Work and play. Two completely disparate concepts, right? Maybe not. In reality, games can be employed in an office setting to help companies with more effective ideation games – which often results in better ideas and happier employees.

What is a Game? 

Games are an important aspect of everyday life for many people; games as different as baseball, poker and Final Fantasy, have permeated cultures worldwide. Video games, in particular, have become a staple of Western culture and, part of the global zeitgeist in the 21st century.

Okay, so you’ve probably played your fair share Monopoly and Mario Kart, and you have some idea of what a game is. But let’s break down the basics of what actually makes up a game, based on traditional game theory:

  1. A goal or a specific objective players strive to complete, like conquering the world in the name of the Almighty Zorb.
  2. The rules, or what inhibits participants from reaching the goal in a straightforward manner as they would outside the game world.
  3. A feedback system, which details to players their progress towards reaching the goal of the game. How many countries have the Acolytes of Zorb captured?
  4. Voluntary participation by all players. Each player willingly engages with the other participants, is fully aware of the rules, and the goal. All players agree that the rules and the goal are achievable and fair. This means that all players must acknowledge that Zorb is real, and not a vague concept a writer invented to provide a quirky example.

Combatting The Negative Connotation of Games

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Using games to accomplish important professional tasks might seem like a bit of a stretch. After all, in today’s culture, play and games have a negative connotation. We don’t like players or being played. Gaming the system is frowned upon and, in certain circumstances, leads to appearances in court. When we want someone to take a situation seriously, we will invariably harumph: “this is not a game!” If a person is manipulating us or giving us a hard time, a common exacerbated lambast is: “don’t play games with me!”

These examples of language based biases against games are a reflection of our culture, which teaches us that the opposite of work is play, that games are for children, and that anyone who disagrees should either grow up, see a shrink or do both.

However, the idea of games as the realm of kids or gamer nerds simply isn’t accurate, and it’s not helpful to rule out play as an effective workplace activity. Play theorist Dr. Brian Sutton-Smith, explains that the opposite of play is not work – but depression. Play has been shown to help adults release frustration, increase perseverance, and better fit into a community.

If you want to take advantage of play in the workplace, let go of the idea of games as distractions or diversions. Instead, think of game theory as a  powerful toolset that can help make professional tasks feel less like chores, and more like engaging challenges — which can ultimately help employees generate more (and better) creative ideas at work.

How to Use Office Ideation Games

Okay, so you may be saying — I get what a game is, and how one works. But how can I employ one in my office situation to help lead to innovation?

You can turn games into productive play by implementing a serious game during a brainstorming or ideation session. (A serious game is one that is created for a purpose other than pure entertainment.)

There are many serious games that can be used for ideation. One of the best is called Product Box. Here’s how to play:

  • Divide employees into small teams and give each team a cereal box wrapped in white butcher paper.
  • Give the teams a basic set of information that they will have to transmit.
  • Give the teams art supplies and instruct them to decorate the box in order to sell a product or service that their company currently sells (or is intending to sell).
  • Direct one member of each team to deliver a marketing pitch selling the box.
  • Conduct a vote and declare a winner.

Playing a game like Product Box has several diverse and unexpected benefits:

  • Get ideas on how to market your product or services
  • Give executives a good idea of how well employees understand their product
  • Pinpoint features that work and features that could be scrapped
  • Give employees a sense of well-being and motivate them through competition
  • For a complete list of  ideation games, check out this from Serious Games at Work.
Download our checklist “Ideation Workshop” and go through it during your next ideation session to consistently develop innovative ideas.


How to Maximize Your Games’ Effectiveness

Office ideation games can be effective,  but, how do you make sure your employees are ready to play? Simply use the basic guiding principles of game theory.

Make people excited to participate.

The most important factor in implementing a game at work should be obvious: the voluntary participation of all players. After all, compulsory participation is no fun.

However, you are probably asking yourself: “but how can I MAKE people want to play? This is an important question. An explanation is simple: use the other three elements of all games to fill in the blanks. First, the goal. Activities are frivolous and have no meaning or significance if there is no goal, no “end game.”

So, offer people some incentive to participate. Perhaps the person who comes up with the best idea during a brainstorming session receives a monetary award for their idea; or, the mastermind behind a new initiative receives credit for their great idea.

Give feedback along the way.

A game’s feedback system makes playing games fun and congratulates people who progress toward victory. Video games and their feedback systems make fun noises, flash graphics, and reward players for the simplest of accomplishments.

So, give your employees feedback as they ideate – it will help motivate them to continue to work. Offer encouragement and praise during brainstorming, or give your input to guide the work that they are doing. Your feedback can serve as a little cheerleader on the sidelines, motivating them to keep ideating.

Create challenging – and helpful – rules.

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Finally, it’s the rules that make any game interesting. Games would be no fun if there were no challenge. We wouldn’t be captivated by amazing goals by Lionel Messi if all he had to do was walk up to the an empty goal holding the ball and simply drop it past the line into the net. Regulations ensure that the goal is reached in the best possible way with each step the best quality possible, taking the advantage out of the quick and sloppy performance. Good rules that are clear also discourage cheating.

So, to make sure the ideation game goes as intended, offer employees a clear framework about what they can and cannot do while they brainstorm. Imposed limits will challenge employees to stay within the lines of what’s feasible while they think. Counterintuitively, it’s been shown that constraints make people even more creative – which means rules may result in better ideas.

The Good of Games

With some insight into positive psychology — or the study of happiness — academics and average joes alike who have embraced the effectiveness of games have found success making work less depressing and much more productive. And while implementing ideation games at the office is not necessarily a simple procedure, companies and teams can ultimately use the principles of game theory to increase productivity, facilitate ideation, and make their workers feel more fulfilled and happier at work.