The rules of the game

The other day, it hit me.  I was preparing for a meeting, carefully plotting out some information to fit – not the best form that it could take, but a form which was required.  A form which laid everything out in a particular way.  I was following rules.  Not strict rules… there was a lot of scope for me to bend the rules to fit the data I was trying to convey.  But the rules were there.  And they were making my life easier, as I knew that everyone would be able to handle the information in this form, and everyone would be able to take the information and use it in their own work, far away from where I was generating it.

But this wasn’t what hit me.  What hit me was:  I had done all of this somewhere before.  There was something strangely familiar about the corporate procedure I was forcing myself through.  It was fun.  It was just like… a roleplaying game.

Lets talk about roleplaying.  When we were kids, we all did it.  Cowboys and Indians.  Nurses and Doctors.  Cops and Robbers.  That sort of thing.  We played the games, we told each other stories.  We had fights.  Most sane adults give it up as they get older.  I carried on – playing Dungeons and Dragons, Traveller, Marvel Super Heroes and as time went on many others.  The difference between these games, and the games we had as kids were that these games had rules.  Now, the usual story we tell is that these rules are there to stop the arguments we had as kids.  But this isn’t quite true.  The rules are there to direct how we play the game.  The mechanics don’t simply resolve disputes and add randomness:  When they are well designed the rules encourage us – with a nudge rather than a railroad – to play the game in the way the designers want.  It makes our characters in Call of Cthulhu scared – not just of losing their lives, but also of losing their minds.  It makes Feng Shui games climax with big, off the wall stunts.  And, it means Ars Magica characters really do care, not just about themselves, but about their place in the mythic world.

I like these rules a lot.  I like the design which tweaks how people behave.

There are board games which do the same.  I’m sure the success of settlers of Catan is due to the fact each time you play you think to yourself “I realize what I could have done better.  I’ll win next time”.  A wonderful game called “Family Business” works because, at some point you all stop playing the game to win, and simply fall into petty bickering over what other players have done.

And now, with corporate procedure, I’ve found a third thing which attempts to do the same.

Companies implement procedures in order to manage things – very often risk.  To make sure data flows correctly.  They are dry, and boring, and have a tendency not to work particularly well.  Frequently you fall into situations which the rules don’t cover.  Lust like in roleplaying games.  And – in a sensible company -  what you do next is exactly what you might do in a roleplaying game – you come up with a house rule to let you carry on playing.   A good house rule fits in with what everybody is trying to achieve.  A bad house rule unbalances the game, and leads to people playing differently – either to protect themselves, or to take advantage.

So the art is to come up with the right rule.  The rule which makes people do the thing that needs to be done.

Its all just game design.

If we want to ship a product by a particular date, then that date has to be at the core of the rules.  Perhaps we need all of our rules to fall around getting to that date.

If on the other hand, perfection is the number one goal – then we can let dates slip, but quality has to move upwards

Lots of games are like this – there are lots of things you want – low risk, high quality, all the features.  Now everyone in the process probably has a different goal.  The engineer in me wants to make my work perfect, bug free, unbreakable.  But the product manager wants to hit the ship date that the customers are expecting.  This is where the rules are important.  We trade off hitting a date for getting quality right not by putting more men onto bugfixing, but my changing the rules about exactly what has to happen for a release to occur.  “Pass 90% of automated tests” is the solid gold goal.  Product management then find their job becomes harder – they have to meet customer expectations and the bugfixing is going on too long.  So they play with their rules – what if we were to drop the buggy feature.  Or what if we were to determine that some of the failing tests just aren’t important.

Its all a game.

But in the ideal world, we wouldn’t have these situations.  We would have a game designer.

Her would probably call himself a process engineer.

But at heart he would be a game designer.  He would look at what people want (the introverted engineers just want to get on with their coding – and don’t give a damn if anyone actually uses it, the extroverted salesmen want to harrang the engineers publicly in meetings) and he would design a new system.  A system where people worked together, moving towards a goal.  He would settle disputes, and come up with new rules, rules which fix the patchwork of house rules.  Where processes are too complicated to follow, the game designer would simply.  Where they take up too much time, he would replace them with different rules – or with better payoffs.

He would release 2nd edition processes – and get everyone to move over

This would not be a guarantee of corporate success.  For that, we have to require the game designer knows exactly what the customer really wants – and knows how to do his job perfectly.

But by recognizing the system isn’t a set of procedures, but rather a game we are all playing in – and all playing in to win – we level the playing field, and we open up the discussion.  And we let people like me, who love game systems above corporate politics – have fun in the process.

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