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Big Ideas

The Future of Work Is Play

Can games help us make ideas happen? We talk with "Game Frame" author Aaron Dignan about the advantages of infusing creative projects with an element of play.

Humans love games. Just check the current news cycle for evidence: The Xbox 360’s sleek, new controller-free gaming device, Kinect, is the fastest-selling consumer electronic product ever. Foursquare has attracted millions of badge-seeking users and aspiring “mayors.” And new programs like Quest to Learn are bringing game dynamics into our educational system.

What is it about games that makes them so appealing? And how can we translate our enthusiasm for play into the workplace? These are the subjects of a new book, Game Frame, by Aaron Dignan – a fanatical game lover who dressed up like a superhero for 180 days straight in first grade. (He’s also the CEO and a founding partner of digital strategy firm Undercurrent.)
We recently sat down with Aaron to discuss the psychology behind game dynamics and how we can trick ourselves into making ideas happen.

What’s the most basic definition of a game?

I’m partial to the definition put forth by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman in their book Rules of Play: A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.
It’s not terribly sexy, but it covers so much ground – from Dungeons & Dragons to football. In their definition, my interest falls squarely on the word “artificial”, and what might happen if we took that out.

What are some examples of how I could use the power of games to keep myself motivated during a long, personal project (say, making a documentary film)?

The trick here is to turn a long experience that has very limited feedback into something that is broken up into smaller and more rewarding chunks. Consider scheduling viewing parties for each scene in your film (for family and friends). In fact, build the whole project plan around scenes. Completing each scene should be a mini-objective, and rewarded.

For instance, for every new scene that you cut together, allow yourself to go back and select music for the previous scene. Create new forms of resistance other than just time/energy, such as taking away key resources so that you have to focus on the craft. Instead of writing the storyboard in Final Draft, grab a notebook. Instead of editing in Avid or Final Cut, consider doing a rough cut on your phone. Try a “speed run” round of editing (where you try to cut the whole movie together in one day). These smaller self-imposed “challenges” will actually spark your creative drive in ways you don’t expect.

Smaller self-imposed challenges can spark your creative drive in ways you don’t expect.

One of the things that seems daunting about games in the workplace is this idea that they might involve intense pre-planning and strategizing. Is that always true?

Only in the early days. Just like exercise routines and sports, certain things need to be figured out and standardized to create a “field” for play. The people willing to do some exploratory work here will get the benefit of a first-mover advantage, and a better understanding of their own motivation.

What about examples for keeping a creative team motivated, or getting them excited about accomplishing a specific task?

Creative teams derive their pleasure from discovery – finding or combining elements to make something new. So of course, rushing toward a goal feels counter-intuitive to that. However, if you can pair some mystery/surprise with your goal (when we finish project A, management will unveil our next project, or the location of our after-party, etc.). Alternatively, creative teams often respond well to the mechanic of competition. It may work best to divide one creative team into two or three and pit them against each other in their search for the solution.

You’re experimenting with having a game designer as part of your creative team at Undercurrent. What have you tried so far, and what have you learned?

We’ve had Jim Babb design games for our off-site meetings, and even lead game nights after work. We got a ping pong table and started an league with over a dozen friendly neighborhood agencies/consultancies. And of course, we’ve used his skills on a half dozen marketing projects. The biggest learning (or surprise) has been that a games perspective adds value to EVERYTHING. Jim is constantly overbooked and in very high demand. It doesn’t matter what the project type is, thinking about behavior and motivation from a games perspective rings true.

Creative teams derive their pleasure from discovery – finding or combining elements to make something new.

Outside of your own situation, what are some examples of game dynamics being implemented in the workplace that you’ve observed as being particularly successful?

One simple but fun example comes from our own office circa 2009. A small company in Brooklyn started selling a bubble calendar (think of a wall calendar with large bubble wrap laid over each date). We hung it up in the office and promised that the last person to leave every night got to pop the bubble for that day. Pretty simple competition and sensory mechanic, but we had a lot of fun with it. People stayed later, and when they did, they felt some measure of silly excitement over the calendar. I’m also a big fan of meeting tokens (15-minute tokens that must be paid to attendees of a meeting for their time). If you want time to be scarce, it has to cost something.

What if I’m not really into planning games for myself but I like playing them. Are their ways I can still use the ideas behind gaming to make distasteful activities more engaging?

Funnily enough, you’re probably already playing games with yourself. Anyone who has ever been on a diet or tried to sneak onto an airplane earlier than their ticket class is playing a kind of behavioral game. The trick is to better understand what drives you – what aspects of games are most powerful for you – and then put yourself in situations that will motivate you best.

I find guilt works well. Any suggestions there?

Social pressure, competition, time pressure, novelty… these mechanics are pretty powerful universally. There are a dozen more in the book (shameless plug!).

Game Frame is now available in bookstores everywhere. Learn more.

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (22)
  • Quichefroide

    Nice easy read but I really don’t think so. The future of work is hard work.
    All you players will be laid off lol.

  • Damon

    Why can’t the two co-exist? People work hard at games all the time…. (Call of Duty?)

  • Steve_Hillyer

    Great article. True spirit of an entrepreneur.”Think outside the box.” Some will think it corney or a waste of time, but I think this idea is the next level of brilliant! Has me thinking of how to employ this strategy in my own life.

  • C3

    total nonsence…nothing but buzz words recycled from other charlatans…


  • Formulaein

    Great stuff, great book! I love how he said circa 2009 🙂

  • Victor Skills

    Sure they can co-exist. Players just execute and consume like anyone else, they can call it play.

  • Ben Wallis

    Here are some related articles that were recently published (March 2011):

  • ERo

    No, what’s nonsense is the way you spelled nonsense.

    Try to think outside the box. There’s more than one way to accomplish a task.

  • Jay

    Similar to Jane McGonagle(?) book, “Reality is Broken.” The premise is using the psychological triggers that make games addictive and/or rewarding as life/work hacks IRL. A little pop-sci, and good for the short-attention span generation(s).

  • Henrik Dresboll

    This rocks my world

  • Aaron Dignan

    Actually I’m as against the buzzwords as anyone else. For me, this is about human psychology and how we get motivated. Buzz-free please.

  • Jon

    I’m trying to implement this same idea in the classroom to motivate students –

  • Jirmouffe

    It’s like f*** out I just failed lol

  • Игорь Кувь


  • Gina D.

    I love the idea of games at work. Why should we only have fun when we are kids? If more adults played games at work we would be a happier more productive society. I always try to make fun a priority in all my creative endeavors.

  • emreact

    I think play is a tool of evolution that prepares mammals’ brain and body for life’s conditions in as shortest time frame as possible.

  • Mike Mark

    Has anyone seen the Stuart Brown TED Talk? Highly recommended.

  • Joseph Bryan

    I agree completely with this article. I work for a large international organization and we’re all allowed to basically do whatever means necessary to “get the job done”. In most cases this is working on a laptop outside, or taking walks, discussing videos, playing Halo, or other things… When we, as the employees, are happy and excited, we’re so much more productive.

  • resume help

    intereting point… dint think about this before. thanks!

  • Fun Flash Games

    Great article! I agree, we humans love games and it’s a good idea how can we translate our enthusiasm for play into the workplace.

  • PiperCloud23

    But what if one I not competitive? Competition deflates my enery. I like games where I can enjoy others’ success. Are there ideas for games that fit a model that lacks competitiveness?

  • Didge


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