The Problem with PLAY

The word play is a big, big problem. The ambiguity of current definitions are holding back serious discourse that can advance the social sciences.

The essential problem is that the word play is both a noun and a verb. This terminology is not precise and leads to all sorts of problems, debates and misunderstandings in figuring out what play is, what is going on during play, and what the relationship between games and play actually is.

This situation is causing epic levels of confusion, debate and wasted energy in the social sciences. All the energy going into debates on what play is and is not could be used to seriously advance the state of the art in the social sciences. Instead we are mired in petty debates because the terminology we are using is completely imprecise.

And that is a big problem.

Play: the Noun

The word play is a noun. A play is a move in a game. And there are SIX other definitions of the noun play. (See related links following this post.). Suffice to say that the word play is a noun. Most of us do agree to the common noun definitions for play. Even so, because play is both a noun and a verb, we have problems using both the verb forms and the noun forms of the word when attempting to precisely describe social phenomena.

Play: The Verb

The word play is also a verb. Play is an activity, a verb, as in “playing a game.” This and FOUR additional verb definitions exist for the word play. (See related links.) Now we can begin to see the problem. The word play is at best a highly ambiguous one.

Here is an example: John Taylor Gatto is a highly accomplished and innovative educator, and book author. He is also a recognized authority on how people learn, and how to facilitate learning.

John Taylor Gatto is a very clear thinker.

Check out this quote from him in his essay on play (see related links):

“[Play is] something we do in between being serious, isn’t it? When machines “play” we get worried and say they’re broken, yet men and women and animals play all the time. What’s going on?

Even the term is ambiguous; what we mean by it isn’t automatically clear.” (emphasis added)

You might be wondering if I am planning to offer you a more precise definition for play. And, you also may also be wondering if I am planning to describe a complete vocabulary for discussing play, and games, in a much more precise and generative way.

The answer to both questions is most definitely YES.

Related Links:

Link: The 7 Noun and 5 Verb Definitions for Play in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary

Essay: The Curriculum of Play by John Taylor Gatto A very good example of how excellent writers struggle to write about play.

Wikipedia entry for John Taylor Gatto









Gamification Is Broken

“Gamification” is the supposed application of game mechanics and game thinking to supposedly non-game domains. Please don’t take my word for it. Investigate this for yourself using the related links at the end of this post.

This definition encourages unclear thinking about the reality of social interactions.

You cannot make a game out of something that already is one.

The reality is that every social interaction of a kind is a game. There are no non-game domains in social terms.

Any inherently social activity is inherently a game.

For defining the word ‘game’ I am using the McGonigal definition as described on page 22 of her book, REALITY IS BROKEN. That definition from Jane says an activity is a game if it has just 4 essential properties:

  • A clear goal
  • Clear rules
  • A way to get feedback
  • Opt-in participation

This a a profoundly useful definition of the word game. Even if you disagree, let’s use it for now, and pretend that it works….

To say that “gamification” adds game mechanics to existing games such as  social interactions, meetings, and classes is just plain incorrect because the game mechanics are already there.

Gamification is broken. To be more precise, the definition of the term gamification is broken. It encourages unclear thinking about the world by implying that social interactions are games only after ‘gamification’. This is just plain incorrect. Not valid. Wrong.

In all social situations, for example: interactions, meetings, working on a team, working inside a company, participating in a CULTURE….in all of these situations, the game mechanics are present, they are simply weak, not well-designed, or both.

‘Gamification’ as currently defined can’t help, because all of these situations are already games. Usually, they are poorly formed and have incomplete or weak design of the game mechanics.

Are you a Teacher? If you are, realize that all meetings are games, and all classes are meetings, therefore: all classes are games. This means game mechanics are already present in your classroom. If the mechanics are weak and loose and not well-designed, your students disengage and check out. And if the game mechanics in your classroom are well-designed and tight, those same students start to get engaged and they “check in” and they have fun and get into it.

“Gamification” as defined does not ‘make a game’ out of your supposedly non-game classroom by adding game mechanics. That’s because the class IS A game, and the game mechanics are already present and simply need to be tuned up.

You cannot make a game out of something that already is one.

All classes are games. Now, not all games are fun to play. Not all classes are fun to attend. If the game mechanics are weak, you can forget about having any fun at all.

The definition of gamification is broken. In social terms, there are no ‘non-game domains’ because every social interaction is a game.

Related Links:

Gamification Defined

How Games Deliver Happiness and Learning

Culture: It’s a Game

How Games Deliver Happiness & Learning

In a previous post on gaming, happiness and learning, I laid it out for you. Here I go again!

When I talk about a game, I mean Jane McGonigal’s definition. This simple definition does not include competition, or any zero-sum “your win is my loss” dynamics. (That is just ONE KIND of game.) So, please STOP and use this definition,  to refer to the rest of the blog post:

Any good game has the following characteristics:

  • A clear goal
  • Clear, uniformly applied rules
  • A way to receive feedback on play
  • Opt-in participation

That last one is key. If the goal, rules and feedback setup are unacceptable to me, I need to be able to OPT OUT. Got that? Please do not try to MAKE me play.

Every good game is opt-in and that means I can OPT OUT.

NOTE: This game definition comes from Jane McGonigals book, REALITY IS BROKEN. Thank you Jane !

Next: You know that people want the good feelings that associate with happiness. The essential feelings that support happiness in a social setting include:

  • A sense of control
  • A sense of progress
  • A sense of membership and community
  • A sense of higher purpose and meaning

NOTE: This framework  comes from Tony Hsieh’s book, DELIVERING HAPPINESS. Thank you Tony Hsieh!

OK, now let me spell it out for you: games that have the 4 properties described by McGonigal definitely deliver happiness as described by Hsieh.

Repeat! Games that have the 4 properties described by McGonigal definitely deliver happiness as described by Hsieh.

How? Here is how:

Happiness Property: How a GAME delivers this Happiness property:
Sense of Control A clear goal delivers a sense of control by making the goal explicit. There is no guessing.Clear rules deliver a sense of control by making the rules explicit. There is no guessing.Opt-in participation puts me in the driver’s seat. I DECIDE if I play.
Sense of Progress A clear way to get feedback (the “score”) delivers a sense of progress by showing exactly how effort translates to results.
Sense of Membership & Belonging Opt-in participation means the person chooses to engage. When everyone playing is opting-in, a large increase in group engagement is the result.
Sense of Higher Purpose If the goal of the game is a higher cause that leads to a chance at changing the world, that game can deliver a sense of higher purpose. For example, web sites like definitely deliver this sense of higher purpose.


Applications of this Knowledge

OK, now let’s look at meetings.

Meetings are usually soul-sucking death marches from hell.

Why? Because they are poorly structured games, that’s why.

The typical meeting:

  • Has a vague goal !!
  • Has unclear rules (if it has any rules at all!). Further, some rules do not apply to certain people attending the meeting, mostly authority figures !!
  • Has no clear way to track progress during the meeting. No visible checklist, progress bar, or task board, etc. Most meetings do not provide any feedback on progress !!
  • Is MANDATORY for you to attend !!

My point: ALL meetings are games. And they are POORLY STRUCTURED games that are NOT FUN to play because of their bad structure !

Still with me? OK, all classes are meetings !

Repeat, all classes are meetings!

Once again, the meeting is poorly structured– UNLESS the teacher is a good one. Good teachers pay attention intuitively to good-game mechanics, whether they understand that term or not !! Good teachers always provide the minimal structure that makes any game FUN:

  • A clear goal
  • Clear, uniformly applied rules
  • A way to receive feedback on play
  • Opt-in participation

Why? Because they UNDERSTAND that they must create a space that is safe for thinking and learning. All learning is experimentation. Experimentation (“learning”) is RISKY unless the space is made and kept OPEN for thinking, learning, and BEING WRONG. No way I am going to feel safe if I am made a fool for guessing wrong ! Every good teacher knows this, and creates a safe space for thinking and learning– for experimenting.

So, when you think about “games in education”, please note:

  • All meetings are games, and all meetings need good-game structure to be enjoyable
  • Good-game structure creates feelings of control, progress, membership and purpose
  • All classes are meetings, and can benefit almost immediately by tuning up the game mechanics

I do not know how to be any more clear about this. Meetings are broken, and classroom learning is broken, because they are GAMES: games that are NOT FUN to play.

Meetings are games. Therefore, anyone who thinks that they are adding game mechanics to meeting and games is missing the point.

Meetings and classes are ALREADY games.

They simply need a tune-up !!

My book THE CULTURE GAME explains how to do this and provides actionable guidance on how to tune up your meetings!!

Remember: every classroom is a meeting, and every meeting is a game. Game your meetings!

See also:

Gaming Happiness At Work


Gaming Happiness at Work

Happiness at work is a game. If the core requirements for happiness at work are not present, you disengage and check out. If the core requirements are there, you automatically experience fun, satisfaction and potentially, a deeply engaged sense of well-being. THE CULTURE GAME book shows how to deliver happiness through the intentional design and implementation of good-game mechanics.

Work is BROKEN when it is not fun to play. The THE CULTURE GAME book provides tools for playing an all-new game of engagement and learning. By doing this you are delivering happiness at work by injecting good-game mechanics into the structure of work and meetings.

The core requirements for happiness at work are:

A sense of control
A sense of progress
A sense of belonging and membership
A sense of wider purpose and meaning

Agile patterns and practices, authentically applied, definitely deliver happiness. The game of Scrum is simply one example.

The next thing to realize is that work is a game and that Scrum is a game, Kanban is a game, all your meetings are games, and that big Agile adoption underway at your company is in fact a game. Your company culture is also an elaborate game.

When viewed in this way, it is possible to more fully game your interactions, your meetings and work itself, so that participating is optimized towards a satisfying, fun and naturally productive experience.


Games have 4 basic properties. When the values for each of the properties are well-formed, the game is enjoyable, fun and satisfying. When the 4 properties are not well-formed, the game is not fun and you either opt-out or, if this is not possible, you disengage (“check out”) almost automatically.

The 4 basic properties of a good game are:

A clear goal
A clear set of rules that are uniformly applied
A clear way to “check the score”, get feedback and track progress
Opt-in participation

Agile patterns and practices are usually (but not always) well-formed games. Well-formed games associate with satisfaction, happiness and even joy; poorly defined games associate with disengagement, low levels of learning, and a distinct lack of enjoyment.

THE CULTURE GAME book draws on the work of four big authors: Jane McGonigal (REALITY IS BROKEN), Dave Logan (TRIBAL LEADERSHIP), Tony Hsieh (DELIVERING HAPPINESS), and Peter Senge (THE FIFTH DISCIPLINE).

The objective of THE CULTURE GAME book  is to introduce you to the tools and dynamics of happiness at work, and the basics of good-game design for work. As a result of reading the book, you are able to:

  • More fully understand business agility
  • More quickly analyze and diagnose the specific business agility problems you are facing
  • More easily design for successful meetings
  • More easily design for successful Agile adoptions
  • More easily design for satisfying work, and
  • Begin to encourage the emergence of a genuine learning organization in your company.

Drawing from wide-scope academic research, several core-foundation books and 4 years of real coaching in real organizations, THE CULTURE GAME takes you through a specific 8-part framework. This is a framework for designing and developing more learning at work by leveraging some very specific game mechanics for re-designing the way you do work with other people.

Are these ideas intriguing to you? Contact us to arrange a 2-day CULTURE GAME WORKSHOP for your organization. In this workshop, we teach you how to game your culture by gaming your meetings, so these meetings convert from soul-sucking death marches to fun and enjoyable and energizing team-learning events. During the workshop, teach you very specific business agility techniques, and we train your people as CULTURE GAME facilitators. Click here to learn more about THE CULTURE GAME WORKSHOP.