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April 17, 2013

Games People Play (and why they play them)

April 17, 2013
This blog is about actual games, and what you can learn about people by how they play them. As soon as I selected the title, I worried that folks might think that it was about office politics. Rest assured, it isn’t.
I play a lot of games, and for me, the most interesting part of any game is the interaction with others who are playing. Because the people playing are my primary interest, I have spent a lot of time observing how others participate, and why they play.
As SmallBox moves deeper into the territory of organizational health consulting, I’m finding that many of my observations have relevance outside of my hobby. Before I jump into the details, I want to be clear about my personal philosophy. I don’t believe that there are “types” of people. People don’t fit cleanly into personality profiles. So, as I discuss the different styles of gaming, and what we might be able to learn from the players’ styles, I want to be clear that this does not reflect a holistic philosophy about people or a psychological profiling system. These are just observations that might help teammates gain insights into the individual reasons we each engage in challenging exercises.
My suggestion by even broaching this topic is that teams, organizations and leaders should seek to incorporate game playing into their culture. By this I mean either formal or informal opportunities to play actual tabletop games (as opposed to the culturally destructive political games found in many work places). There are a number of benefits to doing so, as described in one of my earlier blogs, but one that I’m digging into here is that playing such games can grant insights into the “play styles” (and thusly, work styles) of your colleagues.
Now, on to the stereotyping!

Play to Win

Many people who play games do it primarily to “win.” Most often this means that they want to defeat the intrinsic challenge of the game’s system (ie. solitaire) or the other players (ie. chess). People are a competitive lot. Winning is fun for most of us. But what can that tell us about these people? For starters, the propensity to try and win at games illustrates a love for a good challenge. “Winners” are driven by the thrill of overcoming an obstacle. They’ll quickly find an effective system by which to overcome said obstacle, and they’ll repeat it. Given a challenging task, they’ll relish the opportunity to find the most effective and/or efficient solution.

Play to Experiment

A smaller number of players that I have observed are all about playing, and replaying, games in order to experiment with different ways of experiencing the game. This seems a little bit counter-intuitive, that someone would be mostly unconcerned with the outcome of a game, and more concerned with the act of playing, but it is a surprisingly entertaining perspective to take. Many games, like Dominion or Risk, have nearly limitless scenarios that can play out over the course of multiple game sessions. Every choice made by a player leads to a different play experience. It is the very act of making different decisions and attempting different strategies that make these games interesting for “Play to Experiment” players. These folks are often the innovators among us, challenging the status quo and avoiding the obvious solutions in the hope of attaining a better outcome through experimentation and ideation. It is worth failing a few times if those failures lead to a more meaningful or impactful result.

Play to Play

A small majority of people, from my experience, play games just to play. It is the act of gathering with friends for a coordinated activity that makes the playing of games fun for these folks. Interacting with others is often the underlying impetus for participation. Winning is fun, when it happens, but it isn’t necessary for maximum enjoyment. It is often just as fun to see another player win in an interesting or unexpected fashion, and thereby share in their delight. Apples to Apples and Hanabi are great games for this style of play. For these folks, the actual experience of playing the game is an afterthought. It really is more about the people. These are most often the people in organizations who are great supporters of the organization itself. They’ll do whatever they can to ensure that the organization is healthy, and that its people are happy. The shared experience of building a great team or overcoming a shared obstacle is in and of itself more valuable than being the one who came up with an idea or solution.
So what is the real value in knowing these things about your colleagues and friends? It’s really pretty simple. If you know why everyone is playing, you can tailor their experiences to ensure happier teammates, and a more productive team. “Winners” need to be given opportunities to overcome challenges on their own, or to be the chief contributor to a project. “Experimenters” need to be involved in ideation and convergence, free to take risks, either as a lone wolf or part of a team. “Players” want to know that they are part of something great, and they thrive when they can support their colleagues in achieving success for the organization.


So, the next step is to go out into the world and organize games. My plan is to start a new gaming institution at SmallBox, both because I enjoy it, but also because I can learn a lot about my teammates by observing how and why they play games.

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