Sub-theme 39: The Games Organizations Play: The Uses and Effects of Play at Work

Mikko Vesa
Hanken School of Economics, Helsinki, Finland
Elke Weik
University of Leicester, United Kingdom
Lyndon Garrett
University of Michigan, USA

Call for Papers

Making work more play-like is an increasingly sought after ideal among organizations striving to be “good organizations.” However, as noted in the conference theme, the aspiration of integrating play and work is laden with tensions. As play and games gain traction as viable strategies to promote employee motivation, creativity, and social connectedness, these strategies may be appropriated in harmful ways.

This sub-theme intends to further the conversation around

  1. the different uses and understandings of the concept and practice of play at work, including the growing trend of games at work;
  2. the potential benefits of play; and
  3. the potential risks and challenges associated with how play and games are incorporated into organizational life.

To play is a basic human trait – homo ludens is an inalienable denizen of our society (Huizinga, 1955) – and as such, play is in fact unavoidable in organizational life. However, play and work historically behaved like two positively charged magnets, resulting in incommensurable ways of creating social order. But, this appears to be changing (Statler et al., 2009; Sorensen & Spoelstra, 2011). The entwined notions of play and game are making visible inroads into organizational life, resulting in hybrid forms of social order (Vesa, 2013; Warmelink, 2014). Practices such as gamification (e.g., Hamari, 2013), game-based learning (e.g., Harviainen & Vesa, 2016) and play-like remuneration (e.g., Werbach & Hunter, 2012) are finding increasing shelf-space in popular business sections.

Yet, this mutual rediscovery of work and play results in complex appropriations. Games, be they for playful entertainment or work-like utility, function as major carriers of organizational practice and discourse. They influence how we structure organizations, with whom we desire to interact, how we allocate reward and recognition, how we mobilize creativity and innovation and how we construe of the ethical rules by which we operate, to name but a few. With the growing importance attributed to play and games at work, organizational scholarship can draw on diverse theoretical traditions to contribute to the discussion on the uses of play and games at work, including what constitutes play, how are play and game conceptually distinct, and what makes a good game? As we deepen our understanding of these questions, we must also consider the potential benefits and costs of play and games at work.
There are numerous potential benefits of play, perhaps the most obvious being that play is intrinsically appealing or fun (Abramis, 1990). Social scientists have established the importance of play in contributing to employees’ mental and emotional well-being (Sutton-Smith, 1997; Brown & Vaughan, 2009). Play can add a layer of fun and humanity to the work, producing feelings of wholeness, authenticity, and total presence in collective unity. Play is also thought to superimpose organic personal relationships upon mechanistic work relationships, helping reduce potential feelings of isolation by masking individual differences and renewing communal identity (Sutton-Smith, 1997). Another common benefit attributed to play in organizational research is creativity (Mainemelis & Ronson, 2006). Play produces a spatio-temporal space wherein workers feel free to imagine and explore new possibilities (Brown & Vaughan, 2009). In play, mistakes are not discarded as disturbing anomalies, but can trigger exploration and practice with minimal consequences (Winnicott, 1971). Play is the “primary place for the expression of anything that is humanly imaginable” (Sutton-Smith, 1997, p. 226), which can enhance organizational adaptability.
Despite the potential benefits of play, there remains a tension as games are becoming increasingly contested organizational practices. A key challenge is that when play is deliberately stipulated to fulfill some managerial mandate rather than entered into for its own sake, as is often the case with burgeoning use of game-structures or gamification at work, it may no longer be experienced as play (Statler et al., 2009). Games can be a perversion of play that, instead of promoting increased positive affect, social connection, and creativity, instead result in bitterness, artificial relationships, competitive animosity, and a loss of creativity caused by an efficiency-driven, “winning is everything” mentality. A game mentality can be used to justify unethical actions by framing such action as simply “playing the game.” Games are not the only source of risk in the use of play at work. Fostering playfulness can undermine personal and professional integrity, masking alienation and reinforcing asymmetrical power relations.

What are the consequences of integrating work and play? Are there instances in which the two are better kept apart? Are we on the way to playful utopia or dystopia? The aim of this sub-theme is to advance interdisciplinary studies of play, playfulness, and games in organizational life. We wish to stimulate novel empirical work and innovative theorizing on the play/work-relationship across diverse organizational, institutional, and discursive spaces.

Potential themes to examine include, but are not limited to, the following dimensions of play/work-interactions:
  • The nature, role and consequences of actual ‘serious’ games and business simulation in organizations as well as recent business appropriations of games and play
  • How are and why are game-like structures introduced into organizational design and practice? Do such initiatives also introduce, more broadly, play-like affordances?
  • Theoretical cross-fertilization between organization and game studies with the intent of enriching organization theory through theories of play, and vice-versa
  • New forms of organizational design and leadership indigenously emerging inside complex games. In particular, we are interested in elaborations of playful practice
  • The ethical ramifications of appropriating play/game discourse into other, and potentially subversive or even perverse, contexts
  • Play and the future of organizations, workplaces, the economy, and the rising workforce
  • Social, cognitive, and affective resources generated through play
  • Games as way to create, disseminate, or recontextualize organizational knowledge
  • Play as a mechanism for masking alienation and reinforcing asymmetrical power relations



  • Abramis, D. (1990): “Play in work: childish hedonism or adult enthusiasm.” American Behavioral Scientist, 33, 353–373.
  • Brown, S., & Vaughan, C. (2009) Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imaginations, and Invigorates the Soul. New York: Aevry Penguin Group.
  • Hamari, J. (2013): “Transforming homo economicus into homo ludens: A field experiment on gamification in a utilitarian peer-to-peer trading service.” Electronic Commerce Research and Applications, 12 (4), 236–245.
  • Harviainen, J.T., & Vesa, M. (2016): “Massively Multiplayer Online Games as Information System: Implications for Organizational Learning.” In: T. Kaneda, H. Kanegae, Y. Toyoda & P. Rizzi (eds.): Simulation and Gaming in the Network Society. New York: Springer, 199–214.
  • Huizinga, J. (1955): Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon.
  • Mainemelis, C., & Ronson, S. (2006): “Ideas are born in fields of play: Towards a theory of play and creativity in organizational settings.” Research in Organizational Behavior, 27, 69–81.
  • Sorensen, B., & Spoelstra, S. (2011): “Play at Work: Continuation, Intervention and Usurpation.” Organization ,19 (1), 81–97.
  • Statler, M., Roos, J., & Victor, B. (2009): “Ain’t Misbehavin’: Taking Play Seriously in Organizations.” Journal of Change Management, 9 (1), 87–107.
  • Sutton-Smith, B. (1997): The Ambiguity of Play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Vesa, M. (2013): There be Dragons! An Ethnographic Inquiry into the Strategic Process and Practices of World of Warcraft Gaming Groups. PhD Dissertation, Hanken School of Economics, Helsinki, Finland.
  • Warmelink, H. (2014): Online Gaming and Playful Organization. New York: Routledge.
  • Werbach, K., & Hunter, D. (2012): For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize your Business. Philadelphia: Wharton Digital Press.
  • Winnicott, D.W. (1971): Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock.
Mikko Vesa is an Assistant Professor at Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki, Finland. His research focuses on intersections between games and organizations, strategy as practice, organizational temporality and qualitative research methods. His research has been published in journals such as ‘Organization Studies’ and ‘Strategic Organization’. At EGOS, he has been actively involved in the Strategy as Practice community since 2008.
Elke Weik is a Senior Lecturer in organization studies at the University of Leicester, UK. Her research is situated at the intersection between institutional theory, economic sociology and process theories in organization studies. Elke’s work has been published in renowned international journals, such as ‘Organization’ and ‘Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour’. She serves on the editorial boards of various journals, including ‘Journal for Management Inquiry’ and ‘Organization Studies’.
Lyndon Garrett is a doctoral candidate of Management and Organizations at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, USA, and a Research Fellow with the Center for Positive Organizations. His research interests revolve around examining relational processes of interpersonal and group bonding, high quality connections, thriving, and meaningful work, drawing primarily on qualitative methods. His dissertation is qualitatively looking at how high quality connections form through play in sports teams and theatre casts.