Designing the rules for high performance: Applying computer game design to organizations

In our quest for novel and fascinating ideas to share we stumbled upon Jeroen van Bree, Senior Consultant in Organizational Design at Berenschot

So what exactly is your methodology?

My methodology applies elements of computer game design to the design of organizations. The starting point is that an organizational design works best if it takes the form of a “minimal structure”: enough structure to give focus and direction to the organization but not too much structure, which would inhibit the employees from reaching their full potential. It is my contention that this minimal structure can take the form of a rule set, much like the rules that exist in games. So my methodology applies game design to organizations with the aim of designing an organizational rule set.

How did you get into using computer games as a role model for organisations?

In 2005, I attended a presentation by a researcher from the Utrecht School of the Arts who talked about these online games with tens of thousands of players and complex economic and social systems. I was fascinated by this world that had been invisible to me until that point and I felt it merited more research. In 2006, my research proposal had been approved and I became a Ph.D. candidate next to my work as a management consultant.

Where do you use this approach and how does your clients respond?

The full methodology is currently only being applied in organizations as part of my research. But elements of the methodology have been used with clients on many occasions. Gaming elements work best when a new perspective is needed for an organizational problem or when many stakeholders are involved. Gaming elements are very powerful for creating energy and a light, fun atmosphere. But they can also increase the productivity of workshops considerably. Clients can sometimes be a bit apprehensive beforehand but the result is almost always that they enjoy the process and are surprised by the results.

What advice do you give to newcomers about behavioral design?

Very simple: behavior cannot be designed. You have to take a second-order approach to designing behavior. What I mean by that is that you have to design behavior through designing something else. In my case, I design rules that elicit certain performance. It is impossible to fully predict what will emerge from the rules, so you have to do a lot of prototyping and testing. This is what I learned from game design: play testing (testing the rules by playing the game) is essential and can increase the quality of your design considerably.

What types of games do you use most frequently?

My inspiration lies with the so-called Massively Multiplayer Online Games, like games such as World of Warcraft that are involved in very complex assignments that require teamwork. However, the games I use in my workshops are very simple and rely on basic elements such as scoring points, competition and time pressure. Play testing workshops are done with a so-called “paper prototype”, which is a board game that represents the new way of working that we are designing.

What is your prediction about the future of games relating to organizational design and approaches?

I predict there will be a bit of a backlash in the short term. That’s because I see a lot of misguided and shallow attempts to do something with games in organizations. That will probably go through the hype cycle fairly quickly, the way that Second Life did. But luckily there are also people who are attempting more fundamental applications of gaming principles. Those attempts will be more lasting and their impact will increase over the coming years. But it will not be an easy journey. I have found out myself that while the ideas about games and organizations can be very attractive, the application of those ideas is challenging and complex.

Jeroen Van Bree

Character selection page from the popular multiplayer game World of Warcraft.