28th April 2014

Kicking back – how it worked out for me.

So – here I am at the beginning of a new working week, following my three day ‘holiday’ last week.  Except it wasn’t really a holiday.  It was a serious attempt to unblock myself, after weeks of struggling trying to design a game for a serious purpose.

I’ve just started out on my own, and have decided that my first saleable ‘product’ should be a day / half day training / networking event based around an engaging and competitive business game.  In order to make this happen, I have to create the game that will be the centrepiece.

However, a number of things happened when I sat down to create the game, and I found that I was unable to perform.  I fought for days trying to create a perfect market mechanism so that the teams could compete for a number of different categories of customer.  I tore my hair out trying to create a board which didn’t look exactly the same as every other business game board I have seen. And so on and so on……..

Worst of all, after a couple of weeks of that, I stopped ‘turning up for work’.  I started to engage in work-related displacement activities, cleaning up my inbox, writing to do lists and spending all day reading tweets/linkedIn posts/facebook pages.

Something had to give and the first step was admitting I had a problem.  So I sat down and started thinking why I might be creatively blocked.  Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of potential blockers that I came up with

  1. Pressure to make something I can sell for actual money – which can then be exchanged for stuff like food and electricity.
  2. Pressure to get it right first time – so as not to waste time – related to first point – have to make some money – and quick.
  3. If I don’t get this right and start making some money, I’ll have to admit I’ve failed and go back to working for someone else (ugh).
  4. Feeling that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew by becoming self-employed.
  5. Feeling a bit of a fraud – I play games but can I really be a games designer?
  6. OMG – I’ve told people I’m doing this event – they’ll think I’m an idiot if I don’t deliver.
  7. This is all too much for me – I’m on my own – I can’t do all of the stuff I need to do and I’ve got no one to talk to / bounce ideas off.

Put anyone under this much pressure and they stop performing, I reckon.  Time for a break.  I’m getting nowhere anyway, so why not give myself permission to get nowhere more constructively for a few days?

I got really lucky.  The first thing I decided to do with my down time was to buy and read a book I’ve been after for a while – “The Art of Game Design – A Book of Lenses” by Jesse Schell.  It is a testament to the usefulness of this book that I fairly quickly put it down.  While this may sound contradictory, it makes sense when you consider it is a book about getting on with it and making games.  Within a couple of chapters I was all fired up and ready to do just that.  I’m still only 28% through it (I know because I’m reading the Kindle edition), and I’ve already achieved loads, so really looking forward to what the other 72% will do for me. One of the first things the book suggests is to say to yourself out loud “I am a games designer”.  I did this and three days later I had designed three games – that’s Blocker no. 5 dealt with – Thanks Jesse.

The book also discusses the power of constraints.  If you have a restricted framework to work within, it counter-intuitively frees you to be more creative.  My business game brief to myself is too vague – and to be honest is more about what I don’t want the game to be like (like all the other business board games I have played) than what I want it to be.  Time to tighten up.

So I went in search of constraints and found boardgamizer.com.  The results of what I found there can be seen in the few blog posts preceding this one, so I won’t elaborate.  Check them out.  It’s an excellent creative workout.

To summarise though, what I have discovered in the last few days is that I can do it, even though I am alone.  It is probable I will need others to help with the sheer volume of stuff I need to get done to put on my event and other people will also have capabilities I don’t, but I can peg the game design part.  Blockers 4 and 7 sorted.

The likelihood of people even giving a moment’s thought to the non-delivery of my event by the originally promised date is also fairly miniscule.  It’s not as if I’ve sold tickets (which would be a different matter).  All I’ve done is told a few people at networking events of my intention.  They’ll have forgotten already.  They’re busy running their own businesses, you silly self-absorbed woman.  Blocker 6 – zapped.

None of this makes the reality of Blockers 1 and 3 go away of course.  I still need to have viable money-making business.  But it does bring home how counter-productive it is to make that the primary focus of what I do on a daily basis.  To make money I will have to make games and fretting about money stops me making games – so just put it to one side and get on with making games.

I banged out three games in as many days and made myself do it quickly rather than perfectly.  And, do you know what – what I turned out was way better than anything I made whilst striving for perfection.  Blocker 2 is a really hard one, for anyone who wants to be proud of what they produce, but you have to get over the fact that a large proportion of what you do will not be a polished marketable thing.  Get on with producing the throughput and polish later.

The final thing I realised is that I need to step away from what I already know about business games.  I was saying to myself that I wanted to produce something different from existing business games, but then returning to existing business games as my starting point.  Obviously, there will be some points of similarity – I want to achieve many of the same learning outcomes, but I should not approach this from the POV of being SME in business and financial acumen.  I should approach from the POV of my primary passion – the fun of learning through games.

The three games I designed last week had no other purpose than to be fun to play.  That freed me to explore how I could put them together without worrying about learning outcomes or the perfection of my market mechanism.

Calling something a game doesn’t make it fun.  It is play that is fun, and many existing business learning ‘games’ do not contain this element of play.  They simply simulate running a business and call it a game.  Realism is valued above all things.  To be able to demonstrate accurate modelling of business is considered far more important than fun. Business is serious business after all.  It’s not supposed to be fun.

Some business game creators will even try to distance themselves from the idea of ‘games’ altogether, preferring more ‘serious’ names like ‘simulation’ or ‘intervention’, feeling that ‘game’ lacks the appropriate air of professionalism that will appeal to their clients.  They are incongruent in their offering when they do this – refusing to use the word ‘game’ itself, but then claiming all the desirable characteristics that games can bring to learning, like engagement, immersion and acceleration of assimilation.

It is essential that people who are involved in creating games are players.  By that, I mean that only those who regularly play and enjoy games can really understand their allure.

Obviously, it is important that the game addresses the learning outcomes that are appropriate to my target audience.  I will collect and clarify these and use them as lenses to evaluate each of the pieces of fun that make up the play in the game.  This will ensure they are present and effective, but I will make the starting point the fun, rather than constructing the learning and then attempting to tack the fun on afterwards.

I’m aiming my first event at start ups.  Why do people start their own businesses?  For any number  of reasons – I’m ignoring ‘making shedloads of money’ – because that should be an outcome of following your dream, not a dream in itself.  Most of the reasons – autonomy, exploring a great idea, doing what one really enjoys etc. are riffs on the theme of making lives more enjoyable – in other words – having more fun.

So, am I potentially alienating potential clients by not taking a sufficiently ‘business-like’ approach? Possibly.  I met many people in my previous job who were seriously turned off by the word ‘game’ and didn’t buy into our products for that reason.  I’m not interested in working with / for those people.  It might be seen as arrogant to rule out whole swathes of potential clients in this way, just for the sake of terminology, but I want to have fun too.  My fun is in working with those who see the value of play and fun in helping them to get where they want to be.  If I do that well enough, I’ll have enough clients willing to pay me, so that I can continue.

So today, I am ‘turning up for work’ and I WILL make progress on my ‘serious’ game.  I’m going to start with how it can be fun and then work back from that.  Hopefully this will result in the ‘difference’ I want.


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