The “F” word and the difference between role play and real play

I am slightly concerned that I am becoming a bit of a hypocrite!  Either that or I am simply becoming more aware of a subtle distinction in the way we go about this thing we refer to as ‘work’.

A colleague of mine recently pulled together a great proposal for a piece of work to be run as part of a big leadership conference.  It was a simple yet creative and engaging piece that I felt would truly help the participants to develop a deeper awareness of themselves and others in an experiential and playful way.  In my mind this was exactly what the client had asked for.   Having seen her do similar work in the past I knew that participants would also likely end up laughing a lot and enjoying themselves which I consider a wonderful by-product of inviting adults to engage in purposeful play.   At the last minute however the pitch was rejected on the basis that, whilst it sounded like a great learning experience, they wanted something more “fun”.

Over the last few years I have began to notice that I have a growing aversion to the use of the F-word (fun) in a corporate context.  It has the power to make me cringe both physically and mentally in the same way that watching a particularly awkward episode of The Office did.  The funny thing is that if one were to ask individuals who have participated in workshops that I have run, or those run by similarly minded colleagues, they would generally describe the playful nature of the experience as “fun”.  This is where my worry about becoming a hypocrite creeps in.  Why does “fun” feel OK in one context but not another?  Am I only welcoming of “fun” if it is as a result of my actions or those of others whose work I respect?  Am I jealous at some level that fun is occurring in places where I am not present or able to participate?  Or am I simply becoming grumpy in my advancing years?  Whilst age may play a part in better noticing and articulating these feelings I am pretty sure that it isn’t a major causal factor.

If I reflect on my own experiences as a participant rather than a facilitator I notice that I have a different feeling depending on whether fun is expressed as an up-front, explicit objective versus where fun simply occurs as natural and possibly unintended consequence of the work. If I engage in an activity or interaction and find myself playing, learning and enjoying it then it feels appropriate to say “that was fun”.  However if somebody at the front of the room says “The objective is to have fun” or “This is going to be fun” I find myself cringing and searching for an excuse to leave the room.  I feel like responding by shouting back “That’s for us to decide – not you!”  I’d rather endure a mind numbingly mundane meeting than engage in forced fun – they type of experience in which even the person leading it looks like they are trying to convince themselves it is enjoyable!  Even worse is the reaction I have when “fun” is presented to me as the main outcome of a piece of work I am being asked to design.  Fun feels an appropriate word when it is something that occurs naturally in the moment, but troubling when it is something that one sets as an objective for others.  I can’t help but think that my colleague’s client had convinced themselves that  “fun” was going to make the difference they wanted whereas what they were  actually seeking was to learn and discover through “play”.

As I reflect on this I begin to notice another fine distinction between play that is valuable, versus play that is, for want of a better phrase, a waste of time and effort!  I see a big difference between what I would describe as real play versus role play.  As a natural introvert I always feel some discomfort the moment the person at the front of the room announces “Get into groups…” but I have gotten better over time at not letting my preference to learn in private prevent me from fully embracing an opportunity to discover with others.  On many occasions I have found the mutual experience rich in learning and insight even though there are moments of personal discomfort as I discover things about myself through shared, public experiences.  However, on other occasions I find the experience excruciatingly pointless and wish I could be anywhere else but in that room!

It seems that the experiences that engage me and are of most value are the ones that I would refer to as real play – experiences that are both live and consequential.  In other words the choices I make and the actions I take have an immediate impact on real people, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.  Two recent examples of this are fresh in my mind.  On both occasions I found myself with a group of people I didn’t know very well and was set a task.  The task was both live and consequential as we were invited to provide consulting and coaching support to real, living and breathing clients with real organisations and genuine problems.  The nature of this work and the presence of real and live consequences meant that all of us engaged in it in a genuine and authentic way – we were more prepared to put forth our opinions, argue, challenge and collaborate in service of the task at hand.  The meaning and importance of our work felt significant to us all. It is this type of work that I refer to as real play.

However, if I think of other recent examples that have made me want to gauge out my eyes with a stick as a more pleasant alternative to taking part I notice that they have been dead and inconsequential.  Gimmicks or games that have no real objective other than to keep us busy and active. Activities that distract us from what is going on between people rather than make us more aware.  Exercises during which whatever we do and however we act makes no difference to anyone or anything so, at some level, we don’t really bother.  Because it is not real we feel we can get away with social loafing or letting stuff pass us by because we know it has no consequence – there is nothing worth making a stand for.  Sure, we are still real human beings interacting in the moment but to me the fake-ness of the task means that people inevitably end up acting in a way that they think the imagined scenarios would demand.  This leads to participants acting to a script that belies their spontaneous selves in the moment and causes them to occasionally chip in with the caveat “…in reality I would…”  You may be familiar with the type of thing I’m referring to – build a bridge out of straws, solve a cryptic puzzle, decide which desert island inhabitant to cook for dinner (etc).  Don’t get me started on icebreakers that have no relevance to context other than they sounded like fun! I have even come to think that the majority of those developmental actoral scenarios, where one adopts a particular character or plays a particular context in order to experience what it is like, are less than effective due to their somewhat dead and inconsequential nature.  This is what I have come to think of as role play – playing in a situation in which none of the characters, scenarios or challenges are real enough to provoke a genuine response.  I’m convinced that even children don’t do role play in this way – they seem able to engage in whatever game they are playing as if it were real because they haven’t yet mentally separated work and play as two artificially divided modes of being in the same way we have as adults!

So, it seems to me that I’m likely not a hypocrite, I’m simply noticing and making sense of a subtle distinction in my reaction to different approaches to work that I can summaries as follows…

I am engaged and energised when fun is a naturally occurring outcome of real play that is live and consequential.

I am disengaged and frustrated when fun is expressed in advance as an explicit goal of role play that is dead and inconsequential

Whilst I find these distinctions helpful I feel the need to emphasise that they are only a convenient description.  There are infinite moment-by-moment shades of grey.  Essentially the difference comes down to the awareness and responsiveness of the facilitator and the participants to notice when one thing may have strayed into the other.

A new mantra of  MAKE PLAY NOT FUN comes to mind to help maintain my own awareness.

So, I’m left feeling less of a hypocrite. However I’m now wondering if others share my dislike of the use of the F-word in this way or whether I am simply becoming more grumpy with age and slowly turning into some sort of corporate fun grinch! Do let me know which it is.


NOTE:  I included the Spongebob image on this blog because the word ‘FUN’ is included.  It is by no means a dig at the cartoon which I always experience as fun. In fact the episode entitled ‘FUN’ is one of the best!

NOTE 2:  The recent big gap between blogs has been due to a number of factors including taking time out to work on the book.  Thanks for asking those who got in touch wondering what was going on.

  1. Hi Steve
    This one really struck a chord with me as I recently had a similar injunction from a leader saying ‘we need to have fun’. I know what he meant – that they wanted a measure of levity in the event to draw a distinction between this gathering and the normal ‘meetings’. That said – I had that same feeling that the fun might be more important to the leader as a measure of the event’s success, than the extent of real self-learning.
    The other point that caused me to pause and think was your comments on role play and how it can be totally artificial. I agree, but was reminded of the one occasion when I have seen it really really have a deep impact. The context was a group of creatives (artists, poets and yes, actors) who worked in schools. They were asked to role play a design session with their role as agent, the head teacher of a school and a pupil invited to the meeting. They got to play the pupil and the head. It worked – partly because if you ask a bunch of actors to do role play they are all totally up for it – but partly because it was a real situation they knew well – but they were just sitting in a different ‘seat’ in the room.
    OK – so we cannot hope that all our corporate or public sector clients are all closet am-dram fans, but we can choose situations which they know well enough for them to be real – but then change the rules or their place in the scene and then role play may be real enough to have an impact. Does that make sense?


    1. Hi Paul, thanks for the comment. Yes, it makes a lot of sense and I think we’re broadly on the same page here. Interesting that you mention actors – I learnt only relatively recently that great actors do not pretend to be somebody else they simply tune into part of who they already are that is most appropriate for the role they are playing and express it publicly – essentially they are not acting in a way we might imagine they are. The distinction between ‘role’ and ‘real’ I make is somewhat artificial to illustrate a point. The key thing for me is whether people are tuning into real, live emotions, beliefs and feelings to inform their actions or working to some sort of imagined script that dampens the learning experience. My interest is whether us non actors can develop these abilities. Steve

  2. Sherwood Shankland says:

    First, to affirm the tone and flow of the blog and responses so far – Yes fun arising not imposed and real plays not role plays to actually engage people rather than pretend.
    A clear parallel in my experience is ‘team building’. Team games usually fall way short of reaching new insights that matter to people on the job. But, working in small groups on real topics, setting priorities or making actual recommendations for action are highly focused and have a chance of building the team of people who will be the implementers of the plans that they are working on. For a four session planning event, I like to organize teams which are “max-mix” to achieve new insights, and interact with people outside of the daily work groups. Then in sessions three and four move back to in-tact, actual work teams to harvest the emerging insights and use them to enrich the actual decisions and strengthen the follow-up actions. In short, honor the participants’ time buy enabling them to focus on what really matters…and guess what, the fun-factor almost always appears on its own. / Sherwood Shankland, IAF founding member

    1. Hi Sherwood, thanks for the comment. I love the term you use…fun ‘arising’. I share your thoughts too on ‘team building’. Even worse when the two terms are combined to create ‘fun team building’ (shiver!).

      What is great about the flow you describe is the perpetually shifting ‘difference’ in group configuration which is both great for fostering novelty and also more like real-life (i.e. the majority of us don’t go about the entirety of lives in one in-tact group but keep on flowing in and out of different social patterns) I also like to create a similar flow between the size of the groups (individual, trios, small group, plenary and back in reverse).

      If these interactions end up with ‘fun’ then I’ve nothing against that!

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