The Games People Play

The Games People Play

“Work is much more fun than fun.”

~ Noel Coward

Gamification bugs me. I mean, really bugs me. Specifically, it bugs me because I see it as too often just doing the wrong things righter. I can understand how teams – and their coaches – fret about how “boring” their group interactions might be on occasions (retrospectives are one kind of group interaction that often raises such concerns). Who would want to sit through a seemingly interminable series of such sessions? And yes, I can understand how folks might think that “spicing things up a bit” by making things “a bit more fun” could help. I’m not anti-fun btw. And as an inveterate gamer myself, not anti-games, either.

“If we just wanted positive emotions, our species would have died out a long time ago. We do things to pursue other elements of well-being. We want meaning in life. We want accomplishment.”

~ Prof Martin Seligman

No, the thing that bugs me is the way in which this seemingly simple and innocuous solution to “boring meetings” derails folks from addressing the root causes of the boredom, and thus from achieving any real and lasting improvement in the effectiveness of their interactions. And from any deeper sense of job-satisfaction and well-being, too.

“The work is the most fun; it seems illicit how much fun it is.”

~ Meryl Streep

Very simply stated, boredom arises from activities which the participants see as having little or no purpose or relevance. Attempts to spice up such activities with games and other “fun” distractions seem to me to be like sticking a band-aid on a broken leg. Palliative, but hardly an effective response.

Personally, I would much rather feel whatever I was spending a part of my time – my life – on was working towards a common purpose, with shared meaning, than some kind of specious, self-indulgent pleasure-seeking. Surely a better approach to dealing with boredom and poor ineffective group interactions would be to recognise the boredom as a signal and seek to restore purpose and  relevance?

Fun is the New Opiate of the Masses

The job satisfaction in doing purposeful, relevant work far outweighs the superficial attractions of having forced “fun” from time to time. Of course, many teams have little prospect of turning things around in their workplaces such that purpose and relevance manifest themselves in daily business. In these cases, maybe the empty joy of “fun and games” is all they have, within their limited remit. I feel deeply for these poor unfortunates. However, personally, I believe that, as ever, the old adage applies:

“Change your organisation, or change your organisation”.

In a previous blog post I described one way to restore purpose and relevance to the retrospective.

“Fun is a good thing but only when it spoils nothing better.”

~ George Santayana

In closing, I’ll reiterate: I embrace the value in enjoying what we do at work, and in finding well-being in (and through) our labours. My impetus fro writing this post is the concern that in attempting to inject some fun into sometime dull and unfulfilling work, we miss the real opportunities for deeply fulfilling experiences through a preoccupation with the superficiality of games disconnected from purpose.

What do you think?

– Bob

Further Reading

The Games People Play ~ Eric Berne (book on Transactional Analysis).
A New Gauge to See What’s Beyond Happiness – NTY article on Seligman’s PERMA model
The Antidote (Video intro to book)

  1. Hear, hear Bob! I don’t think I’m some grumpy old man when I say that the (in some cases) single-minded obsession with making things ‘fun’ grates on me. Fun is not about “happy happy” to my mind, it’s about purposefulness and meaning and doing something which involves the whole of us. People say they want fun at work, when they’re saying they want it to be meaningful and not paid-for slavery. It’s about something which enlarges us as humans, too. (Watch children at play to see what I mean.) Nice one.

  2. The “manual on management” says people should have fun. Inevitably the majority apply that literally in unthinking fashion as you describe.

    That’s not a pattern confined to management of course…

    The “manual on development” says one must do TDD which is applied literally. Code coverage in testing becomes the metric of success, quality is absent, the design is poo and the product too.

    So I agree there are lots of people missing serious opportunity equally it seems to me that many people actually get comfort from these robotic behaviours and will accept that and the associated discomfort. System? Nature? Dunno.

  3. On one hand I’m all-in with you on that case – if you are doing something meaningful, something that drives you odds are you don’t need to introduce more fun to your work because your work is fun already. On the other hand if you remember Monika’s talk on ACE! my team was one she experimented with. For me it was one day of having fun, one day of team building and with gamification during this day she achieved something I wasn’t able to achieve for a long time – my teammates were giving each others feedback. They weren’t forced to do so, but still they were doing it.
    Maybe if you need a game, an abstraction to work with instead of working on the real problem something is wrong with you, however if gamification solves your problem I’m fine with that.

  4. You have a point, Bob. Gamification of boring procedures to make them more “fun” is pointless.
    I like the idea of running a meeting like a game, though, as Dan Mezick has recently described it…
    – Clear goal – clear set of rules – clear sense of progress – voluntary participation.
    That helps.
    Protocols help as well, the Core comes to mind (sticking with the meeting topic):
    We need more fun at work, yet I think effectiveness needs to come first.
    Good work is effective and useful, great work is in addition collaborative and fun.

  5. As the guy ”spicing up retrospectives” I also want to add my 2 cents. I totally agree with you that gamifying boring, ineffective and purposeless meetings doesn’t make sense. Maybe I was putting ”fun” too much into the center of my talk at the ACE!Conference (I will change this for ALE2012). For me it is more about adding variety to these repeating meetings to keep the mind open for new ideas, creative solutions and to help the team to think outside of the box.

    In my experience repetition is a killer for continuous improvement. You need to set new impulses to keep the team in an attentive state so that an enviroment is created where change just happens. If fun is part of this variety I’m the last one to avoid it 😉

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