Why the voluntary youth sector needs to play more ‘games’

I was talking with a senior manager the other day about how the voluntary sector, and particularly the youth sector, is forgetting how to have fun, and more specifically explaining the value that games and play brings to CPD, team development and group work. He expressed much (healthy) scepticism about both the possibility and value of getting professionals to play games, and even argued that the word ‘game’ itself is a turn off.

“These are serious people with serious jobs, and they are not going to want to waste time running around like school children”  he told me.  This statement highlighted many of his pre-conceptions and assumptions. It also provided me with a golden opportunity to talk at length about how these ‘serious people with serious jobs’ could actually learn something about themselves, their staff, their organisations, their clients and their opportunities by allowing creativity to flow more freely through play and ‘games’.

His position is not uncommon and it stems from a deep seated misunderstanding of what a ‘game’ is and what it is for, as well as a set notion of what ‘work’ must look like for it to be considered of value.  It’s not a coincidence that the most successful companies of the last decade, including Apple, Google, Yahoo and Facebook, were all started by college students, and perhaps as a consequence have at their core an ethos of fun, creativity and innovation.

Their success has not been achieved through a cubicle work environment, strict hierarchy and dull meetings. Instead they have flowing and flexible work spaces, a culture of collaboration, opportunities for creativity and relaxed work structures.

It’s vital that the voluntary sector also supports this innovative and highly productive approach to work and in part this can be achieved by creating games and group exercises that develop awareness and insight of issues, as well developing games to integrate into the working environment.

Before we go any further let’s clarify what we mean when we use the word ‘game’.  Referencing Jane McGonigal, for something to be considered a ‘game’ four elements must be in place:

  • A goal, which gives participants a sense of purpose
  • Barriers (better known as rules), which inspire strategic and creative solutions
  • A feedback system, such as points or progress indicators, which provides motivation to keep playing
  • Voluntary participation, so that all players accept the three elements above

These four elements however also seem to fit quite nicely into a definition of ‘work’. In simplistic terms; the goal may be to generate an income, develop community cohesion or reduce violent crime, the barriers could be considered Government policy, funding or community conflict, the feedback process may be the income, the numbers engaged or favourable crime statistics, and the voluntary participation comes from simply being willing and able to play.

So where does the line between ‘work’ and ‘game’ occur? Well maybe there isn’t one, or at least maybe there shouldn’t be one.  Game Theory considers everyday circumstances as games and the parties involved as players.  It’s therefore possible to perceive all ‘work’ as a ‘game’ and to creatively use a Game Theory model to support better decision-making, where ones success depends on anticipating and acting upon the choices of other players in the game.

So is all this just a matter of perception?  Well, yes and no.  The starting point in allowing creativity and innovation to flow freely is to accept that the line between work and play is blurred, or at best non-existent. Only then is it possible to create the opportunity and appropriate environment for individuals and groups to play the game (or work) as well as they possibly can.

Think of your favourite game, and why you like it, mine is Backgammon.  The reason I love it so much is that I become incredibly focused when playing it, every game is different, bad luck can destroy any good judgement just as good luck may overcome any poor judgement, but in the long-term commitment and superior strategy will always win out.  Now if I think about why I love my work; everyday is different, I’m fully committed and engaged by it, the destiny of my work may be influenced by external forces in the short-term, but I know for certain that dedication and effective planning will ensure a long-term success.

So I am fortunate, all the pieces are in place for me to approach my work as a game, in fact, as my favourite game.  This psychologically leads me to feeling motivated, challenged, empowered and optimistic.

This philosophy creates a real opportunity for the development of staff and team enhancement.  Identify what drives people to play and what they need in place in order to succeed in their play, and then integrate these motivators and mechanics into their work for them to become enthusiastic, creative and driven to succeed, as much so as when they are playing computer games, or poker, or chess, or Angry Birds, or football, or any other game.

This approach allows teams to understand that learning and growth can be drawn from games, game theory and game mechanics, and then support the organisation to integrate ‘games’ into practice.  Here are just six examples how to create powerful impact through the effective application of this approach:

  1. Cite and play various games and draw metaphors to support practice.  For example, the deceptively simple playground game ‘ Rock, Paper, Scissors ’, can help to explore and improve decision-making approaches and strategic thinking processes. Introducing ‘players’ to elements of behavioural economics, and exploring how this best supports the team to work more effectively, maximise information and make more informed choices.
  2. Use games to create internal meetings that are fun and engaging, with an environment of innovation.  Process and outcome focussed in equal measures.
  3. Explore the particular challenges of the organisation through games and group activity, be that; information management, effective communication, decision making or team collaboration; and subsequently developing creative techniques to meet these challenges
  4. Develop motivated and enthusiastic staff by implanting game type motivators into their daily work tasks and targets.
  5. Use games and play to explore group dynamics and the manner in which the team interacts, identify strengths and weaknesses and the further learning needs of individuals and the group as a whole.
  6. Create loyalty and engagement from clients, through the implementation of game mechanics into a service, community, website, content or campaign (also known as gamification).

It’s vital that this approach is always inter-active, energetic and inclusive, blending traditional group games, experiential activity and group exercises to facilitate growth and learning in the individuals and the group.  Each game should be followed by a debrief and short discussion, to explore what application can be taken from the learning.  Throughout this process the inter-active nature of playing games has the added benefit of creating a collaborative environment among the participants, organically supporting team development.  If this is done well games in a training and team environment will help to:

  • Energise
  • Relax
  • Engage
  • Create focus
  • Develop teamship
  • Empower participants
  • Create comfort in the space
  • Generate a dynamic atmosphere
  • Introduce and cement learning
  • Draw analogies with real-life
  • Elicit metaphors
  • Create shared outcomes
  • Develop strategic thinking
  • Practice effective communication

All while having fun! So who could possibly object to that?

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation”. Plato
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