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Games are a Reflection of Behavior

By Alicia Smith
Posted Tuesday, February 8, 2005

You are standing on a small stage yelling, “What’s the name of the game?!”

“Win as much as you can!!!” comes roaring back.

“Who’s responsible for your score?!”

“I am!!”

The audience is composed of ninety men, all prisoners in a federal maximum security prison.

One more thing – you’re a woman.

For three years, Alicia volunteered every Thursday at FCI (Federal Correctional Institute) in Bastrop, Texas-

“I used my skills as a corporate trainer to help these men learn to shift their perspective on themselves and the world.”

“Along the way the prisoners taught me as much, perhaps more, than I taught them.”

“In my training business, I use games as a way to break down barriers and shift perceptions. What I came to realize is that your behavior in a game is an exaggerated reflection of your behavior in real life.”

Games are an opening to behave true to our natures, to react immediately rather than with a careful response. Depending on the other players, we may monitor our behavior less in a game than in the real world, but we aren’t acting differently. In a game there are no emotional holds barred.

In a game, we are allowed to be more right brained than logical. After all, “It’s only a game.”

Saying something is only a game tends to trivialize its importance. Precisely because we view it as trivial, and of no importance, we can give ourselves permission to let our true natures out.

When we floated this idea before a number of colleagues, several of them told us stories of self-discovery. One woman, a very sweet and kind person in “real life”, was known as “the enforcer” when she played hockey in school. Another shared that, when she plays a game against total strangers she becomes “brutal” and highly competitive.

So if our true nature comes out in a game, what can we do with that information?

Can we transform situations so that we can be true to our nature? Can we make a game out of real world situations to allow our true nature to flourish? The obvious example is to view business as a game to be won. This implies competition and a winner take all attitude.

Yet Covey and others have told us about creating win-win situations. Is there such a thing as a win-win game – a game where everyone wins, where no one loses? Can you devise a game where you can put your competitive streak toward a larger goal? Can the proverbial pie be made larger? As someone said to me, to transform from “me winning” to “we winning”.

What’s the name of the game? Win as much as you can!

Who’s responsible for your score? I am!

The game Alicia played with the inmates was called “the handshake game”. She had them pair up by size, height and weight and explained the rules. “We’ll play the game for 45 seconds. You get one point when your hand taps his hip; he gets one point when his hand taps your hip.”

The vast majority of the pairs had a combined score of 0 points. A few pairs scored in the 10 – 20 point range.

But one pair scored 260 points.

The high scorers had realized that the name of the game and scoring responsibility did not define a win-lose (or “zero-sum”) game. That is, one person did not win at the expense of the other.

Of course, the entire thing was a set-up. Alicia paired them up by size, height and weight to set the expectation that it was an evenly matched contest. She got them chanting to get their excitement up.

And she neglected to tell them that the pair was a team and the team members’ scores would be combined.

“Deliberately I didn’t tell them they were supposed to cooperate with their partner. I also never told them who the competitors were.”

We all know that a “formal” team must cooperate to win. The revelation here was that by cooperating they could maximize their individual scores.

What’s the name of the game? Win as much as you can!

Who’s responsible for your score? I am!

The rules say nothing about preventing the other person from getting a high score. The pair who “got it” quickly settled into a rhythm of “one for you and one for me”. And they could have kept that up for as long as the game ran. Meanwhile, the other teams were struggling and would have exhausted themselves long before the winners did. And, when the few teams who did spot the pair who “got it” there were charges of “cheating” leveled at them. “We saw what they were doing but thought they were cheating or didn’t understand the rules.”

The cooperation – competition confusion is nicely summed up in the concept called “the prisoners’ dilemma”. Two people are arrested for a crime and there is enough evidence to put them both in jail for 1 year.

The police keep them isolated from each other and offer each the same deal: “If one of you talks and the other does not, the snitch goes free and the other one gets 3 years. If you both talk, you both get 2 years.”

The partners can work together (by staying silent) and both get only a year in jail. By both defecting from the partnership to work with the police they will both get 2 years.

A single defector will go free while the one who cooperated gets 3 years.

The dilemma is formed by pitting trust against greed. The temptation of greed combined with a habit of competition blinds us to a different perspective.

But don’t think that only prisoners are subject to this. When Alicia has had groups of corporate executives play this game, they fall into the same behavior pattern as the prisoners. In fact, in some corporate sessions nobody “gets it”.

There seems to be a dichotomy between competing and winning. The idea of cooperating to win seems odd. In fact, we see other players complain that the ones who “get it” are cheating!

What you do depends on your view of the game. If the game is seen as a one-time event, why not be brutal – there will be no consequences. But if this event is one in a series, then cooperation is clearly the better long-term strategy, if only because there will be a chance for the other to get even.

In studies of prisoners’ dilemma style games (played for points and not reduced jail time) the players eventually settle into a strategy dubbed “tit for tat”. Their actions are saying, “If you cooperate last time, I’ll cooperate next time. If you defected last time, I’ll defect next time.”

Using the word “defect” helps us see the shift – the opposite of cooperating (working on the same side) is defecting to the other side.

The desire to compete and the desire to win are not the same.

Game terminology (strategies, tactics, moves, etc.) is often applied to “serious” parts of life. Because the word game has a connotation of triviality, we sometimes bristle at its use to describe the things that mean the most to us.

What if we kept in mind that ‘it’s all a game’ – would we behave differently?

Philosopher James P. Carse writes in the first chapter of Finite and Infinite Games, “There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, and infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”

The book’s subtitle is “A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility.” His premise is that a game is about the relationship between the player.

In the book he characterizes two types of players. Finite players play within the rules, infinite players play with the rules. Finite players play to end the game (with their victory), infinite players play to continue the game (by whatever means they see fit). Finite players play to win, infinite players play to keep playing.

The players who “get it” are playing with the rules looking to transform a finite game into an infinite one.

If this article has intrigued you we encourage you to look at the various “games” that you are “playing” and with whom. Who are your “teammates” and what kind of game are you playing? With increased awareness of our behavior, and the behavior of others, we are able to create a “win as much as WE can” mentality.

© Copyright 2004 Alicia Smith Consulting & Training. All Rights Reserved.

This article was written by Alicia Smith as told to John Satta

About the Author
Alicia Smith is a Coach and Trainer whose specialty is helping business people to Make Money Now. She has taught over 10,000 people how to improve their business bottom lines. To learn more about her courses, products and services, please visit (http://www.AliciaSmith.com)