daily articles for founders

Three kinds of games

This is just an arbitrary categorisation, but I find it useful. Obviously there are other ways to categorise games, and startups.

I love games. I have played games since I was a child. Computer games, board games, team sports (a bit less than the others), card games, dice games - any kind of game I could get my hands on. I am not Iain M Banks' mythical Player of Games, by far, but I do love the challenge that games pose.

And life itself is a game, as is business. These days I play less of the overly complex strategy game type (such as Civilization, of which I played every version except V), because I have come to the conclusion that those games feel too much like work, and I already have a game that feels like work, with the difference that when I earn gold coins in this game (my business) I actually get to trade them for Macs and summer hats in the appropriate shops.

Different games stretch you in different ways. With some thinking back over the long list of games I have played, these are the three ways they stretch you, and how they map to the entrepreneur's journey.

1. Games of mechanics

The first and most popular kind of game is the game of mechanics. This is a game where you win by application of your intelligence and insight. Most single-player computer games fall solely in this category, because that's all a computer can offer.

Games like the early, single-player Civilization games, or Dune 2, the original C&C, The Loom, Pinball, King's Quest, Trine or Super Mario, Donkey Kong and Battle Isle, most of the Black Isle Studios RPGs, Solitaire (physical or on the computer) or Backgammon are solely in this corner of the ring. Due to their very nature, they can only offer mechanics and so that's all they offer.

This is not to put their offering down. Games of mechanics are great fun. I still play them, though I tend to limit myself to the easy-to-pick-up-and-put-down iPad offerings, these days, due to lack of time.

What defines a game of mechanics is that it is won by analysing the situation "on the battlefield" and playing the right moves. Arguably, that's true of every game, but in a pure mechanical game, the battlefield is limited to the game.

Most startups start off as mechanical games. First, before anything else comes into it, you have to crack the mechanics of building something that makes money. This is a game where the battlefield is the product and the market, and I'm willing to go on a thick limb and say that if you're good at mechanical games, you will eventually figure out this game too. It might be the hardest mechanical game you've ever played, but it is just step 1 on the business journey.

2. Games of people

The second category of games, which some will argue is more interesting, but which is really just a matter of preference on the moment, is the game of people. In this game, the battlefield shifts from the board to the people around it.

To me, these have always been fascinating, because I used to be really bad at them, and therefore they were a constant challenge, something to learn and get better at. I don't like losing, but luckily for me that is coupled with a habit of, when I lose, trying again, and again, and again, until I win.

Most multiplayer games and board games touch on this dimension. Games like Warcraft 2-3, Settlers of Catan, Dominion or Dominant Species, look like they're people game (because, well, they involve people) but the game is not won by playing the people, so they're still fairly mechanical in the end.

Better examples of people games are No Limit Texas Hold'em Poker, some types of tabletop Role Playing Games (at least for the DM) and Diplomacy. In both cases, the game on the table in front of you is just an excuse for the game going on between your head and your opponents' heads. As the saying goes in Poker, don't play the cards, play the people.

Skill at the mechanics of the game is obviously necessary to play this. If you can't move your troops correctly (in Diplomacy), you will probably get eliminated no matter how well you play the people, simply because being weak paints a target on you that's hard to ignore. Same for Poker if you don't know the ranking and probabilities of various card combinations. But it is perfectly possible to get the mechanics of Diplomacy or Poker right and still lose over, and over, and over again, because they're people games.

In startups, people games become essential once you shift from building a product to building a company. Once you've got the basic machine that turns $1 of effort into $2 of revenues pinned down, the next step becomes to scale that up. No matter how technological your product might be, in the end, that will always end up involving other people. Maybe not hundreds of people, but at least dozens. And once you have people around, you have to play people games (avoiding office politics is a very tricky people game).

Much like playing mechanical games can teach you to play this second game, taking the time to play people games will improve your ability to play this part of the game, yet those games are much more rare than the mechanical type, so you have (in my experience, at least) to actively seek them out.

3. Games of self

The third type of game is the rarest and the commonest at the same time. This time, the battlefield is not on the board in front of you. It's not in the people around you. These are games where the battlefield is inside of you. It's you and your personal limitations. Arguably, all games have some element of this in them, at least at the very beginning, but I have yet to encounter an artificial game that is all or even mostly about the self. Perhaps the only such game we have at the moment is life itself.

What I mean by the battlefield being the self is that these games are about finding the limits inside of you and pushing against them. Games of the self open up new perspectives and unlock new skills that make you a better person.

I don't know of any artificial games that are purely of this kind, though many of the aforementioned games have some element of this, for at least a little while, but they abound in real life. I've argued before that successful people are successful, but the better way to phrase it might be that successful people make themselves successful, by winning at this game of self. They constantly find limitations within themselves and push against those.

The game of self becomes more visible as my business succeeds. Sure, success at the mechanics and the people aspects of the game of business is essential to even get there, and credit needs to be given to those games, but as the system that is GrantTree comes together, I find that many of the limitations of GrantTree's growth are not with either the people or the product, but with my own ability to observe and remove barriers.

The game of self is the meta-game. No one ever wins it fully, but every bit of progress you make on it increases your chance of success in all the other games. As such, it is always worth playing.

The only way I can think of to deliberately play this game is to play all games. Try many games, and pay attention to games that frustrate you, games which make you feel like a loser, games which force you to face uncomfortable truths. If you consistently lose at a game, it's a good sign that focusing on this game will make you progress in the game of self. If you're consistently winning, you're probably not learning as much.

Chess is perhaps the ultimate example of a game that rates highly on all three scales. No matter how much you play it and how good you are, you can always find someone who will beat you in novel and interesting ways and force you to think, and learn, and grow.

Life is a game of mechanics, people and self, and the multitude of artificial games humanity has concocted over the centuries can help teach you how to be better at all three dimensions.

More from the library:
Don't register your idea as a company
Terrifying uncertainty
Are startups 10x cheaper than ten years ago?
Google Analytics Alternative