torsdag 23 maj 2013

Cohero - playing games at work


I got to know Christofer Gradin Franzén earlier this year and found out that he is not only an economist and a psychologist, but also a game designer. He and a friend of his have designed a board game called Cohero (do you get it - co-hero - I didn't at first and thought the name has something to do with "cohere").

Christofer visited KTH yesterday and the sustainability team thus played a board game together for the second time this term (we also played Carbonopoly earlier this term). Our team doesn't do anything but have fun and play games at work! The game itself is played on two levels (or is it three?). 

1) The most basic challenge is to get away from the deserted island we are stuck on (see the map above). It's really only possible to succeed and get off the island if all players pitch in and work together, despite the fact that there can also be tensions between the individual and the collective rationality (e.g. between what's best for us and what's best for me in the game). Still, on the basic level, it's us, together, against the rest of the world. The game was in fact really tough and halfway through the game (and after some initial setbacks), I was sure we were utterly and totally screwed and would die on the island.

Picture. The dice will decide if you find water, tools, shelter or building materials for the raft that will save you and take you away from the island. It's actually nerve-wracking to throw the dice since the results of your dice throw is soo important.

2) On the second level it gets more complicated as we were also randomly assigned one out of four different roles. I was assigned the role of "supporter" - the social glue of the group, and a colleague of mine was assigned the role of "analyst" - the group's problem-solver. If a certain condition was fulfilled (as a social and extrovert "supporter" personality, I wanted to have two other players around me at the start of my turn), my mood would rise, and if not, my mood would be at a standstill (only one person around) or sink (no-one around). When my mood was on top, I gained a "special ability" that was useful for the whole team, but if my mood bottomed out, I gained a "negative special ability" that would impede the whole team. The problem was that it was impossible to satisfy the mood-rising conditions of all players/roles at the same time and especially so if we wanted to get something accomplished in the game (that would work towards getting us off the island). This dynamic created a basic tension between fulfilling my needs (e.g. the needs of my role), fulfilling other players' needs, and working successfully towards getting off the island. These tensions are very interesting to Christofer since he is a psychologist and he uses this game to "examine" and help work teams in companies too "see" each others' needs so as to work better together. The game requires the help of a full-time "mediator" (Christofer or someone else who has had "proper training").

I would however argue that it is possible to construe a third 3) level and that is the level of managing my relationships with my co-players/co-workers. I can't be a total egotistical asshole when we play Cohero (and I hope I wasn't :-), since that might have repercussions in my job and in my social relations with my colleagues. Even when we are playing a game like Cohero - as well as in all other work situations - I'm not just working on tasks and solving problems, but I'm also incessantly working at "impression management" (Goffman's term) to make other people like me, admire me, be impressed, seduced, corrupted, persuaded and in general managing/manipulating other people's perception of me. According to Goffman, everybody does this all of the time. As to Cohero, this is what is stated on the homepage ("What is Cohero?") regarding the purpose of the game:

"Cohero is a game that has been designed to help teams work better together. It's about the possibilities and challenges of cooperation and the possibilities for a group to solve problems of greater complexity than individuals can handle."

Christofer uses the game as a Rorschach test of sorts and stops the game to discuss feelings, processes and relationships between people through the events that happen in the game. It didn't feel hurried, but we apparently hurried through these parts of the game as we "only" had three hours to play. That was a pity. It was patently obvious that a lot of thinking had gone into the game and I do believe that we could have had really long academic/gameplay-related discussions with Christofer about collective intelligence, personality types, problem-solving, psychological needs, team performance etc.

Something that might have complicated the picture (from Christofer's psychologist's point of view) was that I had also invited two non-team board-game-geeks from the department to participate and play. Counting myself to that group, three out of five players were thus "gamers". I believe that means the majority of the players made decisions based less on their "feelings", and more based on an "objective" analysis of the game mechanics. I believe we gamers partially or wholly subsumed some of the things Christofer is interested in and to (perhaps a much higher extent than other players) reasoned based on what is "rational" to do in the game in order to try to overcome the challenges thrown at us and win the game. In this particular game you win by working together, in other games you win by backstabbing your ally one step ahead of him backstabbing you... To summarize; you do what you have to do (e.g. what the game demands of you). It's not about playing nice or taking a hit for the team, it's about what is rational in the context of the game. Overcoming the challenges thrown at us and winning the game is goal. Cooperating with others is the means to accomplish that goal. I don't know what that says about me psychologically except that I like to play board games and I play to win. '

In the post-game discussion, Christofer mentioned several cases when "interesting" things had happened, for example when the board of directors at a company played and everyone was very competitive. It went straight to hell since the game requires you to cooperate - including now and then subsuming your own goals to that of other persons/roles and that of the group as a whole. Another time, the people who played worked at an environmental or some other do-good organization. To them, it was extremely important that the game progressed in a "fair" way and that everyone was equally far away from death (the penalty if you fail your task - it is possible for one or more persons to die in the game and for the rest to make it off the island). Fairness is good, but here it became the overarching goal and stood in the way of accomplishing task and doing what had to be done (taking a hit in "health" for the team) to get off the island. So I'm thinking it would have been very very frustrating for me to play in any of these two groups or with other kinds of "irrational" (non-goal-oriented, non-gamer) players. In such a situation, the sheer frustration would probably have led a perceptive game mediator to learn a lot about what makes me tick. Last but not least, I do have to say it was really fun to play Cohero!

Picture. From left to right: Sanna, Daniel, Elina, Christofer (mediator) and Marcus. Åke took the picture.

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