Engineering Fun



Humans are neotenous – that is, we regularly act like juvenile humans even when we’re adults. Neoteny shows up in many ways but especially in our behaviour. Most animals reach adulthood and leave their carefree playful behaviour behind them, taking on mature adult behaviour instead. But humans like to keep playing and having fun.

Another example of neoteny is seen in domestic dogs - adult dogs still play like puppies, whereas wild wolves stop their rough and tumble play behaviour as they mature.

In acknowledgement of our neotenous human behaviour the verb ‘adulting’ has crept its way into our language over recent years, to the point it made an entry into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016 after being shortlisted for word-of-the-year. ‘Adulting’ is informally used to describe things responsible grown-ups have to deal with, such as having a leaking boiler fixed, getting up early to go to work and completing tax returns. Check out the hashtag #adulting on Instagram or Twitter for some funny examples.

Our neotenous behaviour – acting like kids even when we are grown-ups - shows that even as adults we are programmed to enjoy ourselves and to seek out fun, and we find it so appealing that a whole entertainment industry has been built on the back of it.

Theme parks, adventure lands, amusement arcades, fun fairs... The clues are in the title. In going to places like these we are putting ourselves where there is the best chance of fun happening. We’ll even pay a lot of money for a ticket if our anticipation of the fun we’ll have is high enough.

Knowing we have an instinct for fun also leads people to say things like this…

“We’re holding a fun day.” “It’ll be so much fun.” “Fun for all the family.” “Fun, fun, fun.”

The problem with fun is it’s actually really hard to engineer. Ask any theme park owner. My automatic response to seeing a poster for a “fun day” in a shop window or newspaper is, “It’ll probably be a bit shit”. And when I share this insight with others, their hushed, stifled giggles tell me they think it too!

At fun days I imagine a quiet community hall, half-filled with tables of knickknacks and cup-cakes, with people standing awkwardly behind them wondering what’s keeping the rushing crowds from arriving. Outside a bouncy-castle bobs about with the same 3 children jumping on it. It’s raining a little. Tons of fun.

I can recall an episode on an early series of The Apprentice when the two competing teams were tasked with organising a fun paid-for activity on a Mediterranean cruise ship. One team came up with a dancing class and the other held a mini Olympics on the on-deck running track. Both looked painful and awkward, as they overenthusiastically tried to persuade guests that they were actually enjoying themselves.

Then there’s the office off-site… a day or more of team-building, where “games will be organised and fun will be had by all”. Nothing quite like compulsory fun either!

In my opinion the best fun happens organically and spontaneously, times of emotional and sensory enlightenment and joy. We can’t plan it or force it but we certainly recognise it, often retrospectively. Do you remember an afternoon you spent with friends, where you laughed so hard you cried? Then at the end of the day when you were saying your goodbyes someone said how much fun it was and you promised to do it again. Now that’s fun. And it wasn’t engineered.

Fun is a wildly overused term, so much so that it’s lost its currency and using it creates an unfortunate subtext of low expectations. If the word “fun” shows up anywhere in your communications with your customers, then unless you are absolutely certain people will have real, genuine, spontaneous and brilliant fun, take it out and find another way of telling people what to expect.

[Cue for angry people to send me photographs of lots of people laughing uncontrollably and having a right jolly time at their “fun day".]