Put a group of children together in any environment, and they will start to play games. That doesn't surprise anyone. But people often don't notice that adults interact in much the same way. Talking with strangers in a bar, getting a small-business loan, posting on Twitter—all of these can be seen as social games with players, moves, and (explicit or implicit) rules.
In this article, I'll outline two aspects of social games: difficulty and ability. Then in a second article (linked below), I'll explore how these concepts are powerful tools for explaining how players thrive or fail—in work teams, on social media, in co-living spaces, or in any other group.
Some social games are harder to navigate than others.
What if you started seeing social games in terms of how hard they are to play? Chatting with your best friend might be Level 0. You can just be yourself and drift along. Leading a presentation at work would be Level 5 or 6, because you need to communicate complex information quickly. Negotiating a hostage crisis (interacting with strangers, over distance, high stakes, time pressure) might be around level 10+. Social games clearly have different degrees of Difficulty—how hard it is to play the game well.
← Click here to read more about the factors that determine Difficulty
One goal of social designers is to make social games less difficult to play. They need to consider things like:
- Physical/Emotional activation (how exhausting/intense is this?)
- Relationships (who is here? why are they here? how do they interact?)
- Consequences (what is my status? how high are the stakes? who is watching?)
- Power (how are different players seen? is it easy for them to change things?)
A well designed game takes these (and other) factors into account. It optimizes the difficulty level for different players.
If you want to learn more about reducing the difficulty of a social game, see Human Systems 101 Deluxe.
If someone is tired and hungry, has trouble connecting to her feelings, and is often shy and awkward anyway, she will have a hard time dealing with most social situations.
But if she feels rested, secure, can track emotions, communicate clearly, and is confident in leading groups and improvising plans in real time, she can thrive, even in situations that are highly complex. Shifting capacities combine with learned skills, resulting in a person's Ability—how well they can play difficult social games.
What if instead of karate, your local dojo taught "circling" (a form of group meditation that raises emotional literacy)?
← Click here to read more about the factors that determine Ability
Physical, Mental, and Social Capacity
On any given day, players in a social game have a certain level of physical, mental, and social capacity. The physical aspect of ability ranges from genetics to proper amounts of sleep to a healthy diet and exercise. Mental capacity extends beyond the mere managing of mental tasks to include processing trauma, false beliefs, and bad habits that might be getting in the way of personal self-expression. Social capacity points to how connected a person is to friendship, community, and a sense of belonging.
People can also learn to navigate social interactions. A person who is highly skilled in socializing knows how to track and change things in the moment like:
- Reading and regulating physical/emotional states (needs, values)
- Generating new stories and plans (goals, expectations)
- Creating and repairing connections (leadership, communication)
People who become skilled in these areas can flourish in evermore difficult social games.
If you want to learn more about raising your social skills, see Social Arts Dojo.
An Initial Frame
Difficulty and Ability in social games can't be measured in exact numbers. But by using these concepts, you gain insight into how social situations function:
If the difficulty of the game is lower than the ability of the player, she will flourish. If the difficulty of the game is higher than the ability of the player, she will struggle.
But what does that flourishing and struggling look like? In the next article, I'll explore the rest of this frame—playing social games in either a Grounded or an Unstable way.
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The ideas in this article are based on conversations with the ever-fecund Joe Edelman.