Written by Michael Hsiung Co-Founder of CNTRD
Playing games in business can be beneficial. There is a flawed worldview that business is serious and important while games are frivolous and fun.
After the pandemic, I searched and explored for better ways to help businesses grow. Listening to a great podcast interview, I realized that games can be better utilized in the business community. Games are a unique form of art where our choices and agency are placed front and center.
A business strategist can learn a lot about good decision-making by using games as a business device. Games serve as powerful business tools that (1) provide freedom, (2) set clear boundaries, and (3) simplify complexity.
Anatomy of a Game in Business
What got me interested in using game play in business was a fundamental shift in my understanding of the nature of games. “Games turn out to be part of the human practices of inscription. Painting lets us record sights, music lets us record sounds, stories let us record narratives, and games let us record agencies. (C.T. Nguyen)1“
Games are not just trivial activities that are only enjoyed by children or adults who live in their parent’s basement.
Freedom to Act Differently
The more you understand how games work, the more sense it makes to use them in an organizational setting. To illustrate this concept, let’s use the playground game of tag as an example.
In tag, all players agree upon a designated area where they can run and hide. One player is designated as “it” and tries to make physical contact with the other participants. Upon making physical contact, or a “tag,” the “it” player transfers the “it” status to the unwilling victim by saying “tag, you’re it.” Then the cycle begins anew and the new “it” player tries to tag someone else.
Now that the playground game of tag has been explained, let’s examine the interesting dynamics of the game and how it relates to business.
Agency, or the ability to make choices, is a skill that can be practiced. Business educators and strategists often ask people to change their behaviors, but they rarely provide opportunities for people to practice those choices. Without practice, people tend to react reflexively in business situations.
It’s not surprising that our colleagues and employees respond reflexively to events such as pandemics, financial crises, computer system malfunctions2, and massive layoffs.
In order for people to respond better to these important, but infrequent or uncomfortable events, they need to be presented with opportunities to practice those choices. The artificial setting of a game provides businesses with an opportunity to exercise their agency.
In the game of tag, players give each other permission to act outside of acceptable social norms. In normal life, a respectable person would never chase each other down the street, but in tag, players suspend normal behavioral norms for the purpose of chasing each other.
By suspending reality, players are presented with new and specific choices: where to run, how to conserve energy, and where to focus attention. These are not choices that adults make on a regular basis, but for children playing the game of tag, they get to exercise these choice sets hundreds of times in just 30 minutes of playtime.
Games specifically designed to train individuals to deal with infrequent or abstract decisions present a great opportunity to practice choices. By placing players in an artificially constructed setting, players can expand their normal choice set beyond habit and social norms. Games are a powerful tool to push people outside of their comfort zones.
Game Sets Boundaries for Our Thinking
Why don’t rock climbers just use helicopters to climb mountains? One of the defining features of games is their rules. Playing games in business creates boundary conditions that are ripe for innovation.
Let’s return to the example of a rock climber. The climber’s goal is to reach the top of the mountain, but it only counts as a successful climb if the climber reaches the top using the “correct” method.
Why do we impose such rules on ourselves? Unlike real-life strategies, the goal in a game is not only to achieve our goal, but also to experience the struggle. The “striving” or struggle is the joy of games3. An appropriate level of challenge and rules is key to a great game.
Constraints restrict our relevant choice sets. Instead of having many ways to climb a mountain, the climber is only allowed to use a rope, belay, carabiners, chalk, and quickdraws to aid their climb. Game constraints force us to maximize all the limited tools and choices we have.
In real life, it’s easy to get caught up in goals and achievements and miss out on the process. Research on creativity and innovation4 finds that having limited resources generates more novel and helpful ideas.
Playing games in business creates boundary conditions for innovation.
Instead of defaulting to old strategies, business teams can play carefully and thoughtfully designed games. With a limited choice set, players in a good business game will discover a world of choices that were previously unconsidered.
Simple and Low Stake
Businesses and organizations don’t naturally appear in nature. As human beings, we have to will them into existence through a complex web of money, formal institutions, culture, people, and nature itself.
The problem with real business problems is that their stakes are too high and have too long of a time horizon. This is why so many managers and workers become either too risk-averse or overconfident.
You don’t need to understand systems theory to understand that the modern business environment is complex5.
Sole proprietors navigating the modern social media landscape can easily find themselves overwhelmed by the ever-changing algorithms, monetization rules, and TikTok trends. And that’s for an organization with one person. When you add several more, the complexity starts to present itself.
Complexity is necessary in the modern world. We don’t grow our own food or milk our own cows. Today, products and services depend on a complicated web of physical and virtual supply chains.
In some sense, this is nice because I don’t have to have a professional grasp of web development to get a decent looking website. With the extra bandwidth, I can engage with many more people and activities.
The problem is that complexity grows exponentially with each additional node. In the modern world, I engage in many more activities with very little understanding of what’s going on under the hood.
It’s great when the whole system is cohesive. It’s awesome when it works. It’s a nightmare when there’s a problem.
Low Stake Simplicity of Games in Business
Games are to a strategist as a lab is to a scientist. In science, the real world is too complex with its complex interactions. Scientists take science into a sterile lab by isolating the number of influences on a test subject.
In the same way, a strategist should take problems into gameplay to isolate the key aspects of the problem6. This way, strategists can better understand the inner workings of a key mechanism without having to deal with all of the complexity at the same time.
Playing low-stakes simulation games over the high-stakes profit margin of a company allows for better experimentation. For players that are risk-averse, game sessions provide room for risk-taking. For players that are overconfident, a well-designed game will provide lessons in readjusting expectations.
Playing games is about empowerment.
Instead of being told what to do, players learn how to do. Playing games in business creates artificial settings with many beneficial characteristics such as the freedom to act, clear boundaries, and a simple place to experiment.
If you’re facing problems with alignment, learning, or innovation, it helps to step into the simplicity of gaming.
Some may argue that games, by design, are simplified simulations of real-life decisions and cannot match the complexity of reality.
However, I would argue that those who develop a better game sense have a better chance at nuance. The key is to engage in a variety of games, each of which focuses on a specific type of decision-making.
By building up a greater set of vocabulary of “better” decisions through playing multiple games, you gain access to a vast library of decision skills you developed. Like a scientist, a gamer might be better qualified at understanding nuances of complex problems.
¹ Nguyen, C. T. (2020). Games: Agency as art. Oxford University Press, USA.
2 Note from Author: Looking at you Southwest!
3 Suits, B. (1967). What is a Game? Philosophy of science, 34(2), 148-156.
4 Acar, O. A., Tarakci, M., & Van Knippenberg, D. (2019). Creativity and innovation under constraints: A cross-disciplinary integrative review. *Journal of Management*, *45*(1), 96-121
5 But if you are interested: Levinthal, D. A. (1997). Adaptation on rugged landscapes. Management science, 43(7), 934-950.
6 The paradox of choice is also a problem here. You like buying at Trader Joes because you don’t have to think that hard about choosing between 50 brands of shampoo.