Seven Rules to Save Adult-World

The rules kids make up when they play together should make a comeback in our adult lives.

I think I’d prefer to work in the Mushroom Kingdom. In that world, I’m a fire-breathing turtle named Bowser, nemesis of a certain Mario and his brother Luigi, not to mention Princess Peach. She and I go way back.

Life is not easy as a fire-breathing turtle. As I chase the boys around the house my job is to roar and stomp my feet and occasionally get knocked down by imaginary projectiles shot from their hands. Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of which one of the boys is Mario. There are three boys, all under age six. Sometimes there are three Marios.

Mario is just one of the games we play together. There’s also Ghost, Pillow, Present, and Jail. Each one of these has specific rules and roles to play, but really they’re all just variations of one game, Chase, which is exactly what it sounds like. I run after the kids, who make the cutest, earsplittingest noises dodging the furniture, trying to evade my grasp.

Pillow is one of my favorite variations we play. In this version of the game, after I capture a child, I announce gratefully that I’ve finally caught my pillow, at which point I go to sleep (snoring loudly) with the imprisoned kid pinned under my head — which is apparently hilarious to a five year old. And I don’t let go, not until the other two come to the rescue. A brief battle ensues. Then I chase them around the house again until I catch the next (or decide that Bowser needs a break).

This is the great thing about Chase, and about all the games we play. It’s never the same game twice. Every variation has new characters to play, a new set of complex rules.

Actually, the really great thing about chase is how these rules get invented. After about a thousand games of Chase, I’ve come to believe that there’s something really wonderful going on here — maybe something that could benefit the denizens of Adult World.

First, you have to tell a story.
It’s not enough to just have a chaser and a chasee. There actually has to be some kind of framing story in place for the game to make sense in the first place. Why are we running? Who are the characters in this drama? These are the sorts of things the boys like to flesh out right away. “Run from the monster!” They squeal and scatter because, well, now I’m a monster. And I respond to this offering by playing my part, complete with slavering noises and appropriately ponderous movements.

I have to wonder about the quality of the framing stories we in Adult World trot out when something changes at work. “Great, here we go again — yet another re-org. Nevermind. Nothing really changes.” Our language reveals a lot about our operating stories. Case in point, I personally loathe the term “Reduction in Force.” This is a term that puts as much distance as possible between the people making the strategic decision to let people go, and the people themselves. This is a decision with intimate, emotional consequences. What are we saying when we say, “There’s a RIF coming?” It’s like a biblical plagues, descending upon the team from some mysterious divine origin. Who will go? Who will be left? Bob’s spreading lamb’s blood on his office door.

Second, the rules change just as quickly as conditions do.
In the Mushroom Kingdom, the game evolves in real time — often in hysterical ways. If I corner one of the boys, for example, a “base” might emerge from the furniture. “Couch is base, you can’t get me!” Great. I gnash my teeth and express my frustration that a tasty morsel is only just out of reach. And now the dynamic of the whole game changes. Now, the game isn’t so much Chase as it is Stealth — how do we sneak around this monster who’s guarding the base?

Another variation happens when I actually catch one of the boys. Take Jail for example. I’ll carry my prize off to somewhere boxed in, like the hallway by our garage, with only one exit. “I’ve got you now! You’re going to jail!” Instantly, the boys know that rather than Chase, we’ve updated the objective of the game. Now they resort to karate kicks and pretend laser beams to break their buddy out — often at great personal risk to their own safety. If I ever get all three of them in Jail at once, they decide to team up (usually by uniting their superpowers) to bull rush me with combined might and win their freedom, at which point I am of course rendered impotent and they caper away.

This is all just so much fun.

Contrast this with Adult World, where decision points are often reached but too few people are allowed to decide what happens next. A customer has a problem but has to navigate three layers of management and twelve hours on the phone to get a solution. A tool breaks down and causes massive delays for the team but management can’t decide when to fix it. A CEO can’t seem to make sense out of conflicting reports from teams that can’t make up their minds about whether they’re doing fine or in hot water. Meetings in preparation for meetings in preparation for meetings.

Third, the point of the game is to keep playing.
If at any point the game gets stagnant, the most likely outcome is that someone changes the rules. The new iteration doesn’t necessarily follow from the old. For example, one time Chase evolved into a game where I mistook all the boys for Christmas presents and pretended to “open” them by tickling their tummies, at which point they announced “We’re not presents, we’re boys!” and laughed at my shock and surprise. Then they climbed back under the tree to do it again. This is so vastly different from how we in Adult World play. As we grow up, we start keeping score. We start to introduce objectives, winners, losers. There are absolutely no losers in Chase. I always catch a kid. They always break free/transform/turn invisible.

Fourth, rules are not proposed, they’re embodied.
The action never pauses when a rule changes — someone simply makes an announcement or does something different. There is no voting or quorum. The boys just go along with whatever emerges. They’re masters of “Yes, and…,” a technique from improvisational theater that most adults find incredibly difficult to learn. We tend to get stuck on objectives — on what ought to be. So caught up in what ought to be, we fail to notice what is being offered. The tragedy here is that ultimately, we miss out on the powerful experience of co-creating with others. I am always delighted and amazed by what comes out of the minds of these five-year-olds.

Fifth, the Rules have to work for everyone (or change until they do).
Sometimes a proposed rule doesn’t work so well for one of the boys. What never happens is an argument. Instead, a new rule is created on the fly that works for the kid in question. For example, once it was decided that the sidewalk in front of the house was molten lava, and therefore could not be touched. “Except I can go down there, because I’m wearing lava-proof boots,” said one of the boys. Fair enough. In Adult World, this is rarely the case. Most of our organizational systems emphasize predictability and control. We limit what’s possible and constrain everyone to the same policy. Too bad your wife has Tuesdays and Wednesdays off. Around here, everyone takes the weekend.

Sixth, everyone respects limits.
Anyone who has raised small boys knows that despite their insistence to the contrary, they really are vulnerable little creatures. They love to be thrown about, imprisoned, and wrestled with, but only to a point. Knowing where that line is between a really fun Jail experience and no fun at all requires a sensitivity to what’s happening for everyone. I always know when it’s time for a Jailbreak. After all, the point is to keep playing, right? But in Adult World, we are far less sensitive to what’s going on in the interior worlds of employees, and far more sensitive to whether or not employees are generating value. Is it any wonder why Facebook if full of Sunday lamentations? “Back to the salt mines.”

Seventh, anyone can be anything they want.
Ultimately, Chase is a game about becoming. The frightened little boy turns into the valiant hero. The monster ends up scared and lonely. At any moment the game can turn on a dime because some part of the players wants to show up differently. I’ve had boys double-cross their companions and become monsters themselves. I’ve run from three monsters at once. And sometimes the kid I catch turns around and gives me a hug. There’s no rule saying that superheroes must be consistently super. No rule saying you can’t offer a spontaneous peck on the cheek to the slavering mutant. Of course in Adult World, we expect people to be productive 100% of the time, bound to their job description, and to leave that personal stuff at home.

For my part, I far prefer the Mushroom Kingdom.

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