Who has time for games?

You do!


A recent trend in business called gamification is the expanded use of games and game attributes in business settings. This paper explores how project professionals can similarly leverage gamification approaches and incorporate these modern skills into their leading of projects.

Contemporary project professionals require broad skillsets and multiple tools to be effective. Skillful use of games within projects can be used to facilitate solutions, resolve issues, get past pain points, bring cohesiveness to a project team, and have fun along the way. While structure or “left brain” tools are foundational to project success, the ability to tap into the creative or “right brain” skills is equally important. Moreover, modern projects are complex and fast paced. Games in the hands of a skilled project leader can be used to bridge cultural, geographical, and generational differences, while solving problems. Additionally, games provide abstraction, which can lead to better engagement and less finger-pointing within the project team.

The concept of a game within a project setting is defined. Using this base, tips for leveraging games in a project setting are addressed. The decision of when to buy, build, or customize a game for project purposes is explored. Using a group activity, the audience will build a game to meet a specified project need. Additionally, resources for buying/customizing project games will be discussed. The resources promoted include books, online communities, and training. Examples are provided and augmented with the author's practical project and program based experiences.

Finally the concept of removing project pain points through specific game use is advocated. Pain points addressed include bridging cultural barriers, bringing order to chaos, addressing unclear requirements, and communications problems.

Why Games in Project Management?

The Gamification Wave – A New Way of Working

Games are everywhere and growing rapidly. Apple's app store listed 721,950 applications as of August, 2012. Of these applications, games were the largest category, at 115,748 (148 Apps.Biz, 2012). Even many of the non-game applications have gaming elements that apply to many aspects of a person's life.

Games are also changing the ways people work, through gamification. Gamification “is the use of game design elements, game thinking, and game mechanics to enhance non-game contexts” (Wikipedia, 2012).

Gamification of the workplace is a fast-growing business. Companies are using games to motivate their staffs. Gartner estimates that by 2014, some 70% of large companies will use the techniques for at least one business process. Furthermore, market research firm M2 predicted that revenue from gamification software and consulting will rise from its' less than $100 million to $938 million by 2014 (Kiisel, 2011).

So how should a project leader respond to this macro trend, this new wave of doing business? Is it best to resist the wave—to build a levee of resistance—or does one grab a surfboard, hop on, and ride the wave?

In this paper, the concept of using games in a project setting will be explored and looked at to be leveraged. Ultimately, it is about surfing the gamification wave and using aspects of games to better execute projects in a way that is effective and efficient while still being fun, creative, and memorable for all.

Uniqueness of Project Structure for Using Games

Project management is an evolving discipline. Project managers as leaders need to be able to adjust to current trends and incorporate them into projects where it makes sense. Leadership involves influencing others, leading by example, being creative, and modeling behaviors desired in a team.

A project setting seems ideal for using games. In the early stages of a project, games can help with building project identity. During project execution, selective use of games can be used to move the project forward. Finally, as a project closes, games can be used to help end a project on a positive note.


Process and structure are hallmarks of project management maturity. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (PMI, 2008) abounds with frameworks and approaches that help order the chaos that can happen with multiple moving parts on a project. On the surface, games seem to counter the structure one would need in a project. However, the reality is that games provide structure, and in turn, need structure—in the form of rules—to exist. This is one of the values of incorporating games into the life of a project.

Games provide this “structured and challenging system that makes the process of learning rewarding, enables deep engagement, and provides a sense of autonomy” (Dignan, 2011, p. 4). Moreover, games allow people to learn new skills and information (Ibid, p. 7). Use of games in a project setting can help to frame necessary structure.

Fuzzy Goals Need a Home

Games work well when a project goal is a fuzzy goal. A fuzzy goal is one with an endpoint, but with little spelled out along the way. They start with initial conditions and a target goal, with a challenge space in between. With fuzzy goals, the end is not precise and the approach for getting there cannot be planned in advance. Columbus searching for a path to the Orient and finding the Western hemisphere is a prime example (Gray, 2010, pp. 1–2). Creative nonlinear approaches can help such a project proceed.

Program Management Aspects

Resolving Divergent Stakeholder Needs Across a Program

Project stakeholders may have different needs. A robust stakeholder analysis of key stakeholders should be taken for all projects. Once this is done, a leader can determine how and if games can be used.

Games are Process-Independent

Games have the ability to be applied in multiple settings. As an example, in information technology there are multiple project approaches for developing software. Two common approaches are waterfall and agile. Waterfall is an approach where one step completes, before cascading like a waterfall to the next step. In agile, the process can be highly iterative and collaborative and less constrained to phases. I have seen and used games-like approaches work on both. The same game can either be tailored for a particular approach or customized to fit the identity of a project.

Project Management Need - Business Case

Why Now? Projects Circa 2012

Beyond the aforementioned gamification trend, why now? They answer lies in the nature of today's projects. Today's projects are increasingly complex. In many cases, they require quick speed to market. They can be globally developed and staffed with distributed resources. Resources are connected by technology.

In a May, 2010 PM Network article on global business trends, “complete connectivity” was identified as a technology trend driving the evolution of project management (Gale, 2010, p. 35). According to this article, “real time, all-the-time connectivity has enabled massive virtual projects to take shape and has changed the very nature of project management.” Connectivity is driving down costs and changing the makeup of project teams. Many face-to-face meetings are being replaced by conference calls and video conferences.

Besides being technology enabled, a workforce can be multi-generational. Longer working careers can result in a 22-year-old and a 70-year-old being on the same team. Gamification can be used to help pull the team together via a game.

Finally, engagement is a necessity. This is particularly important on the aforementioned agile project management approach, where things can evolve rapidly. Furthermore, games can bridge cultural, location, and generational differences by focusing folks of different backgrounds on common rules/approaches. They also provide abstraction, which can lessen finger-pointing.

Games Leverage Right-brain Thinking and Promote Innovative Solutions

Henry Ford once said, “When we are at work we ought to be at work. When we are at play, we ought to be at play. There is no use trying to mix the two” (Pink, 2005, p. 187). Albert Einstein, by contrast, stated, “Games are the most elevated form of investigation” (Pink, 2005, p. 191).

Who is correct? I would argue that in the innovation world of the 21st century, a successful person will not segment work and play, but rather seamlessly blend the two. Pat Kane, author of The Play Ethic, said “Play will be to the 21st century what work was to the last 300 years of industrialized society—our dominant way of knowing, doing, and creating value” (Pink, 2005, p. 193).

Fun is a Motivator in the Workplace

No one wants to be bored. Games are a way of incorporating more fun back into the workplace.

What is a Game?

Definition and Five Components

Games and play are not the same. Games, according to the book Gamestorming (Gray, 2010, pp. 1–5), typically consist of five components:

  1. Game space
  2. Boundaries
  3. Rules for interaction
  4. Artifacts
  5. Goal

An Illustration Using a Common Game

Puzzles are a type of game. A basic jigsaw puzzle can see illustrate how this works. For each component, the puzzle attribute is provided:

  1. Game space – the puzzle itself
  2. Boundaries – the table on which it is played
  3. Rules for interaction – use all the pieces, picture side up, and so forth
  4. Artifacts – the pieces of the puzzle, the picture of what you are trying to build, and so forth
  5. Goal – complete the picture

A further use of games and gamification is found in the supporting literature for this paper. A particular team was spending too much time in meetings and looking to solve this dilemma. An innovative example of how gamification is used to solve this problem was by using tokens. The example used is taken from an AMA webinar (Dignan, 2012, p. 27). Exhibit 1 illustrates meeting tokens. The token on the left side (shown front and back here) is an example of a token that is handed out to a meeting planner. The token allows someone to call a quick meeting and cash in their token. The token on the right (shown front and back here) is an example of the token handed out to the meeting participants. If a meeting runs long, a participant is allowed to use their token to end the meeting.

Meeting Tokens

Exhibit 1. Meeting Tokens

Using the five components, one can see how this works as well:

  1. Game space – the meeting room (could be virtual as well)
  2. Boundaries – the meeting itself
  3. Rules for interaction – use the pieces as needed, only a limited number are handed out, tokens do not accumulate, and so forth
  4. Artifacts – the coins
  5. Goal – efficient meetings, respect for the valuable time of the individuals

Audience Participation

Using the backdrop of the five game components, the session participants are asked to help build a game to meet a common game—the five aspects will be identified. These experiences function as best practices and lessons learned for what follows.

Operations Tips for Using in Project Settings

Stakeholder Assessments and When Appropriate

As mentioned earlier, a robust stakeholder analysis of key stakeholders should be made for all projects. In assessing a stakeholder, a project manager will typically approach a stakeholder from multiple views. One aspect is to determine what is in it for a person when the project succeeds or fails. Another aspect is how best to communicate to the various stakeholders and gain alignment. A stakeholder assessment will provide insight into what games or gamification might work on a project.

Games can be particularly useful when managing innovative teams. More on the nuances of innovative team can be found in Humphrey's work on Managing Technical Teams. In it, he characterized teams as open, closed, synchronous, or random (Humphries, 1997, pp. 165–168). How the team is categorized could determine which games might work in a particular team setting.

Finally, the culture of a company can be important. In some company cultures, use of games could be seen as sophomoric and undermine a leader's credibility. If in doubt, it is worthwhile to inquire with one's leadership as to the appetite for games. In some environments, it could be best to not refer to something as a game but rather by some other functional name, such as team building, networking, risk assessment, or the like. Regardless of what something is called, aspects of gaming can be included.

Ad Hoc Versus Planned

Some games are pre-planned as part of an agenda for a meeting, while others can be used ad hoc. Examples of planned games might be icebreakers, session opening or closing games. Ad hoc games are useful when a meeting stalls or a group gets stuck in groupthink, direct conflict, or some other dysfunctional activity. A game can be interjected. An example is a game called “How Observant Are We” (Scannell, 1998, p. 53). It can be done in five minutes or less to refocus the participants to be more detail-oriented. In a project setting, this could be used organically with identifying risks.

Length of Game

Related to the ad hoc versus planned decision is the allowable length of a game. Some games can last five minutes and others, like the meeting token concept discussed earlier, can run the duration of a project. Knowing the proper balance is something that will come with research, usage, experimentation, and experience.

Build Versus Buy/Customize

Some games stand the test of time and others can be customized as needed. In box games, there are certain classic games, such as jigsaw puzzles, Monopoly®, chess, or checkers. Classic games are often changed to meet the needs of a new audience—such as the Chicago Cubs version of Monopoly®. In some cases, new games are created at as staggering rate, as with the Apple App Store offerings mentioned earlier.

There is no shame in reusing the games of others. Nonetheless, there may be times when a person needs to customize or create a game for a project team.

Audience Participation – How to Make a Game

Using the backdrop of the building of a game, the participants will be provided a problem statement and then create a game as a group activity.

Buy/Customize Resources for Games


A good way to expand your use of games within projects is to collect a library to choose from. The following books are quite helpful in developing a “starter set” of games. Most are available as ebooks.

  • Game Frame, by Aaron Dignan (2011). New York, NY: Free Press.
  • Gamestorming, by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo (2010). Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly Media.
  • The Big Book of Presentation Games, by Edward Scannell and John Newstrom (1998). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  • FoCuSeD Facilitation Games, by Gary Rush (2011). Ebook available from http://www.mgrconsulting.com

Online Communities/Resources

In addition to books, the rapidly evolving nature of games means that online resources can be helpful. The following list, while not exhaustive, is helpful:

General gaming websites/resources:

Blogs/online communities/facilitation sites:


In addition, formal training can be helpful. In my experience, aspects of using games have been incorporated in the following training courses: Six Sigma green belt/black belt, facilitation, requirements gathering. Numerous proprietary courses on each exist in the public domain.

Examples – Removing Project Pain Points With Games

Specific games can be used in the course of project work to facilitate solutions to specific pain points. What follows are a few examples taken from personal experience and referenced literature. This is only a sample of the many games that could be used to address these situations.

Bridging Cultural Barriers – Low-Tech Social Network Game

A more detailed explanation of this game can be found in Gamestorming (Gray, 2010, pp. 5.13:1–5). The basics are that it introduces team members to each other by creating a wall-sized mural of the connections of the participants. It can be done using a whiteboard and index cards. It is about bridging to others via existing connections. It can also be used to identify gaps in a network and look for ways to better strengthen the team connections.

Bringing Order to Chaos – Affinity Techniques and Mind Mapping

In a case where there are multiple options and interconnections, the process of affinitizing data can help. Affinitizing involves clustering like items together and seeing how they relate. A useful tool is the brainstorming template that comes with Microsoft Visio. Exhibit 2 illustrates how this can be used. The example provided here is one used in the production of this paper.

Affinity Technique using MS Visio

Exhibit 2. Affinity Technique using MS Visio

Unclear/Changing Requirements/Resolving Risks – Consensus Games

A useful technique when requirements are changing is to form consensus on the actual requirements. A useful technique is to have participants write down the options and then use votes to decide the top requirements. Each participant is given the same number of votes, but may choose to vote for a favorite multiple times. At the end, the consensus votes are tallied and from there, further discussion can occur using this democratically chosen starting point.

Communication and Stakeholder Management – Empathy Map

When there is a need to better understand the perspective of others, the Empathy Map is a handy tool. A more detailed explanation of this game can be found in the book Gamestorming (Gray, 2010, pp. 4.6:1–4). Using this technique, a person can begin to understand the perspective of other stakeholders.

An illustration of the technique is taken from Gamestorming (Gray, 2010, p. 4.6:3). Exhibit 3 illustrates how the perspective of a key stakeholder can be illustrated. This technique was originally created by Scott Matthews of XPLANE.

Empathy Map

Exhibit 3. Empathy Map


Be Prepared

There is an old saying that says someone always has something up their sleeve. When it comes to games, a project manager should keep a few handy and encourage other team members to do the same.

Be More “Game-Aware”

I hope this paper has helped raise your awareness of games and their increasing role in everyday life in the 21st century. Further exposure can occur as one rolls up their sleeves and becomes part of the game. A lesson learned in my own life was watching my wife and kids play a WII game called Animal Crossing. They have created a whole virtual world within the game.

Project-focused Games Belong in Your Project Management Toolbox, So Collect Games

Start With “Off-the-shelf” Games

A trip to a video game store or a box game store can be a good start. In addition, some of the books and websites mentioned earlier will be helpful. An interesting concept I found in researching this book is the website www.chorewars.com. In it, players get points for doing household chores. As a parent of teenagers, I can see where this could be a practical solution to getting my kids to help out around he house.

Create Your Own Games

Another lesson I learned as a young parent is that just about any activity, from brushing teeth to dressing, can be turned into a game. This mindset can help in turning routine project tasks into something fun or creative to project teams to move forward.

What I Learned From Uncle Bob

Finally, I would like to share something I learned about games, teamwork, and fun from my Uncle Bob. My uncle was known to show up at family reunions with games for the rest of us to figure out. I didn't think about this too much until he recently passed away. It is a pleasant memory, as I think of the fun that surrounded him and the games he brought to the party. It is part of his legacy. Likewise, a project professional who can incorporate fun and games into project life will establish a legacy for not just finishing projects on time, on budget with high quality, but also someone who injected some fun into the process along the way.


148 Apps.biz. (2012, March 26). App store metrics. Retrieved from http://148apps.biz/app-store-metrics/?mpage=appcount

Dignan, A. (2011). Game frame. New York, NY: Free Press.

Dignan, A. (2012, August). Transforming your workforce with games. AMA Webinar. Retrieved from http://www.amanet.org/training/webcasts/Transforming-Your-Workforce-with-Games.aspx

Gale, S. (2010, May). The bigger picture. PM Network, 24(5), 30–36.

Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J. (2010). Gamestorming. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly Media.

Humphrey, W. (1997). Managing technical people. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Kiisel, T. (2011, November 3). Is your project team playing games at work. Retrieved from http://www.gantthead.com/blog/Strategic-Project-Management/4323/

Pink, D. (2005). A whole new mind. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

PMI. (2008) A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) (4th ed.). Newtown Square, PA: PMI.

Scannell, E., & Newstrom, J. (1998). The big book of presentation games. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Silverman, R. E. (2011, October 9). Latest game theory: Mixing work and play. Wall Street Journal [Electronic Version]. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204294504576615371783795248.html

Wikipedia. (2012). Gamification. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamification

Additional Websites Referenced Directly

Apple App Store. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.apple.com/iphone/from-the-app-store/?cid=wwa-us-kwg-features-00001

Chore Wars. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.chorewars.com/

GameHere. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.gamehere.com/

GameSpot. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.gamespot.com/

Gamestorming. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.gogamestorm.com/

Innovation Games. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://innovationgames.com/

MGR Consulting, Inc. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.mgrconsulting.com

© 2012, Bruce Woerner
Originally published as a part of 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, Canada



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