Collaborative methods and game mechanics: a comparative approach — Part I
What is important when you onboard new players ?
As a collaborative designer, I have had the opportunity to explore almost endlessly the patterns underlying group dynamics. Through using proven or emerging methods I discovered new approaches, saw new patterns and experimented them. I am also passionate about board games, and the incredible profusion of new games created each year allows me to explore more and more the systems invented by Game designers. I uncovered several similarities of approaches through this dual exploration, and I would like to share my discoveries in a series of articles. Let’s start in this first post with the set-up phase: the creation of the conditions to play together and the inclusion of actors.
Inclusiveness — The revolution of “cooperative games”
About ten years ago, a friend introduced me to a board game with a whole new mechanism: we were going to play together but not against each other. We would have to team up and unite to complete the victory conditions, otherwise we would be defeated together, and the game would win.
This shattered my habits built on decades spent playing against friendly “opponents” around the table, trying to gain leverage against them by developing strategies, exploiting the mistakes of my companions and avoiding making too many myself.
I approached this new game with curiosity, all the more intrigued, since collaborative processes are at the heart of my job. The experience was a trigger for me and was truly transformative: I discovered a whole new universe where laws that I believed were universal no longer applied. I switched from a confrontation logic to a playful cooperation, which had many implications on the players behavior! Since then I never stopped exploring the mechanics of these games which have multiplied for the past decade. I acquired many of them, leaving for a while the more classic ones based on confrontation.
A new paradigm for the gaming environment: onboarding new players
The major shift brought by this category of games is visible even before you start to play: the inclusion of new players takes a different dimension. In a competitive game, experience and mastery of the rules give the experienced player a definite advantage. Learning a new game and playing a first game with experienced players is often tedious and keep uncovering subtleties that were not explained to you or that you had not paid attention to while reading the rules. Let’s be clear: no-one is trying to hide crucial points when explaining the rules to a new player, but the goal is only to ensure that the neophyte understands the system and to give them a fighting chance.
There is however an imbalance arising from the experience and tactical or strategic subtleties acquired through multiple games. They are not passed on because they would unnecessarily complicate this phase of explanation, and because they may affect the new player in his decision-making process during the game, which would not be in line with his own style of play. We give the frame and may the best player win! Except that the best in is rarely the new player, due to his inexperience with the game. At the end of this first game, he has learned more about the subtleties and winning tactics, which he will generally have learned at his expense, being the victim of trickeries from his more experienced opponents. The more complex and strategic the game, the longer the learning curve, and the less opponents will reveal you their secrets. Joining in the community of gamers for this particular game and feeling included is a slow process that can sometimes take years.
In a cooperative game, on the other hand, there is a great interest for experienced player in ensuring that all new players are properly on board. Everyone is facing the same challenge as a team and they have to tackle it together. It’s in everyone’s interest that each player is at its best and is able to put his individual intelligence at the service of the team to counter a game mechanic which difficulty continuously increases throughout the game. As everyone around the table are no longer competitors but allies, the more they are included in the process, the more likely you are to find the best response to the situation at hand.
Therefore, the explanation of the game and its mechanics becomes an important moment to embark new players. The pedagogy is no longer limited to explaining them the system of rules: it is about getting them on board as much as possible, helping them to project themselves into the difficulties to come, making them understand that they are key to achieving victory. It doesn’t make sense to hide intricacies of the game or omit specific nuances of the rules, as you are all on the same side! The more informed they are, the more they will be able to help you solve the problem posed by the game.
Inclusiveness in collaborative approaches
Onboarding stakeholders is also key in collaborative approaches: working together requires spending time ensuring that everyone is aware of the different dimensions at the heart of the problem to be solved. In order to allow the collective genius to arise, you have to make sure that everyone is on-boarded, aligned and engaged. Inclusion has several dimensions:
· Understand the problem at the same level: Too often my clients think that once it has been formulated, everyone understands the problem to be solved. In general, however, everyone sees the problem from their own perspective, and in a fragmented way. You need to onboard all stakeholders and the variety of their points of view, taking into account all the perspectives represented.
· Create a common language: All organizations have their own terms with different meanings across entities. Seeking to define solutions without removing ambiguities is a bit like building a castle on sandy soil. Inclusion here will seek to lay a solid foundation by eliminating misunderstandings and going directly to find a solution and skip this phase of alignment is a major risk in any collaborative approach.
· Create the group: it may seem obvious, and the basic form of onboarding. Beyond simple cohesion, it is also sometimes necessary to instill the desire to act and generate the pleasure of working together. It is sometimes complex and can require sensibility, but without it no effective collaboration can occur.
The inclusion and alignment process can take many forms (generation of empathy, explanation of key messages, identification and recognition of divergent points of view, encouragement of expression) and it’s a critical first step for any collective endeavor. The notion of collaborative design takes on its full meaning here: each situation being different, it is necessary to adapt to the context, to the stakeholders involved, and design the onboarding. As Philippe Coullomb and Charles Collingwood-Boots describe in their book “Collaboration by Design”, one of the facets of the role of a collaborative designer is knowing how to harness the diversity within the group. Taking the time to include each key contributor by designing a specific path allows you to lay the essential foundations for success.
Designing for inclusion takes a bit of time but the reward is always worth the effort. The payback is tenfold in focus, effectiveness and risk mitigation, which translates into speed and robustness of outcomes. And to close the loop with the gaming analogy, it’s also a way to ensure everyone is in the game and has a good time.