For The Players (what’s in it …??)


In this blog, N8 Research Partnership’s director Dr Annette Bramley explores the benefits of a more playful work approach to research outcomes…


“What if you had a play-force, not a work-force?”- Josh Linkner, author of Big Little Breakthroughs and Disciplined Dreaming. 

I love this rhetorical question, from Josh Linkner, which I heard during his conversation with Mo Gawdat[1]. Josh’s view is that play has a different energy to work. Think about how we use the word play: children go out to ‘play’; we ‘play’ sports; we ‘play’ music; we watch ‘plays’. Now think about how we use the word work: we ‘work’ through problems; we ‘work’ up to something; we ‘work’ out. Do you feel the difference? I certainly can. There is a lightness to things we ‘play’ and although we can ‘work’ wonders, even that comes with a sense of challenge and difficulty. There’s a sense that when we are ‘playing’ we are enjoying the process, rather than dreading it; an air of collaboration rather than compliance. Josh poses the question, ‘can we have the same intensity about outcomes but with a more playful approach?’

This idea, that we can be serious about innovation and at the same time have a pleasurable experience, without feeling unprofessional or immature, is one that really appeals to me. For sure, we cannot all be playful all the time, yet there are times and places where not squashing down our desire to loosen up could both increase our ingenuity and be good for our mental and physical health.

When you are playing you are making the most of what you have in the present moment and using your imagination to expand the realms of what is possible. You’re able to adapt the game and respond to changes in the environment, loss of a toy, or a friend who has to go home for tea. Play can be a way of livening up something that is routine or boring (I-Spy anyone?). It can be useful for trying out something that’s a bit risky, a stretch, or out of our comfort zone. By learning how to fail during play, we can learn that it need not be the end, but that we can try again and be an even better player as a result.

My first blog post on the topic of play and research, Press Play for Innovation, focused on the impact of a more playful approach on creativity. In this post, I’m going to focus on what’s in it for the players, i.e. researchers, of adopting more playful mindsets and activities as part of their practice. Here are 4 benefits for the players, of a more playful approach to work:


1.     Play releases chemicals that are good for our brain

One of the reasons that play is good for us is that it releases chemicals that are good for our brains like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, and reduces the chemicals associated with stress, like cortisol.


2.      Play helps us get into ‘flow’

Play can also help us get into what is known as a psychological flow state. Many researchers will know a flow state- it’s that sense you have when you are completely immersed in an activity and time flies by.  In a flow state, our brain waves, the pulses of electrical activity created by neurons firing in sync with each other, are dominated by an optimal level of theta waves. There are many benefits to a flow state[2] including increased energy, improved brain function, reduced stress and burnout, and enhanced relationships. Flow releases the reward hormone, dopamine, which increases our self-esteem. Our attention is directed outwards, onto the activity, and not inwards so we become less self-critical, not distracted by fear of failure, more curious and optimistic.

There are many ways to get into a flow state, for example through sport, where it’s commonly called being ‘in the zone’, through painting or music or learning. Play is another way of getting into flow when we can be completely focused on the activity or the game we are playing, finding joy in the means more than the ends.

Because the kicker is, if you play just for the benefits, it stops being play and starts being work. Oliver Burkeman, the psychologist, calls this the paradox of play, that is, ‘it’s only really play if you do it primarily for the joy of engaging in the activity, otherwise it risks making life less enjoyable’. Psychologist and author Peter Gray also says that motivation and mental attitude is central to play; you have to be free to choose to play, and to quit and not obliged to play. Have you ever enjoyed studying a subject or developing a skill just for the fun of it, without worrying about exam results or an assessment? If so, you’ve been a playful student. You’ve been focused, finding joy in the learning without attachment. That doesn’t mean the studying (or playing) was easy or without challenge or frustration. Play can be all those things whether you are playing alone or with others.


3.     Play helps us learn to collaborate and negotiate

Playing with others helps both children and adults engage in types of behaviour that positively support negotiation and collaboration. As children, we learn through play that if you want your friends to continue to play with you, you cannot demand that only your game is played, according to your rules, all the time. Play helps us develop our social skills, to compromise, and to develop empathy. Children making up games negotiate the rules, and agree to any rule changes, or are free to leave the game. They learn how to ‘play nicely’, in a way that is acceptable to their peers, otherwise, their peers won’t want to play with them. Adults, too, can enhance their relationship and collaboration skills through play. We tend to be attracted to people that can transform a boring or stressful situation into something enjoyable. On the other hand, we will tend to avoid people that are playing ‘mind games’ because they are not ‘playing nicely’; but trying to manoeuvre us into behaving the way that they want- into playing ‘the game of life’ according to their rules.


4.     Play helps us become more resilient and adaptable

Resilience and adaptability are key skills, put to the test during Covid-19. Play can help us develop our ability to bounce back from or adjust to, changes in our circumstances or frustrating situations.

No one is going to want to play when faced with an immediate threat like a burning building or a tiger in your office. But when the immediate threat passes, human beings can be found playing, even in very difficult circumstances. It’s a way of releasing the stress and anxiety associated with the threat. A serious researcher with a playful attitude can still have ambitious goals for their research, while their upbeat outlook will help them release the inevitable frustrations and tensions of academic life.

This is Part II of a series of articles about play and research. Part III coming soon.


Further reading/Links

The power of a playful workplace:

[1] Catch Josh and Mo here