The Joy & Value of Play

“Life is a game, play it” – Mother Teresa

In our study of the worlds greatest events, we found Play is integral to the success of many events. By definition play is ‘activity engaged in for enjoyment’ and somewhat unsurprisingly we found Play to be a common element in iconic events around the world.  After all, we do like to have fun.

But do you play with this, in your events, to design your experiences?

La Tomatina is a festival that is held in the Valencian town of Buñol, in which participants have a play fight with hundreds of thousand tonnes of tomatoes. It lasts for an hour, after which the town is covered with tomato. Fire trucks then hose down the streets and locals hose the participants. All in the name of fun.

It appears there is no one definitive version of how La Tomatina was created, but the playful tradition of a tomato fight has taken place since 1944. Theories on the first fight include a food fight among friends, or bystanders disrupting a carnival parade, the rubbishing of a bad musician, a protest against the city, or even the aftermath of an truck spillage. Whatever the cause, the people of Bunol obviously found the joy of play an excellent concept, and today around 50,000 people come from all over the world to get playful with one another! 

The Value of Play in events

A playful festival theme promotes many destinations. Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls, Carnevale in Venice, the Mardi Gras of New Orleans, Carnivale in Rio, and the Songkran Water Festival in Thailand, are all made famous by play. La Tomatina itself generates around half a million dollars for the small town each time it is held, and this playful event strategy has famously placed Bunol on the tourist map.


The Color Run is ‘The Happiest 5k on the Planet” and combines the need to move and to be together with play. To powerful effect.

The concept sounded ridiculous, and for some still is, and that is what makes it so valuable. By 2014 there were 300 Color Runs in over 50 countries. The joy of having fun, in active entertainment, and, being able to share this enjoyment in coloruful images on social media has been a powerful mix.

Why does it work? Well as James Kelly calls out in his wonderful book ‘Sweat Equity’, the answer is pretty simple. As Color Run Founder Travis Snyder realised to great effect, people just like to have fun, and they tell everyone about it – with images, online. And the other advantage is that play is better with other people. After all it’s really awkward going throwing paint at people you don’t know. But with friends, it is awesome.

Having play in your event theme does the recruiting for you. Before and after the event.

Amplifying play in your event is powerful.

The human connection is natural, the content created is authenitically appealing (likeable and shareable).

And while the attraction of play may be unsurprising, we do forget its value. Johan Huizinga, one of the founders of modern cultural history describes play as “one of the great primal life functions”. Play is as he said, a ‘free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life, absorbing the player intensely and utterly’. And we can see play is integral to creating immersive, escapist, influential events.

The Sydney Mardi Gras is another playful event, where people come together to share ideals and beliefs. People play, dress up and have a party, celebrating and/or suspending social norms.

Event people know the value of play.

“Just play. Have fun. Enjoy the Game”

Micheal Jordan

Whether it be the NBA or World Cup Finals, the Olympics, Mardi Gras, Edinburgh Fringe or October fests, La Tomatina or Colour Run at their core these events all embrace the joy of play. And so can yours.

The value of Play and Gamification

“Games are the interplay of Goals, Rules, and Feedback”  Dr Jason Fox – The Gamechanger

As games involve some form of play, with rules put in place, some form of feedback (a sense of progress) and rewards (often points or levels) by introducing these elements, and playing with these dials, you can easily ‘gamify’ the event experience you offer.

Of course we often think of ‘video games’ when we talk gaming, and e-sports is a poster child for what can occur with gaming and events.

But it doesn’t need to be a video game to be gamification.

As Huizinga identified play is being ‘within boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner.’ Events provide this time and place, a platform for play, in its many guises, and whilst not always orderly, we participate with some known rituals, rules and boundaries.


The game begins at 11am when a jamon is placed on top of a large and greasy pole in the town square, and the tomato fight can begin only when someone is dextrous enough to clamber up and grab this meaty prize from its perch.

Cue lots of play, and mayhem.

As soon as this feat has been accomplished lorries full of tomatoes drop their first load of tomatoes on the ground and the crowds fight to pick up the dormant projectiles, and hurl them at one another’s pristine white T-shirts (it is tradition to dress in white for maximum before and after effect!). After all the tomatoes have been thrown and re-thrown the citizens of Bunol hose down the revellers – and the crazy tomato playfight is over for another year! 

If we play with the rules, we can adopt gamification strategies to enhance the influence of the event. Playing with the goals and feedback mechanics we can gamify the experience.

And while competition is apparent in many events, sport or otherwise, you may choose to focus on challenge, or aspiration, as opposed to competition. Tough Mudder is another great success story in the event world, and is a somewhat playful challenge, which deliberately elimated many comptive aspects we traditionally saw in ‘mass participation’ events.

Will Dean, the founder of Tough Mudder describes an ‘aha’ moment at a triathlon, where all his fellow competiors declined helping him unzip his wetsuit. It was then he realised that developing an event with a shared challenge, and not competitors, could be an attractive differentiator.  The value of this approach has seen Tough Mudder attract more than 2 million particpants, and was worth an estimated $70 million back in 2015. Again, the concept of play may seem absurd, but people pay for the privildge.

They buy it, and share it. They enjoy it and embrace it.


Tough Mudder also clevery embraces the power of ‘Communitas’ in your event, the joy of coming together for a shared purpose, which we talk about later in this series of articles. 

So how do we bring Play to our event?


We embed Play as we MAP the event experience, and introduce Gamification strategies to enhance our influence.

I’m currently running ½ to 2 day Design sprint workshops with event teams, creating more influential, successful events.

Let’s talk more about your event or customer experience.

andrew@andrewoloughlin.com / + 61 423 359354

The 7 Iconic elements

Iconic Events Canvas Andrew O’Loughlin


Have a play with the free ‘Iconic Events Canvas’. Helping you to create your own iconic event

The 7 elements will provide a powerful catalyst to achieve your desired goal. Like people, each of the seven elements are powerful on their own, and like events they create the most effect when they are brought together.

You can subscribe here to read the ‘Iconic Events’ case studies on each of the 7 elements in action.

And, don’t forget to contact us to do some ‘Experience Design’ thinking.

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andrew @ andrewoloughlin.com

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