Why Development Teams Should Play Roleplaying Games
How can playing roleplaying games help development teams work together better? Chris speaks with Karthik Nagarajan to find out.
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A while ago, I saw a presentation by Karthik Nagarajan at ThoughtWorks, where he compared a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) campaign to working with product teams. Many years later, I thought it was time we had a chat about the topic, and many months after that, I finally got around to writing it up. A long-running campaign indeed!
Listen to the full interview where we cover much more than this summary including handling alpha gamers, and much more.
The interview explored how by encouraging product management teams to engage in roleplaying games (RPG), such as D&D, companies can improve overall productivity, help teams gain better customer understanding and increase employee satisfaction.
A critical challenge in developing good products is communication and understanding customer pain-points. There’s been a massive amount of time and money spent on tools and innovations to streamline internal and external communication processes. In exploring innovative ways to address customer challenges, Karthik became obsessed with games and their connection to product management.
In implementing roleplaying game nights at a company he was working for in Berlin, Karthik uncovered a mixture of results that seemed to benefit everyone. The project intended to increase team rapport during what had been a period of high turnover.
It’s important to note that, depending on the game system and the player dynamic, sometimes roleplaying games can turn into 'a players vs. DM' (the person running the game) scenario. This is more of a traditional 'old school' way of playing and having played with Karthik, the complete opposite of how he runs a game. Many more modern games (D&D included) focus more on collaborative storytelling, and there are some games where everyone is a player, working on the same narrative.
Improved Problem Solving
D&D is a roleplaying game optimized for combat (it has origins in war gaming), and there are many other systems better suited to collaborative storytelling. However, D&D is by far the best-known game and has a massive ecosystem and community of resources. Generally, players are fighting common enemies, and the game is geared more towards strategic thinking and making your characteristics and their specializations work together.
By working together in a fun and informal way, teams can hone critical reasoning, teamwork, communication, and leadership skills. The production teams Karthik worked with saw a dramatic improvement in collaboration and group understanding after engaging in these game nights. Companies saw increased productivity, and it solidified ideas around success relating to the best team and not the best idea or best individual.
Initially, Karthik had tried team-building exercises with board games but found that they tended to encourage competitiveness and finding ways to counter or 'ruin' your opponents’ strategies. While competitive board games can improve problem-solving abilities, they don’t necessarily help with team collaboration or a feeling of shared long-term camaraderie that comes from RPG campaigns.
Improved Personal Development
On an individual level, developers began to evolve their thinking and improve their ability to communicate their own needs as professionals and increased communication and understanding about customer needs.
Interested by the results, Karthik delved further into roleplaying. After managing three separate game events (internally and externally), he found parallels with the experience of creating a minimal viable product (MVP) for a project or client. You don’t need to have planned the next six months and have a fully fleshed-out campaign to run a successful RPG session. Players tend not to follow the paths you expect them to, and thus you need to learn flexibility and improvisation as well as how to change based on their actions and demands. This has a lot of comparison with clients, where agile development has taught us to gradually iterate on a project to learn from customer feedback instead of creating everything at once and delivering something undesired.
Karthik applied similar ideas to helping team members grow. A new team member is first asked to fix a bug before moving on to new features or taking responsibility for other developers’ work. Likewise, in an RPG, you start as a less experienced character, dealing with small irritations, and slowly you are called upon to tackle larger-scale issues and challenges.
Play Together Better, Work Together Better
What about you and your teams? Do you play games together, and how have they helped you grow? What games have you tried?
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