Integrating Games to Change Behaviors, Part 1


It was during the middle of a training session I was conducting, when I showed the participants the CHAOS report showing that traditional projects have a meager 30 percent success rate. While most of the participants were taking to the class well, there were a few holdouts—haters, as some of my colleagues might say. I pointed them to the Agile Impact report showing the improved quality and time to market of agile projects. I argued at length about the inherent benefits of empirical feedback loops and adaptive processes in complex domains. I kept crafting intellectual arguments as if I could just strike the right chink in the armor and cause all their resistance and hesitance to collapse upon itself.

For those of you who have ever been in the unfortunate situation of trying to use facts to persuade someone who has an emotional resistance to an idea, you know how this story ends. I answered every question and rebutted every criticism, but at the end of the session they walked out feeling that I just didn’t understand their perspective, and I didn’t provide something valuable for their situation. When introducing a new concept, people must deal with change, and this requires more than just clear, factual explanations or theorems. I have found that games, simulations, and other similar exercises play an instrumental role in helping people be comfortable enough with new ideas that they choose to put them into practice. Before we discuss exactly how to leverage games, let’s take a closer look at the problem.

Why You Should Feel Better
We like to imagine ourselves and those around us as totally rational actors. We might tell ourselves, “Sure, we have feelings, but we don’t let them get in our way when making important decisions. They certainly do not impact us when we are working.” Based on this perspective, it can seem simple to view all problems as being purely analytical ones: Problems are nothing more than really complex mathematical questions to be resolved. Sure, calculating might be tough, but if we can get the right answer, there should be no further problem. This leads to most people using what David Rock calls the “default approach,” where our perspective is that when people come to us with problems, they are simply asking us to tell them what they should do or, in some other way, analytically solve their problems. [1]

Unfortunately, a growing body of research—in addition to my own personal experience—shows that people are quite irrational and emotional actors at times. Let’s look at two examples. First, humans behave along a spectrum of broadness of options. The most well-known spot on this spectrum is the “fight or flight” scenario for someone who is feeling very threatened. A lesser-known spot on the spectrum is the evidence that happy people experience a proportional broadening of perception, options of activity, and even willingness to try novel concepts. [2] Applied to our case here, we can see how failing to account for people’s emotional states may lead us to engage with them on a level where they can’t operate. If I am a project manager in a training class and I’ve heard that agile means no project management, I’m going to be thinking about fighting (disagreeing with the instructor) or running (disengaging from the class).

This discussion of being threatened brings us to a second example of how emotions can conspire against us when trying to learn. Many studies of how the mind functions have revealed that threats to ego are processed by the same neural networks that process threats to basic physical safety. This means that people will mentally respond to perceived attacks upon their ego with the same fervor and urgency as if they were being physically threatened. [3] If we take this insight and look at what might be happening to someone's ego when he is told that his old way of thinking is wrong, it isn’t too far a leap to see that some people would perceive that as a threat to their egos.

Indeed, long before neuroscientists began mapping the networks of the brain, coaches realized that advocacy and assertion are not effective ways to help people realize change. So it is with training as well. If I look at my old training deck, the first fifteen slides are basically a tirade about how awful traditional project management is and how the old, “waterfall” way of doing things just doesn’t work. I didn’t realize it at that time, but I was basically priming some of my students to resist the message I was going to tell them!

From Assertion to Experience

Dr. Albert Bandura posits that people make decisions about behaviors based on their beliefs, which are ultimately products of their experiences. He tested this theory working with patients suffering from a phobia of snakes, some maintaining this fear all of their lives. Rather than try to explain to patients that most snakes are harmless, he created a series of situational experiences for them to overcome their fear.

The patients’ goal was to get to the point where they could hold a six-foot red tailed boa constrictor on their lap. These patients were obviously not going to simply let someone put a constrictor on their lap to show them they are harmless, instead, they needed to create a series of experiences building up to that. Initially, even a direct experience was too much. Rather, they started with a vicarious experience of watching someone else go into the room with the snake and observe that nothing happens. Only after seeing other people experience a series of safe interactions with the snake—first entering the room and eventually holding the snake—were they able to get the strength to go into the rooms themselves. When first going in on their own, some patients requested defensive equipment like gloves or hockey masks. Over a series of tries, they got closer to the terrarium, shed the equipment, and eventually touched the snake. After multiple attempts, they were able to reach their goal of holding a snake on their own.

What is most impressive about this approach is that it only took a total of about three hours for patients to be completely and permanently cured of their phobia. [4] Here we have an example of people who wanted to change, have most likely tried numerous things on their own, and yet they couldn’t change until they were able to build their own experiences on the situation. Ironically, for the phobic, their fear caused them to avoid snakes up to this point, thereby ensuring they would not have random chance encounters to build better experiences and overcome their fear. So how does this apply to helping people adopt agile? Well, it shows us a powerful way to address the emotional side of the change that they most likely want to make, but that can’t be supported with simple instruction.

Using Games to Create Experiences

So, we come to the point that people need personal and vicarious experiences in order to change their mental models in order to accept new concepts that may at first appear threatening. We can create those shared experiences for people in the classroom using games. Taken from this perspective, the goal of the game is not to convey perfectly every detail of a concept, nor is it to provide a definitive and clear answer that one approach or method is universally correct. Instead, the point of the game is to create a compelling and engrossing experience to which people can discuss and attach meaning to. When giving advice to others about how to build a game, my experience has been that playability is important, but it is actually of secondary importance compared to crafting a clear experience. In part two of this article, we’ll take a look at some general guidelines for creating games that will deliver an excellent experience for your participants.


  1. David Rock, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 205.
  2. Barbara Fredrickson, “What Good Are Positive Emotions?” Review of General Psychology 1998 Vol. 2 No. 3: 300-319.
  3. Rock, 158.
  4. Kerry Patterson et al, Influence (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008), 47.

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