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Game on: How play can ignite digital product innovation

Carlos Dominguez
Carlos Dominguez
Senior Director of Innovation and Technology
5 min read
21 June 2024

Could playing a quick game of salad bowl be the key to digital product innovation? Spoiler alert: It might be! 

Playing games is not only a joyful experience; it creates an environment that encourages failure, keeps us present, breaks down social hierarchies, and encourages communication and collaboration.

Those are the same types of strategies product teams adopt as they pursue innovation—whether that’s a creative way of squashing a bug or building a game-changing new feature that users love.

Need some convincing? Catch this TedX talk from me, Carlos Dominguez, Senior Director of Innovation and Technology, for more—or just keep scrolling.

Takeaway #1: Games give us permission to fail

For product teams, it can be all too easy to feel as though failure is not an option. 

After all, folks in our position regularly deal with the pressures of outside perspectives, budgetary constraints, timelines, and splashy headlines from competitors. And, of course, who could forget that, in the age of AI, we’re all grappling with renewed pressure to deliver the next big thing.

When faced with expectations like these, it’s only natural that you learn to fear failure above all else.

By contrast, games make failure okay. In fact, many games actively encourage failure! 

Questing, for instance, makes failure part and parcel of your experience. In this Swedish version of escape rooms, players enter a puzzle-themed room—with no instructions. Without instructions, the only way to learn the object of the puzzle is through trial and error. 

A classic example of Questing might be a room in which players have to navigate to the opposite end using handholds, monkey bars, or ropes—all without touching the floor. By using failure as a learning tool, players quickly learn the object of the puzzle and the tricks for climbing, swinging, or hopping their way across the room. By their second or third attempt, they often become masters of it! 

Likewise, sparking innovation in product development also requires creating a culture that isn’t risk-averse. However, this isn’t to say you and your product team take risks willy-nilly. Rather, by assessing the potential risks and rewards of different approaches or solutions, you’ll find your team can problem-solve more effectively—and more creatively. 

Takeaway #2: Games keep us in the moment

When people are preoccupied, we’re not able to give 100% of ourselves to the task at hand. When we play games, it’s amazing how quickly those preoccupations fade to the back of our minds. 

The first time I played Magic: The Gathering, for example, I was preoccupied with the rules of gameplay and whether or not I’d be able to figure them out in time to be a worthy competitor. However, once I began playing, I was amazed by how quickly those worries disappeared.

The best way to learn a game, after all, is just to play it. This process forces players into the current moment and focuses attention on one single thing: the task at hand. In doing so, we heighten our awareness of everything related to that task, including the people around us.

In the context of product teams, it’s important to remember that even the most talented product developers are still only human. They might be preoccupied with any number of things, from the number of unread emails sitting in their inboxes to whether or not they left the bathroom light on. 

When you’re preoccupied with concerns like these, you miss things as a team. Maybe you don’t realise right away that one of your colleagues needs an extra confidence boost, maybe you missed a great idea from an ideation session, or maybe you realised after a product launch that what it really needed all along was an extra feature.

Whatever the case, sometimes a quick game might be just the thing you and your team need to get back in the moment and stay present.

Takeaway #3: Games level the playing field

When playing a game, titles and seniority levels go out the window. In the interest of having fun, the hierarchy gets flattened so that everyone gets a chance to play.

A good example is something you’ve probably witnessed more than once: a post-holiday feast game among family, in which sheer competitiveness blows the familial hierarchy apart. 

Famously, even the British Royal Family was once partial to a game of Christmas Monopoly. However, after receiving a Monopoly set as a gift during a charity event, Prince Andrew revealed that Queen Elizabeth II had banned the game from her household because the friendly competition had grown too vicious!

Whether a hierarchy is systematic or self-imposed, flattening it helps everyone feel comfortable speaking up—something especially important for product teams to remember.

Levelling the playing field and removing barriers to communication opens the door to better collaboration within your team. Approaching problem-solving as a more cohesive group creates a more dynamic and engaging atmosphere and can lead to more innovative solutions as team members bounce ideas off each other. 

Plus, let’s face it, everything is more fun when everyone gets to play!

Keep playing and keep making

As an act of play, games are invaluable in everything they offer. In the words of Plato, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

By incorporating games into the product development process, teams can cultivate a more creative, collaborative, and innovative culture. This approach encourages experimentation, improves focus, and facilitates open communication, ultimately leading to more effective problem-solving and, of course, more innovative digital products.


Senior Director of Innovation and Technology

Carlos Dominguez