Play is a powerful and underutilised tool in our change and strategy toolkit.

When we play, we have permission to be a bit ridiculous, to engage with weird and novel ideas, and to try on other perspectives.

When it comes to serious work, our decision-making is often constrained by our desire to be taken seriously, to be seen as an expert, to already know what the right course of action is. We shy away from ridiculous notions, double-down on well-worn positions, and stay within the bounds of what is known and safe.

Finding ways to bring play into our work, we unlock new potential, notice unexpected connections, and gain valuable insights into how others might see a situation. When we allow ourselves to play with the ridiculous, often enough we discover it might not be so ridiculous after all.

Play expands the range of options on the table.

How does it work?

We begin a decision-making process with something playful. Depending on the game, we might invite people to picture themselves in a ‘ridiculous’ scenario and think about how it might affect them or what actions they might take.

Beginning with play, we suspend our sense of disbelief and begin to inhabit a space where what seems ridiculous is accepted as fact. We create an imagined experience that engages our emotional selves, and gives us a felt sense of what it would be like to exist in that space.

With an experience and emotional connection in place, our players are more open to considering a rational argument for this ridiculous possibility.

Players are now more responsive to considering this scenario as a real possibility, and more receptive to signals of change that make this scenario more or less likely. They are also more open to taking real action in the present to either create or avoid this future, depending if they feel it’s desirable or now.

Choosing a game

Ready to play, but not sure what game to use? Well, it depends.

Selecting the right game is an important step. There’s an idea called permission futuring – in foresight, there is a HUGE range of tools and approaches we can bring, but there’s the (not-so-small) matter of what we are culturally permitted to do. Choose the right game, and you’ll be asked back to do more and go further. Choose something too far from the comfort zone, and your zone of permission might shrink further.

Before you choose, think about:

  • what you are trying to achieve by introducing a game
  • your players previous experience and current comfort with games at work
  • your players knowledge and expertise in the topic you are playing with
  • if people are choosing to be there, or if they are expected to attend.

With this in mind, look for:

A game your players will enjoy and feel they do well at

People remember how a game makes them feel. If they enjoy themselves, they will invite more of this type of work in.

Something that stretches their thinking and meets them where they are at

The joy of play is in that stretch, but we need to choose a game that is appropriate for the level of skill and comfort they have when they arrive in the room. We want to avoid a situation where they feel uncomfortable, out of their depth, or at risk of appearing foolish in front of their peers.

A game that is only as complicated as players can comfortably follow

This means being sensitive to the time you have, their foresight capability and interest, and how many rules or concepts need to be introduced for your participants to understand the game and enjoy playing. If in doubt, go simpler. There is a wide range of games out there, but having a few multipurpose, simple games that anyone can pick up and enjoy will meet most of your needs.

A good starter game

I recommend Jane McGonigal’s The First Five Minutes of the Future. This is particularly effective for creating space to engage with pockets of the future in the present.