Throughout the 19th century, the British and the Russians fought a vicious cold war over Afghanistan, Persia and central Asia. The war was not cold for the Afghans, and they bore the full brunt of the British empire in several bloody wars. The whole affair was called: “the Great Game”. Its goal was to stop the Russians from invading India, reaching the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and eventually becoming a threat to Britain’s naval supremacy. However, that goal became increasingly overshadowed by a cycle of mutual atrocities, revenge and the logic of an ongoing military operation. In the end, the British decided conquering Afghanistan would cost more than they would ever get out of it (this was the time of unapologetic colonialism), settled on tightening their grip on the Indian subcontinent and cutting their losses in Afghanistan. They armed tribesman in the border regions, signed a treaty with the local rulers to keep the Russians out, and left the Afghans to fight wars among themselves.
If that sounds familiar, it is not only because of the current situation in Afghanistan, but also because strategic goals are so often overshadowed by operational issues that get a logic of themselves. In other words, there is always the danger that what we do becomes more important than why we are doing it. The what is after all staring us in the face on a day to day basis and is what most of an organization is busy with (in fact that the organization itself often becomes more and more important until its continued existence becomes one of the prime reasons people give for what they are doing: this is of course just an extreme form of the same phenomenon). The “Great Media Strategy Game” has a rather less ambitious goal than supremacy in central Asia. However, at heart it forces us to face the same fundamental question “why are we doing this ?”. The “minor” difference is that the media strategy game is designed to answer questions on media and communication strategy. If your media “strategy” is “we are going do something with social media”, the game will force you to ask “what do you want to accomplish with social media? ”.
Description of the Game
The game is played on a large board with four colored sections. Niniane Veldhoen made a particularly nice version for the communication around festivals.
Each color corresponds to one of goals, means, operations and results. There are four stacks of cards, one for each color, listing various communication goals, communication means one can choose, actions that can be taken, and finally the result of the means used and action taken. For example, there are cards with creating support for a cause or selling a product as a goal, there are cards with buying TV commercials or setting up a networking event as a means, cards with twittering and assigning an ambassador as actions to take, and cards with increased brand recognition, and more professionalism as results. If you want to a card with world peace as a result, that is fine too, because you can make you cards with sticky notes if you feel that the existing cards are not what you need. There is also a stack of red cards, which describe various reasons why things might not work out or why the balance between results and investment in resources seems wrong.
The game is played with a group of something between 4 to 25 people and one or more play masters. About 16 people seems to work best in our experience. The main task of the play master is to prepare a case that has to be “solved” by playing the game. The game works best if the case is dear to players heart and is somewhat uncomfortable in that it creates some (moderate) tension between different goals or different groups with different foci. The other task of the play master is to stimulate discussion by asking questions and/or providing more detail. To make people feel the difference it is often appropriate for the playmaster to start the game by putting a card in one of the sections working backwards making people realize their implicit goals or working forward from (often somewhat abstract) goals to concrete results.
The rules of the Game.
Rule 0. There are no real winners or losers. The game is played to stimulate discussion and forcing people, in a playful way, to face choices.
Rule 1. Depending on the number of people, there are can be different teams that decide on the card for different sectors of the game which have to collaborate or the group as whole must work together as a team
Rule 2. Team(s) should collect a quartet of four cards, that fits together. Results should support goals, actions should be appropriate for means, and action and means should realistically have the stated result. A variant of the game is to allow several quartets to be formed simultaneously.
Rule 3. The play master or a separate team can decide to play a red card to bring in some realism (or pessimism if you want) as to why things would not work out as gloriously as stated. Of course the point is to make people realize their choices (see rule 0) and in any case is not going to work if the game is played well….
We have played the media strategy game several times now and I myself have played it on three occasions now, each in a different settimg. The first time Jelke de Boer, Karen Hilhorst and I played the game at a workshop at the cultuurforum in Utrecht. People from different cultural heritage institutions from all over Utrecht played the game based on a case that assumed that all cultural heritage institutions were cut in their budget to develop an activity for the Utrecht cultural capital of Europe bid. This turned out to be actually true! In fact, it was a nice example to show that there are choices to be made in the communication strategy, and moreover that different coexisting strategies for different target groups make sense even if sometimes they are conflicting.
The second time Michiel Rovers, Reint Jan Renes and I played the game in Maastricht in the beautiful Bonnefanten museum. This time we played with communication experts from the Limburg province administration. It was quit revealing for us as well as for the participants, how the game forced people from different departments to become explicit about the underlying goals and political compromises that underpinned different media campaigns including the “Zuid Limburg, je zult er maar wonen” TV commercial campaign.
The third time Michiel Rovers and I played a specially modified game at Event 2012 geared towards the communication strategy for festivals. Unfortunately, we were scheduled during the drinks. Even while we were strategically positioned next to a bar, and the game can easily be played with a glas of beer or wine in hand, we only attracted a handful of interested. Because we did not know who was going to play the game we also had more trouble finding a suitably realistic case that was close enough to the participants heart. However we had a lot of fun deciding how to realize a festival as a money making operation. This time we improvised halfway and suggested that the festival was organized by a commercial broadcaster, which immediately made the game open to new combinations and allowed for entirely different plausible stories to “explain” the choice of cards.
The media strategy game shows some potential in making strategic decisions in communication. In fact even without actually playing the game it helps explain what the difference is between a media strategy and media choice. Anybody in for a “Great Financial Crisis Strategy Game”?