+44 (0) 1727 843820 paul@impro.org.uk

Much of what we do at work has structures and rules. You have your skills and your tactics. You are playing the game. And before you go much further, you need to know why you (and the others) are playing, or the game will suck you in.

A game always has a purpose. Many games, for example, were designed to solve problems. Keith Johnstone and Viola Spolin designed acting games to get performers to appear more natural, more relaxed, or to speak so that the audience could hear them. I design workshop games to explore and illustrate complexity, to offer a playground within which participants can test strategies and build skills.

Many games are winnable, and it’s often assumed that winning is the point. But, equally, many games are not winnable; you can drop in or out when you want, and  they have no fixed end point. Schoolyard games of skipping or pretending to be soldiers or doctors, for example.

Even with the winnable ones, it’s crystal clear sometimes that the winning is not the point. When I played football in impromptu games in my local park, it was the playing that mattered, not winning. I can’t remember a single result, but I remember the action, the sweaty effort, the sociability – all structured around scoring goals for our team and preventing the opposition scoring at our end. But we kept swapping teams around, so any time you switched you willingly exchanged losing for winning or vice versa.

We swapped around because it was even more fun as it became more balanced. We preferred good competition to an easy win. To compete was more important than winning. And playing mattered more than competing: in football or tennis, we’d ‘knock about’ with equal pleasure, before and after bouts of competition.

Perhaps your goal then is not to win, but to get better. Otherwise you’d prefer to play only with players much worse than you, so your win would be guaranteed. And where’s the fun in that? We disparage ‘flat-track bullies’ in cricket, for example, as less admirable players than those who can mix it with their equals at the highest possible levels.

When do you play to play, rather than win? How often do you play to learn, experimentally exploring the dimensions of the game to discover what it has to offer? And when you reduce the emphasis on winning, how does that affect your experience?