Play is Inevitable Whether You Are Tim Burton or BP

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BoniferPortrait1 Mike Bonifer is a game changer. He is PASSIONATE about play and works with high energy and playful people like Don Hahn (the producer of Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, etc.). His company, GameChangers, uses an improvisation-based learning program to help clients adapt and evolve and his book, GameChangers — Improvisation for Business in the Networked World, was just published.
 
Mike, talk to us about why play is inevitable.

Back when we were both working at Disney (I was a publicist; he was a rookie animator) I did an interview with Tim Burton, who'd go on to become THE Tim Burton, but back then he was just this nutty, talented guy Tim who who had to work really hard to channel his vivid imagination into everyday conversation–words often escaped him. I asked him how he'd gotten to where he was at that point in his life, in his early twenties, a Cal Arts animation grad now working for Disney Studios.

He said something I've never forgotten.

He said, "I didn't have a choice, I don't think."

People laughed about it when they saw him say that. (We filmed the interview.) "Oh, look, the goofy kid saying something goofy, we love it," the adults in the room would say, or words to that effect. But I always took Tim at his word. That he didn't, in fact, have a choice. Or that he'd made a choice early in his life and never wavered from it, never looked back, never questioned it.

I have come to believe that the choice Tim didn't have any choice about was the decision to be playful. Filmmaking was going to be his game, and the choice to play it seemed so obvious to him that he didn't even think of it as a choice at all. It was in his nature.

The work we do with GameChangers points out the essential playfulness in organizations and their people, and not just playfulness that's inherent in human nature, it's present in all of nature. Mother Earth plays. BP plays. Google plays. Hasbro plays. I play. You play. We play. We may play different games but we all play. And the more we honor the inevitability of play, the richer our lives can be.

A question we always put to our clients when it comes to their organizational memes and behaviors is "What kind of games do you play? Productive or unproductive ones?" Games that are destructive to the planet, zero-sum, win-lose, and ego-abetting? Or do you play games that are collaborative, win-win, generative, sustainable, and of service your community?

Once we accept that we have no choice but to play, we can begin to focus on the quality of the play itself. Within the rules, roles, environment and objective(s) that define the game, we can explore limitless possibilities for expanding our potential.

Back in the day, a group of us at Disney Studios that included Burton used to skip out of work on Friday afternoons to be first in line at screenings of new films. One Friday afternoon, about a dozen of us were sitting on the sidewalk, first in line, to see the first screen of "Superman-The Movie" at the Mann's Theater Westwood Village. Burton was sitting with a couple of his young animator buddies. I saw one of them pick up a grain of sand from the sidewalk and hold it up in front of Burton on the tip of his index finger, and say, "Hey Tim, look at this." I could not hear what Tim said in reply, because was speaking Burtonese almost under his breath, but I watched him riff about that grain of sand until his buddies were dying laughing.

Once we accept, as Tim Burton did very early in his career, that play is inevitable, we find that even a grain of sand holds the potential for transformation.

 

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