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Q&A on the Book Gamification for Business

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Key Takeaways

  • Business games can be a tool for change, innovation, strategy, or culture processes 
  • Business games have a conceptual advantage when it comes to connecting theory and practice in meaningful ways
  • A major benefit in using business games is that they create a temporary space where people can meet on common ground
  • Progression game structures are better for training purposes, where emergence game structures are better for innovation purposes
  • Digital and physical games are blending more and more, which take advantage of technology and social interaction

The book Gamification for Business by Sune Gudiksen and Jake Inlove explores the usage of games for effectively tackling business challenges and improving organizational performance. It provides results from research on gamification, case studies of game-based solutions, and the benefits that serious games and design thinking can bring.

InfoQ readers can read the full table of contents, reviews and (once registered) the Introduction and Chapter 1 of Gamification for Business on the publisher's book landing page. They can also order a copy at a 20% discount and with free post and packaging in the USA and UK at this page, using the code FBLGFB20.

InfoQ interviewed Jake Inlove about how games can create a meaningful connection between theory and practice, help us to deal with fragmentation and build a shared understanding, examples of games that can be played within a business context, the difference between a progression and an emergence game structure, the advantages and disadvantages of digital games when compared to physical games, designing games that people like to participate in, developing the skills that game facilitators need, and the retro movement of board games in the Nordic areas.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Jake Inlove: We wanted to shed light on how games could be used in organizations and take stock on the field as it is so far. From the start, we developed an ambition to make cluster different players from the "organizational games" industry – we sought to create a broader overview, rather than just the perspective of one player. When we actually succeeded in gathering a great group of people from the industry, we began sharing knowledge and case stories, as well as found common denominators between us.

With the book, we could help readers better understand the occurrence of games used in business contexts. What can games as an organizational tool help us accomplish? This was one of the core questions we aimed to answer in section one. How can games be used in organizational contexts, and how do they work? This was what we sought to demonstrate with the 22 case examples in section two. What do we see if we go beyond the single standing game examples, and look at the common design features and techniques used in the business games? This was our guiding question, when we wanted to take stock of the field with cross-comparison, historical perspectives, and future considerations. 

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Inlove: We wrote the book with three target groups in mind.

First, we wrote the book for changemakers – the facilitators and consultants who need to lead change, facilitate learning and development processes, and need tools to do so. We wanted to show this group what games can offer as a tool for change, innovation, strategy, or culture processes. Furthermore, we demonstrated how games can be used as tools to work with teams, customers, stakeholders, or managers.

Second, we wrote the book for decision-makers – the leaders and managers who had the green light to use tools such as business games. The first section of the book can be seen as the argument a changemaker could use to convince a decision-maker to use business games as one of the tools for facilitating a change process. We wanted to address leaders’ concerns by addressing the challenges they face.
Third, the book is written with academics, educators, and students in mind. The field of business games is of interest to anyone concerned with new learning trends, serious games, and organizational development. 

InfoQ: How can games create a meaningful connection between theory and practice?

Inlove: Games can create a meaningful connection between theory and practice by having a game space where the two areas are closely connected conceptually. In business games, participants can be invited in to play around with their practice, but in a theoretically-framed space.

For example, the game Business Branching (chapter 12) invites participants to play around with their different business areas. Rita McGrath’s theory of temporary advantages plays out in the game as the participants play around with their practice. Nobody has to explain the theory to the participants – because they can see how it plays out with their business on the board and in the rules. The tree and branch metaphors used in the game helps in making the theory intuitively understandable by visually framing the activity.

It’s the same case for the game Changesetter (chapter 13) - here, change theory is made intuitively sensible by using a sailing metaphor for change. "Are people on or off the boat?" comes to mean how they relate to the change. Positions on the board symbolize different scenarios, where different theoretical perspectives might apply.

Many games use these conceptual advantages in game design to meaningfully connect theory and practice. Furthermore, because games are dynamic and interactive activities, they force rigid theories communicated in static media (such as writing or static illustrations) to come alive in animation, simulation, and movement – which draw the theories closer to practice, which always will be dynamic.

Many games simply meaningfully connect theory with practice by making static theoretic models lively and interactive with participants. 

InfoQ: How can games help us to deal with fragmentation and build a shared understanding?

Inlove: This question relates somewhat to Johan Huizinga’s dubious term "the magic circle". What this term entails is that games create a temporary space for interaction where different rules apply. We can come together in games because we can be pulled out of our regular modes of operating (our professional background and history etc.) and join an activity on equal ground with others.

On the football field, we all have something in common – because, here we are all football players and it doesn’t matter that Mark is an accountant or that Simon is a realtor. The football game reframes the social rules and suddenly what matters are the teams, positions on the field, and the ability you have to play.

In the same way, business games partially reframe roles and the ways in which we operate together. Furthermore, many games help create shared understanding by visualizing dialogue – for example, so that people can visually see what others mean illustrated in how pieces stand on a board. 

InfoQ: Can you give some examples of games that can be played within a business context?

Inlove: There are many examples of business games, but let me give you three from the book.

A business game about teamwork
Linkxs is a business game (chapter 19) that is designed to help teams practice self-organization, communication, and collaboration. Participants are divided into four subgroups, each working on a puzzle on a different table. A different table is designated as the collaboration table, where the subgroups can work together, as it is not allowed to visit other groups’ tables. Some of the participants get observation roles. Through this simple game, participants get many insights about teamwork, due to the fact that the game illustrates the problems clearly. As a learning experience, the game works as a great illustrative example of how teamwork plays out and what non-collaborative behaviors play out.

A business game about culture
Ocean of Culture is a business game (chapter 21) that is designed to help organizations work with their culture as a value driver. The game can be seen as an explorative process that allows participants to see which factors in their culture strengthen and inhibit the value the company provides. It is a board game with question cards, where all participants work together to solve the tasks and answer the questions the game raises. Along the way, participants get insights on how the organization works and how they can improve it to better provide value. The game provides a process for understanding culture, and invites ownership from the participants.

A business game about leading change
Exploring Change is a business game (chapter 15) that is designed to address the human side of change. It’s designed with cards and posters, which participants can use to identify different reactions to change and how to address these reactions. In the game, participants map out what is needed to successfully drive change. All participants work together on the tasks to navigate change, which promotes dialogue accompanied by visual aids. 

InfoQ: What are quick games, and how should we facilitate them?

Inlove: Quick games are shorts games that only last between 2-30 minutes. Their purpose is to energize learners and create positive group dynamics. Many use them as exercises to warm up groups. 

Our quick game expert, Bo Krüger, identifies six categories of quick games. These different categories relate to the different purposes they can be used for – do you want participants to 1) reflect, 2) become sharp-minded, 3) network with each other, 4) co-create,  5) be energized, or 6) team build?

When it comes to facilitating quick games, one of the most important parts is choosing the quick game with the right purpose for the right audience and setting. This requires practice. As with all facilitation, you want to know your audience and be clear in communicating the purpose of the quick game. Often you can also benefit from involving participants in the debriefing, eliciting their experiences and thoughts concerning the quick game. 

InfoQ: What's the difference between a progression and an emergence game structure? When should we use each one?

Inlove: The progression game structure
A progression structure can be exemplified with Super Mario. The players go through a fixed sequence of events often via predetermined actions, like choosing between fixed moving options. The progression structure is a step-by-step or level structure, where the player must complete step 1 to get to step 2, or complete level 1 to get to level 2, etc.

Games built around a progression structure are usually very predictable because players always go through the same sequences in the same order. In progression game structures, one specific strategy usually leads to victory. This is important in training and simulation games because it means that the game designers can determine the "correct" or "winning behavior" from the outset, which helps them create a system where what’s supposed to be learned can be reinforced through reframing alternate strategies as "errors".

The emergence game structure
An emergence structure can be exemplified with chess. Here, there are a few rules, but these combine in many ways and can lead to many different possible situations in the game. This means that emergence-based games are unpredictable and that many different strategies can lead to victory.

The emergence structure is usually seen in business games, when the players have to interpret uncertain game situations and therefore can respond to the rules in many ways. This is important in co-creation games, because it means that the game mechanics usually lead to unforeseen player behavior, which can be the outset for creativity and generating novel ideas.

Progression structures are usually used for training purposes because they can create reinforcement, whereas emergence structures are usually used for co-creation and innovation purposes, as they can create new frames for ideation and collaboration.

The emergence structure has an uncontrollable nature, which fits with the co-creation process designers’ ambition to generate new frames and outsets for ideation that can qualify the entire idea generation process.

The progression structure can be used to practice certain skills, which match many trainers’ ambition to provide feedback on participants’ actions. 

InfoQ: What are the advantages and disadvantages of digital games when compared to physical games?

Inlove: The distinction between digital and physical games can be a precarious one to make, since many physical board games are moving more toward the digital, incorporating phones and tablets to reinforce the rules and count points – the new credit card version of "Monopoly" is a great example of this. Oppositely, many digital games are becoming more physical – "Pokémon GO" is a clear example of a digital game that cannot be classified without reflecting on the physical aspects of it.

However, if we have to talk about advantages and disadvantages, some issues come to mind. Digital games have one major advantage over physical games – they can process complex rules and game mechanics more easily than human minds, thereby freeing up the players' headspace for learning. Furthermore, digital games are usually also more scalable and can be played as long as players have a phone, tablet or computer available, which most people have nowadays. In addition, digital elements usually enhance gameplay.

Oppositely, physical games, such as board and card games, are cheaper to develop. In these "Lean startup" times, most business games start off as board games, due to the fact that these can easily be the "minimum viable product" that doesn’t require expensive programming before playtesting. In addition, adjusting and customizing game mechanics on a case-by-case basis is also easier to do with board games, where only materials, and no programming, need to be changed – even as programming gets cheaper and many game producers offer adjustable cases for preprogrammed game mechanics, their games end up being semi-customized. Furthermore, board games usually elicit more social behavior from participants than digital games, while also giving participants a break from staring at screens in a working world where this takes most of our time.

I’ve seen great solutions digitally, physically, and combined. I think the future of business games will move more toward combined solutions. 

InfoQ: How can we design games that people like to participate in?

Inlove: When it comes to designing business games, it’s mostly about creating a meaningful and engaging experience around a relevant topic. Always begin with the purpose in mind. What should the game help participants do? For example, Strategic Derby (chapter 25) started with the mission of helping leaders without an MBA discuss strategy. How do we make participants discuss strategy, when they don’t have the theoretical vocabulary usually associated with it? It was achieved by converting theoretical terms into visual positions on a board with a little help from a framing metaphor.

When developing a business game, start with a metaphor that helps frame the activity. Are the competitive advantages like getting ahead in a derby? Is stakeholder management like opening doors? Is change management like getting people on board the bus? Is team work like making a puzzle without knowing which table the pieces are on?

 If you can find a helpful metaphor for your topic, then you’re on to something. From here, you decide on a main challenge in the game. Let’s go through this as it could relate to a change management game:

  • Should participants map out the change process?
  • Should they sort out different change-related statements and place them on a scale?
  • Should we simulate the change process and let participants make choices along the way?
  • Could we make them uncover some of the mysteries related to change processes?
  • Could we make them solve specific tasks or make them answer good questions?
  • Could we make participants combine different perspectives and problems?

Depending on what kind of challenge we focus the game around, we can create a specific perspective on change management that highlights certain aspects of it. Here, it’s all about making a good match between the purpose and the challenge. If the purpose is learning, maybe go for a simulation. Is the purpose to share knowledge amongst participants? You could go for a mapping challenge. Do you want them to create new strategies to handle issues arising from change? You could make the participants combine different perspectives and problems.

From here, you work by making rules and trying out different participation setups. Finally, you choose the materials or software. 

InfoQ: What skills do game facilitators need? How can they develop them?

Inlove: To facilitate business games you need a basic understanding of how they work and what you can do during a session. One of the things I personally struggled with in the beginning was the openness to emergence you often have to have. With business games, the facilitator is not fully in control of the events and has to be able to follow the flow of the session without a rigid plan or ambition in mind – especially in games with emergence structures. Good things will occur during a session, but it might not be something you could have anticipated – and you have to learn to deal with that.

Furthermore, as we suggest in the book, it is always good to keep in mind the five cores in games that you can adjust along the way: 1) metaphors, 2) challenges, 3) rules, 4) participation, and 5) materials. If the session isn’t fulfilling its purpose, then you can begin to adjust the game elements. Maybe you need to change the participation setup – during playtesting of a game in development, we once had a game that performed badly and we thought there were all kinds of problems with the game mechanics, until we change the participation setup from pairs to single players and it worked great. Another time, we noticed that engagement was dropping for the "losing teams" in a game, so we created a catch-up mechanism that elevated their engagement again. Often in debriefing, the facilitator has to play around with the metaphor of the game to point out that there are more ways to conceive the subject matter than what has been done during the game.   

How do facilitators develop the skills necessary to facilitate business games? It all starts with practice and experimentation. You can’t just read about these games and then be able to do them; you have to get out there and play around with them. Also, I think if you really want to get into it, you should try developing your own simple games in subject matters you know – this will strengthen your understanding of how games can be a great facilitation tool for you. They don’t have to be full-fledged games, but just small visual exercises with a few rules.

In addition, working with metaphors, challenges, materials, rules, and participation setup will strengthen your overall facilitation skills. You quickly become a more engaging and creative facilitator by adding these tools to your toolbox. Also, you will probably become a better communicator because you begin to use more than just words in your communication of a subject matter.  

InfoQ: You mentioned in the book that there's a retro movement of board games in the Nordic areas. Why is this?

Inlove: We could mention multiple reasons, but to keep it short I will focus on two. First, the social nature of gathering around a table attracts people today in our hyper effective world, where we are staring at screens much of our time. It is nice to "have to" meet up to play, rather than just Skyping or texting. In Denmark, board games are associated with spending quality time together. Furthermore, since computer games have become so mainstream, more people have an interest in games – and they explore different genres and thereby also find the same qualities in board games. With special effects and super graphics roaming everywhere, it’s nice to get some variation by engaging with more primitive mediums – in the same way we still enjoy watching a real bonfire, even though we have action-packed movies available.

Second, board games tap into the maker movements – the trend to making things from scratch. There has in recent years been a big interest in making your own board games, and several groups dedicated to this have sprung up over the last five years. I also think a great deal can be credited to the board game industry, which has made some interesting innovations in the last decade, where new game mechanics have been invented that really draw on the social aspects of board games that computer games can’t replicate. Cooperation, body language, dialogue, and imagination have been successfully reflected in the board games – games such as Dixit, Cards Against Humanity, and The Mind exemplify this excellently. These games are social in nature, and work best when a group is together physically. I think board game designers realized that the qualities in these games stem from the friendly atmosphere they can create and the fun conversations people have while playing, and less so from the game mechanics themselves. 

About the Book Author

Jake Inlove co-founded GameBridges, a company that develops business games to help organizations facilitate innovation and learning processes. With a Master’s degree in Education Science, Inlove specializes in creating optimal settings, developing people and organizations. 

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