Design game as a creative platform for new ideas
Playing cards, dice and board games are not uncommon sights, when serious matters such as developing new services are underway. A design game is an effective and inspiring playground, where you can practise before ideas turn into reality. Get good advice and navigate around the most common pitfalls, if you are faced with rethinking or developing new services for your users.
With a game, you can play for a while and experiment your way to finding out what possible solutions might look like. Games can take many different forms, but common to them all is the opportunity to experiment first and thus more quickly learn what works and what doesn’t. You can put yourself in another’s place for a while or use the game as a platform for investigating current problems and dilemmas.
That’s why design games continue to gain ground wherever complex new projects are taking shape. Here you can read about how it’s done and get good advice about what you should pay extra attention to when working with games or just let yourself be inspired by the game world’s thinking and elements.
1) Promotes dialogue and common understanding
When something new is being created or an existing service has to be adjusted, it often results in a negotiation process and collaboration among many different stakeholders. And the co-creators usually have an opinion about how much, how often, how little or how the new measures should be put together. And that’s all good. The problem is just that the participants are all too often very busy making compromises, entering into written agreements and closing down the discussion, even before the project’s potential has been researched and discovered. Dense Word documents can change hands without it necessarily becoming clearer what the project should address. A4 pages with abstract risk and stakeholder analyses often amount to empty assertions that the most important aspects of the project have been identified and acted on in place. This is where the game format can help bring together the main stakeholders who will create a project and promote a dialogue among them. The game format paves the way for collaboration, dialogue and playing with and against each other. The simple, visual form allows the game to promote those dialogues that can otherwise be difficult to broach.
Example: Atlas Game – a map of the project
The Atlas Game is an illustrative example of a design game that deliberately works to involve key stakeholders at an early stage and ensure that they talk to one another.
It was developed in collaboration between the design school in Helsinki and a number of others in both Europe and the United States.
Its goal is to create a solid impetus for focusing on and planning a project. The players are those who together will shape and develop the project. Participants use hexagonal cards, which they lay end-to-end, literally taking them all the way around the project. The game asks basic questions that are important to keep in mind. The game also includes method cards, where some of the most important design methods are described. With the help of the game, participants can practise seeing the project from a variety of angles. It is a training space, where those who will create the project, can practise being very specific. What do we need to consider before we begin? Which methods are most suited to acquiring new knowledge? What should you do? What should I do? And what should we do together?
The Atlas Game is structured so that the various angles of the project are seen in relation to each other as the game progresses. The game strengthens dialogue among the participants. In the two-hour duration of the game, the participants circle all the way around on their project.
Try the game yourself. Here you can download the rules and all components of the game.
Read about the game’s background here.
2) Challenges your tendency to come up with the same thing every time
You are the expert and know in advance what works and what doesn’t. You know your area of expertise top to bottom, and perhaps your co-workers have the same background as you. The point of departure and the framework is therefore static, and much will be taken for granted. That’s part of being an expert. It is not necessarily an advantage when something new has to be developed. Some curiosity and a beginner’s ability to combine unexpected elements is lost. And often there is a lot that one simply cannot see.
Here the game, the play and not least chance can push the limits. A design game will often include an element of randomness. It can be in the form of dice that are thrown and link elements in surprising ways. It could also be cards, selected as the game progresses, that force players to see a problem from several different angles.
Example: Pick a card and come up with new ideas
A design game doesn’t have to be complicated, consist of a lot of different elements or, for that matter, mimic the form of a board game where – armed with dice, game board and cards – players compete with and against one another.
It can be simple. At MindLab, one thing we have learned from long experience working with new solutions across the public sector is that too little energy is used to fine tune, experiment with or moderate them. And sometimes it can be a good idea to copy, reinterpret and adjust the subcomponents of a solution from one area to another. MindLab has therefore developed a number of cards that stimulate idea development. The maps are based on idea directions that have been successful in one area and invite participants to consider whether they can work for them. The cards have often been used as a point of departure for a brainstorm. For example, one of the cards says: “What if the service must be put together in a strategic alliance with others?” Could one, for example, collaborate with the municipality, the insurance company or family members, when someone who has been sick needs to be helped back to work?
Here the idea card is used in connection with MindLab’s work with the United Nations Development Programme in Moldova. Read about the collaboration here. The goal was to look at how it could become easier for local residents in Moldova to get help in times of acute economic crisis. Currently it is a very slow process, requiring visits to a number of different authorities, and many people give up altogether, are refused or get so little financial compensation that it doesn’t help at all. The idea cards provided new ideas for the service.
3) Be sure that your ideas correspond to the right issue
When we work with new solutions, the point of departure is often an acute problem that we would like to find a solution to. That’s a good starting point. The only problem is that we often think we have a common understanding of the problem, although the starting points can be very different. If we are to reach clarity about what the problem really is, who is faced with the problem, and in what situations the problem occurs, interventions from the design-game world can be used to advantage. They make a powerful launching pad for getting from abstract discussion to concrete solutions. The game can formulate and enforce clear rules for how the issue can be explored and broken down.
Example: Sharpen your problem with Duplo bricks
Some years ago, Business Development Centre – Southern Denmark [Væksthus Syddanmark] (BDC) faced the challenge of attracting entrepreneurs for their consultancy services. Read more here. The consultancy services were really good, which should have brought entrepreneurs to their door. The problem was just that the entrepreneurs were not showing up. As part of the work to find out why there was no demand for the service, BDC, along with MindLab and the design firm 1508, invited a number of companies to participate in a problem brainstorming. On Duplo bricks, they noted the challenges they associated with greenhouse services or lack of same, and then they were asked to categorise the challenges. The exercise ended in a great construction of Duplo towers – some linked, others completely isolated. It helped show which problems were connected and gave a visual overview of how much space the individual problems occupied. Duplo bricks helped BDC to become smarter about the issues they should focus on if they were to succeed in creating an attractive service experience for the region’s entrepreneurs. They found, for example, that the use of the word ‘free’ in promoting consultancy services created mistrust and perceptions of less-than-competent advice.
Duplo bricks helped Væksthus Syddanmark to target their service to entrepreneurs’ real needs.
4) Put yourself in another’s place and get ideas that work
If you are working strategically with your target group, you already know that it’s a motley bunch. What works for one user does not necessarily have a great effect on the next user. But it can be difficult to keep track of a variety of users’ perceived needs when you have to solve a problem that ideally should have been solved yesterday. In this instance, it can be a good exercise to force oneself to stand in the users’ shoes. For example, it can be a good idea to make use of ‘extreme’ target group representatives, for example an auto enthusiast who owns four cars and has never used public transport, when you need to develop new public transport services. If you can succeed in getting that person on the bandwagon, then you’ve come a long way.
Design games can be the means to provide a quick reminder of your target group’s diversity. The game can help you to determine which target group you should aim for. It can create a framework for systematic and strategic discussions of how your target audience will react to various new approaches and ideas, without it being dangerous and having immediate consequences. Design games, for example, can take on the character of a management tool that can strengthen the selection and deselection of directions for one’s development work.
Example: Put different archetypes into play and get new perspectives
An example of a design game that has supported idea development from the point of view of looking for different target groups can be seen in a case from the Odense Municipality School Administration. In the wake of the new school reform launch, a number of initiatives were implemented to ensure that the reform got off to the best possible start in the municipality. In this context, the Administration, in collaboration with MindLab, created a snapshot of the dilemmas the teachers experienced. School headmasters in the municipality were asked to play a game where they were given the opportunity to work with how they could best address the most difficult current dilemmas. The game contained a number of visual cards with archetypal teaching staff characters. For example, the administrators were presented with ‘the Worried Teacher’ who, with good reason, resisted change in the workday, as well as ‘the Strategist’, who sought tools to translate the reform’s content into concrete practice in the classroom. The game gave school leaders a common reference point and the opportunity to test strategic decisions about which measures were necessary, there and then, if the reform were to be helped on its way.
A design game gave headmasters in Odense Municipality the opportunity to prioritise all the different measures that right now are to help get the school reform underway.
5) Play your way to a diversity of ideas
When new ideas and solutions are to be developed, it is often a mantra that one should ‘think outside the box’, support wild and unconventional ideas and do away with the tendency to focus too much on what can be done within the existing framework. It sounds easy, but it is often a severe discipline in practice. You can quickly end up mired in the same ideas, perhaps because you end up basing idea development on the challenges and user needs that you yourself identify with. Perhaps you’ve already fallen in love with one of the ideas, so alternatives are overshadowed. In this case, design games can be an intervention for experimenting your way to new perspectives and ideas, where by using simple methods you can create space and will to think creatively and untraditionally. One approach might be to let oneself be inspired by completely different sectors, industries or professional backgrounds during idea development, and this is where service analogies are an effective means to play with reality.
It can be a good idea to think of examples from other services that you associate with good and positive experiences. Think about why the service works, when you have been pleasantly surprised, and what causes you to recommend it to others.
Example: Let service analogies inspire you to new ideas
The KL Consultancy (KLK) and the design bureau 1508 have implemented a number of concrete development processes in interacting collaboration with Århus, Odense and Haderslev municipalities with the aim of inspiring and training municipal managers and employees to create targeted, user-driven innovation. In order to get municipalities to change their familiar ways of thinking and acting, service analogies were introduced as part of idea development for new municipal services.
The project participants were asked to let themselves be inspired by the expectations and experiences of other situations on the basis of questions such as “What if your service took place in the manner of a trip to the supermarket?” or “What if your service was like flying first-class on an airline?” The questions were supplemented by visual mood boards, which made it easy to be inspired by the well-functioning elements from other services.
In Århus Municipality, work has been done to optimise meal services for the elderly who live at home. As a step in developing new meal services, administration and staff worked with service analogies, whereby they let themselves be inspired by questions such as “What if the seniors’ meal time was arranged as a picnic?”
Read more about the municipal innovation process here.
- If you do not sum up, knowledge will be lost
To play is a unique intervention to create motivation, empathy and a common focal point for finding new paths together. The difficult, tedious or conflict-ridden take a rest. But the game’s playful form has a built-in risk that there will be no summarising, writing down, assigning of responsibility or final decision-making, causing participants to lack simple information for later use. The game would be detached from the real and more consequential work.
Therefore, always think about how you will incorporate and assemble what the participants produce or arrive at along the way in the game. It might be an idea to make a video of the game, a sound recording of the discussions or incorporate posters or playing cards that participants fill in along the way as a recap.
2. Complicated rules easily end up taking over instead of the content
If there are too many rules, detailed point systems or a complicated game setup, they can take over and become misguided goals in themselves. Then game participants will go after points, begin to cheat or become irritated with one another over the rules of the game. In that way, the rules or points surpass the game’s significance and overshadow its real purpose.
The moral of the story is: When a game is developed, it must be simple. Participants should be able to easily and intuitively play the game and maybe actually even create rules along the way. The game should serve as a framework for discussions, not as an end in itself.
- Games cannot solve everything at once
Not everything lends itself to games. The overtly seductive elements that make the game effective can also be its weakness. If a design game is over-ambitious and not dedicated a priori to a well-delimited field, the game in itself can take over, but without bringing the participants decisively farther. The game should never be an end in itself. It must be a well-designed means to a decisive end.
The moral of the story is: Select a delimited problem or area in relation to which you want to rework or develop action tracks.
- No game without thorough preparation
To create something together may be the most important goal when a game is started. Therefore, preparations can sometimes be at least as important as the game itself. For example, if a game contains elements, where the participants’ target groups or stakeholders are to be described, it is not necessarily the game facilitator who should describe them, but the participants themselves.
The moral of the story is: Think about whether participants can develop content for the game’s subcomponents in advance. It is important that the game be the participants’ own and not an extra disruptive layer apart from the real, important work.
- Games must not be colourful for fun
Games are and should be visual and inspiring to work with, but it is important that the game be simple and easy to understand and use. Too many colours, game pieces and other items may interfere with and draw attention away from the real purpose. For example, if there are multiple colours, it is worth considering whether they constitute a point in themselves or whether any of them can be dispensed with.
The moral of the story is: Keep it simple! Think about each component of the game and consider whether it can be done more simply. Cut down on the components and, for example, leave some of the cards or the pieces blank, so the participants themselves can fill them in.
Good links to articles
Brandt E. (2006, August). Designing exploratory design games: a framework for participation in participatory design? In Proceedings of the Ninth Conference on Participatory design: Expanding boundaries in design, Volume 1 (pp. 57-66). ACM. Find it here.
An early theorist and one of the founders of design games, architect N. John Habraken’s: Habraken NJ, Gross MD. (1988). Concept design games. Design Studies, 9 (3), 150-158. Find it here.
Sanders EBN, Stappers PJ. (2008). Co-creation and the new landscapes of design. 5-18). Find it here.
Links to books about design methods and design games:
Rehearsing the future – research project at the Danish Design School, concerning design methods and user-driven innovation. Find it here.
Design for policy. Article collection with contributions from academia, design practitioners and public managers about design methods as an impetus to development in the public sector. Especially Danish Design School Research Assistant Joachim Halse’s article: “Tools for ideation: Evocative visualization as drivers of the policy process”. Find it here.