How Play and Games Transform the Culture of Work

http://www.pgpedia.com/sites/pgpedia.com/files/article-images/American-Journal-of-Play.jpgI just read a great article and want to share! This post consists of exerts from an interview with Ross Smith, (Microsoft Corporation) in recent article in The American Journal or Play

How can games build trust and inspire innovation?
The ability to innovate is a key component of successful companies; innovation requires experimentation and risk taking; and creating a cul- ture of risk taking is difficult. It is insufficient to encourage or command employees to take risks. Organizational culture must support employees who experiment. Many organizations claim they want employees to take risks, but performance-evaluation systems reward only success—or even worse—penalize and punish employees who experiment, fail, and learn. Risk taking and other behaviors that support innovation—freedom to fail, willingness to collaborate, and experimentation—all require significant organizational trust.

So game play is key to building trust, and trust is key to inspiring innovation?

Yes. In his classic work Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, Johan Huizinga calls play “a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’, but at the same time absorbing the player intensively and utterly” (p. 38). Using productivity games and play in the workplace is a successful technique to build organizational trust and, by extension, create a culture of innovation. Game play can provide structure and rules to support experimentation, risk taking, and failure. It’s hard to fail at work, but it’s culturally acceptable to lose the game. In Man, Play, and Games, Roger Caillois says that “play is essentially a separate occupation, carefully isolated from the rest of life, and generally is engaged within precise limits of time and place. There is a place for play: as needs dictate, the space for hopscotch, the board for checkers or chess, the sta- dium, the racetrack, the list, the ring, the stage, the arena, etc. Nothing that takes place outside this ideal frontier is relevant” (p. 6).

The “place for play”—or magic circle as some people call it—for members of an organization is a place to learn trust-building behaviors. Experimenting with new ways of working is acceptable within a game—in a place for play. If things don’t go well, the game is, as Huizinga suggests, outside ordinary life and not serious. Games offer a framework to support risk taking and experimentation, and in a game, someone can learn new skills by trying them out on their own. If they fail, well . . . OK, they lost the game, but there was no long-term impact, no risk to their careers. They just played a game. If I’m a computer programmer, I probably won’t ask my manager for permission to take a class in marketing, even if that’s my passion. I might spend hours in my spare time making marketing videos and showing them to no one, or posting them anonymously on YouTube. However, if you put together a game for the best ad campaign submission, I might be the top contributor.

Can you give us other instances where games are better than other means for using employee skills?
Yes, there are two workplace scenarios where games are, in my opinion, better than other techniques. The first is in areas where employees can develop or expand skills that help with regular work. The second is in areas such as organizational citizenship where new skills might help the team but are not part of the regular job. By adding games and game elements, we can make both types of training more attractive and more rewarding, thereby encouraging and attracting effort.

Are there other ways in which games solve problems better or more effi- ciently than traditional management methods?
Games are excellent at attracting volunteer effort—encouraging organi- zational-citizenship behaviors (OCBs). OCBs are best thought of as going above and beyond the call of duty—things individuals can do to help the organization be a better place. A simple example is cleaning the coffee pot before people leave for the day. It’s a task that helps the organization— makes a better workplace—but requires some effort from someone. From a game-theory perspective, there’s a condition known as the volunteer’s dilemma—where any single individual can offer personal time to solve a problem or anyone can take a free ride. Everyone benefits from anyone’s willingness to volunteer, so using game mechanics to invite participation solves the issue and improves the quality of life in the organization while— most importantly—making everyone feel good about it. Games and game mechanics motivate players to make an effort towards a goal, and the orga- nization benefits.
As I mentioned earlier, we have learned that games are also incredibly successful at encouraging risk taking. The rules of the game are different from the rules of the organization. The stakes in a game are much lower than those in the workplace. Games are by definition voluntary, so whether players decide to take risks in the game or not doesn’t matter in the context of work. People are less fearful of losing (or not winning) a game than they are of failing at work.

What impact do games have at work—for example, do they create greater uniformity, or do they expand creativity?
I believe they expand creativity. Just as play helps kids pretend, experiment, and learn skills they will use later in life, games in the workplace help build a culture that is ripe for creativity and innovation. Again, I think it comes down to risk taking and a freedom to fail, which games and play facilitate. In 1996 about six years after he published his famous book on flow, Hungarian psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book on creativity. In it, he talks about the influence of environment on creative capacities and how many cultures—from the Chinese sages to the Hindu Brahmins to the Christian monks—sought out places of natural beauty in which to create. He goes on to talk about the influence of the macroenvironment—the broader context in which people work—ancient Athens, the Arab cities of the tenth century, Florence in the Renaissance, Venice in the fifteenth century, and so on. Obviously, we don’t operate at that level, but I’d like to believe that the spirit of freedom, fun, and whimsy surrounding our application of productivity games contributes to a creative atmosphere.

You said earlier that low-trust work environments discourage risk taking and innovation. Are there similar costs in a play-deprived environment?
The costs of a play-deprived environment are challenging to identify. We have data on cost savings resulting from introducing games and play into some of our business processes, but I don’t know if we could assume our experience would transfer to all environments. There are certain areas where games work well, and so depriving those areas of play and games could result in missed savings. An area that’s easy to quantify is employee morale and retention. On teams that encourage play and games, people generally enjoy their work more. Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow—a state where people move so deeply into their task that nothing else seems to matter—is more likely when play is present. People do better work when they are happy, engaged, and motivated, and play and games can increase the likelihood that people enjoy their work.

So, then, you equate the play-averse workplace with the risk-averse work-place?
For two reasons, yes. First, since play is typically unstructured and optional, a workplace willing to entertain the idea of play is, by default, willing to take risks. Just being open to the introduction of play at work implies a tolerance for risk. Second, and most importantly, play can provide a loose structure for experimentation and risk taking, so an organization that is averse to play, games, or fun does not offer the flexibility of outcome or tolerance for imperfect results. An organization that is amenable to play is likely to be a high-trust organization willing to show tolerance for experimentation and for provisional and imperfect results and, therefore, have creative behavior and innovative breakthroughs.

Finally, what is your fondest hope for the future use of play and games in the workplace? How would you like to see play and work grow to more closely resemble each other?
I believe productivity games will be viewed as a business process—a twenty-first-century business management strategy—and applied widely across a variety of industries. We’ve already seen more companies start to pilot the use of game mechanics as part of their work, and with the success of social games, it’s only natural that games and play will perme- ate the workplace over the next few years. There are distinct areas where games work tremendously well in the modern organization, and there’s an opportunity for everyone to start experimenting. The future world of work will be a better place by incorporating play and games as part of the daily experience.