Serious Play

Rover, Diane T

Serious Play Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate By Michael Schrage Harvard Business School Press, Boston MA, 2000, 244 pages, ISBN 0-87584-814-1

On a recent interdisciplinary project involving about five faculty and twice as many students, both graduate and undergraduate, there was a sluggish startup phase during which it was difficult to exchange ideas. We would sit in a comfortable meeting space, discuss specific tasks, and draw a few diagrams on the whiteboard. But it was clear that group members from different areas of the project were not really connecting with one another. We began to make significant progress only after we developed our first prototype of the system. That prototype provided a means to explore the many dimensions of the project in a tangible way, bringing forward and bridging the wide-ranging expertise and perspectives within the group. We experienced first-hand the value of interactive visual or physical resources, such as a simulation or prototype, to enable interdisciplinary collaboration. Needless to say, when I came across Michael Schrage’s book, Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate, it piqued my interest. It also led to related literature on learning, and the conclusion that serious play is not only about serious work, but also about serious learning.

What is serious play? Schrage describes it as follows:

“It is the essence of innovation….It means innovation requires improvisation. It means innovation isn’t about rigorously following ‘the rules of the game,’ but about rigorously challenging and revising them. It means innovation is less the product of how innovators think than a by-product of how they behave. Serious play is about innovative behavior. When talented musicians improvise, you don’t look inside their minds; you listen to what they play. When talented innovators innovate, you don’t listen to the specs they quote. You look at the models they’ve created.” [p. 1]

Modeling, prototyping, and simulation provide the tools, technologies, toys, and games for serious play. The book notes the similarities in the meanings of models, simulations, and prototypes, and uses the word prototype to convey how organizations use media to manage their innovation processes. An interesting contrast is made between observing the prototype itself versus observing its environment, that is, all the conversations, collaborations, debates, etc. that happen as the prototype develops into a product or process. The book emphasizes that it’s not what the toys can do that is important, but rather how people and organizations behave while using them. As Schrage states, the tools for serious play are a “medium for gaining insight into the ethology of innovation.” Prototypes change the nature of communication and collaboration. Changing the prototyping medium changes how people behave.

Something that we may take for granted today, the software spreadsheet, is an example of a serious play toy that transformed the financial business world. Schrage explains that the spreadsheet model serves as a “shared space” where ideas are created and debated. He comments on the concept of shared space in earlier work, pointing out that it takes shared space to create shared understanding, and that the results depend on the nature of the shared space [1]. For example, collaboration around the shared space of a whiteboard is different than around the shared space of a software prototype. The LEGO Group has created a shared space around LEGO bricks with LEGO Serious Play, an experiential process to enhance business performance using 3-D metaphors ( Schrage uses a number of real-world examples from companies such as Boeing, Sony, and others to illustrate serious play practices.

The book consists of nine chapters, divided into three parts, followed by a user’s guide:

Part I: Getting Real

1. The New Economics of Innovation

2. A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge

Part II: Model Behavior

3. Our Models, Ourselves

4. Productive Waste

5. Preparing for Surprise

6. Perils of Pathological Prototyping

Part III: Stimulating Innovation

7. Stimulating Interventions

8. Measuring Prototyping Paybacks

9. Going Meta: Evolution as a Business Practice

User’s Guide

The User’s Guide is a quick reference of the ten rules of serious play.

1. Ask, Who benefits?

2. Decide what the main paybacks should be and measure them. Rigorously.

3. Fail early and often.

4. Manage a diversified prototype portfolio.

5. Commit to a migration path. Honor that commitment.

6. A prototype should be an invitation to play.

7. Create markets around the prototypes.

8. Encourage role playing.

9. Determine the points of diminishing returns.

10. Record and review relentlessly and rigorously.

As rule 6 indicates, prototypes should draw participants into innovative games of “what-if?” In reference to rule 8, role playing, participants in the innovation process assume different roles. Schrage writes, “As cross-functional, cross-disciplinary teams become a dominant medium for managing innovation, prototypes and simulations can promote awareness between collaborators…. The goal should not be cross-functional fluency but cross-functional awareness.” (p. 211) The last rule is specific to learning, in which participants and organizations review their process to assess what worked and what didn’t.

Before considering the learning aspects of serious play, another book is worth mentioning, Breakthrough by Mark and Barbara Stefik [2]. It takes a complementary look at innovation with examples from corporate and university research. Breakthroughs require both invention and innovation. Invention, or creating prototypes of new things through research, addresses what is possible. Innovation, or taking prototypes all the way to a product through development, emphasizes what is needed. Here, too, the importance of play is cited. The MIT Media Lab is described as having an atmosphere of playful experimentation: “…there is a two-story space in the Media Lab with offices around the edges on both floors and a large atrium space in the middle. Round tables with computers fill the middle of the first floor in a coffee shop atmosphere. Projectors are available to show things on the walls. Bins of Lego pieces and other toys are on the edges…. It is part of the culture in many research groups to encourage an appropriate atmosphere of play” (pp. 133-134). Play also can inspire younger students’ interest in science and engineering.

In Breakthrough, the topic of apprenticeship, as a form of collaboration, is highlighted as a key ingredient for innovation. Stefik and Stefik write: “…imagination and curiosity and the skills of working on multidisciplinary study teams are important for fostering the creativity that drives the next round of innovation. By working with mentors, students acquire not just knowledge and methods but also values and attitudes” (p. 113). This brings us to learning, as presented by Lave and Wenger in Situated Learning [3]: “Learning viewed as situated activity has as its central defining characteristic a process that we call legitimate peripheral participation. By this we mean to draw attention to the point that learners inevitably participate in communities of practitioners and that the mastery of knowledge and skills requires newcomers to move toward full participation in the sociocultural practices of a community” (p. 29). Learning through apprenticeship involves legitimate peripheral participation. This concept denotes the mode of engagement of a learner who participates in the practice of an expert, to some limited extent. Learning is thus a process that takes place in a participatory context.

The work of Lloyd Rieber pulls together the notions of serious play and situated learning [4-6]. Rieber defines serious play as: “an intensive and voluntary learning interaction consisting of both cognitive and physical elements. Serious play is purposeful, or goal oriented, with the person able to modify goals as desired or needed. Most important, the individual views the experience of serious play as satisfying and rewarding in and of itself and considers the play experience as important as any outcomes that are produced as a result of it” [5]. His work has focused on the design of learning environments, i.e., Schrage’s shared spaces, which are social places where the resources and time are available to motivate a group to learn a set of ideas. He advocates that play should be a goal of learning environments via educational technology, such as interactive multimedia simulations and games. His premise is that the combination of technology and play will enable a diversity of students to take advantage of their learning strengths and preferences through situated learning.

Simulation and modeling are used extensively and increasingly in engineering education. Several projects presented at a recent National Science Foundation Engineering and Computing Education Grantee Meeting (, February 2005) are representative of advancements using the latest technology. If we are serious about using these tools to enhance student learning, then Schrage’s Serious Play provides a useful perspective on fostering student engagement and creativity.


[1] Conner, Marcia, “Our Shared Playground: An Interview with Michael Schrage,” LiNE Zine, 2000,

[2] Stefik, Mark, and Stefik, Barbara, Breakthrough: Stones and Strategies of Radical Innovation, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2004.

[3] Lave, Jean, and Wenger, Etienne, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, 1991.

[4] Rieber, L.P., Smith, L., and Noah, D., “The Value of Serious Play,” Educational Technology, 38(6), 1998, pp. 29-37.

[5] Rieber, L. P., and Matzko, M. J., “Serious Design of Serious Play in Physics,” Educational Technology, 41(1), 2001, pp. 14-24.

[6] Rieber, L.P., “Designing Learning Environments That Excite Serious Play,” Annual Meeting of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education, Melbourne, Australia, December 2001. Available at


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