In defense of games in the workplace

"Gamestorming" author Dave Gray on how games cut through creative chaos.

We’re hardwired to play games. We play them for fun. We play them in our social interactions. We play them at work.

Dave GrayThat last one is tricky. “Games” and “work” don’t seem like a natural pairing. Their coupling in the workplace either implies goofing off (the fun variant) or office politics (the not-so-fun type).

Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo, co-authors of the upcoming book Gamestorming, have a different perspective. They contend that an embrace and understanding of game mechanics can yield benefits in many work environments, particularly those where old hierarchical models are no longer applicable.

In the following Q&A, Gray discusses the collaborative power of games and how they can cut through increasing workplace complexity.

What is Gamestorming?

Dave Gray: Gamestorming is a set of collaboration practices that originated in Silicon Valley in the 1970s and has been evolving ever since. It’s an approach that emphasizes quick, ad-hoc organization of teams so they can rapidly co-design and co-develop ideas. As my co-authors and I observed these practices, they seemed to look more like games than any other form of work we were familiar with. Hence the term “gamestorming.”

Is each of us playing some sort of game all the time?

DG: In a sense we’re always playing games of one sort or another. “Game” is a big word that can have many meanings. For example, “game-playing,” “gaming the system,” “getting your head in the game,” and so on.

In this context, games are simply a way to put structure around the chaos of creative work. The game rules are a way of distributing information into the space you are working in, and distributing power equally among the people in a group. They are a method for flattening hierarchy, increasing engagement, and just generally speeding things up.

Does Gamestorming require specific skills?

DG: Gamestorming is primarily a mindset. It’s an approach to work that’s about engaging people in collaboratory activities. It’s not a game if people are forced to play, so you need to have people and projects that stir people’s curiosity and emotion. The Gamestorming skills are synthesizing and social skills, like visualization, improvisation, good listening and language skills.

Can games apply in any organization? Or, are there jobs and industries where it’s less effective?

DG: Gamestorming is a great approach when you are entering into unknown territory, when you need to imagine or design for the future, and when you need to tap creative energy. What games are best at is facilitating collaboration and innovation. Where the work is predictable, or where you want consistency, games are not the solution. You don’t want people playing too many games in the accounting department.

What is the relationship between complexity and game mechanics?

DG: The world is only getting more complex, and the more complex a system gets the less predictable it is. Games are a way to create simplified systems that mirror the real world. Plus, they’re a safe place to try out various scenarios and see what kinds of results are possible. You can tweak one or two variables and see how that affects the system.

Illustration from Gamestorming

How has workplace motivation changed as we’ve moved into a knowledge economy?

DG: In a traditional industrial setting, say, a factory, it’s easy to see what everybody is doing and how what they do fits into the bigger picture. It’s easy to see when people are working and when they are slacking off.

But in a knowledge economy, where people are all moving symbols around on screens, and many work from home or the road, it’s harder to coordinate the work. Fundamentally, in a knowledge economy, you want people to be creative. That means you need them to be interested, passionate and engaged. The modern cubicle layout and the intangibility of the work makes it difficult. You need to find ways to make it easier for people to share their work and the excitement they have for it. You need to fan the flames.


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