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What is a knowledge game?

What is a knowledge game?, originally uploaded by dgray_xplane.

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.


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!

20 thoughts on “What is a knowledge game?

  1. Dave, I love your visual xplanation of ‘knowledge games’. It is true and simple. I used to call this ‘playing’. But is’t getting serious business these days…

  2. Dave, this is a nice discussion and I like the way you keep the focus on the fact that worlds, imagined or real, are involved in games. Do you see our ability to understand a game as a narrative experience, or in some other way?

    In her contribution to Brenda Laurel’s “Design Research” collection, Emma Westecott’s discussion of digital games made the point that we can map games back to particular types of narrative experience, whether intimate, public, social or spectacular. As she notes, “The point of view and situated background that a player brings to interaction (where and how they are playing) and type of player (why they are playing) determines the relevant mapping.”

    Of course, there are games — here I’m thinking of the game Brain Ball– where the goal is to do nothing.

  3. Hi Larry!

    Maps and narratives, and maps as narratives, and narratives as maps for that matter, are topics that I have thought long and hard about.

    I do think there’s a fundamental difference between narratives, which are linear, sequential, immersive experiences that unfold along a vector, and landscapes or other spatial structures which we explore and navigate. The way we navigate a book as compared to the way we navigate a building, for example.

    But you may be referring to something different when you mention “narrative experience.” I will have to read the passages you refer to here and get back to you.

    I am sure there’s much to discuss here.

  4. To expand on my last comment a bit more:

    I see a game as a model, similar to architecture in the sense that it can be navigated and explored much like we explore a building or landscape. So it’s a matter of your perspective: Are you looking forward or are you looking back? Every interaction with the game-model is narrative in the sense that we can look backward and see a chain of events — however we cannot look forward in the same way that we can, say, skip forward in a book.

    Every time we play a game the narrative will be different, depending on our actions and the actions of other players. Thus a game-world creates the possibility for a potentially infinite number of narratives.

    Like life: When you are experiencing it the possible choices and their ramifications are complex and unpredictable, the environment ambiguous; but when you look backward you begin to see a narrative.

  5. Dave,

    Glad my comments were interesting. It would be nice to get together and discuss these topics. I’m available.

    I think the distinction between streaming play and games is apt. It kind of parallels the discussion in Wittgenstein’s Blue Book where he noted that when we think about concepts, like information or knowledge, “We are unable clearly to circumscribe the concepts we use; not because we don’t know their real definition, but because there is no real ‘definition’ to them. To suppose that there must be would be like supposing that whenever children play with a ball they play a game according to strict rules.”

    In expedient terms, I like the very simple definition of games offered by Zero-Games and Westecott, “a set of rules played over time to be won or lost.” However, I also recognize the fact that it doesn’t really account for the experience of gaming, i.e. playing a game before someone wins or loses, or after a win or a loss. Many people do play games enthusiastically for the love of the game, or for the experience of gaming. I would suggest that narratives are the way people make sense of a game though. It is the way we learn the rules of a game as well as the way the rules are governed since, in my opinion, models of anything are “never” strictly symbolic when language is involved.

    Once again though, winning and losing isn’t always as straightforward as we usually think. In Brain Ball, for instance, you win by not competing in any usual sense of the word. It isn’t a knowledge game, so probably irrelevant to the book you are writing. On the other hand, the game turns what we typically conceive as competition upside down. And, just for precision, Brain Ball is a Smart Studio project, begun at the Interactive Institute,


  6. Hi Dave,

    This is a great framework…and by violating rule #2 about boundaries, also the great basis for a screenplay 🙂

    I’m fascinated about the game designer in all this. If knowledge games are about the future of work, how to manage them?

    In imagining and creating the world, what makes a game “work” or not work…what is it about the mechanics of a game that makes it viable? What makes a game fun? Immersive?

    With “explore the world” – from the perspective of the game designer – through what process do you set out what the gamers should explore?

    And “leaving the world”…using a knowledge game for work, how do you set up “success” to allow gamers to leave the game with something tangible and worthwhile?

    Great post…thanks!

  7. Hi Aaron,

    You perfectly anticipate the next set of things I plan to write about! I am sure you have some thoughts of your own — would love to see them here or on your blog.

  8. Hey Dave – nice analysis of a game. Here is a challenge for you. How would you map the economy as a game or a knowledge game. It has rules and an objective. For some the objective is the monetary bottom line, i.e. profit. For others it is social good. It is a game without an end unless we all go under because of a runaway greenhouse effect. Maybe the goal of the game should be sustainability or at least a combination of the monetary bottom line and sustainability. Because of the role of knowledge management we could even say that the economy is a knowledge game. N’est pas?

    I invite your comments, Dave. You kicked the ball to me and I am kicking it back to you. Its your turn. We both hit the tree so the score is tied at one apiece. Any one else want to play? Your comments are welcome too.

    best Bob

  9. Hi Larry,

    As you know I am reading Wittgenstein now and his ideas have been very helpful in exploring this territory.

    I was not familiar with Brainball but it does put a fascinating spin on competition.

    I do think all games have goals but I am not sure that necessarily means that all games can be won or lost. Especially in the category we are calling knowledge games, the game ends when the players can agree they have achieved some meaningful objective. We could call this “winning” I suppose, but when it comes to collaboration and innovation I don’t think it’s helpful to set up a frame in terms of a win/lose dichotomy.

    Edison said it well I think when he said “I never failed. I now know a thousand ways not to make a light bulb.”

    I think games become an interesting approach for knowledge work when they become a way to explore creative possibilities within a set of constraints that can be simulated in a game-world, and where the constraints can be varied to explore various possible “worlds.”

    My sense is that they are a good way to break habitual thought patterns, explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no one has gone before 🙂

  10. Hi Bob!

    Certainly economics offer some great material for games, and there are many games that model economies in various ways. Just look at all the games that use play money for currency, like Monopoly, for example.

    Second Life, for example, has an “in-game” currency called Linden Dollars. There’s actually an exchange rate between Linden dollars and USD:

    I hesitate to call Second Life a game, but as an exploration of how economies work it’s pretty interesting.

    “Rich Dad Poor Dad” author Robert T. Kiyosaki has designed a game called “Cash Flow” which is designed to help people learn how to manage their personal cash flow to become wealthy. The game-world of “Cash Flow” quickly makes apparent the difference between a paycheck and a passive income stream.

    I am sure there are numerous other examples of economic models in games.

  11. Hi Bob,

    Forgot to include a link to the “Cash Flow” game for anoo is interested:

  12. […] This post was Twitted by merigruber […]

  13. Hi Dave,

    I threw in the Wittgenstein reference just to let you know I’ve been paying attention 😉

    You noted,

    “I do think all games have goals but I am not sure that necessarily means that all games can be won or lost. Especially in the category we are calling knowledge games, the game ends when the players can agree they have achieved some meaningful objective.”

    I see the point relating to win/loss, though I wonder if the sense of gaining something from the experience vs. thinking it a waste of time doesn’t parallel the distinction. To some extent this point overlaps Aaron’s note about setting up “success” so that those playing the game leave with a sense of gaining something worthwhile.

    The games I’ve played that fit in the knowledge games category usually require an accompanying narrative experience in which the world where game play occurs is explained. This was why I made the initial point about narrative experience.

    Whenever I’ve taught organizational communication courses I always use some variant of Demming’s Red Bead experiment to demonstrate the difference between hiearchical authority, systems dynamics, and processes in quality measurement. Even though most players “get” the point of the game through the play itself, understanding the significance of the experience to their own workplace always involves narration and storytelling.

    An overview of Demming’s game is here,

  14. Although not an attribute of the games themselves, you also need people to make them work. I see two roles: participants and a host.

    A good game has participants who are willing to engage and not wander out of bounds, cheat, or generally bring down everyone else- they’re good sports. Games are voluntary activities; you can’t coerce play.

    The host is a role that can be formal or informal; this is a person who knows the game and assumes any needed organizing or governing activity. They teach newbies how to play (usually without consulting instructions); they show up as the banker, the dealer, the DM, the facilitator. They’re the ones who get the games out of the closet and set them in motion.

    The host role is critical in making knowledge games work in a business environment, where turning skeptics into willing participants is no easy task. Of course, we could just continue to play the defacto games of today, which often include favorites such as “jockey for position” “chime in to demonstrate value” and “last word.”

  15. Great points James, especially the observation that we already play games in our work interactions, many of them unhealthy ones.

    Maybe in the book we can explore this idea of the games people play in meetings today and how more explicit game mechanics can improve people’s enjoyment of, and productivity in, meetings.

    Host mode noted, I like that.

  16. Dave,

    Have I ever sent you this article by the cartoonist Dylan Horrocks, “The Perfect Planet: Comics, Games, and Worldbuilding”?

    I read it in undergrad and ever since I’ve been obsessed with worldbuilding as a way of approaching art.

    Your sketch shows the steps of the creation of a piece of art: the artist imagines the world, he creates the world, then the viewer or reader enters the world, explores the world, and leaves the world.

    Good stuff.

    – Austin

  17. You mentioned this in your visual thinking for writers seminar but I hadn’t had a chance to look it up. Thanks for the link! At first glance it looks like a wonderful and thoughtful essay. I will give it a read.

    Thanks for stopping by, Austin!

  18. The most interesting interpretation of Brain Ball, at least to me, was not the fact that competition is turned upside down, though that is interesting in its own right. Rather, I found it fascinating when I also recognized that collaboration between two people to keep the ball in the center of the table would likely achieve the same result as if both people were equally capable at competing within that game.

  19. […] What is a knowledge game? – The difference between play and games is critical – I’ve always loved the idea of the ‘game space,’ a circle in which the regular rules of life are cast off and the game rules take over. […]

  20. Dave,
    I am glad I found out about your activities, your ideas, your book.
    I am working with games in companies. Recently we played for some hours on a seemap I developed from inputs of the company.
    My two cents: to play an open game it needs:
    – a metaphorical world
    – roles which the players accept to play in this world
    -a place (a space, and a playground including artfacts)
    -time (when to start, when to end)
    – a scenario in terms of the world
    – a goal, task, purpose.
    – a host

    I am also thinking of writing a book. The games I am mapping, inventing, developing with the clients I would not call Knowlegdge Games, but Experience Games.

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