Blurring the lines of work and play

Everyone loves Mary Poppins, she makes work fun using magic! The boring task of tidying a room becomes an exciting, slightly perilous activity. Upon reflection it seems that we’ve been quite slow to recognise the benefits of making work more engaging by turning it into a game. In particular, play seems to be off limits to adults as it’s viewed as immature to be freely imaginative or challenged. It’s not okay if you don’t know something and this tyranny of maturity seems to purvey many businesses and institutions. Games offer a space where it’s okay to fail and it’s okay to try again which seems to be in conflict with adult conventions.


Video games received an extremely negative press when they first absorbed young people. The press argued that students would sacrifice their studies for an afternoon of Asteroids and Space Invaders and that this was a waste of time. Thanks to the rise of the internet (information overload) and behavioural science (human beings aren’t wholly rational) attitudes are changing. It’s no longer the responsibility of people to be interested, instead the content needs to be sufficiently engaging to attract and hold people’s attention. It’s impossible to win the battle for people’s time using the old ways of communication and so thankfully the world of ‘game = waste of time’ is at an end. In learning the pendulum of responsibility is shifting away from the learner and towards the deliverer – whether that is an individual or an institution.

I’m pleased that adults are seeing games in a positive light but it came a little too late for me. Having spent most of my teens slouched in front of a computer screen playing strategy or football games, I would have welcomed some mainstream recognition of the value of games in learning. I still have conversations with friends and family who think that learning should comprise of a 1000 page textbook with black and white copy. The attitude that learning is a serious process and therefore requires a serious approach i.e. one that appeals to the “rational” computer processor in our heads, is prevalent in our culture, particularly amongst the older generation. There’s bitterness in the tone of my father-in-law when he describes his experience at university and asserts that it should be the same for the current generation. To paraphrase, “if it’s fun, it ain’t learning”.


It is the culture of my team at work to survey the learner audience and to design learning interventions around the feedback. This makes sense as learning products are produced only where there is a demand. But this isn’t the whole story. To quote my boss, “who knew they were missing an iPad five years ago?” The point is that Apple created a demand through effective marketing, design and understanding human behaviour – what people say they do, isn’t always what they do. We can extend this further – what people say they want/need, isn’t always what they really want/need. It is the responsibility of learning professionals to understand learner behaviour and also to be brave enough to try new ways of doing things. New approaches will encounter resistance at first – trying to explain the benefits of games in learning to someone like my father-in-law can be a difficult challenge.


Enterprise Social Networking is another area which faces similar barriers to recognition i.e. Tibbr, Yammer or Jive. For me, the benefits of working transparently are obvious, and yet this assertion is still greeted with apprehension even by those who are relatively progressive in their thinking. According to Deloitte, 80% or Fortune 500 companies run an Enterprise Social Network but they’re not that well utilised. The challenge to demonstrate the value of a more dynamic and engaging way of working is that the majority have been brought up with a way that seems to work. It’s like trying to convince people who don’t care very much, that video games are a good thing and can be learning in themselves.

There are limits to the magic that we can conjure to exhibit the benefits of both video games and Enterprise Social Networks, a rational argument rarely seems to work. My view is that in order to get people to try the new thing, they need to be drawn to it with valuable, sticky content. Easier said than done, right! The truth is, things will change whether people like it or not, it’s up to learning professionals to decide whether they’ll be part of the solution or part of the problem.

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