Your Next Move! January 2011

Welcome to latest issue of Your Next Move!, our monthly newsletter covering the latest news, events and announcements from the Innovation Games® community.

This month in the Innovation Games at Work section, we profile Reed Elsevier’s global use of Innovation Games, having recently signed up for an enterprise license. Luke blogs about our the game design for our recent event for the City of San Jose on budget prioritization (which was also covered in the Huffington Post and the San Jose Mercury News). From the community, there are several thoughtful blog posts detailing how folks are using such games as 20/20 Vision, Speed Boat, Prune the Product Tree and Product Box–and a profile of our very own Santiago Zavala by HotDevs.

Click here to read the newsletter online.


Community leaders play modified Buy A Feature Innovation Game to prioritize government services and address $100 million projected shortfall.

January 29th, 2011

San Jose, California: Today, community leaders throughout the San Jose metropolitan area met to tackle the city’s most pressing issue: looming 2011-2012 budget cuts. With a projected shortfall of $100 million, the city’s government was eager to get the input of all interested parties as they seek to balance the city’s books.

But this time, instead of hosting a traditional forum like public hearings, they approached these problems in an unconventional, but highly effective way: They played games together.

These were not, however, your traditional board or video games–instead, concerned San Jose residents from all walks of life played Innovation Games®, the brainchild of the founder and CEO of The Innovation Games® Company, Luke Hohmann. These games are designed to do real work, whether it be market research, new product development, or in this case creating consensus on and solutions to vexing public policy problems.

Mr. Hohmann and his team developed a unique variant of their standard Buy a Feature game that specifically addressed the San Jose budget situation–in this version, players were able to “purchase” potential projects, using a small amount of funds that were doled out to each player at the start of the game. By pooling funds among players, and also by selecting current budget items to cut in order to free up additional funds, players were able to cooperatively “pay for” those services that were most important to them, while also confronting some of the difficult choices entailed in funding those services.

Mr. Hohmann, who has drawn on his decades of experience in psychology, product management, programming, and other disciplines to create Innovation Games®, sees this as the first step in bringing the power of games to bear on the difficult choices that society will confront in the future: “We are unbelievably grateful that the Mayor, the City Council, and the citizens of San Jose for their willingness to try something new as they work together to make difficult budget choices. I firmly believe that our resounding success today will lead to more and more organizations, both public and private, beginning to incorporate Innovation Games into their regular workflow. I think we’ve proven today that by having fun playing together, we can truly help to change the world.”


About The Innovation Games® Company
The Innovation Games Company is the leading producer of online and in-person serious games for market research and consulting services. Innovation Games® are the seriously fun way to do serious work, providing collaborative methods and tools for understanding what customers and markets need. Innovation Games Online delivers real-time collaboration across the Internet. To learn more, visit

IGO Tips & Tricks: Editing Invitations to Online Games

It’s important to write a “good” email invitation letter for your online games — one that includes all the essential information needed for your players to access and play the game. Our default invitation letter includes tags that auto-populate the letter with game information like player name, planner name and the game link. However, most of our game producers and facilitators often tailor the invitation. Here’s some tips on how to make successful edits, along with an explanation of tags and which ones must be included in the invitation.

First, let’s review with the default invitation letter for a Buy a Feature game:

Dear %name%,

%plannername% has invited you to play the Innovation Game® %gametype% to better understand what you’re looking for in future products and services.

To play the game, click on the link below. This link will open a website that will present you with a list of features. Each feature costs a certain amount of money. You will be given some money to spend on the features that you want to purchase. Since you probably won’t have enough money to purchase everything you want, we encourage you to collaborate with other players to purchase features that you can’t afford.

Here are the details of the game.

Game: %partyname%
Date: %date%
Time: %time% %timezone%
Click on this link to play the game: %playlink%

You have been registered for this game with the following e-mail address: %email%. Please use this e-mail address when you join the game.


Words bracketed with % symbols are called tags. Tags are replaced by the system with information before the email is sent to your players. The complete list of tags are as follows:

Tag Replaced By
%name% The name of the player from the guest list.
%plannername% Your name.
%gametype% The type of game you’re playing – either Prune the Product Tree or Buy a Feature.
%partyname% The name of your party.
%date%, %time%, %timezone% The date, time, and time zone you specified in the first step of the party.
%playlink% The URL that the system will automatically generate and send to your players. While you can edit text of this message as much as you like, this tag is required if your want your players to play the game. ** REQUIRED **
%email% The email address the player must use when joining the lobby. This is the email you entered into the guest list. We strongly recommend including this because players often forward emails between email accounts.

Most edit this email (paying close attention to the tags) before sending it players. For example, here is an edited letter that we used when we were facilitating some online Speed Boat games for the Cisco Flip. Note the additional game description to help orient the players to the game prior to playing:

Dear %name%,

The purpose of this game is to identify what might be holding you back from using your Flip at work or in professional environments.

In this game, you’ll be presented with a picture of a boat along with some anchors in the top left hand corner of your browser. The boat represents the Flip video recorder. The anchors represent what is holding you back from using the Flip at work or in professional environments.

Your job is to drag anchors onto the image. Place “Somewhat Bad” anchors near the boat. Place the “Really Bad” anchors lower to the bottom.

We’ll be exploring three areas for potential anchors: 1. Capturing / creating video. 2. Editing / preparing video. 3. Distributing / sharing video.

I will be in the game as your facilitator to help you.

Click on this link to play the game: %playlink%

You can share this email or this URL with your friends at Cisco if you’d like them to join this game.

You have been registered for this game with the following e-mail address: %email%. Please use this e-mail address when you join the game.

Here are the details of this game.

Date: %date%
Time: %time% %timezone%



As you can see, only a few modifications were needed to the basic template to make sure all of the players of this online game had the critical information needed to play the game. You can also supplement these invitation letters from our system with additional information on the games you intend to play.

City of San Jose to use Innovation Games for budget prioritization

On January 29th, the Mayor of San José will host the fifth annual Neighborhood Association/Youth Commission Priority Setting Session at the City of San José city hall.

A team of 30 Innovation Games trained facilitators will facilitate games based on Buy a Feature to help the city understand the preferences of community leaders regarding key budget initiatives.  This project is an opportunity to demonstrate the power of serious games to inform social policy through citizen-led in-person and online gaming.

To read a detailed description of the design of the game, please go here.

This pro bono project is made possible by a team of 30 trained facilitators who will volunteer their time to design and facilitate the games, Avaya who will sponsor the supplies for the event (thank you Paul Dunay, Global Managing Director of Services and Social Marketing at Avaya,) and ARC for donating printer services.

Engaging Citizens Through Games: San Jose, CA Budget Prioritization Games

Like many city, state and national governments, the City of San Jose, CA, is facing a significant 2011-2012 budget deficit. In this first of three posts on how Innovation Games® can be used in to engage citizens and improve democratic processes, I will outline the plans for a specially designed Buy a Feature game that The Innovation Games® Company will be producing for approximately 100 San Jose neighborhood community leaders on Jan 29, 2011. My hope is that community leaders, motivated citizens, and public service employees will find inspiration and ideas that they can leverage to create effective and meaningful conversations about the issues that shape our lives. I will also compare our approach to other games and puzzles that have been created to address similar problems, such as the NY Times Budget Puzzle, and the Next10 Budget Challenge. By understanding the strengths and weaknesses of our respective approaches, we can choose the approach that is most likely to produce actionable results.


Big Budget Deficits Are Big Problems

I’m not the right person to argue for or against the various reasons that our governments have incurred such big deficits. The reality is that we’ve got them. And we have to deal with them.

Which sounds easy. But we all know it isn’t.

Balancing San Jose’s budget will be a tense, arduous task that will involve significant negotiations between often competing for the interests of many constituents. Sacrifices and tough choices will likely rule the day.

Fortunately, Innovation Games® can help channel the maelstrom of emotions and ideas into a positive outcome.


Real Commitment? Or Just a Publicity Stunt?

Readers familiar with our processes know that we’re quite rigorous in our approach to selecting and designing games. We want to make sure that games and game semantics are applied to solve real problems. Our process is shown below.

The first step is gaining an understanding of the questions and goals of our client and what they will do with the answers. In this case, the Mayor’s office is our client, and they were clear that they wanted to better understand the priorities of citizens regarding key budget initiatives.

The Mayor’s office intends to use the results to help inform the budget process. While that might seem like a pretty high-level abstract goal, in reality, it is a fantastic goal. Until we play the games, we won’t know the citizen’s priorities. So, planning anything in advance of the results is irresponsible.

This is a great start. We have an administration who genuinely seeks input from community leaders. We have community leaders who want to provide this input. I know this firsthand because I attended a similar meeting in 2010. While this meeting was not run using games, it was clear that community leaders appreciated being as involved as they could in providing input to the Mayor’s office.

I’ll explain the selection and design of the games shortly. As for the participants, the community leaders selected for this event were just the right people to be playing these games.

Before going further, let me return to our first step in the process. I’ll be honest — when I first started working with the Mayor’s office, I was slightly worried that this might end up being some kind of a publicity stunt — the act of seeking input without a genuine commitment to act on it. Hey,  that happens. In business and in politics. And it sucks when it does.

Fortunately, I’m absolutely convinced that the Mayor’s office is approaching the games with an open mind. They’ve allowed me and my team to design the experience. They’ve worked hard with us over lots of emails and phone calls and meeting preparing and testing trial games. And they fully supported our design of having each group of community leaders managed by one of our professionally trained facilitators to minimize researcher bias (more on this in a bit). Fortunately, our network of facilitators is large enough that assembling the 30+ people needed for this event was as easy as simply asking for their help. (If you need help in designing or facilitating your games,  just ask us).


The Selection of the Game

The design of any game flows from the goals of the game designer. Since we design games to solve problems and gain market research insights for our clients, these goals are the questions of the client. In this case, the Mayor’s office has a specific question: What are the preferences of the citizens relative to specific budget initiatives? Since the city is facing a budget deficit, it is easy to see that these initiatives represent one form of a reduction or another. But simply asking people to make cuts wouldn’t make a fun game. And we only have time for one game.

Since the goals of the city deal with money, I was inclined to start with Buy a Feature and adapt it for this event.

There is a list of 12-20 items for sale. These could be features for a dishwasher or government services, like keeping a library open. There is a set of scarce economic resources that individual players in the game control to buy what they want. Five to 8 players collaboratively purchase the items they think are most important. Once an item is purchased, it is purchased for the group. Explore the results to learn what was purchased (the priorities!) and why these were important (the negotiations among players).

What makes Buy a Feature fun is that most items require collaborative purchasing — that is if the item costs $120, and each player has $50, then at least three players must agree that this item is important. What makes Buy a Feature serious is that you can’t have everything you want, so you have to choose and choose carefully because your choices will impact the city budget. What makes the game scalable is that you are working on a large number of small groups. What makes the results actionable are that people are purchasing “whole and complete” items. Specifically, if an item is not purchased, then it just isn’t as important as items that are purchased. What makes the game insightful is that you get to listen to how groups of people negotiate to purchase the most important items. You learn what and why–all in a fun game.

This is a big difference in how many people approach budgeting. In traditional approaches, you would find people offering a “10% reduction” in some service. Which is really easy to say yes to, because it is imprecise and the impacts are not clearly stated. In a Buy a Feature game each item is “whole and complete.” Indivisible. Either you purchase a feature or a government service or you don’t. All or nothing. No percentages. The difference between purchasing whole and complete items and taking fractions is really quite striking. It is trivially easy to argue for or against a 10% reduction in a service or 15% better performance on a given product dimension. It is a lot harder to argue for or against the addition of nine park rangers vs four anti-graffiti task force employees or keeping open three community centers.

Lastly, Buy a Feature is available in both in-person and online formats. This is important because if this initial in-person event is successful, we hope to scale this to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of people playing online games.


The Design Of the Games

While the core elements of Buy a Feature seem to align, there is still one hurdle to overcome. The Mayor’s office frames changes to the existing budget as reductions. It has to, right? I mean, we have a budget deficit. So, if we’re going to balance the budget, we have to cut items. But this would not a fun game make, so I had to reframe the cuts as purchases. Here’s how I did it.


Step 1: Generating a List of Budget Cuts To Test

The Mayor’s office generated a set of budget cuts that they wanted to test. This is an important step. We can’t test every part of the budget, as that would take far too long. And testing certain cuts simply don’t make sense, as certain city services are required. I asked the Mayor’s office to keep the list to 12 to 20 items, which is the size for these kinds of games.

Step 2: Converting The Cuts Into Purchases

To convert the cuts into purchases, I imagined that all of the proposed cuts had been made. This would enable the virtual market structure of the game to work. Now, players would be purchasing the programs they wanted. To illustrate, suppose that one potential cut is eliminating six positions associated with pavement maintenance for $400,000. In the game, players will be asked if they wish to purchase 6 positions for $400,000.

Step 3: Distributing Money to Players

The next step is determining how to distribute money to the players. Since Buy a Feature is based on a virtual market, we normally distribute 40% of the total cost of all items evenly among the players. So, if the total cost of the items is $2,000,000, and there are 8 players, each player gets: ($2,000,000 total cost * 40%) = $800,000 game budget; $800,000 game budget / 8 players = $100,000 per player.  If an item costs less than $100,000, then a player can make a solo purchase (which is not common, but it does happen). Mostly, though, people must collaborate to purchase what they want.

This wouldn’t work for the city budget games. City governments just can’t print money. So, giving players 40% of the money is way too much. We could start with zero, but then the game isn’t fun because you can’t purchase anything. We need to solve both the initial amount of money and develop rules for how players can get more money.

I chose the following design. Players will be given 10% of the total at the beginning of the game. This is enough to purchase one or two items. To get more money, there is ANOTHER list of items framed as cuts that the players can select to get more money to purchase the items they want. Because a cut may affect one neighborhood more than another, we are going to carefully balance the players within a game to be representative of the different council districts and require that ALL players must unanimously agree on any cuts. We don’t require unanimous agreement on purchases.


So the design of the game is:

  1. We have a list of budget items that we suspect community leaders will want to purchase.
  2. Community leaders do not have enough money to purchase these items.
  3. We have a second list of budget cuts that community leaders can select to get more money.
  4. The pricing and structure of items on either list cannot be adjusted.
  5. Community leaders are placed into groups of 8 people. One Innovation Games® Trained Facilitator and One Innovation Games® Trained Observer manage each group to minimize researcher bias and record key aspects of the negotiations.
  6. Community leaders purchase what they can with a very small seed budget.
  7. Community leaders can get more money by enacting more cuts.
  8. There is no requirement that any items are purchased or cuts. The Community leaders are in control of their virtual money.

As expected, this design worked extremely well in our test and calibration games. Players negotiated over the items they wanted. Some cuts were made, freeing up items to purchase. Some proposals weren’t purchased. While we still have more work to do to finalize our event production, such as finishing the design of the special money we’ll be using for this event and the descriptions of the items, we are trending well for the games that we’ll be playing on the 29th.


Perhaps a Simpler Game Might Work Better

In my introduction, I promised a comparison with the NY Times Budget Puzzle, and the Next10 Budget Challenge. Each of these is an interactive, web-based application that allows you make a set of budget choices and shows you dynamic, real-time feedback on how well you’re doing as you strive to balance either the national or California state budget. Since I suspect there are a lot more of these interactive calculators available, I will discuss these as a general comparison to the game I designed above. I’ll call these “Budget Puzzles” and the approach I outlined “Budget Innovation Games®.” Here are some dimensions of comparison for your consideration.

Dimension Budget Puzzles Budget Innovation Games® Implications/Notes
Primary Goal? Education / Motivating Individual Action Research The goals of the puzzle games range from educating citizens on issues to motivate them to take action by submitting their choices to elected officials. However, in our perspective, neither of these goals relates to actionable research outcomes.
Our goal is primary market research. We seek to understand the preferences of community leaders so that elected officials can formulate a better city budget. We are not asking citizens to prioritize the budget.
Who Plays? A single person. A group of 5 to 8 people playing at the same time. This is the key difference in our approaches. Budget puzzles are designed to help a single person develop a point of view on how to solve the budget. This is radically different from the approach taken by our collaborative games, in which players collaborate in real-time to make choices.

This means that the budget puzzle games tend to be more scalable, in that our games require some form of an event to get people playing at the same time. Scalability, in this context, contrasts with the goal of gaining deep insights.

Pre-determined Goal Yes:
Your goal is to balance the budget.
Your goal is to purchase what you want.
This is another key difference in our approaches. In the budget puzzle games, you are presented with a clearly defined goal. You are presented with many different ways to achieve this goal, but the goal is nonetheless quite clear.The Buy a Feature game described in this post has a much less clear goal. And achieving it is harder. Unlike a budget puzzle, in which you can make hurried choices, in our games, you have to convince other people to join you. You actually have to justify your choices. And that’s a lot harder.
In-person or online. Online In-person or online. While the budget puzzles I’ve listed are online, I suspect that versions could be created for in-person use. This would be hard, though, as the online puzzle games provide very nice real-time, visual feedback on how well you’re doing towards reaching your goal of balancing the budget.

Buy a Feature, the game used as the foundation for this event is provided in both in-person and online formats. We’d have to adapt our online system a bit to make it work exactly as described in this post, but that would not be hard. (Contact me for more details if you want to do this).

Research Bias Bias exists in the choices presented to users. Bias exists in the choices presented to users and in how facilitators facilitate the games. Research bias exists in both approaches. You just can’t escape it.

In-person Innovation Games® introduce facilitator bias. We minimize this with multiple facilitators, all of whom are professionally trained.

Online Innovation Games® can be played without a facilitator, eliminating facilitator bias.

Information Bias Varying amounts of information is presented to the user to help them make choices. Like Research Bias, Information Bias also exists. How choices are phrased and presented to players can have a significant impact on the outcomes. All of the games I’ve seen strive to minimize information bias through the use of well-respected, neutral experts.

As a class, the online budget puzzles do a better job of presenting information to the user, with the Next10 Budget Challenge getting my vote for the best and most thorough presentation of information. I suspect that many players of the budget puzzles enjoy taking the time to learn more about each item.

In-person Innovation Games® suffer from such easy and compelling ways to present information. To compensate, we add Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to the event so that questions from players that a trained facilitator cannot answer can be answered in real-time. In the City of San Jose budget games, SMEs will come from the Mayor’s office.

Online Buy a Feature games can present information in many ways.

Information Overload Many items are presented. We limit the number of items to 20 to prevent cognitive overload. The budget prioritization games tend to present many more items than our Buy a Feature games. From an educational perspective, I think that this is OK, as you’re not really making hard, comparative choices in this games. Instead, you’re simply configuring a set of choices that let you get to the goal. Some people will do this well, while others will likely race through the activity to see how they can balance the budget without thoughtful consideration of the impact of their choices.

Buy a Feature is considerably different. In Buy a Feature, we want to hear people debate about the issues and deeply understand their purchases. So, we structure the games so that players are making tough choices. The challenge here is making sure that you don’t have too many choices. Too many choices produce cognitive overload and can prevent the game from reaching a stable state. (If you don’t believe me, think back to the last time someone asked you to prioritize a list of 60 or 80 items in a spreadsheet. Ugh).

Not to worry if your list of items you want to test is large. We have a number of sophisticated game design patterns that can handle large lists without introducing cognitive overload. But for these games, we want to keep the number of items to a manageable number.

As this table demonstrates, there are some clear differences between solitary puzzles and collaborative games. The approach that is going to produce the best result is based on your specific context and your goals. In my ideal world, players of our collaborative games would be invited to play a solitary puzzle before the collaborative game as a means to educate them on the options that may exist, and we’d extend this to thousands of online participants.


Your Next Move

Our next move is to finalize our preparations, play the games, and report our results to the Mayor’s office. And after that, I’ll be writing a few more posts.

Your next move is to consider how Innovation Games®, other serious games, and principles of Gamification can help improve political discourse and governance around the world. I look forward to hearing from you!


Thanks to…

I’d like to thank Paul Dunay, Global Managing Director of Services and Social Marketing at Avaya, for sponsoring the materials and supplies for this event, and to ARC (formerly Peninsula Digital) in Mountain View for donating printing services. I’d like to thank the San Jose City staff for their hard work in preparing for these games. I’d like to thank, in advance, the community leaders who will be playing the games. I’d most especially like to thank our team of facilitators who will be working at this event.


Addendum: Game Materials

The following game materials were used at this event.


Reed Elsevier Doubles Down with Enterprise License

Jeff Honious, Vice President of Innovation, Reed Elsevier

We’ve worked with Reed Elsevier since 2009, having trained more than 100 of the company’s employees, and we can honestly say that Reed Elsevier is full of true “Innovation Gamers.” In fact, Reed Elsevier recently decided to extend the use of Innovation Games® to the entire company by signing an enterprise license for our online game platform Innovation Games Online (IGO). This partnership will allow Reed Elsevier to gather deeper customer insight in all sectors, around the globe.

Jeff Honious, Reed Elsevier’s Vice President of Innovation, took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to explain how IGO is being put to work at Reed Elsevier.

Why do you use Innovation Games?

At Reed Elsevier, we strive to innovate to improve outcomes of the professionals we serve. True innovation requires deep customer insights, and we’ve found Innovation Games to be a great set of tools for gaining those insights.

How long have you been using Innovation Games?

We’ve been using Innovation Games to engage both internal stakeholders and external customers since mid-2009. More than 100 Reed Elsevier staff members have been trained as Innovation Games facilitators, and these staff members have been very enthusiastic about their experiences with the games. They’ve found that the games and techniques taught by The Innovation Games® Company are quite applicable in all our diverse work environments.

What kinds of questions are you exploring via the games?

We use the Innovation Games to define and refine customer requirements for our product offerings, to determine stakeholder prioritization and preference with regard to enhancements to existing solutions, and to solicit feedback on internal policies and work environment issues from staff. The games are fun and easy to set up and run, and can be tailored to a variety of situations.

How are you using the games online?

Due to our global presence, groups in Reed Elsevier often work with people in geographically diverse locations. Using Innovation Games Online means that we can host games — with minimal set up and facilitation — to connect customers and stakeholders across the globe. This online capability is unique in the world of innovative tools, and is a truly valuable differentiator, and we plan to increase our use of the online tools significantly in 2011.

First published in Your Next Move! Issue January 2011.