Integrating Games to Change Behaviors, Part 1


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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