.

Don’t spend months trying to design the perfect game. There’s no such thing. Don’t try to be original or weird. Anything can be turned into a game. Play is more an attitude than a skill. Play relies heavily on imagination and movement.

Don’t try to play. Rather, let it happen organically and evolve little by little. Apply one of the many game mechanics to your retrospectives rather than trying to invent an entire new game.

For example, when you test a system, typically you need to create test data. Make it more playful by substituting boring names like John Doe, with your favorite Marvel characters.

I’ll never forget the first time I demo’ed a system to an unexpecting and very serious group of highly educated people using users as characters from the Fifth Element movie. Hidden giggles evoked from the audience while I seriously pretended nothing was wrong as I continued the demo. The giggles relaxed the audience and allowed for more open interaction and knowledge sharing that previously was not ‘acceptable’. By breaking the social rules just ever so slightly, I opened the door for collaboration between different teams and soon competition turned into comrades.

Play is about the unexpected. It’s about imagination. Rather than talking about the users, become the users. Immerse yourself. Take on an imaginary persona and do and say things out of character for you. Pretend. Just for a little while.

Don’t take work so seriously. Care less about what other people think. You can’t have fun and worry about what other people think at the same time. Choose wisely where you put your attention.

More fun games are usually simple and straight-forward without long explanations. The game master’s goal is to add playful design to boring or complex work as an integrated part of it, not a separate game that doesn’t link back to the work in any way.

The power of play lies in your ability to integrate it back to the workplace.

When, for example, you want people to be more vulnerable and connect, play your version of truth and dare. When you want people to pay attention, play a version of spin the bottle rather than the traditional round-robin to decide who’s next. No need to reinvent the wheel.

Your goal, as the game master, is to find the fun. It’s when people are having to fun that they are highly engaged, when they come up with ideas worth exploring when they are more open to collaboration.

Find the fun

Playful design is inclusive design. It’s a way to bring out the best in everyone in the team. It’s about acceptance, and acceptance is the highest currency to express love. When people feel loved, they’re productive, they’re engaged and they’re committed.

And when everyone in the team feels safe to play, the real work can begin.


Karin coaches teams towards agility and facilitate workshops using playful design to create more engaged and productive teams.

Contact her for a custom design sprint or workshop and visit www.funficient.com to learn more about playful design and how to create productive workplaces.

Teal Times

A collection of resources about organizational development…

Karin Dames

Written by

A cup of fresh ideas for old problems. Integrating technology, agile, gamification & lean to make workplaces more human, productive & fun. www.funficient.com

Teal Times

A collection of resources about organizational development and productivity.

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