June 24, 2024

outcomes unlocked

a row of antique pinball machines
photo caption: a row of antique pinball machines at the Seattle Pinball Museum. these are all from the early 20th century. while many are still in playable condition, they’re all quite old. i had to crop my mom out of this photo but my excuse is that i would never call her an antique. um… am i still in trouble?

I was sick with covid last month. For what it’s worth, the symptoms this time weren’t nearly as bad as my first time with the virus. I was still contagious, of course, so I couldn’t go anywhere. After a merciful 24-hour fever, I had to hide out in the bedroom for another 11 days before I tested negative again. The murky downtime of covid to me is one of brain fog and boredom; feeling restless but unable to leave.

It was a perfect time to play some video games! I split my day between light work, reading, and games. I realized something about video games that apply to meetings. At the heart of every game, and every meeting, is a question: “What should people spend most of their time doing?” To show what I mean, let’s take a bus to the valley.

visiting stardew valley

I’ve logged hundreds of hours playing Stardew Valley since I bought it in early 2018. The game begins when your character inherits a decrepit, abandoned farm. The farm sits on the outskirts of Pelican Town in the gorgeous Stardew Valley. Your new neighbors (there are more than 30 of them) go about their daily lives. You befriend them, grow crops, fish, raise chickens and livestock, and nurture your farm. You can even court and marry a lucky local resident! Over the years you establish your farm, build a life, earn money by selling your wares, and do whatever you want to do.

Stardew Valley is a “cozy game” or a “life simulator.” You’re a farmer by name, but you don’t have to farm if you don’t want to. You can hunt monsters in the nearby cave system. You can raise cows and sell their cheese. You can wander the valley or visit other regions nearby. There are few consequences for failure. You get a set amount of energy each day that you can use for tasks. You have a health bar that only matters if you’re in an area with monsters. The game runs on a fixed 24-hour clock with four month-long seasons. You can pause anytime. There are no jump scares. My kind of game!

reaching baldur’s gate

Before I write about meetings, I’ll apply my theory to another popular video game. Baldur’s Gate 3 is a role playing game (RPG), meaning you take on the role of a character you create. You customize your character’s appearance, background, and skills. You wander several regions accompanied by an ensemble cast of characters (your “party”). Oh, and you’re all trying to remove the mystical parasites living in your brains. Did I forget to mention the parasites?

Baldur’s Gate 3 takes its inspiration from Dungeons and Dragons. The worlds, roles, and spells all come from a complex, vast, and imaginative fantasy setting. Like RPGs of this type, you can choose how you fight monsters, solve puzzles, and work with the people you meet. The game rewards creativity. When you choose a course of action, you must roll a die (often one with 20 sides). Want to hit a foe? Roll a die. Want to persuade a character to give you information or let you pass? Roll a die. Depending on your skills, harder choices need a higher value on the die to be successful. You can improve your chances of success by investing points in specific skills. Say you come across a locked door. Having high dexterity makes it easier to pick the lock. If you have high Strength, you could try bashing through it. Or a wizard in your party could cast a spell of invisibility on you, helping you steal the key from a nearby guard.

Unlike Stardew Valley, Baldur’s Gate 3 has a defined beginning, middle, and end. It’s not unheard of to spend 80 hours on a single run through the game. The choices you make decide who will stay and fight with you (or even survive the game), even how the game itself will end. What do people spend most of their time doing in this game? Here, the designers ask you to be creative, create a team with a diverse set of skills, and upgrade your skills and equipment.

rules and conditions

Every game has rules built into it. The choices that a game designer makes will define the experience you have as a player. Take Stardew Valley again. The point is to explore, collect items, and live the life you want to have. When you start the game, you can only hold 10 items. By earning money, you can buy a larger backpack at the local general store. Your day is yours to spend any way you want—but you must be in bed by 2:00 AM or you’ll pass out where you stand. Every action you take, whether chopping wood or catching fish, takes energy. If you grow crops, forage, or fish, you can cook those items to get more energy. No matter how you play the game, the game designer ensures that you focus on inventory, energy, and time.

meeting/dungeon masters

While playing these two games, I realized that facilitators are a lot like game designers. We set up meetings that get our party (or team) to reach specific goals. We create the conditions that lead to specific outcomes. How could we use game design to engineer our outcomes a little better?

When I’m thinking about how to reach a goal, I like to work backwards. First, what are we trying to achieve? What factors could affect us reaching that goal? With those factors in mind, what should people spend most of their time doing?

Say I’m facilitating a group that doesn’t know each other well. I would spend most of our time on relationship-building exercises. We could share why we chose to join this group or why we’re passionate about its cause. We might spend a lot of time in 1:1 or small group activities so people have more time to speak and be heard.

If it’s a group that’s trying to solve a problem, we could practice how to do that. We could try out different approaches to decision-making in a low-stakes environment. We could use a tool like a Fish Bowl to hear two sides of an argument without the group falling apart.

Imagine a group that has to begin a strategic planning process soon. We might start with exercises that allow them to imagine the future together. Or we could invite community members to share their stories; or create lists of what we know and what we don’t.

no cheats for infinite time

When we gather together, there are so many ways we could use our time. Thinking first about the outcomes we need can help us edit our activities down to the essentials. Whatever we do after that is a bonus.

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photo of josh martinez

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space