Management Because they want to win

Gaming the System

On my list of creative management solutions to dire situations, I offer the rolling whiteboard.

The rolling whiteboard was a curiosity at the start-up. Not a full size whiteboard, but a door-sized whiteboard on wheels, suitable for rolling into conference rooms and cubicles alike. I never knew who owned it; I just grabbed it in a moment of desperation.

It was end game. The time in the project where you pay for every single shortcut you’ve taken, for every specification you didn’t write, and for all the warnings from engineers that you’ve ignored. All the data is grim. Bug arrival rates are skyrocketing while bug resolution rates are pathetic because, uh, well, engineers are still finishing features.

Like I said, grim.

The endless stream of bad news was grating on everyone. We were already three weeks into working weekends with no end in sight. A normally pleasantly pessimistic engineering staff had gone uncomfortably quiet. Everyone was staring at “the date we can’t miss” and thinking, “I guarantee we’re missing it”.

I needed a game.

An Entertaining System

As I said before, geeks are system thinkers. We see the world as a very complex but knowable flowchart where there are a finite number of inputs, which cause a similarly finite set of outputs. This impossible flowchart gives us a comfortable illusion of control and an understanding of a chaotic word, but its existence is a handy side effect of a life staring at, deducing, and building systems. It’s also why we love games — they’re just dolled up systems — and the more you understand this fascination with games, the better you’ll be at managing us.

As with all mental excursions with geeks, there’s a well-defined process by which we consume a game, and it goes like this:

  • Discovery
  • Optimization, Repetition, and Win
  • Achievement

DiscoveryFrom confusion to control

The initial joy of a game for the geek is discovery. This is a delicate balance of confusion and progressive disclosure. A game is initially attractive because it starts chaotic and unknowable, but even in the chaos, there’s always a hint of the rules… of structure. What are the specific rules that govern this game? And how might I learn them?

A geek is searching for a single source of joy in this initial state. It’s the sense of discovery and progress toward a currently unknown goal. I want to see the engine that defines this particular universe… I want to see its edges. We’re looking for those edges because as soon as we find this wall, we know this is a containable and knowable place and that is comforting because the game becomes a controllable thing.

There’s creative flexibility in rule discovery and pacing, and it tends to be a function of the size and the intent of the game. The beauty of Tetris is that the initial rules are immediately obvious. But the wonderful curse of a massive online game like World of Warcraft is that while there are rules, they are vast and, as we’ll see in a moment, they are changeable.

This discovery is the hook where a geek is going to know in just a few minutes whether this particular game suits their particular appetite. But getting past the initial phases of discovery doesn’t mean you’ve successfully engaged the geek. The real test is…

Optimization, Repetition, and WinA paradox and a warning

With the basic rule set discovered and defined, the process of optimization begins. Ok, I get how it’s played, how do I win? This is the phase where, now equipped with the rules, the geek attempts to use them to their advantage.

There’s a discoverable structure to the rules. There’s a correct order, which, when followed, offers a type of reward. It’s the advantage of thinking three blocks ahead in Tetris or holding onto those beguiling hypercubes in Bejeweled. This is the advanced discovery of the system around the rules that leads to exponential geek joy.

There’s a paradox and a warning inside of optimization and repetition.

The paradox involves the implications of winning. Geeks will furiously work to uncover the rules of a game and then use those rules to determine how they might win. But the actual discovery of how to win is a buzz kill. The thrill, the adrenalin, comes from the discovery, hunt, and eventual mastery of the unknown, which, confusingly, means if you want to keep a geek engaged in a game you can’t let them win, even though that’s exactly what they think they want.

Think of it like this — does it bug you that there’s an absolute high score to Pac-Man? It bugs me.

To get around this entertainment-killing paradox in subscription-based games like World of Warcraft, game designers freely change rule sets as part of regular updates. The spin is, “We’re improving playability” which translates into, “The geeks are close to figuring it out and we can’t have that because they’ll stop paying.”

This paradox does not apply to all games. It’s hard to argue that there is much more to learn about Tetris, but folks continue to play it incessantly, which leads to the warning.

There’s a socially frightening act inside of optimization that normal humans don’t get and it’s the calming inanity of intense repetition. In a game like World of Warcraft, many of the tasks involve an exceptional amount of repetition. Repetition like, “Hey, go kill 1,000 of these guys and come back and I’ll give you something cool.” Yeah, 1,000. If each kill take a minute, you’re talking about sixteen hours of mindless hacking and slashing. This is not a task that requires skill or thought… and that’s the point.

If you walked in and looked over my shoulder at troll kill #653, you’d think I’d dropped into a twitchy-fugue-like mental state and I have. I am… a machine. Machines don’t have a care in the world, and that’s a fine place to be. This is the act of mentally removing ourselves from a troubled planet full of messy people, combined with our ability to find pleasure in the act of completing a small, well-defined task. This is our ability to lose ourselves in repetition and it is task at which we are highly effective.

In the defense of game designers, there are no quests that read “Go waste sixteen hours of your life doing nothing”. They are more elegant with their descriptions; they splice all sorts of different tasks together to distract you from the dull inanity of large, laborious tasks. But they know that part of what makes us tick is the micro-pleasure we get from obsessively scratching the task itch in pursuit of the achievement.

As I’ve never designed and shipped a game, I can confidently and ignorantly say the compelling magic in games comes from the design in optimization and repetition. This is the portion of the game where we spend the most time and effort and derive the most pleasure. It is this abstract mental state we long for when we’re not playing.

But there is one last phase to consider, achievement.

AchievementWho cares if you win by yourself?

Once a geek has learned the game by discovering how to win, they become interested in advanced winning. They’re interested in how their win fits into the rest of the world. They want to compare and measure and answer the social question, “Is my pile of win bigger than yours?” They believe they’ve mastered the game, but reputation — achievement — is nothing unless someone else can see and acknowledge it.

Before the Internet, winning was a private thing. You entered your three-letter name into the local Pac-Man machine and then anonymously stumbled off in search of Donkey Kong. In an interconnected world, games became social, and once we discovered each other in these virtual worlds, we looked for a means to compare our feats. We began to understand that achievement was not just becoming great at a game, but being recognized for being great.

Achievement can be as simple as a score, a numeric means of comparison, but the more sophisticated the game, the more complex the achievements. In World of Warcraft, you’ll be busily into your seventh hour of mind-numbing troll extinction when you see that night elf run by with… what’s that? A staff… where the hell did she get that staff? It’s sweet. My world will not be complete until I own that staff. Now, what was four more hours of troll killing becomes the quest for the staff.

There’s no well-defined rule that says, “To win, you need this staff”. Sure, it might make those next 200 kills easier, but that is not your entire motivation. For you, the staff is your own personal badge of mastery, and you don’t wear a badge for yourself, you wear it for others to see.

Most achievements do have an empirical value, but that’s not what makes them important. The point of an achievement is to have someone you know or don’t know look at your Violet Proto-Drake and say, “Holy crap, do you know what he had to do to pull that off?” It’s wondering exactly how far you’ll go to get the Legendary badge on Stack Overflow.

In a world where we spend a ton of time with people we’ll never meet, achievements are the currency of respect and identity.

The Rules of the Game

Now that we understand how games float the geek boat, we can tease out rules you can use to build your own business-centric games. This is will take a creative leap on your part because I don’t know how your particular situation is grim. Perhaps your bug count is crap like mine? Maybe you can’t hire fast enough? Maybe you can’t measure how screwed you are? I don’t know what game you need, but I know you need to follow the universal rules of games:

The rules need to be clear. Whatever game you design must stand up to scrutiny. Test the rules with selected geeks before you roll it out. Find the holes in your game before you’re standing in front of the team describing a game that makes no sense. Ambiguity, contradiction and omission are the death of any good game.

The rules must be inviolable. Enforce rules with an iron fist. A rule not followed is twice as bad as a poorly defined one. A violation of the rules is an affront to a geek. They react violently to violations of the rules because it’s an indication that the system is not working. Rules make a game fair, and when they stop being followed, the geeks stop playing.

The playing of the game must be inclusive, visible, and broadcasted. Include everyone on the team. Those not on the team should be aware of the progress and implications.

Only use money as a reward as a last resort. It’s a knee-jerk management move to use money as an incentive. Problem is, money creates drama. Money makes everyone serious, and while you may be in dire straits as you design your game, you don’t want the team stressing about who is getting paid; you want them to stress about the work.

This is not to say that rewards in a motivational game are verboten, but step away from the money and think about achievements. One of the best trophies I’ve awarded was a horrifically ugly ceramic blue rhino the size of a pit bull. The winner proudly displayed the rhino achievement in his office for years.

It’s not a game. Just because I’m using the word game all over this article doesn’t mean it’s trivial, simple, or something not to be taken seriously. Your geeks will treat the game as a motivational tool as seriously as you choose to treat it in building and rolling it out — because they want to win.

The Whiteboard Game

Everyone was working on a Sunday night as I stared at the blank portable whiteboard in my office. A weekend of hallway conversations, bug scrubbing, and informal testing confirmed what I already knew: the product was shaky, the bugs we were discovering were alarmingly bad, and there were too many of them.

Ok, a game. The game will be called Focus and it will concentrate and structure our attention on the worst parts of the product. I listed the 10 worst bugs I’d found during the weekend on the board. Next to each bug, I drew four boxes:

  • Root cause
  • Fix identified
  • Fixed
  • Tested

I grabbed a handful of dry erase pens and rolled the board into the architect’s office and said, “This is all we’re working on”.

He stared at the board for 10 minutes and finally nodded, “Good, but each person needs their own color and you should assign points for each of the boxes. 10 points for root cause and fix identification, 5 for fixes and tests.”

“Points for what?”

“Points for points. We’re geeks.”

“And everyone has their own color?”

“Yeah, so we know who has the most points. Give me a blue pen, I’ve already got root cause on bug #3.”


“Yeah, I’m always blue.”

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44 Responses

  1. justin 15 years ago

    Fucking brilliant. Like you need me to tell you.

  2. Some people can think your post is a joke but you’re right and highly insightful.

  3. Me & my geek play board games a LOT.

    I would submit that if the ‘showing off what I’ve got’ form of winning doesn’t always appeal. But there is a alternative ‘win’, which is to SHARE the whole gaming thang with people.

    (Like you’re doing)

    We’ve hooked almost everyone we know on board games now.

    My pet geek is always blue, too. 😉

  4. Everybody wants points. That’s why they call them points.

  5. Wow. That was a great read.

    That being said, it could have been longer.

  6. Ton from Utrecht (NL) 15 years ago

    This was a need-read. Thank you very much.

  7. joesmithreally 15 years ago

    Thoughtful piece providing the conditions for a thoughtful read. Thank you.

  8. thisfix 15 years ago

    Brilliant. Only, how do you deal with the ‘this game sucks’ guy?

  9. Damian 15 years ago

    Great post. Thumbs up!

  10. Just brilliant.

    And with Mr. Blue, Mr. Red, Mr. Black, …. we have a very dangerous game in our hands…..;o)

    Hey, we’re geeks and love movie references as well! Makes it even more attractive ’cause we’re doing proper role playing.

  11. Stephen 15 years ago

    Actually, I like the fact that there is an absolute high score in Pac-Man. I like that someone got it. It’s like what you said about edges: it means that the world itself, and what can be done in it, has an edge, not just the rules governing it.

    I like that closure in video games. Being able to say “I have done everything there is to do in this game” is a different kind of achievement, a completionist one, and it appeals to different types from those who try for high scores or best equipment or whatever as achievement.

  12. John Evans 15 years ago

    Seems like a good idea, as long as you remember that some people don’t like to defeat other players.

  13. xyzzy 15 years ago


  14. Cool idea. We’re always looking for these kinds of contests, too, and this is right on.

  15. Andrew 15 years ago

    Your scoring was slightly flawed. It encourages people not to finish the job but to look for the next big reward. Bias the score towards successful testing and people will run the first three phases to get the big reward (eg 10/5/5/15).

  16. I think more than creating some sort of game to motivate people, the first half of the article, how geeks learn and explore games, tells me more about how I work than I’ve ever seen in one place.

    Great piece.

  17. Marcius Fabiani 15 years ago

    Good post. There are some interesting ideas about games in J. Huizinga’s Homo Ludens.

  18. Fabulous, rings true and very entertaining! I just finished working with a dysfunctional group of software geeks. Great results from working with individuals but I wish I’d read this before the early group sessions! I did fall into a couple of those Rule traps – e.g. not having the rules inviolable – ‘being too accommodating’ – and lost them at that level. LOL

  19. I know you’re using games to make a business analogy but nonetheless, this article is a must read concerning the WoW-type game subject:

  20. Perry 15 years ago

    “Blue. I’m always blue.” That quote is a perfect ending. Everyone I work with knows I am ALWAYS pink. It’s mine; don’t touch it.

    And yes, I do know it is a misquote, but I also guarantee he has said it before.

  21. “Think of it like this — does it bug you that there’s an absolute high score to Pac-Man? It bugs me.”

    Am I not a geek? I’ve been programming (and playing Pac-Mac) since I first got a C=64, but that doesn’t bug me. If anything, it’s slightly comforting that there’s a limit.

    “It’s wondering exactly how far you’ll go to get the Legendary badge on Stack Overflow.”

    The cheesy points/badges are the thing I hate most about stackoverflow. Unfortunately, for some kinds of questions (C#, Javascript, SQL) it’s the best support site out there, but I’d kill to turn its UI back into something ruthlessly practical, like USENET.

  22. “A violation of the rules is an affront to a geek.’ – is this ever true. As an IT manager of multiple teams in different industries, one thing rings true, geeks get very frustrated when the rules aren’t clearly enforced on everyone. Some of my most challenging conversations revolved around trying to create a logical construct of illogical rule application to hard core IT engineerings.

    My most recent blog post on similar subjects:

  23. Daniel Huckstep 15 years ago

    Excellent post! It does, however, make me more frustrated that my gaming PC is currently broken. *shakes fist*

  24. Excellent post, your idea of x, y, z style story narration on a game is comparible to film too – most* films start with a problem, gets a little worse until a resolution/workaround becomes within sites and ends with a happy/conclusion.

    I think games devs should definately be taking concepts from games like WOW and call of duty (infinity ward are turning cod into wow more and more with each release in terms of achievements, public customisation etc.) – it makes a lot of business sense.

    You should also stick your RSS feed somewhere more prominent, I had to Ctrl+f to find it!

  25. a new nadir 15 years ago

    This article makes some interesting points. I particularly like your notion of the Discovery-Acquisition-Win partitioning of geek thought patterns. You point out the generational idiosyncrasies that result from such a mindset, but you are question-begging when you attempt to generalize from your observations.

    The irony of this piece is that it itself does more to demonstrate the insipid solipsism that defines our generation than the phenomena you describe.

    Don’t take the above as an affront: People our age possess the analytic ability to parse the world around us. Your essay is a fine example of this. The problem is that for most of us this world is too small for our abilities to really matter.

  26. Yeah, that’s dead on. I’m always black.

  27. Love the article. For every point made, I could think of an example or game where I fit the mold perfectly.

    ‘A violation of the rules is an affront to a geek.’ This also applies to my taste in movies & shows. I loved The Matrix, right up to the point in Reloaded where he kills the squids in the real world. What!?! No, that is against the rules. They were clearly defined. Super-powers are in the Matrix only.

  28. The Optimization, Repetition, and Win phase looks isomorphic to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s flow state. That’s where I get practising piano or teaching skills classes.

    Achievement phase is performance, or when the teaching is more about students experiencing gestalten.

    Nice. My colour is postbox red.

  29. Bubbly Bull 15 years ago

    Wooo boy ! Now there’s someone that knows how to blog !!

    Brilliant is the word : shining light all around, yet not burning your brain out.

    Good job, you have me hooked 🙂

  30. Ok if I refer to this blog from my own post? Well articulated. I’m ok with any color 🙂

  31. Andrew made a good point above: the big risk of setting up gaming systems to motivate real work is that people will optimize for playing the *game*, not doing the *work*, so you had better be very thoughtful about whether your rules encourage the kind of behavior you really want to see.

    It reminds me of the old story about the company that decided to pay its developers a cash bounty for every bug they fixed. Hmmm, let’s see – code up ten bugs, check them in, fix them the next day . . . easy money!

  32. We’ve actually been messing with something similar at Flickr, with a play on foursquare badges built into our internal bug tracking system.


  33. Fascinating read!

    Having left that world some centuries ago, I enjoy your insights into a prior me & the current versions of geek.

    The post from “A New Nadir” may be right, but that doesn’t change how much I enjoy your blogs, writing style, and “in-the-trenches” stories.

    The power of blogs like this for me is the description of the issue and the creativeness of the potential solution. That’s why I’m sharing this link with associates – a great discussion topic.


    Paul Reeves

  34. We’ve got these magnetic darts at work – promotional item for the company.

    Two players, coin toss to see who goes first.

    Simple scoring, kept on a big whiteboard.

    There was a debate about which side of the coin came up more, so we track that, too. (Tails is about 35% more common).

  35. Wow – now where is the first commercial bugtracker software which supports points and achievements?

  36. Ned Gill 15 years ago

    Nice post. I think it’s a risky strategy, though. As other commenters have pointed out, you have to be sure that any strategy that does well in the game also does well at reaching your real life goals.

    Your game appear to be putting devs in competition with each other. That could lead to all sorts of pathological behaviours if they take the game too seriously. For example, if I think I might be able to figure out the root cause of a bug on my own (eventually), I’m not going to ask for help – someone might steal my points!

    That said, perhaps that sort of problem only kicks in when people get bored of playing fair? If you kept this sort of thing short term – during the end of project crunch, for example – and reset the scores and rules each time, then perhaps people would never reach the point of wanting to manipulate the rules?

  37. MemeGene 15 years ago

    Excellent post! I want to send this to my HR manager to explain why my boss drives me nuts and fails to motivate me. Your guidelines at the end – that the rules must be clear and that they must be enforced fairly and consistently – are paramount. While I’m not in competition with anyone and am more of an “Explorer” rather than “Achiever,” the importance of understanding the system and then doing well at it is still paramount to my job satisfaction (which is nil lately).

    I’m bookmarking this for posterity.

  38. I am constantly amazed at how proliferated the view of the main stream new’s specific agenda is and how many people reference The Daily Show in the same breath.

    Great post! A handful of my more detailed responses to some of Rands posts, specifically a counter to “Wanted” here:

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  40. free gold xbox live 14 years ago

    Actually, I like the fact that there is an absolute high score in Pac-Man. I like that someone got it. It’s like what you said about edges: it means that the world itself, and what can be done in it, has an edge, not just the rules governing it.

  41. Me & my geek play board games a LOT.

    I would submit that if the ‘showing off what I’ve got’ form of winning doesn’t always appeal. But there is a alternative ‘win’, which is to SHARE the whole gaming thang with people.

  42. Excellent blog, pls contiune your work and keep us update with new articles

  43. altin çilek form seti 13 years ago

    Just brilliant.

    And with Mr. Blue, Mr. Red, Mr. Black, …. we have a very dangerous game in our hands…..;o)

    Hey, we’re geeks and love movie references as well! Makes it even more attractive ’cause we’re doing proper role playing.

  44. Laura 13 years ago

    For us in a sense the Agile is a game. We first played it against ourselves, trying to make our velocity. But recently a large team has broken up in two smaller teams and we officially don’t play against each other. But we do track our progress on the same whiteboard and keep a close eye on “the other line”.

    Only after reading this post I realize we just gamefied our work by going our flavour of agile, and it works for us.