10 questions for thinking in games (Mental Models VII)

It is fair to say that playing video games have a number of positive cognitive and attentional effects (see this metastudy of 116 different papers), but one thing that is rarely highlighted is the fact that video games in some cases offer mental models that can be applied cross domains and used to think through complex scenarios and problems. It seems almost frivolous to suggest that we “gamify” or engage in “game storming” when it comes to really complex problems like climate change, but the reality is that a game is nothing else than a playable model. There is, I think, some argument for differentiating out a playable model from a simulation if only because the idea of a playable model puts agency at the forefront of what we are doing – we “run a simulation” but “play a game”.

Seeing in games is accepting that meaning is created not given.

And it is not only video games that can be drawn upon to understand and structure complexity better – I firmly believe that the people who grew up playing role playing games like Rolemaster, D&D or Call of Cthulhu have at their fingertips ways of thinking through a problem that includes core parameters like luck, skill, stats needed to accomplish something, the mechanics of conflict or combat as well as the importance of narrative to all of our endeavours.

So what are some interesting ways in which we can think through our problems with the help of game design? Let’s look at 10 really simple questions we can use to structure a challenge in game terms.

  1. How do I keep score? This is a deceptively simple question that is often overlooked, especially in large organisations. Ask your colleagues how they keep score overall and you will find, especially cross-functionally, that different teams keep scores in very different ways.
  2. What is the skill tree here? I have already discussed this in another post, but skill trees are amazingly powerful devices to structure a discussion about the capabilities of your organisation and think through how you need to resource yourself to ensure that you have the capabilities needed to reach your objectives and key results.
  3. Who are the other players? Again a deceptively simple question, but especially in large organisations you tend to lose sight of the fact that almost everything is an n-player game where n>3. If you know what other players are you can start thinking through what moves you would make in their situation.
  4. What character am I playing? This is offered slightly tongue-in-cheek, but it helps to think about who you are in your workplace — you have a professional identity, and that is not far from thinking through how you roll a character in a game. This also helps you to create the distance you need to your work to really be able to seek out and appreciate hard feedback, actually and reminds you that this is just a small part of who you are. Underneath all of our masks we are just ourselves, but we can use the masks to great effect.
  5. What is the quest? If you structure a problem like a quest you will see that there are key points in it where you need to meet someone, perform a hard task, face yourself – etc. And quests are great additions to the core projects that a company needs to run, and they are awesome tools for career development. A simple way to do this is to put up a quest board where folks in the company can post a quest with a short duration, clear outcome and a key problem to solve — and those who want to try their hand at working in another function or just dig in extra can do so.
  6. Resource management. In any sufficiently advanced strategy game you typically die not so much because of your lack of strategic genius as from the fact that you run out of iridium / money / dark mana / any other resources. Which are the resources you are managing and how do you ensure that they are managed right? This approach beats budgeting hands down, because budgeting is based on the amazingly arbitrary idea that a year is a good time to plan for and then breaking it up in quarters makes sense. It often doesn’t – but managing resources dynamically, from round to round, is key!
  7. Research trees. These are related to skill trees, but they are more open ended. What are the open research questions you are working on, where a new concept / technology / model / service / product would allow you to significantly change your game?
  8. Diplomacy. In most advanced 4X games you can win through building alliances and unifying different players. The ability to think creatively and explicitly about diplomacy is key. Who are the key people in the network you are playing in (it helps to think about all games as games on networks) and what is your relationship to them? For many big tech companies the loss of diplomatic relationships with publishers came with a surprisingly high price in the 4X Big Tech game.
  9. Character development and experience points. Are you deploying your learning effectively? Are you helping others develop and get experience? How do you think about levels in your organisation? Many company’s have talent ladders and levels that are hopelessly fuzzy and vague, it is much better to think through how you add experience points and when that means that you are the next level — again it feels frivolous, but is it really more frivolous than the more or less arbitrary performance evaluations we inflict on people in many modern organisations? Would you not prefer to discuss what the experience you have had should be worth in points towards a set goal?
  10. The map. This simple, fundamental tool of any strategy game is almost always missing in modern organisation – they have no real map of the environment they are in, no representation of the fitness landscape they are navigating – that makes very little sense, but again comes from the fear of playing, of being seen to be less serious. And there is something fundamental here – this fear of playing, the idea that play is something reserved for children and something you outgrow is really the mind killer. All art is play, all work is play if you do it right.

Now there is one thing that I think we should point out very clearly, and that is that the point of playing games is not to win. It is to keep playing. This has been brilliantly captured by James P Carse in his ingenious little book on finite and infinite games, and the definition of infinite games is also Carse’s:

Infinite players cannot say when their game began, nor do they care. They do not care for the reason that their game is not bounded by time. Indeed, the only purpose of the game is to prevent it from coming to an end, to keep everyone in play.

Carse, James P Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility

We play to keep playing at the heart of things. We may want to win in individual finite games, but we need to see that they are all played in the context of the infinite game, the great game we call life.

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