Can agile games save the world?

One of the sessions I regret missing at Agile Open Northwest is one that was titled simply Agile Congress, the session notes for which begin with, “You have just been appointed the first scrum master of the United States House of Representatives…” Well, why not? As it turns out, the City of San Jose is all over that very idea.

Last month Chris and other Innovation Games trainers volunteered to help community leaders in the City of San Jose get a taste for what their city officials go through when tough times demand budget cuts. Hohmann devised a citified version of the agile game he calls “Buy a Feature.” Originally designed to help software teams empathize with business leaders, the city management version of the game uses play money to allow teams of citizens to allocate budget for things like street repairs, firefighting, children’s health services and park maintenance. The day was a huge success, and has been the subject of several interesting write-ups like this one in the San Jose Mercury News, this one in InfoQ, and this one by Jerry Kirk, which includes participant interviews.

The simulation approach reminds me a bit of the conceit in Ender’s Game, the wonderful sci-fi classic by Orson Scott Card wherein real wars are fought by children who think they’re just playing games. Makes me think that maybe city officials themselves should play this kind of game to learn more about their own processes, or maybe we should use games to actually do the budget work. Hohmann is serious about his serious games, and about taking agile methods beyond the realm of software. He told InfoQ: “To what degree is the Agile value of collaboration changing the world? Unlike software, the answer is not so clear cut. What we prove time and again in Innovation GamesĀ® is that small group interaction played at large scale is indeed a recipe to change the world.” No wonder the tag line for Hohmann’s company is “The seriously fun way to do serious business–seriously.”

I can see lots of uses for games and simulations in government, and even in the election process. If I were still a small town newspaper editor, I’d be tempted to replace the tired old city council debate we used to hold with a game day, and invite citizens and candidates to play side by side. How better to sort out who really knows their stuff than to actually get to work with them.

If you are in business, you may already play a serious game or two, without even realizing it. I once wrote an article about why business people play so much golf. And why do they? Because the best way to learn about a person’s character and test their mettle is to play an extremely difficult game with them and see how they handle themselves. If you think about it, how else would you vet a high-level executive, where performance comes down to things like grace and intelligence under pressure? Yes, golf is a serious game indeed, in the best possible sense. Don’t play golf? You’re in luck, because you don’t need an act of congress to hire people like Luke or Chris to facilitate Innovation Games at your company, and there’s no telling what you might learn… up to and including how to save the world.

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