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Culture 10 Nov 2022

Games versus reality

Alina-Marina Cucu

Software Engineer

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Do you play games?

Of course you do, everybody does. Playing games was embedded in our evolution from the beginning of time. There are simple games, like tic tac toe, as well as overly complicated ones, like "The campaign for North Africa" (you do remember Sheldon's struggle, riiight?!).

We have liked playing games since, uhm, forever?!

Most of us embrace this, while others look from the sidelines, but are always ready to jump in - it's human nature. We are so used to games, that I don't think anyone ever needs to hear the definition of this word. They follow us since we are born, very much like they followed humanity, even before the trees became too tall or uncooperative to live in.

The Royal Game of Ur, the oldest playable board game in the world, originating around 4,600 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia.[source]

Although we know about our ancestors’ appetite for games, history's whims made it so that few complete records of how their games looked remained. This is probably an argument supporting the strong presence of games in humanity’s lives (I also don't think anyone nervously recorded the sun's dawn each day, it's the sun, it's there… Oh, no, my bad, they did that. Buuuut… how many historians talked about army commanders' meals, baths or bathroom breaks?

How old are games?
The earliest commercially produced board game, the Game of the Goose is a game of chance and luck, involving no strategy at all. [source]

So, how many of you know that the use of dice was traced back over 5000 years ago? Or that the oldest complete board game dates back 3000 years ago? The history of games, more specifically of what we now usually call board games, is very long and includes so many facts that it can't or shouldn't, for your sanity, be discussed here. Thus I will stop talking about it after I mention the thing that really made the industry explode - that is the publishing of the first commercial board game in the 1820s.

We can finally talk about the present - do not fret, I will not start listing all the modern board games. It's borderline impossible, there are more than Pokemons. And I am not talking about the first generation either.

What I want to do instead is a quick walkthrough of the main categories of games we have today. The dimensions we can use to categorize games are almost as numerous as the games themselves. We can look at their theme, narrative, abstraction level, complexity, mechanics, target audience and so on. As you can see, this is a daunting task, which, frankly now, I doubt I am properly equipped to handle. So I won't… Also, this wasn't the idea to begin with.

Getting back on track, as we just said, there are so many ways to label games, but what we are interested in right now is their social impact. Considering this, there are only a handful of categories, like two player games, multiple player games, team games, competitive games, collaborative games, and we will stop with the "games" for now.

Games as simulations of real life situations

Looking at games from this perspective, it is easy to find similarities between the games we play and the rest of our activities. There are many theories stating that games are simulations of either real situations, for the purpose of learning or entertainment, or of fantasies and desires - very much like dreams, but more interactive. I believe I am right in thinking that many of us would like to own all the hotels in town, or maybe have enough sheep to trade (or at least buy a truckload of jeans, or pens, or whatever makes a buck more).

The Settlers of Catan

Other games set us in groups and have us compete against each other or against the game, very much like in a professional environment, where, although the situation can be considered more serious, it follows the same basic lines - we have a structured environment, with rules and tools, objectives and goals, that are collaborative as well as individual, and it's only up to us how we want to play.

Board games versus project management in an IT company

Consider this - in a typical IT company, engineers are put together in teams based on their skills and abilities. They might also be grouped based on different project needs, but regardless of how they are organized, each team can be considered a participant of a game - ideally, it is a collaborative one, although this is not always the case.

Competition is often being encouraged and can bring real value, but even if it isn't, the players, driven by their nature, will always try to find a challenge. The most common form of competition in the context of the IT companies is the engineer's own fight to better himself. And, surprising or not, this can be mapped completely with one of the most common and popular board games mechanisms.

But it doesn't stop here. Because of the organization, the teams themselves act the same way, always trying to gather "score" - in this case, represented by the competence of their members and ever growing records of successfully finished tasks.

Azul scoring board vs. Jira board [source]

The only reason project management tools (I'm looking at you, Jira) are not directly recognized as games is a lack of imagination from their creators and the pretense of seriousness from the business side. If we consider the story points system generally used in Agile teams, there is an impressive number of games that we can call out, having tokens with the exact same name and similar mechanics.
There are even companies that embraced this idea of work gamification, in order to push people to be more creative in problem-solving, and some of them even managed to remain operational.

Maybe the gravitas that comes with age wants to convince ourselves that life is not (always) a game, but many situations show us that we'd be doing ourselves a disservice in believing that.

Let's have some fun! Here's an exercise for you

Keeping what we discussed above in mind, do the following

Try to look at your next sprint as a game round of "Game of thrones" or even "Runebound", where plannings are beginning phases, in which you plan your moves, strategy, objectives and number of tokens you want to achieve (individually or as a team)

Next comes the revealing phase, where all the sprint "players" reveal their cards, start moving on the game board (people start working on tickets, moving them across Jira) and actually PLAY the game. During this phase, you'll also find out that maybe you need support on territories from neighboring players, in order to conquer a castle or fortress (you ask your closest coworker for help, to wrap up a ticket).

The last phase is the one where QA fails your ticket, and you need to add a fix, that's both sustainable and quick, so that you can finish the game round successfully, without losing any new fortress you just conquered.

What is your favourite part of this game?

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Software Engineer

Alina-Marina Cucu

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