Monday, January 19, 2009

Designing an organizational rule set

Last summer, I blogged about applying the principles and process of game design to organization design. At that point, it was no more than an interesting theoretical notion. If you want to know more about it, it’s more or less what I talk about in this presentation.

To make it a bit more tangible, Marinka Copier and I developed a methodology based on the game design process. This past fall, we have completed our first project using this methodology. There will be a formal write-up of this project - to be presented at an academic conference later this year - but I wanted to take the opportunity to share some preliminary results with you. Disclaimer: these are just reflections on my part, not conclusions based on our data.

We did the project at one of the largest non-academic hospitals in The Netherlands. This hospital was in the midst of setting up a new unit for elective care. They asked us to use our applied game design methodology to develop a set of starting points for their new elective care unit. These starting points should then be usable to guide the design of their IT systems, real estate, work process, etc.

We labeled the end result of this process as “meta-design”, which should basically be a rule set for their new organization. We planned three workshops that followed the steps in our methodology. The first workshop was a brainstorm about the building blocks of the new organization with the core design team. In the second workshop we invited the players who would play a role in the new care unit (such as doctors, nurses and insurers) and asked them to further develop their “game characters”. In the final workshop we did a playtesting session with a paper prototype of our meta-design. In other words: we played a game (with the same players of workshop 2) according to the rule-set we designed for their new elective care unit.

In general, the process and the results were very encouraging. Our client was very pleased with the results and to me it showed that the theoretical potential is there in practice as well. The workshops were energetic and united the perspectives of the various stakeholders in a playful way.

But of course I also see room for improvement. The biggest need for improvement for me lies with the core of the design process. Once you have collected all the building blocks and have explored the characters, it all needs to come together in a design. In this project, that has proved to be the most difficult step. It is difficult because the rule set we are designing has to reflect the organizational system, but also has to conform to game design principles (at least, that is our ambition).

I see two important avenues for improvement of our methodology. The first lies with the process: a deeper understanding of the system we are designing needs to come first, then more focused workshops and finally several playtesting sessions (one is not enough). A more fundamental improvement lies with the use of game design principles. I would like to see how we can incorporate some of the design knowledge that is being formalized in game design. For instance, I’d like to see if Jussi Holopainen’s Gameplay Design Patterns can somehow be used.

However, it has also become clear to me that some sort of x-factor will remain in this process. What I mean is that not everything about it can be formalized. Much will still depend on the skills of the designer. And that is something that game designers have been warning me about since day one.

So yes, I am still very optimistic about this notion that game design can enrich organization design. On to the next project!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Putting a price on your social network

Edward Castronova is an inspiration to many of us interested in virtual worlds and MMORPGs. He set the tone for much of the research in this field with his classic 2001 paper on the economy of Everquest and his book Synthetic Worlds. I'm not such a fan of his later work, but that's beside the point. Ted decided about a week ago to put his theory on virtual economies to work by announcing that he would start using Serios. The Serio is a virtual currency that can be attached to e-mail messages. It’s a product of Seriosity, Byron Reeves’ company. The economic principle behind it is that Serios are scarce (as is attention), so the more Serios I attach to a message, the more important it is to me. The receiver - who is assumed to attach value to this virtual currency as well - will read the messages with the most Serios attached first and may even ignore the ones without Serios. Ted announced that he "will not be responding to emails that have no Serios attached." See his complete announcement and the reasoning behind it on Terra Nova.

The principle seems elegant enough at first glance, but Castronova's announcement drew massive criticism. There were two main points made by the detractors, one practical and one more fundamental. The practical problem was that Serios only work with the Microsoft Outlook client. So Mac and Linux users complained that they were now automatically cut off. The fundamental problem was best described by Randy Farmer (himself a virtual world pioneer as the co-designer of Habitat in the 1980s) in comments to Castronova's post on Terra Nova. What his point boils down to is this: I have invested time and energy in building a social relationship with you and now you are going to throw that out the window and are making me pay for your attention. I don't think so. Quote: "You can view this as success (you'll now get less email) or failure (you've burned pile of professional reputation), your choice."

After trying to argue his case - using an ill-founded metaphor involving the role of gifts in social relations, which was adequately refuted by Thomas Malaby - Castronova caved with his announcement on Terra Nova yesterday that he would go back to trying to read all e-mails, not just the ones with Serios attached.

This post may come across like a case of schadenfreude, but that is not what I am trying to express here. I honestly applaud Edward Castronova for initiating this public experiment. And especially for sharing his rationale and the outrage it created and for admitting it didn't work. A seemingly sympathetic idea turned out to have many pitfalls. Trial-and-error, this is how we learn.

Ted’s apologies were accepted by Randy, by the way.