Gavin’s Friday Reads: Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal

Jane is a computer game designer.  Here is a link to one of her TED talks. It is definitely worth watching.

Her twin sister Kelly is a researcher in the field of positive psychology.  She also has several great TED talks.  Something in the genes they share…?

Jane’s first book “Reality is Broken” was published in 2011.  Why do so many people spend 10, 20, or even 40 hours a week, as much as a full time job, playing games online?  Going on quests to save the universe or whatever.  Why do people find these games this alternative reality so fulfilling and ”real” reality not so much?

Why is reality having trouble competing?  Afterall it is the real one right?

Most work lives have a lot of room for improvement.

What makes a good game?  How can we make reality more like a good game?

McGonigal makes a living designing good games.  She was one of the first people to design her own graduate degree in game science before it was a thing, so she knows her stuff.  

A good Game has 4 elements:

1. The Goal is the specific outcome that players will work to achieve.  It focuses their attention and continually orients their participation throughout the game.  The goal provides players a sense of purpose.

2.   The Rules place limitations on how players can achieve the goal.  By removing or limiting the obvious ways of getting to the goal, the rules push players to explore previously uncharted possibility spaces.  They unleash creativity and foster strategic thinking.

3.   The Feedback System tells players how close they are to achieving the goal.  It can take the form of points, levels, a score, or progress bar.  Or in its most basic form, the feedback system can be as simple as the player’s knowledge of an objective outcome: “The game is over when…”  Real time feedback serves as a promise to the players that the goal is definitely achievable, and it provides motivation to keep playing.

4.   Finally voluntary participation requires that everyone who is playing the game knowingly and willingly accepts the goal, the rules, and the feedback.  Knowingness establishes common ground for multiple people to play together. And the freedom to enter or leave a game at will ensures that intentionally stressful and challenging work is experienced as safe and pleasurable activity.

Compared to games, reality is unproductive.  Games give us clearer missions and more satisfying, hands on work.

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken

These are all key to a good game and you can probably already see how they can fit nicely into the work environment.  

Goals are easy, business and work are full of them. We need to make sure they have been clearly articulated and people have agreed that it is a worthy goal and they are reasonably clear on how they can help get us there. 

The rules of the game in business and our jobs are also usually fairly clear.  There are accounting rules that a business follows to make sure of our results when compared to other companies also playing the game.  If the goal is to make money then the accounting system is a good way to keep score.  If however the goal is human happiness, quality, or environmental impact we will need to find a different scorekeeping system.  Sometimes the rules are very few which can allow for a lot of creative ways to get to the goal.  What rules are there about how your job gets done?    

A quick way to track progress is easily found in a well run company.  There will be KPI’s (key performance indicators) that we can use to track progress towards the goal.  We need to make sure they are really related to the goal of course and not some unrelated stuff our boss wants to track.  The usual problem with KPI’s in most companies is that the “score” is not updated frequently enough.  Imagine playing a game online and then a month later getting a letter in the mail telling you your score or how you did relative to the other players.  Or worse yet it is an average of all your scores over the last month.  Annual review anyone?  Quarterly or monthly department performance report?  If you want motivation and engagement the feedback needs to be immediate.  When we score a goal we need to hear about it now.  When the zombies are overwhelming us we need that feedback right away.  This is why I set up a system in our company for production operators to find out how much profit we made on that batch they just finished as soon as they completed it.  Supervisors are no longer hassling me, they are coaching me on how I can get a higher score.

Here’s the thing we all miss at work.  Players need to opt in.  If I am making you “play” it is not a game.  You all know by now that I promote maximum autonomy for intrinsic motivation.  This is a good example of why that is important.  I did not make people play the game.  I just made it possible for people to get a score/feedback immediately and play the game if they wanted to.  

People like games and we are more or less competitive.  Once someone we know or another group starts playing, it is hard for others not to.  People are different. We like different types of games. We want to participate in different ways, so we need to provide different options.  You could play “Make the most good product in a shift”  or you could play “Highest yield batch”, “fastest changeover time” or “highest quality score”.  You can play “machine uptime”.  If you are tracking a thing you can make a game out of it.  We had objective measurements that everyone understood and gave feedback on these things every day.

We are just totally weird.  This is a quote from Bernard Suits who is a philosopher of gaming that McGonigal quotes in her book.

“Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken

This is how McGonigal explains it:

       Let’s take golf to start.  As a golfer you have a clear goal: to get the ball in a series of very small holes, with fewer tries than anyone else.  If you weren’t playing a game you’d achieve this goal the most efficient way possible: you’d walk right up to the hole and drop the ball in with your hand.  What makes Golf a Game is that you willingly agree to stand really far away from each hole and swing at the ball with a club.  Golf is engaging exactly because you along with the other players have agreed to make the work more challenging than it has any reasonable right to be.”

Here is another quote from her book about the experience of a Sociologist who began playing a game.

  It was a whole different business, nothing like I’d ever known, like night and day… Thirty seconds of play and I am on a whole new plane of being, all of my synapses wailing.  Sociologist and Jazz pianist David Sudnow about playing the video game Breakout

So how do we make work more like a good game?  I will let Mcgonigal say it in her own words:

        The prevailing positive-psychology theory that we are the one and only source of our own happiness isn’t just a metaphor.  It is a biological fact.  Our brains and bodies produce neurochemicals and physiological sensations that we experience, in different quantities and combinations, as pleasure, enjoyment, satisfaction, ecstasy, contentment, love, and every other kind of happiness.  And positive psychologists have shown that we don’t have to wait for life to trigger these chemicals and sensations for us.  We can trigger them ourselves by… undertaking a difficult challenge… accomplishing something very hard for us…making someone laugh…or…being part of something larger than ourselves that has lasting significance beyond our individual lives.  Jane McGonigal  “Reality is Broken”

There can be more dimensions to the game of work.  Want to level up?  If you are a new operator (padawan) you will need to get training from someone more experienced.  (a Jedi Teacher)  When your Jedi teacher thinks you are ready to be a Jedi yourself another teacher observes you going through the process,  You also take a written test that you have been studying for on your own.  If you pass the written test and the practical exam you are now officially a Jedi operator you get a bonus for every question you got right on the test and your pay is increased.  Want to level up again?  Maybe you want to be a Jedi trainer?  The only way to level up is to successfully train a padawan.  You need to find a padawan to train.  

Maybe training others is not your thing.  You could work on becoming a Jedi Master.   What do you need to do to become a master?  You must be able to demonstrate that you can run all of the machines in your department and problem solve virtually anything that comes up.  When you think you are ready you apply and if three other masters recognize you as a fellow master you are in.

What if fixing a machine is not ‘a work order’ for an apprentice maintenance mechanic but a quest should you decide to accept the challenge?  How do you move from an apprentice mechanic, to journeyman, to master, to grandmaster?  

Many of our workplaces could use a more engaging environment.  Our planet also needs us to be more engaged.  The right conditions can get us there.

If you decide to implement some strategies to have more fun at work remember you are there to create the opportunity for people to accept a challenge.  You would probably do well to engage your people in a creative discussion on how you could transform the work environment. 

Devise your goals together, decide on the rules and the KPIs as a group. 

Just remember if you compel them in any way it is no longer a game.

Cheers for Friday,

Gavin Watson, Chair, Conscious Capitalism Connecticut Chapter

Gavin Watson & Associates

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