The Productivity of Play: How Childlike Curiosity Fuels Innovation

On a recent trip overseas, my wife and I found ourselves with three small children and no in-flight entertainment. We were more stressed than the kids. In fact, by the time the plane hit cruising altitude, they had already invented their own game. They were explorers jetting off to an unknown land. Their mission: to not get captured by the evil robots (aka, the food carts). By the time the in-flight movies were restored, they had forgotten about them. It was their imaginary world and we were traveling in it.

The flight experience got me thinking about childhood play. When we’re kids, we’re naturally curious. We invent games for the sole sake of playing. We innovate and collaborate with no promise of reward. We see a toy, we want to understand how to use it. As parents, we’re responsible for nurturing our kids’ curiosity and giving them the mental space to explore. It dawned on me that business leaders could take a page from parents and cultivate a stronger sense of curiosity in the workplace. After all, research shows that leaders tend to do the opposite. Harvard Business School researchers surveyed more than 3,000 employees from a wide range of industries, and only 24% said they felt regularly curious in their jobs. 70% said they faced barriers to asking more questions at work.

If adulthood and work routines tend to dampen curiosity, games can help to restore it. Here, the benefits of incorporating some play into the office, and some strategies that have worked for me and my team at Jotform.

Gather for game time

It’s safe to say that gaming is no longer on the fringe. The gaming industry continues to boom, and according to PwC’s Global Entertainment and Media Outlook 2022–26, it will be worth $321 billion by 2026. Once viewed as antisocial, the pandemic showed that games, especially the multiplayer variety, were a means of social connection. As the World Economic Forum reports, some gamers even think that gaming helps their mental health.

Research has found benefits relevant to entrepreneurs, like boosted productivity and critical thinking skills. Researchers from Brigham Young University discovered that teams who engaged in team video gaming were 20 percent more productive than teams who participated in traditional team-building activities. (I was never a fan of trust falls anyway.) Multiplayer video games get people quickly collaborating, taking on challenges, and, of course, having fun. People feel refreshed and motivated once they return to work tasks.

You’ve probably heard of Civilization, the strategy game where players begin with a covered wagon and advance to build entire empires. One study found that business students who scored high playing Civilization had stronger problem-solving, organizing, and planning skills than students with lower scores. It’s unclear if the link is causation or correlation, but it’s safe to assume that building an imaginary empire primes the brain for problem-solving.

If you’re brainstorming activities to bring your team together, it’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel. Gather your teams for a video game night and you might be surprised at how it impacts their next-day motivation.

Encourage tinkering

Before I launched my business, I was a software developer for a New York media company. Regularly tasked with coding web forms (like payment or contact forms), I was inspired to find a way to automate the process. During my free time, on late nights and the weekends (this was before we had kids), I developed a tool to create online forms. The rest, as they say, is history.

Sometimes, the best ideas are inspired by our day jobs but come to life outside of them. Harvard Business Review tells a similar tale. In the 1930s, an employee of Italy’s first typewriter factory, Olivetti, was caught taking home company machinery. The employee told the CEO he was working on a new machine over the weekend. Rather than firing him, the CEO gave the employee more time to work on the new machine, which would ultimately be the world’s first electronic calculator.

It’s a great lesson in seeing employees as multi-dimensional people with personal hobbies and interests. Giving employees the space to tinker with tools and ideas is one way to nurture their natural curiosity. Sometimes, it leads to world-changing inventions. At the very least, it leads to a spirit of exploration and innovation.

You can even regularly incorporate tinkering into your workplace routines. At Jotform, Fridays are Demo Days, where our employees gather to chat about their latest ideas and whatever they’ve worked on over the past week. Colleagues offer each other respectful feedback. They fuel each other’s momentum. This unstructured teamwork has inspired some of our best new features.

Final thoughts

Gaming sometimes gets a bad rap as an anti-social activity. But it continues to skyrocket in popularity and a growing body of research is casting new light on its benefits. Of course, too much of a good thing can start to have negative consequences, for your physical and mental health. But occasional group video game sessions and unstructured “tinkering” can replenish your team’s creative fuel and lead to innovations.

Games promote curiosity, which in turn, boosts creativity. Games open portals to new worlds wherever you are, be it in the office or in an airplane. The gamer or the tinkerer has free rein to imagine what that world looks like — and how to make it even better.

Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform and the bestselling author of Automate Your Busywork. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from Jotform users. You can reach Aytekin from his official website

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