Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


Running a Game at Work

Friday, I had the pleasure of seeing Sebastian Deterding speak on ‘9.5 Theses About Gamification.’ I don’t want to blog his entire talk, but one of his theses relates to “playful reframing”, and I think it says a lot to how to run a game at work, or a game tournament at a conference.

In many ways, play is the opposite of work. Play is voluntary, with meaningful choices for players. In work, we are often told, to some extent or other, what to do. You can’t order people to play. You can order them to engage in a game, and even make them go through the motions. But you can’t order them to play. At best, you can get them to joylessly minimax their way through, optimizing for points to the best of their ability. And that’s a challenge for someone who wants to use a game, like Elevation of Privilege or Control-Alt-Hack at work.

One of the really interesting parts of the talk was “how to design to allow play,” and I want to share his points and riff off them a little. Bold are his points, to the best of my scribbling ability.

  • Support autonomy. Autonomy, choice, self-control. As Carse says, “if you must play, you cannot play.” So if you want to have people play Elevation of Privilege in a tournament, you could have that as one track, and a talk at the same time. Then everyone in the tournament has a higher chance of wanting to be there.
  • Create a safe space. When everyone is playing, we agree that the game is for its own sake, and take fairness and sportsmanship into account. If the game has massive external consequences, players are less likely to be playful.
  • Meta-communicate: This is play. Let people know that this is fun by telling them that it’s ok to have fun and be silly, that you’re going to go do that.
  • Model attitudes and behavior Do what you just told them: have fun and show that you’re having fun.
  • Use cues and associations. Do things to ensure that people see that what you’re doing is a game. Elevation of Privilege does this with its use of physical cards with silly pictures on them, with each card having a suit and number, and in a slew of other ways.
  • Disrupt standing frames A standing frame is all about the way people currently see the world. Sometimes, to get people into a game frame, you need to
  • Offer generative tools/toys. A generative tool is one that allows people to do varies and unpredictable things with it. So a Rubik’s Cube is less generative than Legos. Of course, pretty much everything is less generative than Legos.
  • Underspecify. So speaking of Legos, you know how the Legos they made 30 years ago were just some basic shapes, and now and then a special curvy piece, while today it seems like every set has a stack of limited use, specialized pieces? That’s under-specification to over-specification. The more you specify, the less room you have for playful exploration.
  • Provide invitations. Invite people to come play, both literally and metaphorically.

The other element of his talk that I thought was really interesting with regards to Elevation of Privilege was how he discussed Caillios‘ ludus/paidia continuum. Ludus is all about the structure of games: these rules, these activities, these scoring mechanisms, while paidia is about play. Consider kids playing with dolls. There are no rules, there’s unstructured interaction, exploration and tumultuousness.

In hindsight, Elevation of Privilege uses cues to bring people into a game space, but elements of the game (connecting threats to a system being threat modeled, rules for riffing on one another’s threats) are really more about playfulness than gamefulness.