Play with Purpose

Play is our natural state.  It is healthy and fun.   In that state, we are engrossed and engaged.  Time, as they say, “flies”.  As we grow up and put aside childish things, we lose this connection to our natural state and a strong division between play and work emerges.  In fact it is worse than this, because in the adult mind, play itself has not only changed, but in many cases, it has been lost altogether, morphed into some hobbled likeness of itself.  Play becomes a scheduled 30 minute block on the treadmill or a set of reps that some trainer mandated be completed before gulping a protein shake of predetermined size.  The once energizing activity becomes goal driven and miraculously, it loses it’s magic.  Did you ever ask a child why they play?  What exactly is the objective of climbing the monkey bars?


photo credit: Strocchi

In many ways, this subtle mental shift from play to work marks the end of innocence and a firm transition to adulthood.   At some point that we can’t quite pinpoint, this new mode of being, becomes the norm, and yet the vast majority of us move along, day in, day out, in some Orwellian food line, without questioning why.  We assume that work simply must be this way, for that is how it has always been.  After all, that is why it is called “work” after all. Work is about getting something done – there is a purpose, a goal, an outcome – something of value beyond the individual is created by the activity.

work (see definition)

“exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something”

This is where things get interesting…

Let’s return to our example of kids playing in a playground.  If you asked an adult about the value of such an activity, they would list off several: physical fitness, learning group communication skills, imprinting gross motor movements, and the list goes on.  So clearly something worthwhile is being produced, but that is an observer’s perspective.  That is looking at results and outcomes.  That is the objective thinking of management.   To the player – there is only one objective  – to have fun.  The moment the fun slips through their fingers, they drift to another activity meeting that simple criterion.

This distinction is essential since I posit that we can see work as an adult in the same way.  The key is to understand that  making an activity fun in itself does not remove, change, or eliminate the benefits of the activity – it just makes the activity inherently enjoyable.

Our historical view seems to be that the world is binary – either you work at something or you play at something and never the two shall meet.  I question that assumption.  I not only believe that work (and other activities) are capable of being simultaneously fun and valuable beyond the individual.  I see nothing inherent in purpose or utility that precludes enjoyment to the point that it ceases to be work in the mind of the doer at all.  The cause of our current conundrum, as I see it, is a lack of creativity.

It is my goal to bridge these two worlds of play and purpose to highlight the art of creating products, services, and a way of work that embrace a new, higher standard.  However, we should be clear there is a method to the madness.  There is a reason to embrace this new model, other than it being new.  From a human perspective it is the most healthy – people should be living lives of play, but it also works from an economic perspective as well.  If we endeavor to make what most people do more than a task to be completed, we can drive  loyalty, passion, usability, and use.  It could just be the secret weapon to making something people remember.

Designers of products and services today spend a majority of time on fleshing out purpose.  What are the features?  What does it do?  Why would someone buy this?  All valuable questions, but my hope is that we can add a bit of balance to the process.  It would serve us well as providers and consumers to ponder the role that play could have in our creations.  More play not to the detriment of purpose, but to its enrichment.

Your move.


I started a new blog to track my personal work to come around gaming applied to products, services, and more.  For those interested, I’ll keep it at, but will cross-post for a bit.




  1. in most cases, for me, work is play. that (might?) makes me weird.

    I enjoy work, I enjoy what I do. I do it all the time (12-14 hours a day mostly in front of the computer). I try to play at work too, mostly in the form of completely inappropriate comments.

    I guess though, by your definition, there is an end goal; learning something new. Not sure how that fits though.

    I daily consider myself lucky to do something that I absolutely enjoy and that these people want to actually pay me for it.

  2. it's very difficult to think work is play. However people play game because they enjoy, fun and happy. actually no more condition.

    About work… sure! we can look work is like play… If we enjoy and happy with it. but we have to play with purpose. because we have many conditions with it.

    Just work and enjoy to work… they will be happy 😉

  3. Chet – That is great news. Everyone should strive for what you have – I hope they do.

    Surachart – I agree that creating play at work is not easy. If it was, we would all be playing games at work. My only hypothesis is that we can bring these worlds together.

    My overall thesis, however, is more driven towards products and services. This concept applies to actual work when we use these same services for getting a job done. As an example, email. This is a product someone designed and other people use. The interface (and basic mode of operation) hasn't changed in years. Perhaps there is a way to make it more of a game – resulting in a better result and a more enjoyable experience.

    It may seem far fetched, but I think it in an interesting thought experiment if nothing else.

    Thanks for the comments!

  4. Play is an abstract, whereas what is played (i.e. a game) can be concrete with rules, parameters and a goal. As our brains age, we apply more rules to tasks and begin to enjoy the structure of games. Add money to the mix, and you have tasks with rules for a tangible asset, i.e. work.

    Work has the implied connotation of being play's opposite, lacking most notably the fun. People like Chet are lucky enough to still have both, but for most, what you do for money governs the rest of what you do, which makes even an enjoyable job, work.

    So, true play includes near limitless time. The segmentation of the day into units with priorities means the fun gets deprioritized or crammed into a tiny percentage, which, in turn, causes resentment.

    I think you have add a time-bound criterion to the mix to understand clearly the difference.

  5. The cause of our current conundrum is Taylor Scientific Management.

    I don't play a lot because it is too much like work.

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