Lessons from The Wire about gamification

Gamification is a great way of solving problems related to innovation, strategy, organisational culture, sales and marketing, and process reengineering.

Tech hackathons, crowd-sourced marketing concept competitions, and strategy simulations or ‘war games’ are all examples of gamified exercises in which teams of participants compete with the aim of producing new ideas and solutions. Typically, the best ideas are then explored and developed further.

You don’t need technology to gamify a problem-solving event. You will, however, benefit from a case study with a great narrative structure. That means the following:

  • A storyline that’s relevant to the issue with which participants are concerned
  • A conflict at the heart of the storyline that’s clearly communicated but that captures the subtleties that colour real-life
  • Characters that embody and act out the conflict in believable ways


In this article I give tips about how to develop a game-play narrative. But first, let’s take a look at an example of how strong, relevant storylines, clear conflict and engaging characters can catalyse debate and stimulate change.

The Wire is ‘edutainment’ in its highest form

In a talk at the Observer Ideas festival 2014, David Simon, creator of acclaimed HBO series The Wire, stated that the show was about the city as a vehicle to measure and pursue human achievement. The socioeconomic problems of Baltimore, and the efforts of The Wire’s characters to survive and succeed, and to try to solve the city’s problems, are representative of humanity’s efforts to determine how people can live together in increasingly crowded and multicultural population centres. Its success is testament to its value as entertainment, but it has also become an important cultural reference point that is frequently cited in relation to the war on drugs, the role of the police in society, and that raises difficult questions about class and racial inequality. Barack Obama called it ‘one of the greatest pieces of art of the past couple of decades’.

The Wire was a series of stories about the cat-and-mouse games that are played in urban life – between drug gangs and police gangs, between politicians and municipal bodies, between the media and the citizens that read their news. Its usefulness as a cultural reference point stems from its poignant articulation of these myriad conflicts and the circumstances that cause problems to endure without resolution, from generation to generation. In Season Four, two former cops, dishonourably discharged from the Baltimore PD, take new jobs in an underfunded state school that’s troubled by disruptive students. An experiment is trialled, whereby the most disruptive students are removed from their regular classes and schooled separately. Through the experiences of the two former police officers, we explore the challenges the education system faces at an institutional, socioeconomic and political level. The experiment bears some promising results but is ultimately shut down prematurely due to a municipal budgeting crisis. The experiences of Bunny Colvin and Roland ‘Prez’ Pryzbylewski allow viewers to ask ‘what if?’ questions about how to improve the learning experience for students in problematic schools, given the circumstances.

Your gamification stories don’t need to be as epic as The Wire

Clearly, organisations don’t have the time or the discretionary budget to invest in developing cinematic stories and classic characters. The good news is that you don’t need to. It’s perfectly possible for a knowledgeable and experienced insider with a penchant for creative writing to develop an industry-relevant case study given a few days to research the topic, clarify the conflict, and write the characters and storyline. The case study content can be fictional, semi-fictional or completely factual. It doesn’t need to be perfect – after all, it need only function as a strawman that can be picked apart and reconstituted by participants.

What follows are five tips for writing a useful case study that can serve as a reference point for a gamified learning experience and/or problem-solving workshop.

1. Focus on people not technology

You don’t need to develop a video game. A written case study with accompanying sources (useful data or imagery) will suffice, particularly if the issue you’re trying to solve is localised and/or constantly changing. Introducing technology for the sake of technology can distract participants, and encourage them to pay more attention to the novelty of the tool rather than trying to develop pragmatic and implementable solutions to the tasks that are set. Focus on devising activities that relate to the case study, and that stimulate debate and creative thinking amongst participants.

2. Make the conflict relevant and real

Beach body readyThe issue that the storyline addresses and the conflict that the storyline turns on must be relevant to the learning experience. For example, we’ve used a semi-fictional case study about the ‘beach body ready’ advertising campaign with senior leaders at fast-growth small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to explore scenario planning and strategy development. The issue is controversial, complex and real, and focuses on an ambitious SME that has experienced ‘overnight’ success that they suspect cannot be sustained. The growth conundrum was familiar to participants, and the conflict at the heart of the story – about how organisations should navigate public opinion about a divisive and emotive issue in the pursuit of profit – provoked the desired debate about what the future might hold, and how the company’s strategy should change accordingly.

3. Create compelling characters

Your case study will only capture the imagination of participants if the characters you create are believable. They should have names and roles and opinions, and they function best if their opinions and biographies serve as vehicles for the various themes and/or issues that you want to raise. In a factual customer experience improvement case study we used with a telecoms service provider, we created characters that were composites of many different people working in similar roles. These composite characters helped workshop participants to think realistically about how people behave in particular circumstances, and to gauge how they might react to changes that the service provider was planning with the goal of improving the customer experience. Some characters also served as benchmarks for determining the additional skills and professional experiences that might be required of certain job roles if they were to better support clients / customers.

4. Think beyond the organisation

Nothing exists in a vacuum. Even the most internal of organisational issues are influenced by external factors that are beyond any organisation’s direct control. This is particularly true when it comes to people, whose attitudes and behaviours to their jobs are influenced by a multitude of factors and trends that affect their personal and professional lives. We often ask participants in our workshops to use the PESTLE framework to help them consider external environment factors that could impact or influence the issues they’re addressing. We use the PESTLE framework ourselves when writing case studies. I personally find that using a news article template works well, as it allows you to present multiple sides of an issue and to cover the local and global issues side by side in a fluid, readable way.

5. Make the game competitive

Competition is crucial, as it will motivate teams to persevere and also to produce the best ideas and solutions that they possibly can. For example, we’ve used a fictional case study about gun control in the USA to stage marketing games about the importance of understanding customers with cohorts of MBA students. The conflict pits a weapons manufacturer against a powerful, Wall Street-backed gun control lobby. The playing field is level – some teams play the role of the weapons manufacturer while others play the role of the PR company managing the gun control campaign, but each team does the same activities and the case study is careful to present the story objectively. Each team is tasked with producing a marketing campaign that will appeal to their audience, while taking into account the societal sensitivities on both sides of the issue. The competitive purpose for each team is to produce a campaign that will succeed despite the efforts of the opposition to influence public opinion against them.

If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear from you so please do get in touch: warrick@scandinaviastories.co.uk.

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