Games are not a new thing at work. In nearly every office environment games are in evidence. Be assured: you are part of a game whether you know it or not. Games are going on all around you and most of the time the rules are unclear, unspoken or unknown.
Whether or not you choose to explicitly bring knowledge games into your workplace, a better understanding of games and game mechanics can help you be happier and more productive at work. We can call this game literacy: An understanding of what games are, how they work, and how they shape our environment.
A game is a socially constructed world where the rules of ordinary life are suspended in favor of a set of rules that the game-players have explicitly or tacitly accepted. Every organization has both written and unwritten rules, and you need to play by both sets of rules if you want to be successful in that organization. The problem with ambiguous or unwritten rules is that people easily become confused, disoriented and sometimes disenfranchised. They check out.
Here are some of the games we have observed in work environments:
I agree with the boss more than you do: Players compete to show the most enthusiasm for the ideas or suggestions of the most powerful person in the room. Moves in this game include loud, conspicuous or unnecessary expressions of agreement or enthusiasm, as well as disparaging comments about alternative positions or perspectives. The winner is the one who curries the most favor with the boss, or gets the boss to appoint him or her to a coveted position or project.
Let’s pretend we all get along: In this game, meetings are somewhat farcical ceremonies where nothing of serious importance is discussed or decided. The real issues are resolved outside the meeting space and the real decision-makers may not even attend the meeting. The meeting leader may be in a position where he or she pretends to have a discussion about a topic, but has no real authority to change anything. Moves in this game can include changing the subject, soft-pedaling difficult questions, and shifting blame to a higher authority or “the system.” The goal of this game is to continue the play without anyone challenging the status quo.
The definition game: Players use language as a game element. The goals of this game can vary widely, from productive to destructive to simply play for the enjoyment of the game. In the definition game, the discussion is paused as players work to find language or semantic issues that can change, derail, or delay the game. One mode of play is to drag the other players into endless discussion and delay the real issues of the meeting. Another mode is where players work to define language such that they can appear to agree when in fact they disagree – a version of “let’s agree to disagree” without making the conflict explicit. This mode is a version of “Let’s all pretend we get along.” The definition game is not always negative. It can be useful when a meeting involves people from different disciplines or different cultures. The goal in that case is to truly understand what is meant by a term that’s in play.
Saboteur: This game is only fun if everybody in the meeting is not in on the game. The goal of the game is to subvert the real meeting in order to nurture a grudge, or for the amusement of the players. Moves in Saboteur are wide and varied. They can be anything from body language, like yawning, crossing the arms and rolling the eyes, to killing any new idea through ridicule or discussing similar ideas that failed. Other moves are pretending you don’t understand in order to impede the meeting’s progress, or taking advantage of a backchannel like Twitter or IM to comment disparagingly on the conversation. A key strategy in Saboteur is to wait until others have staked out a position and then move in for the kill. The goal of Saboteur is to stop or delay any serious progress or change.
King of the hill: Players compete to demonstrate their alpha status within the group. This can be a version of “I agree with the boss more than you do” when players are competing for the boss’s approval, although this is not always the point of “King of the hill.” The goal of this game is to assert your dominance and to get others to show signs of submission. Moves in the game can be anything from an unnecessarily strong handshake to taking the seat at the head of the table.
I’m too busy for this: Players attend a meeting but at the earliest opportunity delve into unrelated work, often by opening their laptops. This is a form of “checking out” but can also be a signal of disinterest or a play for dominance; sometimes it can be a version of “King of the hill.” One very recognizable move in this game is the player who ducks out of the meeting to take an “important call.”
Filibuster: Filibuster is a game about air time. Players angle for center stage and enter into lengthy monologues to promote an agenda or point of view that is only tangentially related to the meeting. Moves may include the introduction of technical jargon to prove one’s expertise, lengthy explanations of unrelated topics, or raising issues from other domains to get them the widest possible audience. Filibuster may also be a play for attention for its own sake. The goal of the game is to keep the center stage for as long as possible.
Here’s why you all should like this: This game is played by authority figures in hierarchical organizations who want to discourage conversation about difficult topics. Decisions are presented to a group and a pretend “discussion” ensues. Controversial decisions are “spun” or presented as “good news” and any discussion of the controversial aspects is discouraged. Moves include “We’ve already discussed that” and body language like that seen in Saboteur. The goal of the game is to maintain the appearance of consensus without changing any of the decisions. One version of this game is “Let’s all agree with me” where a power- player continually raises the same “suggestion” until all disagreement evaporates. One sign that this game may be underway is when managers do most of the talking and frontline workers are noticeably silent.
Sock puppet: Players try to increase their status or the importance of a point by claiming to speak for a constituency that isn’t present. They may represent this point of view as coming from others but more often than not it is their own. Moves include terms like “I’ve heard,” “People are saying” and so on. A key strategy in this game is to refuse to identify one’s sources in order to protect them from retribution. A player wins when the other players agree to the validity of their point.
Shell game: The goal of this game is to postpone meetings and decisions indefinitely. In this game, meetings are moved all over the calendar to accommodate everyone’s schedule, or decisions are postponed because everyone wasn’t able to attend. Difficult topics are “punted” into the next meeting. Players avoid making decisions until everyone agrees, and attempt to keep as many issues unresolved as possible. This can be a version of “Let’s all pretend we get along.”
I’m sure it’s clear by now that these kinds of games go on all the time, in nearly every organization. Players are not even necessarily conscious of their roles as players in a game, and yet they play anyway, sometimes out of boredom and sometimes out of habit. The point here is not that “game-playing” is a negative thing in work environments, but that games are a natural activity; they are part of the social construct and part of how work gets done. And like any other practice, they can be constructive or destructive.
Knowledge games are a way of bringing structure and clarity to the work environment. They make the game – and the rules of the game – explicit, so everybody knows what game they are playing and why. When people understand and agree to the rules, they can put themselves more fully into the game. A knowledge game creates a safe place for people to explore new and sometimes uncomfortable ideas. They are more engaged in their work, they collaborate better, they contribute more, and a better work product is the result.