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Fun ≠ Play ^ Play ⊂ Fun ^ Fun ≠ Funny

Fun does not equal Play AND Play is a subset of Fun AND Fun does not equal Funny

A draft chapter from my upcoming book, The Fun Paradox

by Richard F. Ransom, Ph.D.

Fun in business is starting to get hot, but there is confusion about the difference between fun and play. Companies trying to emulate the success of Google, Facebook, and other high tech 'fun' corporations hire a trendy interior designer to paint the place in cheerful colors, remodel the light fixtures and workstations using WWII helmets and antique Chevrolets, and install foosball, pool, and ping-pong tables in cozy crash pad-like nooks – and call it a 'fun' place. Employees are encouraged, or at least allowed, to play, but the primary motivation seems to be to entice people to work long hours rather than going home to play on their own Wii. The modern workplace is increasingly festive and playful, and, while that's an improvement over soulless cubicle farms, putting in some PlayStations and slapping on a sign that reads "Fun Place!" doesn't translate to social and participatory fun – except perhaps as an adjunct to work, or as a substitute for a pickup game after work.

There are two misconceptions about making work fun through the interior designer playground approach. The first misconception is that play is equal to fun, and the second is that play is distinct from work.

Fun ≠ Play

Play is a good thing, and, like fun, it's long been seen as childish and unworthy of serious endeavors. Play is also kept in a box, closely defined as something that happens over a ping-pong table or in a game. However, equating play and fun is both inaccurate and limiting. Play can be fun, but thinking that play is fun is largely a function of our self-imposed limits on what activities are fun. Indeed, we've so limited our definition of fun that is has become almost synonymous with play: employees having a party at work, or playing ping-pong, or holding a meeting in a converted tram car are playing, or playful, or having fun, but the meeting itself isn't. And on the flipside, this leads to thinking of play as distinct from work, as something that we can add to work to make the workplace more fun, but not a component of 'real' work.

In fact, both play and fun are work. When your department sponsors a day out at the park, and people play beach volleyball or ultimate frisbee, we see those activities as play (and often they're also fun). However, if we required those folks to expend the same physical effort in the workplace that they did on the court or field, in most organizations there would be a revolt, or at least a lot of grumbling. Adding play to the workplace is therefore adding work to the workplace, work above and beyond the normal workload, even if it's well tolerated because it's seen as play. This is one of the reasons that adding foosball tables and colorful interiors to the workplace doesn't make work fun. Being able to duck out to play foosball helps you tolerate a terrible relationship with your boss, or the feeling that you're doing the wrong job and might get canned after the next review – but the foosball table doesn't change the nature of your job.

Play ⊂ Fun

A big, important point that the playground approach misses is that play is only a subset of fun. Not everything that's fun is play, and, in fact, many play activities aren't much fun, or are only fun for a few. There is certainly evidence that bringing play into your workplace has positive effects1, but that's only a fraction of what fun can do for your work. The methods described later in this book owe a lot to research on play, but we feel there are many keys to fun that aren't held by play, though the terms can be confusing and are often used interchangeably. To make our definition clear, fun is what (sometimes) happens when you're playing – fun is the result of successful play, but it can also be the result of successful work, or even unsuccessful work.

Fun ≠ Funny

It's also common to confuse fun and funny. In fact, funny is one of the original meanings of fun, as you can see from Davies' 1878 book Fun: Ancient and Modern. It may be fun to crack jokes, and laughter is often a signature of fun, but a fun white-water rafting expedition is rarely a matter for guffaws, save perhaps around the campfire when recounting the amusing mishaps of the day's rapids run. Funny can be fun, though it may not meet the everybody-having-fun criterion: think of the really funny jokes you know, the real rolling on the floor jokes, and ask yourself if everyone in the joke is having fun. In general, someone in the joke is actually suffering. Robert Heinlein described this characteristic of jokes in his famous Stranger in a Strange Land, and claimed that laughter is our way of sharing the pain and so making it tolerable. He illustrates this by asking us why we laugh when the comic takes a pratfall, but not when the diva sings exceptionally well. This property of funny doesn't mean that cracking jokes can't be fun, but it does clearly show that fun is not the same thing as funny.

In conclusion . . .

[in previous chapters] I've raised the question of why we don't care much about how fun our work is, and defined what kind of fun I'm talking about, as well as why pursuing it isn't just another fad, and that fun isn't the same thing as play, or being funny. Before I describe how you can get to fun at work, I want to spell out why you need fun at work. Here then are my three answers to [Why Fun?, the title of the next chapter . . . ]

Read more draft chapters on the Funshop Blog, help me refine them and get credit and prizes!

Learn more about how you can bring the power of fun to your work through Funshop . . .

Download a PDF version of The Fun Manifesto . . .

Listen to the audiobook version of The Fun Manifesto . . .

Read a draft chapter, Is Fun Just Another Fad?, from my book-in-progress, The Fun Paradox . . .

But, most importantly, please go out and have fun!   and . . . why not now?