Seven Principles of Game Design and Five Innovation Games that work

The gaming industry is larger than Hollywood, by many measures. People spend tremendous amounts of time and money on games—and even pay to watch other people play games (and not just baseball…the competitive video game market is huge…and baffling!). But *gamification* is everywhere too—in education, in corporate culture, in the innovation industry. Why?

One of our favorite books, Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse, talks about how games appear in time and space and make a goal and a winner clear at the end, based on rules. When compared with most parts of our lives, that seems like a pretty good bargain – at our jobs, when does the change stop? How do we know if something “worked” or didn’t, if the game never ends? Life is, by some measures, an infinite game, where the rules constantly change and winners turn into losers, and vice versa. It’s exhausting!

tweet-graphic-4Game Design principles to fuel innovation: Play, Reward, Fidelity, Constraints and more


Setting up games, with clear goals and constraints help focus our energies and efforts and can improve and clarify outcomes and motivate us to move forward to the next clearly defined challenge and reward cycle. We use games all the time in our facilitation work, drawing on books like Gamestorming and The Systems Thinking Playboook, to get teams thinking differently and to increase creative output.

Seven Design Game Principles

Most of the principles below, with the exception of the first principle of Fidelity, are drawn from the Boxes and Arrows article, “Using Design Games.” Check it out for more links and discussion.

1. Fidelity:

Will the team be solving a challenge that is NOT like the current problem? That is, will the game be just for clarity and learning? Or will the team be solving a challenge like current challenges, but stripped down and simplified? There’s no hard rule on this…your mileage may vary. Our feeling is that an abstract or general challenge is best to loosen a team’s thinking up first, then to approach the challenge sideways, not directly. The “always, never” game is a great way to come at the principles to guide a solution to a challenge in a safe and fun way.

2. Objectives:

There needs to be some kind of goal or outcome that people can work towards. The more concrete and defined these are, the easier it is for people to participate. However, fuzzy objectives can be more rewarding, since they model real situations better. Consider more ambiguous objectives for teams that are already gelled and accept the ideas for design games.

3. Constraints:

There needs to be some limits on what players can or can’t do when achieving those objectives. Constraints should be relevant, related to each other, and present a coherent whole.

4. Success Criteria:

There needs to be some way of knowing when the objectives are met. Clear success criteria help establish expectations and buy-in for game participation. Some games are more unstructured, with less well defined criteria. Classic role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons don’t have a clear overall objective. That ambiguity can make such games better able to model some scenarios, but harder to sell inside an organization because they don’t have a set ending.

5. Reward:

Incentives that reward success can be intrinsic outcomes of the game (good results, recognition), embedded in the game itself (getting more Monopoly money), or external recognition or prizes (the winner gets dinner at a nice restaurant). Balancing rewards between players can be a challenge, and needs to be considered when adopting games.

6. Play:

The most important reward needs to be a sense of fun, encouraging interaction and intrinsic value for the game. That sense of play can be elusive—playtesting a design game in your own team is important to get a sense of what is fun, and what isn’t before you roll it out with a larger group. Play operates in the area of flow—balance the challenges of the game with the abilities of the players.

7. Competition (sometimes):

Sometimes, but not always, design games can involve individuals or teams competing to achieve those game objectives. While competition can be an easy game mechanic to introduce, it can also create the wrong dynamic depending on organizational culture and individual participants. Does competition make things fun, or turn people into raving lunatics bent on winning at all costs? If it’s the latter, you might look for more cooperative alternatives, including setting competition against previous performances, like beating your old record for ideas generated, instead of against other teams or individuals.

Five Innovation Games that Always Work

1. 100 uses for…

We often use “100 uses for…” as a way to get creative juices going and sometimes to prime a team to tackle a challenge. When I was in design school, one of my professors had a “100 ways to serve pizza” assignment. Everyone was given a pack of 100 paper plates and had to draw a serious or silly way of serving pizza. That was a week-long assignment, and people really saw how hard it was to come up with a 100 options… you had to think outside the box! When working with groups, we’ll call the game “100 uses for…” but give them only 5 minutes! The prompt can be pizza, a log, or something more relevant. When doing a workshop with our friends at KeyMe, we used the prompt “100 uses for a key” to get people thinking about their challenge.

2. Mix and Match (Fruit Party)

Fruit party is a fun game that can be used to teach a variety of innovation themes, from the importance of generation and combinatory innovation to the idea of there being “no bad ideas.”

Team members each choose a fruit, with no duplicates. I’ve played this game with 15-50 people, and it works well in both cases. I then have people arrange themselves by various criterion – color, size, cost, then by flavor. I’ll then select three or four people, representing different fruits and ask what fruit mix they are. Sometimes the combination sounds good, sometimes it doesn’t! Each time I ask what useful purpose the combination can make.

3. Generate and Share

Groups always want to talk first…I just don’t let them! The simplicity of this game is that you provide the generation template – full size paper, post-its, how many elements each concept needs to have, etc.

“100 uses for…” is a generate and share game. People don’t call out ideas, they write them down! And we give rules, like one post-it per idea and ideas with words AND pictures are better.  Deciding what you want the team to generate and then making a simple template for it is an easy way to get started.

4. Always/Never

I use this with teams all the time as way to clarify their thinking on an issue. A team was having a discussion about the new employee onboarding process and was getting bogged down trying to generate features, workflows and concepts. Giving them 5 minutes to generate and share what the onboarding process should “always be like” and then generating what it should “never be like” made a clear visual word and concept map that sparked features, workflows and concepts more easily.

5. Franken Ideation

When teams have generated ideas or concepts, mixing and matching is a great way to get them to go further. Fruit Party can teach the principles of this, but doing a round of Franken Ideation can help them dig deeper. Have each team member grab 2-3 post-its representing ideas or concepts from the wall, and to not think too much about which ones. What will combining these ideas give us?

Once, during a color-generating teaching exercise, a participant took “Green Sweater” and “Campfire Orange” to make “Singed Wool”. This process based mixing is creatively different from literally mixing these two colors…and far more creative! Doing this with more high level ideas is hard, but will get your team to unique ideas. Remember, even bad ideas can be good ideas if we look at them right!

Links for Further Learning:

Want some help bringing some fun, yet creative thinking to your organization?

Learn more about our Strategy and Innovation Consulting services that build on these principles and techniques, and send us a note to set up a problem framing session with one of our team leads.

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Daniel Stillman
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