Arguably the most amazing change I’ve experienced in the 10+ years that I’ve been playing serious games is the change in attitudes among senior executives regarding Innovation Games® and other serious games. A decade ago, we had to spend an extraordinary amount of time convincing quite skeptical senior executives that “serious games” could solve complex business problems and provide amazing insights into market needs. In 2004, O’Reilly, rejected my Innovation Games book proposal as being too novel (fortunately, Addison-Wesley had better insight about market needs). And when we launched Innovation Games® online, let’s just say that our servers didn’t crash from an overwhelming amount of traffic.
How things have changed. We’re now getting calls from senior executives who have clear goals and wish to work with us to explore how games can be leveraged in their business. There are more than a dozen books on serious games and gamification, including O’Reilly’s book Gamestorming (for which I wrote the foreword). We’ve sold enterprise licenses to Innovation Games® online and sign-ups are increasing. And although we have a long way to go – just this week I had to explain to a skeptic that “real” companies like Cisco, Reed Elsevier, SAP, and Oracle play Innovation Games® – the changes I’ve outlined are here to stay. In this post, I’ll share some of the reasons why executives are embracing the seriously fun side of business, and why serious games are no longer a trend, but a new business reality. My inspiration for this post is the May 2011 TTI/Vanguard Serious Fun conference, in which I’ll be a speaker.
Serious Games Means Serious Results
Let’s contrast two game contexts: playing Blokus with my family on a Sunday evening and playing Buy a Feature with our customers to help prioritize our development backlog.
When playing Blokus®, the result I want to achieve is pretty simple: Having a fun time with my four children. And, if you press me, yes, I also want the pleasure of beating Cres, my second son, every now and then (hey – he’s really good!). That’s it. Pure entertainment. And while you can certainly argue that playing Blokus increases critical thinking skills, helps develop spatial thinking, and teaches important life lessons about turn-taking, rules, and fairness, I don’t need all of that when my goal is fun with the kids. That’s enough.
The result I want to achieve when playing Buy a Feature is a prioritized feature backlog, one that is informed by critical feedback and candid conversations amongst my customers as to how they want our products and services to evolve to better meet their needs. This result needs to be multi-faceted: I want their preferences and priorities (the purchased features) AND I want to understand why these features were purchased. I want the conversations to help me shape the features to better meet their needs. Oh yeah – I want my customers to have fun, because if they’re having fun they’ll provide more actionable insights, they’ll have a higher perception of my company and our brand, and they’ll develop their own relationships amongst each other. And people playing Buy a Feature have a boatload of fun. Instead of sitting through a boring PowerPoint presentation or taking a painfully dry survey, they are actively engaged in negotiating features with other players, buying the best features, and identifying ways to get what they really want.
In both games I want the players to have fun. In the case of my family, fun is the primary goal. In the case of Buy a Feature, fun is the secondary goal. Which leads me to my first point. Don’t misinterpret executives who are focused on the results of a game. They’re just doing their job. However, if you show them that serious games produces serious results, my experience is that you’ll find they’re eager to have fun.
Serious Games Uncover Serious Motivations
Discussing the benefits of serious games to the businesses that play that feels a bit one-sided. And it is. If the only beneficiary of the games are the companies that produce them, then people won’t play. So, let’s consider some of the benefits and motivations of the players.
And while I’ve already talked about fun, let’s start with fun. Serious game players playing games like Prune the Product Tree or Bang for the Buck are having fun, just like I’m having fun with my family when we’re playing Memory® or Cows in Space. But it isn’t the same kind of fun. “Serious Fun” is more related to the concept of Total Engagement that Byron Reeves and J. Leighton Read cover in their book of the same name. When I’m playing a serious game – a game that involves topics I care about, and in a way that motivates me to demonstrate expertise, knowledge, wisdom, and skill, according to a set of collaborative rules that govern play, I’m totally and completely engaged in the game. Serious gamers find themselves wrapped up in the flow of the game, losing track of time and often expressing disappointment when the game is finished.
More broadly, serious games enable their players to express themselves more thoroughly and more completely than traditional forms of interaction. This has critical implications for market research and market insights. Instead of quickly answering a survey, or sitting around a wooden table eating stale pastry and drinking burned coffee at a focus group, serious games engages players in a way that produces unusual results. And contrary to many people’s perceptions of marketing and market research, your customers would much prefer the challenge and engagement that comes with a game than the relatively simplistic approaches taken with most market research.
Serious Games Benefits Everyone
So, it turns out there is a pretty simple explanation as to why we’re seeing businesses embrace Innovation Games® and other serious games. Business gain benefit because these games create better, more actionable results. Players benefit because they appreciate the engagement that only games produce. The question then, is not if you are going to start playing games with your customers, but… when.