What exactly is a “game”?  A quick search on Wikipedia delivers this definition:



“A form of play or sport, esp. a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.”

Although I agree that games must necessarily have rules (and structure), what strikes me as Interesting about the definition above is the phrase “[especially] a competitive one”.   It seems that the internet, like most of society, has bought into the notion that games must be competitive in order to qualify as “games”.  But is this necessarily so?

Consider two of the most popular collaborative board games on the market:  “Forbidden Island” & “Pandemic”

1) Forbidden Island 

In this cooperative board game, you and the other players are fearless adventurers on a do-or-die mission to capture four sacred treasures from the ruins of a mysterious island. Your team must work together to earn the treasures, even as the island slowly sinks beneath you!   The challenge in Forbidden Island is not to win the game individually (by reaching a designated end point or accruing the most points).  Rather, you all play together, win together or lose together.  The competition, in a sense, is against the island itself, which seems (for vaguely supernatural reasons) to be bent on your destruction.  Each player receives a role card which gives them specific powers:  For example the Explorer has the ability to move diagonally around the board; the pilot can fly anywhere on the board for one action per turn, and so on.  In order to beat the island and “win” t, players must talk out each move and leverage their teammates’ special powers.

2) Pandemic

In this similar but more advanced “co-op” game, virulent diseases have broken out simultaneously all over the world.  You are all disease-fighting specialists whose mission is to treat disease hotspots while researching cures for each of four plagues before they get out of hand.  As in Forbidden Island, you each have specific roles and abilities that will aid the team’s efforts.  For example, the Operations Expert can build research stations which are needed to find cures for the diseases and which allow for greater mobility between cities; the Scientist needs only four cards of a particular disease to cure it instead of the normal five. And so on.  Once again, it’s all for one and one for all in Pandemic.   You win (or lose) together; either you discover the cures that save the world, or the diseases outbreak all over the world and mankind is doomed!

Do all future games need to be cooperative and collaborative?  Not at all.  There will always be a role in society for soccer and football, Monopoly and Chess, Survivor and the Amazing Race.   But co-op games are gaining on the competitive games in popularity, proving that people can have loads of fun working together, moving towards a common goal.  Perhaps most importantly, at the end of co-op games like the ones above, you tend to feel more unified with the other players rather than divided from them.  Who hasn’t, for example, lost a game involving head-on competition and left the board feeling animosity toward their “opponent” (or negativity towards themselves)?   In co-op games, the “vibe” is very different.   Whether you win, lose or draw, you’ve all gone through it together. Very rarely do you feel it’s one person’s “fault”.

What does this all mean for leaders and managers in the workplace?  Simply that we should think about our goals the next time we set up a game or a competition amongst our employees and team members.  How do we want people to feel towards each other once the game is over?   Is there any way we might, perhaps, add a little collaboration into the mix?