Games and play are not the same thing.
Imagine a boy playing with a ball. He kicks the ball against a wall, and the ball bounces back to him. He stops the ball with his foot, and kicks the ball again. By engaging in this kind of play, the boy learns to associate certain movements of his body with the movements of the ball in space. We could call this associative play.
Now imagine that the boy is waiting for a friend. The friend appears, and the two boys begin to walk down a sidewalk together, kicking the ball back and forth as they go. Now the play has gained a social dimension; one boy’s actions suggest a response, and vice versa. You could think of this form of play as a kind of improvised conversation, where the two boys engage each other using the ball as a medium. This kind of play has no clear beginning or end: rather, it flows seamlessly from one state into another. We could call this streaming play.
Now imagine that the boys come to a small park, and that they become bored simply kicking the ball back and forth. One boy says to the other, “Let’s take turns trying to hit that tree. You have to kick the ball from behind this line.” The boy draws a line by dragging his heel through the dirt. “We’ll take turns kicking the ball. Each time you hit the tree you get a point. First one to five wins.” The other boy agrees and they begin to play. Now the play has become a game; a fundamentally different kind of play.
What makes a game different? We can break down this very simple game into some basic components that separate it from other kinds of play.
Game space: To enter into a game is to enter another kind of space, where the rules of ordinary life are temporarily suspended and replaced with the rules of the game space. In effect, a game creates an alternative world, a model world. To enter a game space, the players must agree to abide by the rules of that space, and they must enter willingly. It’s not a game if people are forced to play. This agreement among the players to temporarily suspend reality creates a safe place where the players can engage in behavior that might be risky, uncomfortable or even rude in their normal lives. By agreeing to a set of rules (stay behind the line, take turns kicking the ball, and so on), the two boys enter a shared world. Without that agreement the game would not be possible.
Boundaries: A game has boundaries in time and space. There is a time when a game begins – when the players enter the game space – and a time when they leave the game space, ending the game. The game space can be paused or activated by agreement of the players. We can imagine that the players agree to pause the game for lunch, or so one of them can go to the bathroom. The game will usually have a spatial boundary, outside of which the rules do not apply. Imagine, for example, that spectators gather to observe the kicking contest. It’s easy to see that they could not insert themselves between a player and the tree, or distract the players, without spoiling, or at least, changing, the game.
Rules for interaction: Within the game space, players agree to abide by rules that define the way the game-world operates. The game rules define the constraints of the game space, just as physical laws, like gravity, constrain the real world. According to the rules of the game world, a boy could no more kick the ball from the wrong side of the line than he could make a ball fall up. Of course he could do this, but not without violating the game space – something we call “cheating.”
Artifacts: Most games employ physical artifacts; objects that hold information about the game, either intrinsically or in their position. The ball and the tree in our game are such objects. When the ball hits the tree a point is scored. That’s information. Artifacts can be used to track progress and maintain a picture of the game’s current state. We can easily imagine, for example, that as each point is scored the boys place a stone on the ground, to help them keep track of the score – another kind of information artifact. The players are also artifacts in the sense that their position can hold information about the state of a game. Compare the position of players on a sporting field to the pieces on a chess board.
Goal: Players must have a way to know when the game is over; an end state that they are all striving to attain, that is understood and agreed to by all players. Sometimes a game can be timed, as in many sports, such as football. In our case, a goal is met every time a player hits the tree with the ball, and the game ends when the first player reaches five points.
We can find these familiar elements in any game, whether it be chess, tennis, poker or ring-around-the rosie. On reflection, you will see that every game is a world which evolves in stages, as follows: Imagine the world, create the world, enter the world, explore the world, leave the world.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE GAME WORLD
1. Imagine the world. Before the game can begin you must imagine a possible world. The world is a temporary space, within which players can explore any set of ideas or possibilities.
2. Create the world. A game world is formed by giving it boundaries, rules, and artifacts. Boundaries are the spatial and temporal boundaries of the world; its beginning and end, and its edges; Rules are the laws that govern the world; and artifacts are the things that populate the world.
3. Enter the world. A game world can only be entered by agreement among the players. To agree, they must understand the game’s boundaries, rules and artifacts; what they represent, how they operate, and so on.
4. Explore the world. Goals are the animating force that drives exploration; they provide a necessary tension between the initial condition of the world and some desired state. Goals can be defined in advance or by the players within the context of the game. Once players have entered the world they can try to realize their goals within the constraints of the game-world’s system. They can interact with artifacts, test ideas, try out various strategies, and adapt to changing conditions as the game progresses, in their drive to achieve their goals.
5. Leave the world. A game is finished when the game’s goals have been met. Although achieving a goal gives the players a sense of gratification and accomplishment, the goal is not really the point of the game so much as a kind of marker to ceremonially close the game space. The point of the game is the play itself, the exploration of an imaginary space that happens during the play, and the insights that come from that exploration.
Imagine the world, create the world, enter the world, explore the world, and leave the world.
A knowledge game is a game-world created specifically to explore and examine business challenges, to improve collaboration, and generate novel insights about the way the world works and what kinds of possibilities we might find there. Game worlds are alternative realities, parallel universes that we can create and explore, limited only by our imagination. A game can be carefully designed in advance, or put together in an instant, with found materials. A game can take 15 minutes or several days to complete. The number of possible games, like the number of possible worlds, is infinite. By imagining, creating and exploring possible worlds, you open the door to breakthrough thinking and real innovation.
We are writing a book about knowledge games. What games are you practicing in your workplace? What kinds of experiences have you had? Please leave a comment and share them with us!