Why take games into workplaces? Systems Gaming with David Finnigan

This week, David Finnigan writes about Systems games for consultancy: what they are, how we make them, and (most importantly), why they work.

We’ve started hosting lunchtime sharings and Coney Socials for those interested in this line of work – if you want to know more, give us a knock. But first, we’ll let David take it away…

David here – Coney’s Associate-in-Residence and lead artist on Coney’s Systems line of practice. I’m back in London after a few months away working in Singapore and Australia, and diving back into Coney world.

What is the work I’m doing for Coney, and why have we called it the ‘Systems’ line?

The simple answer is that most of the work I produce – interactive theatre, games or anything else – draws on the language of complex systems science. I work frequently with climate and systems scientists, using gaming and performance to illustrate some of the interesting and valuable insights produced by researchers in these fields.

These works are gathered under the loose heading of ‘systems games’. This is a label I started to use in 2014, after undertaking a Churchill research fellowship to look at different groups in Asia, Europe and America who were combining complex systems science with interactive performance.

Many of my games (both with my Australian colleagues in Boho and with Coney) are designed for groups to play in a non-theatre setting – frequently in meeting rooms, boardrooms or in the workplace.

Systems gaming 2

Someone asked me this weekend, ‘Why take these games into workplaces? What’s your motivation?’

It was a good question, and I think it deserves a proper unpacking.

The working hypothesis is:

  • As individuals, organisations and a society, we need to be better at managing complex systems;
  • Scientists in fields such as complexity theory, network theory and resilience thinking have developed valuable cognitive tools for thinking about complexity;
  • We can learn these ideas in the abstract, but it’s more useful to engage with them through concrete scenarios, where we can see the application to our own problems;
  • A game is a kind of system in its own right – and many of the features of complex systems can be reproduced in games;
  • Therefore, carefully-designed games can give us tools to better manage the complexity around us. A well-constructed game is a ‘flight simulator for decision-makers’, as Joshua Epstein put it.

These games are (and should be) fun, but they are also tools for training, and bringing them to a workplace allows us to tease out some of those lessons in a different context.

Or, put it this way: a game is equally fun whether you play it in the office with your colleagues as part of a training workshop or in a pub over a round of drinks – but the quality of the debrief is quite different.

Systems gaming

Constructing a systems game is a delicate process. We start with a real-world system that we’re modelling – for example, in our recent game Run A Bank (In A Time Of Global Crisis), the impact of climate change on the financial services sector.

We do extensive research with experts to build up a conceptual model of the system – trying to capture some of the key dynamics and relationships. The rule of modelling is that you want it to be as simple as possible – but no simpler. So there are usually multiple iterations while we go back and forth with our experts to be sure our model captures the important elements of the system without drowning people in detail.

With Run A Bank, the dynamics that we’re interested in are the short and long-term impacts of climate change on the sector. There are immediate consequences of a severe weather event on any multinational business, but the impact of climate change is really in the timespan of decades, so our model needs to reflect that.

The next step is to find the right game mechanics to illustrate those key systems dynamics. Then, once we’ve settled on those, it’s about putting the right story around the game, and constructing the player experience, from the very first moment they encounter the game to that final debrief.

The ‘player experience’ of Run A Bank looks a little like this: with your fellow players, you’re in charge of a small British bank worth about £150 billion. You get to set up and design your bank, and make some decisions about what kind of a financial institution you are.

Then: a severe weather event strikes a city in south-east Asia and taken out one of your back offices. A huge number of your staff and a lot of your services are out of action. You have a lot of tasks to fulfil with only a skeleton staff. As managers, you need to work together, work fast, make some tough decisions and prioritise.

In the first part of the game, players are faced with a lot of small challenges and only a small amount of time. Discussion and planning is essential, but too much planning wastes valuable time. Addressing the various logistical, financial and reputational issues is done through a series of hands-on tactile games (there’s nothing digital in this experience). Can you keep your bank afloat throughout this disastrous week?

The second part of the game involves taking a longer view, examining your bank’s investment portfolio and making some strategic decisions about the future. Then, we explore the outcome of these games in a debrief.

Systems gaming debrief

This debrief is especially crucial – that’s where a lot of the real value comes in. In many ways, we’ve come to think of the post-game discussion as the most important part of the experience. In some ways, the game is really just the prompt for discussion – we start a project by asking, ‘What conversations do we want participants to have after this game?’ and work backwards from there.

Run A Bank is an example of one of the systems games we’re offering as part of Coney’s Systems line of practice. The question which we’re pondering in this work at the moment – and which I’d love to put to anyone reading – is: Which real-world systems can be turned into games, and which can’t? What makes a complex system game-able?

If you’re interested in chatting about this (or any other systems game), you can read more on the Consultancy page. And if you’ve got an organisational or business challenge that needs unpacking, I’d love to chat – get me at david@coneyhq.org.

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