Observing a group of children engaged in play serves as a reminder that this is an innate activity. This is unsurprising, given the consensus among evolutionary psychologists that play, which involves imagining and simulating various scenarios, evolved as a vital adaptive mechanism. Children engage in play because it is hardwired into them; the brain's reward circuits reinforce this experience with appropriate chemicals, making it pleasurable and worth repeating.

Beyond children, mammals in general exhibit similar behaviours, raising a significant question: why? Considering the energy cost of play, why did evolution favour the retention of this ability? The argument posits that play isn't coincidental; it serves various important functions, including fostering cooperation and collaboration and providing a platform for experimenting with novel creations.

This concept becomes particularly pertinent in the context of innovation, aiding in the transformation of ideas into valuable outcomes.

Play as a Realm of Exploration

Play entails utilising physical and virtual elements to establish a secure environment for exploring new concepts. How do we transition from vague notions, inklings, and nascent ideas to more practical solutions? Not through a single leap, but through a series of stepping stones, bridges, and scaffolds—essentially, engaging with the ideas surrounding the problem. Children naturally exhibit this behaviour; as soon as they can hold and examine an object, they begin probing its potential. When they play together, they exponentially expand the array of possibilities—a simple cardboard box can effortlessly morph into a spaceship, a shop, a stage, or even a piece of clothing, all with remarkable speed.

Yet, play isn't solely about exploring the uncharted; it also equips us to navigate the complexities of existing challenges. Consider the mechanics of theatre (intriguingly, we refer to the theatrical experience as a 'play'). It provides a realm where we can grapple with and experiment with profound emotional and interpersonal complexities—our intricate social and political interactions, latent motivations, and the unveiling of concealed aspects. While the element of 'fun' might not always be evident, the theatrical arena acts as a simulator or laboratory that allows us to bring these matters into the open for exploration.

Facilitating Play through Structures

How do we facilitate and support play? Crucially, enabling structures are essential—we require spaces conducive to play. Think about how a kindergarten operates. These environments are typically not rigid classrooms; they are stimulating and dynamic physical spaces equipped with a variety of play resources such as paints and building blocks. These 'play structures' furnish the scaffolding needed for children to experiment and explore.

Increasingly, attention is directed towards creating environments conducive to innovation, as seen in examples like the Googolplex, Apple's innovative headquarters, or the Pixar studios. The notion of 'innovation labs' has become an indispensable component for any organisation, regardless of public or private sector, which is committed to innovation. These spaces recognise the necessity for dedicated areas where experimentation can flourish.

Games as Orchestrated Play

Integral to these enabling structures are games. Games essentially represent orchestrated play, where a domain is constructed with its own rules, allowing immersion and exploration. Dave Gray and collaborators suggest that games possess five key characteristics:

  1. Game Space: This is an environment where the rules of everyday life are suspended and replaced with the game's rules, creating a temporary alternate world.
  2. Boundaries: Games have distinct starting and ending points, often including physical boundaries like time limits and spatial confines, such as the dimensions of a football field.
  3. Rules for Interaction: These rules dictate how the game is played and interacted within the designated space.
  4. Artefacts: These elements enable the game's execution and provide information about the rules. Examples include counters in board games or the equipment in sports games.
  5. Goal: Games have objectives and a point of culmination, usually defined by a winning state achieved through the fulfilment of the goal.

Games present powerful opportunities for exploring alternate realities, experimenting, and creating in a focused manner.

The GAMIFY Project

The emphasis on learning to play has gained traction within the innovation realm. The GAMIFY project, a collaborative European initiative involving universities, corporations, and intermediaries, is an example. Its core purpose is to explore the application of games in innovation and to establish patterns and processes for constructing innovation-focused games.

The project includes collaboration with companies such as 3M, Lufthansa, Danske Bank, Generali, Karnstrup, and Deutsche Telekom, developing game-based approaches to address current 'hot topic' issues in the domain. Examples include managing innovation in remote work scenarios, fostering a 'customer first' orientation, and overcoming barriers to innovation within organisations.

Playing to Learn

An additional perspective arises—not just about learning to play, but also leveraging play to learn. The potency of play lies in its ability to facilitate simulation, rehearsal, experimentation, and, crucially, failure in a secure context. Thus, employing play as an educational tool is invaluable, aligning with our innate inclinations. Numerous educational theorists, including Piaget, consider play integral to children's intelligence development. Similarly, Vygotsky highlights play's role in stretching children through social engagement and collaboration, reinforcing existing knowledge and venturing into new territories.

Games hold substantial value within the learning process because they infuse it with enjoyment. The motivation to explore and acquire new knowledge is not always easily aroused, which underscores the importance of the aforementioned reward circuits.

Moreover, games provide a safe space for experimentation. The fear of failure and its consequences is mitigated within this domain. Consequently, whether the objective is understanding the intricacies of a new product, redefining value propositions, or addressing complex organisational challenges, game-based approaches stand as valuable tools within our innovation toolkit.

Playing for Significant Outcomes

The context we find ourselves in underscores the necessity for innovation. While immediate innovation efforts might concentrate on returning to a semblance of normalcy through incremental improvements, there's ample room for the kind of imaginative thinking that emerges from playing with novel concepts.

Perhaps George Bernard Shaw's insight, originally pertaining to individuals, holds true for organisations as well: 'We don’t stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing'