This Game is Never Done: Design Leadership Techniques from the Video Game World
Erin Hoffman-John, CEO at Sense of Wonder
Submitted by Natalie Hanson (Official Tripnoter)

From the Design Operations Summit website:
You’ve probably heard a bit about “gamification”: how you can transform obligatory tasks into “fun” motivational ramps using techniques from games. Most of this is wrong! Behavioral science gets us a bit closer, but this session will focus on deep game design techniques that the video game world uses to generate lasting, rather than superficial, motivation. We’ll also dive into creative collaboration techniques used in game development to wrangle talent, the better to create awesome products.

Erin worked in commercial video games for 17 years before moving into education. Then she worked in education, and now she is a teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon. You can follow Erin on Twitter @gryphoness.

She is going to use a fish tanks as metaphor for game design, but before she gets into that, a bit about her background.

Game designs have large cross-functional teams. There are elaborate pipelines. These products – these worlds, really – are built from scratch, and the world has to be incredibly immersive. Teams could be 200 people, so usually people are working in a relatively small group (relative to enterprise design). When we develop online games, we have long beta periods; hundreds of people may play a game for years before it is officially released.

She started on a game called dragonrealms that came out of MUDs. They had live groups of thousands of players – it is a lot like having a live product. Later she worked on simcityEDU, where they were experimenting with rapid changes. Now is a teaching professor, and they try to aim students 3+ years into the future in terms of where the technology is going. A big focus is on helping them operate within a collaborative team.

I build worlds. I do it as a fantasy author and as a designer.

She is a collaborative social system designer. It’s all about the chemistry of what they do in these shared virtual environments. It has to be cohesive, the teams needs to share that vision. And as game designers we also have a very symbiotic relationship and peer-like relationship with our customers.

This is hard for a number of reasons:

hoffman-john-02It has no other purpose but to be delightful. If you don’t get it right, the project fails. In contrast, if Uber doesn’t delight you it can still get you to the airport.

So what do we know? It’s ultimately about choice – we have to keep the big picture in mind, and remain aware that the devil is in the details. We need to do both of these things, using systems design; systems design connects the ‘big idea’ to the details. Every single action in the game needs to be understood as scaffolding for their future experience.

The product is an ecosystem, but teams are too. How do ecosystems work? They have loops. There are reinforcing (positive) loops, and balancing (negative) loops:


Are they producing something good, or something you don’t want?


Ecosystems also have leverage points. Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows recognizes twelve leverage points:

hoffman-john 4b.pngAt the very top she talks about system change, and especially social system change. It is ultimately a value judgement – so you have to make sure everyone is in agreement and moving towards the same goal.

You may be trying to make a small leverage point into something larger. There are usually radical shifts in leverage.

hoffman-john 4c.png

These changes can be positive or catastrophic. A shift from salt water would be a radical shift for her fresh water fish! We just wouldn’t think about taking a world offline, switching it almost never works. So we have to be very cautious about what kinds of change we’re trying to introduce, and how we go about it.

Emergence. We all talk about is as something we all want. Mike Sellers at Indiana talks about the fact that a flock of birds or a school of fish is emergent – it is a new thing. Thousands of individual fish are doing the same thing together, but it is something larger too.


We have consistently emergent properties:

  • What are our core emotions
  • What are our emergent dynamics
  • We are we all part of the school

So, you can look at connections to an emergent property, and begin to assess if it’s working the way you want. From a systems perspective you have these three aspects:


And now, a coda.

Our players are hyperconnected, and in general, people today are more connected than ever before. If we are trying to operationalize a world like this, we can expect instant communication, and really elaborate collaboration. And design leadership is under a high degree of inspection we haven’t experienced before. This tests our ability to relate to one another.

Julian Dibbell wrote a book called Play Money, in which he talks about failures of empathy, and how an entire world can collapse. In this game, players were richly connected. It was a medieval fantasy game, and one woman had made a role for herself as a bartender. She had a space, she had created drinks. She had created interactions that were outside of the core gaming experience, but it was enabling players to connect in new and interesting ways. But there was a mechanic in the game that older people ate the younger ones, and eventually the whole world collapsed.

The reality is that confined spaces test our ability to get along. High turnover causes problems, because when people aren’t getting along, everyone knows. That is especially challenging for a design leader – keep everyone charting towards the same flag. In gaming that flag is emotion. It is super important to reach on universals. It’s not coincidental that lots of these games are in fantasy, that the storytelling happens in a way that is universal. What is the core emotion of your organization, and how do you communicate that, and tie people together with these universal myths?