Situated identities: a safety net to serious play

Situated identitiesIdentities and roles, in any kind of organised society, are said to be socially constructed: they are based on the implicit rules of collective agreement and acceptance. This makes most of such roles static, repetitive and defined independently by the individuals.
These socially constructed role-based identities are entwined with a number of implied relations that determine the quality of the relationships and define a set of rules of conduct that are accepted and never put into discussion. Such a situation is symptomatic of a society based on the ‘myth’ of hierarchies, scared of failing, motionless.
While the economic situation in Europe sinks, this immobile situation, that would call for changes and creativity, rather than experimenting on innovation, allows the fear to fail to prevail on the risk to succeed.
Society and people prefer to play safe rather than to put themselves into play and rather than assuming the responsibility of a change and play with those rules, they follow and reiterate practices that, being static and mindlessly repeated, have lead to a stagnant situation. A change is needed: Innovation is claimed as the key solution. But Innovation is not a good, is the result of a creative and dynamic approach.
Creativity requires flexibility, action and courage to try something new and the the will to explore what ifs. Rather than playing safe, if the aim is to discover new opportunities, we need to play. Seriously.

If it’s a known fact that the risk of failure represents the major obstacle to creativity and to change [Land 1972, Fromm 1997] . As Piaget said, to understand is to invent (1971) – invention is a change-driven process that requires exploring, it demands for action, because knowledge itself is activity and polar to repetition: if repetition is playing safe, playing seriously is the key to creative thinking and innovation.

The explorations of potentials, opportunities, and innovation require people to engage with others, question, take the risks of actions that oppose to motionless. Innovation is not generated by stillness or bought with simple material investments, it emerges by the human capital regardless their socially constructed identities. Such identities act as barriers than enforce repetitiveness.

Playing is an activity based on participation: there’s no play unless people engage sincerely. Playing is a learning, meaning making activity where players test either their or others’ limits, strengthening and pushing those limits to the extreme, in an exploratory and combinatory experience (Munari 1981). When people engage and play with others, they test their relationship within a situated context where subjects can pretend and create themselves the context. Such a new situated exploration of relationships, that leads necessarily to the creation of new balances and new links, puts our socially constructed identities aside and this is one of those cases where getting rid of the roles can be beneficial to explore potentials and let new ideas arise. Creativity and playing seriously require to take the chance of never-thought thoughts and to embrace the risk  of failure (or to succeed, depending on which side of the coins you wish to look at) at least in the specific context, which is far too often a stigmatised element in business life.

Nevertheless, playing safe is a dominant factor in today’s society, but playing safe is not real playing, because Play is the answer to how anything new comes about”(Piaget). In fact, a playing setting creates a save environment for people willing to challenge themselves reducing the risks of failure. LEGO SERIOUS PLAY [LSP], by enhancing creativity, capitalising on the human resources, and enhancing a new situated identity detached from that experienced in the social constructed reality.

A situated identity is the shift of identity determined by situations and implies “different ways of participating in different sorts of social groups” (Gee 2005): therefore, by changing the settings and the implicit dynamics of socially constructed environments, we can change the socially constructed identities in more flexible situated identities, which, even if temporary, can enact a change and encourage new interactions among people.

An LSP workshop generates new situated identities: participants are not identified anymore with their institutional role, and by leaving aside their socially constructed identities and relationships, they build new situated relations led by the engaging power of the bricks and their ability to balance and equalize the individuals involved. By building new relationships from scratch, the risk of failing or ‘losing face’ is reduced: by taking away the formal roles and putting all participants on the same level  by capitalising on the situated social dynamics and constructive processes, participants stress, test, enhance and build connections, meaning and ideas.
The LSP setting, by capitalising on playing activities, creates a safety net where participants can feel confident to share ideas knowing that there are no consequences on their ordinary life based on the dominant power dynamics. The situated context is like a detached dimension from the ordinary working setting: without the threatens and risks, people is allowed, indeed, is required to let themselves go, express their ideas as they come.

By getting rid of formal socially constructed identities, players are all peers in front of the bricks: hierarchies and organisation chart have no validity anymore, and, with the [deceiving] assumption that what happens in the workshop stays in the workshop, people engages in the process, act, think, create, share ideas and capitalise on the collective knowledge building process. However, such an assumption is bogus: what will be created, shared, discussed and negotiated during the workshop will have a deep impact on the participants’ life beyond the workshop. They will create relationships that will make them a team, they will explore creative and innovative ideas, they will delve into the key concepts of their identity both as individuals and as a group, they will act, take decisions, negotiate solutions and develop curiosity, strategies, challenges and new visions.

The constructivist process enhanced by the bricks deconstructs the socially constructed roles and once the socially constructed dynamics, roles and hierarchies are taken away, what’s left is a new canvas where everyone’s voice has the same value, the same impact and ideas are valued for their quality rather than for their formal shape or the role behind the words: younger interns, who might have less experience in formalising their thoughts, or those whose experience and knowledge on a topic is limited, can have the same impact as the most senior participant. It’s a new dimension created by bricks and by the rules of a serious play.
It’s like a stargate, or brickgate, if we want to play with words, where the repetition and the reiteration of everyday socially constructed practices have no space, where flexibility and dynamism take the lead in a fluid flow of relationship based on the situated reality, a parallel dimension where everyone is simply entitled and allowed to be the person, the individual he simply is, freed by the constant threat of failure.

There’s no risk to fail or to hurt others, since all the interactions are mediated by the LEGO models built by participants, everything said and thought focuses on the models and not on the person who created the models, leaving the inter-personal issues aside.
It becomes a win-win situation, where individuals can reshape their identity, drive the change by breaking the repetition of the practices, gain a new reputation that will follow them outside the workshop, free a creative and original thought that can impact the whole group and future outcomes.
The whole playful experience let individuals to emerge and it puts ideas in the centre – ideas become a common shared good to improve everyone’s experience beyond the workshop.
The shared meaning making and negotiation processes, which are the most challenging and exciting experiences enhanced by LSP, not only develop a critical thinking in individuals who are called to express their views and opinions, but they enact a constructive experience that brings people together to explore their collective potential by exploiting individuals’ capacities that may let unexpected talents to emerge. Capitalising on human resources and encouraging active participation is an answer to the play safe attitude that has led to immobility.

The difference between playing safe and playing seriously lies literally in the ability to play – to engage with others, to create, to negotiate and to share ideas. And if the fear of failure or consquences is still high, exercising such skills in a safe situated environment can be beneficial and inspiring. Because innovation is not a product, but a result of processes.Innovation emerges by a collective effort where the rules of the game are questioned to lead a change. Innovation requires stillness to be put into play.


Fromm, E. (1997) On Being Human Continuum International Publishing Group
Gee, J.P. (2005). An introduction to discourse analysis theory and method (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
Land, E. H. (1972) A Genius and His Magic Camera in LIFE magazine (27 October 1972)
Munari, B. (1981) Da cosa nasce cosa. Laterza
Piaget (1971) cited in: Ernst von Glasersfeld “Homage to Jean Piaget (1896–1980)”. In: Irish Journal of Psychology, 18, pp. 293–306


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