If you know us at all, you won’t be surprised to hear that Jason and I are serious gamers. Card games, Board Games, Video Games – you name it. If we get a little bit of free time, you’ll find us playing games.
We love healthy, friendly competition. While you may hear a loud and impassioned defense of a complicated interpretation of a rule in the Sturgeon household, you will never hear anyone get angry. We don’t let each other win, and we certainly don’t let our kids win. We play hard, but we’re enjoying the game the entire ride.
We like complicated rules. Over vacation, we got out a game we’d picked up at an auction ages ago but hadn’t played yet, because we knew it was going to take a while to figure out. It took us an hour and a half just to sort out the rules and set it up. That’s our happy place. It isn’t because we like the long, drawn out setup, or the initial reading of the rules. It’s because complexity in the rules is what gives you the ability to use those rules in interesting ways.
You can only use the rules of Tic Tac Toe in a few ways. Simple rules mean a few, easily understood outcomes. Complicated rules mean tools you can use to turn the game in your favor in a thousand different ways, if you understand them well enough.
The truth is, I haven’t found the game yet with rules that rival a contract.
And there is a good deal of competition, friendly and otherwise in this industry.
And the more you look at business, at life, like an infinitely more complex game, the more you can refine your play style, and find your way to your victory conditions.
One objection that is often raised, when we discuss this subject is that ‘Business is serious,’ ‘Conflict is serious,’ ‘Life is serious.’ Make no mistake about it, these are serious issues, and we mean in no way to make light of important subject matter. It’s only that we happen to think Gamification is a serious way to address those things.
Game Design Theory says that a game, whether we’re talking about Risk, Poker, or Hide and Seek, has certain common components. By studying the components of any given game, anthropologists will argue that a great deal can be learned about the society that played the game. You can learn about medieval Europeans by looking a little harder at Chess, ancient China through Go, or ancient Egypt if you analyze Senet.
In the same way, we believe that you can learn a thing or two about yourself, when you look at your approach in the game of life. (Your actual life, I mean – not the Milton Bradley version!)
- Tools of Play – These are the elements without which, we can’t play the game. For Monopoly, you have a board, paper money, property cards, and dice. For Poker, you need playing cards and chips (snazzy visor hat optional.) What are your tools of play? If we’re talking about business, what pieces of your line of work are essential to your trade. If we’re looking at life, what can’t you live without? (beyond the usual food, water, air, etc) What are your essential Tools of Play? Understanding which pieces you could do without, and which ones render the game unplayable can be an interesting reality check.
- Rules – Maybe it’s just a few, like Tic Tac Toe, or an ever changing cascade of minutia, like in Magic: The Gathering, but a game is only a game if it has rules. Rules define our roles – what we can and can’t do. In Monopoly, you might play with a banker, who has a specific job. In Poker, you have a dealer. In some games, everyone has the same role, in others, every single player has their own set of differing skills, abilities and specific rules. Rules define our interactions. In Monopoly, can you trade with other players any time, or only during your turn? (You might play either way) In Poker, you don’t get to trade cards. In life, and in business, we have just as intricate a set of rules, but we often don’t define them or lay them out. So many of our day to day problems come about when both sides aren’t using the same set of rules. Notice, when I talk about Monopoly, and say ‘Maybe you play like this…’ That’s because in gaming, we have a concept called ‘House Rules’ and it means, ‘This is how I play Monopoly.’ House Rules are great, and some of the more interesting games are played with them, but if I’m using my House Rules, and you’re using yours, no one is going to have a good time. Whether in your work relationships (co-workers, superiors and subordinates) or at home (with extended family, spouse or kids) understanding what the House Rules are can make sure we are all playing the same game. Because if your rules don’t match up, no one wins.
- Victory / Forfeit Conditions – This is an important one. When do you win? When do you lose? Is this a zero sum game? In Monopoly, all you have to do is survive until all the other players lose. Losing is defined by the point where your debts outnumber your assets. In Poker, you win a round with the best hand. Who wins at a series of rounds of Poker? Perhaps everyone who leaves richer than they came to the table? The one who walks away with the most chips? The one who took home the most money in relation to his or her regular paycheck? You can see how we might define victory in a whole series of different ways. And if we’re playing together, hopefully we can agree on that definition, or at least each of us understand the definition the other is working with! Finally, let’s talk about zero sum games. Lots of the games we play are zero sum. One person wins Monopoly when everyone else loses. There can only be one winner. I win when you lose and vice versa. Is that how life works? I pose that as a question, because, like everything else we’re discussing here, it’s up for interpretation. We like to posit the theory that life is rarely a zero sum game – that often, we overlook the simplest solution – that we all come out best when we all win. It’s amazing how often bad interactions come from simply overlooking the fact that a situation is not zero sum.
- Resources – Usually, in order to win a game, you need to use some sort of resources – what do you spend? In Monopoly, it’s play money, and you could make the argument that the properties are resources too. In Poker, we use chips, and maybe real money, depending on how we play. In a game like Hide and Seek, your resources are part of your environment. Hide and Seek in an open field is a different game than Hide and Seek in a neighborhood, in a school, or at a playground. What are your resources? Money, and time are givens. What else can you leverage in order to get to your victory conditions? What can you spend in order to get what you want? Sometimes, we come to a solution for the stickiest of problems by leveraging resources we didn’t even realize were on the table.
- Elements of strategy and luck – Some games use all strategy and no luck, and vice versa, but the games that we enjoy the most usually incorporate some combination of the two. Monopoly involves careful thought in deciding which properties to purchase and when to build, but a bad roll of the dice can cost you a great deal or send you to jail. Business and life involve strategy as well as a good dose of luck. The best gamers will tell you that the way to situate yourself in a game is to hold out for big gains when luck falls your way, but to use that strategy to insulate yourself as much as possible for a bad roll of the dice. Game the rules right in Dungeons and Dragons, and the only chance for failure is a roll of 1 on a 20 sided die. Those are pretty good odds. Identifying where the hinge pins of strategy and luck rest in our businesses and lives is a good way to build a playstyle that wins more than it loses.
The intersection of games and life is one that anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers, and even economists and mathematicians have pondered for ages. We apply this theory to a lot of life, and right now, we’re teaching a course on applying it to Conflict Management called Conflict: A Serious Game. It’s part of our ‘Terraforming Mars’ series on company culture.
We’re offering this session at ABC’s Advanced Leadership Retreat on October 19th and 20th at Icicle Village Resort in Leavenworth, Washington.
Sign up today!