Why Businesses Must Start Playing Games or Risk Being Left Behind

I was talking with a senior Public Relations manager the other day about The Game Trainers and he expressed much (healthy) scepticism about both the possibility and value of getting senior professionals to play games.

“These are serious people with serious jobs, and they are not going to waste time running around like school children” he told me.  This statement highlighted many of his pre-conceptions and assumptions. It also provided me with a golden opportunity to talk at length about how these ‘serious people with serious jobs’ could actually learn something about themselves, their staff, their company, their clients and their business opportunities by allowing creativity to flow more freely through ‘games’.

His position is not uncommon and it stems from a deep seated misunderstanding of what a ‘game’ is and what it is for, as well as a set notion of what ‘work’ must look like for it to be considered of value.  It’s not a coincidence that the most successful companies of the last decade, including Apple, Google, Yahoo and Facebook, were all started by college students, and perhaps as a consequence have at their core an ethos of fun, creativity and innovation.

Their success has not been achieved through a cubicle work environment, strict hierarchy, dull meetings and a regimented 9 to 5. Instead they have flowing and flexible work spaces, a culture of collaboration, opportunities for creativity and relaxed work structures.

The Game Trainers support this innovative and highly productive approach to work by creating games and group exercises to develop awareness and insight of issues, as well developing games to integrate into the working environment.

Before we go any further let’s clarify what we mean when we use the word ‘game’.  Referencing Jane McGonigal, for something to be considered a ‘game’ four elements must be in place:

  • A goal, which gives participants a sense of purpose
  • Barriers (better known as rules), which inspire strategic and creative solutions
  • A feedback system, such as points or progress indicators, which provides motivation to keep playing
  • Voluntary participation, so that all players accept the three elements above

These four elements however also seem to fit quite nicely into a definition of ‘work’. In simplistic terms; the goal may be to make money, the barriers could be considered the markets, competition and the law, the feedback process may be the company value, income and the market penetration, and the voluntary participation comes from simply being willing and able to play.

So where does the line between ‘work’ and ‘game’ occur? Well maybe there isn’t one, or at least maybe there shouldn’t be one.  Game Theory considers everyday circumstances as games and the parties involved as players.  It’s therefore possible to perceive all ‘work’ as a ‘game’ and to creatively use a Game Theory model to support better decision-making, where ones success depends on anticipating and acting upon the choices of other players in the game.

So is all this just a matter of perception?  Well, yes and no.  The starting point in allowing creativity and innovation to flow freely is to accept that the line between business and play is blurred, or at best non-existent.  Only then is it possible to create the opportunity and appropriate environment for individuals and groups to play the game (or work) as well as they possibly can.

Think of your favourite game, and why you like it, mine is Backgammon.  The reason I love it so much is that I become incredibly focused when playing it, every game is different, bad luck can destroy any good judgement just as good luck may overcome any poor judgement, but in the long-term commitment and superior strategy will always win out.  Now if I think about why I love my work; everyday is different, I’m fully committed and engaged by it, the destiny of my work may be influenced by external forces in the short-term, but I know for certain that dedication and effective planning will ensure a long-term success.

So I am fortunate, all the pieces are in place for me to approach my work as a game, in fact, as my favourite game.  This psychologically leads me to feeling motivated, challenged, empowered and optimistic.

This philosophy creates a real opportunity for business development and for staff and team enhancement.  Identify what drives people to play and what they need in place in order to succeed in their play, and then integrate these motivators and mechanics into their work for them to become enthusiastic, creative and driven to succeed, as much so as when they are playing computer games, or poker, or chess, or Angry Birds, or football, or any other game.

The Game Trainers approach is to work with teams to understand the learning and growth that can be drawn from games, game theory and game mechanics, and then support the organisation to integrate ‘games’ into practice.  Here are just six examples of the powerful impact that the effective application of this approach can have on work and on business.

  1. Citing and playing various games, for example, the deceptively simple playground game ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’, to explore and improve current decision-making approaches and strategic thinking processes. Introducing ‘players’ to elements of behavioural economics, and exploring how this best supports the team to work more effectively, maximise information and make more informed choices.
  2. Using games to create internal meetings that are fun and engaging, with an environment of innovation.  Process and outcome focussed in equal measures.
  3. Exploring the particular challenges of the organisation through games and group activity, be that; information management, effective communication, decision making or team collaboration; and subsequently developing creative techniques to meet these challenges
  4. Developing motivated and enthusiastic staff by implanting game type motivators into their daily work tasks and targets.
  5. Using games and play to explore group dynamics and the manner in which the team interacts, identifying strengths and weaknesses and the further learning needs of individuals and the group as a whole.
  6. Creating loyalty and engagement from clients and customers, through the implementation of game mechanics into a service, community, website, content or campaign (also known as gamification).

The Game Trainers work is always inter-active, energetic and inclusive, using numerous games (of course), experiential activity and group exercises to facilitate growth and learning in the individuals and the group.  Each activity is typically followed by a debrief and short discussion, exploring what application can be taken from the learning.  Throughout this process the inter-active nature of playing games has the added benefit of creating a collaborative environment amongst the participants, organically supporting team development.

And so I said to the sceptical PR man, it’s a good thing that they are “serious people with serious jobs” because we also are extremely serious about play, and in today’s environment they simply cannot afford to not be playing games.


“You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation” Plato


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