Why games indeed. I asked myself the same question. The idea for knowledge games didn’t come from some inspiration that struck me in some ivory tower, but from watching people at the cutting edges of new disciplines; people who are entrepreneurs, creators, designers and innovators. Watching them work, watching them play, and sometimes having difficulty telling the difference.

“What are they doing?” I asked myself. They don’t work like other people. What they are doing looks chaotic from the outside, but on closer inspection seems to have a hidden order. I’ve observed meetings that aren’t like the kind of meetings most people are used to: meetings that seem to have no order to them, where people seem to come and go at will. And paper. Lots of paper. These are hard-core geeks; some of the most technological savvy people on the planet. Why are they using low-tech tools like flip charts, sticky notes, index cards and whiteboards? It seems they are rejecting the very technologies they are in the process of inventing.

At some point I came to realize that the hidden order I saw in these innovative teams was the same order and structure to be found in games of all kinds. Index cards and sticky notes operate like the playing cards, counters and other game components: they make it easy to sort, shuffle, arrange and rearrange information. Flip charts and whiteboards function like playing fields or game boards – they bring logic and order to a space, allowing it to serve as a base for exploring combinatorial possibilities.

So, the new innovators are harnessing game mechanics. And it seems to be working. But I wondered: why games? Why do these games seem to generate so many new, successful, workable ideas? What were these people doing that traditional business people were not?

Well, if we take a look around and make some observations about the world at large, there’s one big, glaring, obvious fact. A fact so simple it’s easy to overlook. Soon, everything will either be on the internet or linked to the internet. Everything, whether it’s physical or digital, will have one or more internet addresses, like tiny hooks, transforming them into linkable entities. And hooks are like hammers. If to a hammer, everything looks like a nail, then to a hook, everything looks like it’s hookable. Hooks want things they can hook up to. It’s inevitable that, over time, everything will want to link to everything. This significantly changes the playing field for business.

Simplicity moves toward complexity. That’s the natural path of evolution. One cell becomes two, two cells find a way to cluster into a higher kind of organism, that organism replicates, and by a series of simple steps like this, the simple becomes complex. The brain is made up of simple cells, but together they form a complex organ. One ant is simple, but a colony of ants exhibits complex behavior that could never be predicted by looking at a single ant. All complex systems are made of simple parts. It’s not hard to see that in a world where everything is hookable, the ability to adapt and plug in to increasingly complex systems will increasingly be an advantage, and probably a necessity.

We can call this the law of increasing complexity: Simplicity inevitably leads to complexity. And it’s in this algorithm that we can find the answer to the question “Why games?”

In this digital world where everything is linkable, it’s impossible for us to maintain the fiction we created during the industrial revolution: that the world can be ordered according to simple chains of cause and effect, of inputs which are transformed into outputs via a linear process. Yes, it’s something we can do, and the channeling of information and materials into linear processes is probably the primary driver of the industrial revolution, more so than the steam engine or any other invention. There’s no doubt that business processes can be very helpful, and can achieve startling, amazing results.

But it’s not the way the world works.

Business processes are successful because they squelch and constrain complexity. They simplify business by standardizing elements and relationships, and by stabilizing those relationships so they are consistent over time. The result of a well-designed and well-executed business process is standard, repeatable, scalable results. But this comes at a cost. Our education systems, for example, are industrialized, but the standardized education process does not guarantee the best education possible for every student, only that each student is treated the same. Every business process pays a similar price: Customers don’t get the best service; they get a standard of service that the business can profitably maintain. Increasingly, businesses are finding that technology allows them to gain a better view of complexity that they can turn into business advantage. All customers are not the same. Products and services can be tailored and customized to individual needs. When you make the complicated simple, you make it better. But when you make the complex simple, you make it wrong.

The world is a complex system, made up of many complex systems, all of them interacting with each other in complex, dynamic and unpredictable ways. As we proceed to give everything an address, and make those addresses linkable, our entire economy will begin to shift. Linear models will not retain the competitive advantage they had in an industrial world. Business processes – which are linear models – will not be able to adapt and adjust fast enough to the nonlinear, complex systems they will need to interact with. Increasingly, linear processes will need to be protected from the outside world, where linkable hooks will be clamoring for attention, trying to break through that wall. There might be a person behind the hook, or an application, or a device, or all three. The line between a company and its customers, partners, suppliers and employees is starting to lose its clearly-defined edge, as is the line between software and devices. Boundaries are becoming porous, work more fluid. And all those digital hooks – the addresses of everything – will not be denied. Hooks are social. They want to find each other. They must link, if not to you then to somebody else. And this hookability is getting more granular with time: hooks are being attached to smaller and smaller things. Today your car and your phone have hooks, tomorrow your cup of coffee and the milk in your refrigerator. Competitive forces and globalization will only accelerate this dynamic.

In a networked world where complex interactions are the norm, business processes will become increasingly fragile. Not to mention that they are boring, repetitive and dehumanizing. In fact, a good business process can be entirely automated – and most will be, eventually – eliminating the need for people altogether. Games, on the other hand are energizing, creative, and fun. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little more of that at work?

We have become accustomed to the business process standard operating procedure; the default; the way we do things. Every business needs structure and systems – a way to organize itself; a way to move forward to achieve its goals. And yet, work does not need to be organized around business processes to be effective. It’s not a requirement that all work proceed neatly from left to right, according to a neatly prescribed sequence of cause and effect. The way that rules function in processes and games is entirely different. Processes are rule-heavy. They prescribe a narrow range of activities and prohibit everything else. Games, on the other hand are rule-light. In a game, anything not forbidden is permitted.

Consider email, the kudzu of modern life: it’s everywhere, adding friction and fuzz to nearly all business activity. One way to reduce email clutter might be to introduce a corporate policy that imposed rules on employees about how to structure their emails. But Stanford professor Byron Reeves has effectively reduced email clutter by turning email into a game. He designed a system where every employee is assigned a certain number of tokens each week – say, 100 – that can be attached to any email. By attaching more tokens to an email, writers flag their messages as more or less important, effectively bidding for the attention of the reader. The system has reduced email clutter and improved productivity by introducing a familiar game element: play money.

Games, the most developed, structured, social and scalable form of play, offer the perfect mechanism for organizing collaborative, creative work in a networked economy. Although games have structure and goals, the results of a game are never predictable in advance. Every game unfolds differently, according to the actions and decisions of the players.

Games are becoming the lingua franca of the knowledge economy. It’s not just the individuals and small teams of technology startups, but the largest enterprises of the digital era – companies like eBay and Google – are adopting game practices into their daily work. It’s happening as we speak.

In the same way that the process map, flow chart and org chart are models that we use to plan, organize and execute industrial work, games are interactive models that allow us to simulate and understand complex systems. Monopoly is a simple model of an economy. Tic-tac-toe, checkers and chess are more or less complex models of warfare. A game is a complex adaptive system, where the players act and react to each others’ actions in a complex, dynamic way.

And knowledge games, the games that are now being practiced by the leading edge of the knowledge economy, are models of business scenarios, environments and interactions. Games not only model systems, but at the same time they allow the players to experience those systems from within, just as customers do.

People participate in games because they want to, not because they have to or because someone told them to – just like real customers.

A game, like a business process, involves people, and it has structure and goals. But whereas a business process can be seen as a chain of cause and effect, leading to a predictable result, a game operates more like a real-world system, where results are unpredictable and small changes in variables can generate dramatic differences in the result.

The military has known about the advantages of games for a long time. Games play a key role in military exercises because they are the only way to simulate the “fog of war” – the ambiguity forces encounter when the real world does not match the perfect world of their theories and plans. In this way, games are not merely descriptive but generative: they generate new possibilities, new insights.

The law of increasing complexity demands non-linear business practices. It demands businesses that can rapidly adapt to changing information environments. If your product or service isn’t digitally hookable, it will soon be obsolete. And once it’s digitally hookable, you’re in for a wild ride. Your service must live on multiple devices, and it must evolve and adapt as the devices evolve. Your application must plug into other applications, it must dwell happily on different operating systems and get along amiably with all the other applications, plug-ins and devices. Your services must share information with other, interlocking services. Your products must share information with other products. Your refrigerator needs to talk to your grocery list, which will need to talk to your calendar, and so on, and so on. This kind of hyperlinked economy will not wait patiently at the end of your production line. It will not wait for information to flow through your hierarchical chain of command. It requires a fundamentally different way of working, and a fundamentally different way of thinking about work: the knowledge game.

Games help teams deal with complexity in many ways. Through the use of game boards, pieces, tokens and so on, games can distribute complex information into the environment, creating a landscape of information that frees up the players’ minds so they can engage with the situation at hand, without oversimplifying. Cognitive scientists call this kind of information distribution material intelligence, also known as the extended mind.

Games are accessible to beginners without being boring to experts.

Games energize the participants and ignite their emotions. They engage the whole person – a necessary element if you want insightful, creative results. A game space reduces fear by suspending reality and creating an emotionally safe place for exploration and the introduction of “silly” ideas. They create a context within which it’s safe to play; where risk is something to explore and not to fear.

Teams who play games over time develop deep, embedded experience and team dynamics that cannot be achieved in any other way. And as players gain experience through game play, they also build the skills and intuition to navigate complex information spaces, and to react quickly in real-world scenarios.

Games provide mechanisms for interaction and creative collaboration: multiparty, participatory, interdisciplinary work. They create a common language for describing systems, enabling players to connect and share information and ideas freely, even when they come from different disciplines that don’t usually communicate well with each other.

Game goals are loose enough to be met in many different ways, so the outcome of a game differs depending on the players and the context. The goal of a game directionally guides the activity without prescribing a predetermined end state. The structure of a game does not prescribe a single approach but leaves room for many approaches and strategies. This leaves room for opportunity, digression and discovery along the way. The constraints of a game encourage, rather than restrict, creativity.

Games can be designed very quickly, ad-hoc, to deal with situations as they arise. They do not require formal hierarchy, structure or careful planning to be effective. Games allow teams to make and test scenarios and prototypes, to explore and simulate possible futures.
Knowledge games are the future of work: not in theory but in practice.

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