SIMAGES 2016.1 – Goals Beyond Competition and Collaboration

Goals Beyond Competition and Collaboration

By Tom Fennewald


Collaborative, competitive, or something else:  which kind of game best fits your needs?

Using games can make facilitated workshops come alive in ways that are engaging and memorable for participants. Think for a moment about the kinds of games you have enjoyed playing either at or outside of facilitated workshops.

Chances are the kinds of games that came to your mind were either competitive or collaborative—where players had a shared goal and either had to outperform each other or work together to achieve this goal. Yet, these types of situations—competition and collaboration—actually simplify the dynamic and multi-layered negotiations that our participants face in their real-life everyday jobs.

That is, our participants deal with messy situations that entail

  • Non-zero-sum negotiations (where everyone can win, can lose, or where satisficing might be the closest approximation to winning).
  • Multiple competing interests and agendas that evolve and shift over time across a variety of stakeholders
  • Uncertainty about the level of trust to grant to each stakeholder
  • The possibility for genuine compromise and sacrifice to build trust
  • Personal morals about how far one is willing to go and not go in a negotiation
  • Dilemmas between competing values that are both deemed to be good
  • Structural inequities that differentially advantage and disadvantage stakeholders

Competitive and Collaborative games from Risk to Team-Building exercises do not adequately simulate any of these more interesting and relevant issues to many of our participants. Facilitators will have to journey beyond competitive and collaborative games, then, to simulate messy real-world negotiations. I will share out my story of how I took up this design challenge in the hopes that it will serve as an example, not for others to follow, but for others to learn and develop confidence to make their own journey.


 Troubled Lands

troubledlandsI wanted to design a game that would foster moral debates between participants about when they thought players should act in their own self-interest or act in group interest. This topic is extremely relevant to the real world teamwork dynamics that many organizations maneuver on a day-to-day basis. Yet, competitive and collaborative games did not foster moral discussions about self vs. group interest—player choices of who to help when were always simplistic and dictated by the win conditions of the game.

To solve this design challenge, my colleague Brent Kievit-Kylar and I began to play with the notion of an independent goal—a way for a player to be successful or unsuccessful regardless of the performance of fellow players. The game we developed, Troubled Lands, (formally The Farmers), positioned each player to play a different role: Farmer, Rancher, or Lumberjack. Each role has a leaderboard that tracks points across a set of games (for instance a dozen participants playing a single iteration of Troubled Lands in four groups of three players each).

3charactersTo win Trouble Lands, you want to be the best at your role. So, for example, if you are playing a farmer you want to have the highest or tied for highest score of all the players who are playing the farmer. The catch is, farmers never directly compete in the same game. Instead, as a farmer you are seated at a table with a rancher and a lumberjack, who have their own leaderboard and their own desired interest to be at the top of their leaderboards. And across these competing multiple interests you can try to work together, against each other, or a mixture of both to maximize your points (in relation to all the other farmers sitting at all the other tables who are trying to maximize their points against you!).  figure two

Making the choice of what to do—work together or apart—and when to do it, often sparks moral discussion amongst players. As these decisions impact the common pool resources that the three roles share, the moral discussions become more nuanced, layered, and situated as players have to deal with the in-game consequences of their decisions.

Moral Debates

We added a few additional rules to ensure the moral debates of self vs. group interest would remain lively. We forbade groups from interacting with one another. Thus, for example, farmers could not make deals amongst themselves and bypass having to interact with their fellow stakeholders—ranchers and lumberjacks—altogether. We built inequity into the system—some roles had more abilities (in terms of planting, harvesting or sabotaging the land) than others and some roles had bigger payoffs than others (number of points yielded for harvesting). Limited communication (across tables), inequitable abilities (within tables), and the possibility of sabotage gave further vibrancy to players’ moral discussions and their negotiations became very messy very quickly (sometimes even before the game was started!).

We have observed—through listening to these many moral discussions—that players act on a variety of motivations including care for others, self-interest, and care for the land, but also had a few interesting debates and tough decision moments about when to cooperate or when to act in self-interest. This depth of conversation far exceeded what we found when we tried out competitive and collaborative variants of the game (Fennewald & Kievit-Kylar, 2012; Fennewald, 2015).


Other Examples

My foray into the space between collaboration and competition is just one example. In addition to myself, I know of a few other designers who have been exploring these themes. I recommend you look into AFTERSHOCK: A humanitarian crisis game, and the up and coming game Replicant, from Luke Laurie who has independently been working on similar ideas



I invite you to think about the kinds of messy real-world negotiation that organizations and teams face on a daily basis in order to succeed at their work. Think about what elements of this experience—whether it’s how to maneuver multiple competing interests or how to learn how much trust to give others—that you want to simulate and ask yourself:

  • What is the experience I am trying to simulate?
  • Will a competitive or collaborative game simulate this experience?
  • If not, what rules, mechanics, and win conditions will help me to simulate this experience?
  • Have I positioned players to make hard choices about whether and how much they will work together with their fellow players?
  • And finally, have I given players the time, space, and incentive to negotiate and deliberate with one another in lively ways?

I have found these questions productive as I design games that go beyond competition and collaboration to simulate the messy real-world negotiations that occur in our jobs and geopolitics.


tomfThomas Fennewald specializes in the development of tools for promoting and assessing learning. He is interested in the application of simulations to educational, business, ecological, and political contexts, particularly those about social dilemmas and climate change. Examples of his work can be found at

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