Ten Games People Play to Control Truth (1)

People seem to be applying the same ten games from Territorial Games (1997) to control narratives and thus control our perceptions of what is/isn’t true.  For the next ten weeks I’ll post about each of these ten games one at a time.

But first let me give a bit of background on the research. It all started with the metaphor, “turf war.” Everyone knew what “turf war” meant, but when I asked for stories every description just contained more metaphors (back stabber, empire builder, brown noser, etc). I wanted to know what actually happened, the behaviors, and the impact at a granular level.  SO, I asked people to tell me stories about “a time when I witnessed a turf war.” The metaphors started to translate to specific situations that eventually fell into ten buckets of behaviors.

Marking territory is quite common.
Marking territory is quite common.

What is a territorial game? What is territory?

In the late ‘90s we already had very few tangible kinds of territory to fight over except maybe office space (remember private office space?) The games were primarily used to control information, relationships, and status/popularity. Controlling these three intangible factors meant players could monopolize gateways to money, power, and more tangible goodies.  Today, it seems these ten territorial games have exponential potential to control global perceptions of truth.  Any storyteller determined to control “the” narrative has stopped seeking mutual truths in favor of a single story.

Today, these games are even less visible because technology hides games so they are much harder to name, resist or question. So many messages are shaped and promoted by entities seeking to game the truth, we are all either confused or escape into fundamentalism.  Personally I can’t even conceptualize solutions until I can examine which games perpetuate the biggest problems. Over the next few weeks I’ll do my best to translate old descriptions of each of the ten territorial games to current examples so we can decide if we think this is a useful way to describe the most common games people use to distort “dangerous” truths.

  1. Occupation Game:

The image that best evokes the idea of the occupation game is an dog marking his territory.  Just as often the Occupation Game is played like musical chairs. The game is all about getting there first, in as big a way as possible to occupy control of who/how/why people get information, access, or status. In musical chairs the player with the biggest butt who is most willing to knock someone else off a chair usually wins.  Sending an biting email with our version of the truth while copying far more recipients than necessary is a form of the occupation game. Occupation game players also withhold information (sit on it) if it they feel it might benefit their percieved “enemy” even in situations where sharing the information is the best way to achieve the organization’s mission.

Thank goodness I did this research when there were more tangible examples. Most of these behaviors are so far behind the scenes, written in code, and so complex we need metaphors to discuss them. SEO software has automated the occupation game. Which is fine. People have been playing these games since cave men protected good hunting grounds. Only… look at the two examples below of physical games of occupation and ask yourself if the problems caused by these games might also translate to current problems discerning what is/isn’t true.

“So there would be cases where people wanted to get something done and regardless of any of the [safety] procedures or who was accountable, they would just get it done – they’d go ahead and do it.  They would ignore the procedures and then justify it on the basis of this is what you’ve got to do to keep the plant online…To keep the procedure people out of their hair they were very secretive in many cases.  In some cases, they would rewrite procedures on their own.”

                                             Safety Engineer of a Nuclear Plant

In the name of speed and efficiency we prefer to ask forgiveness rather than permission. But if a nuclear plant needs safety procedures surely we also need safety procedures to protect “Truth.”  In the tangible world safety doesn’t happen without effort, so it sure as heck isn’t going to happen without effort/procedures in the intangible world to avoid nuclear options and scorched earth solutions.

In my research most people did not connect the long range implications of these games or even realize that they were playing a game.  Territorial games are fear based actions that hijack the limbic system with knee-jerk fear responses. The central aspect to understanding and overcoming territorial games is to understand that no matter who you ask, “who started it?” no one will ever answer: “me.”

Therefore solutions that seek to place blame only make things worse.

For the most part these games are not malicious. We play these games because we are humans acting like humans.  The example above risked a nuclear disaster.  Occupation games that populate (occupy) all of our available attention with half truths risk similar disasters.

“We had three different departments on the same physical site.  When a load of scrap came in, you sent a truck and you had to dump it somewhere…The guys were doing whatever they could to sort of define their boundaries and dump piles of stuff that would keep the other guy from using that space …There would be this stuff sort of creeping into the parking lot…the other funny thing is that the people who did the work couldn’t stand to see the pile get too low. It scared the hell out of them. It was like they liked seeing this big pile of work …they always knew they had a job…[it was] contrary to the financial side, because the best thing we could do was to have no inventory with no money tied up in it.”

If storytellers race to produce as much content as possible across as many channels as possible, I don’t see how we can avoid burying the kind of Big T Truths we must face to keep counterproductive individual goals from sabotaging humanity’s collective goals.







9 thoughts on “Ten Games People Play to Control Truth (1)”

  1. Now I am really going to have to read that book. I had a flood of similar experiences wash over me as I read two small examples. I suspect I could almost write a book on them all as most other people probably could as well.

    If you recall in my book there is a story about management/staff interactions at a production facility. It was the leadership lesson on malicious compliance.

    I spent over 35 years of my life working in and around nuclear plants and I specialized in evaluating safety/risk conditions. The malicious compliance story is one of those. The story you cite is one that I have seen before as well. Both deal with the timeless “ends justify the means” scenario. Sometime the ends do justify the means. This is little t true. Sometimes not. But the issue of ends versus means is an example of one of those ambiguities you discuss in The Story Factor.

    Those who think every activity can and should be governed by verbatim compliance with procedures demonstrate hubris because they perceive they can foresee every scenario. Those who cast aside procedure for frivolous reasons are captive of their own selfish agenda. The question then become, “Who makes the final call?” Tough question. Wish I knew the answer better than to say, “It depends on the outcome, I guess.”

    I couldn’t agree more with your statement, “Therefore solutions that seek to place blame only make things worse.” In keeping with your dilution question, one of our problems is what I call re-branding. No one talks about placing blame. It is a one syllable word and is harsh sounding. Instead we use the six syllable synonym accountability. It sounds so much less threatening and so much more erudite. No corporations have a personnel department, they have human capital or human resources departments. We are awash in synonyms to deflect and dilute the little t truth about what we do. I wish we could all speak more plainly.

    I agree with the gist of your concluding sentence but have one caution. One of those ambiguities you address so eloquently in your book involves two words – individual and collective. You could just as easily reversed the order in that sentence and been similarly correct. Personally, I do not think Big T Truth resides in either realm exclusively. I think it resides in both sometimes simultaneously. To that end I blame my scientific and mathematical training and in particular Dr. Heisenberg whose famous uncertainty principle was a key to understanding modern physics at the atomic level.

    Sorry if I ramble, but as we say down your way, “Bless his heart, he just cain’t hep it.”

    1. I see Individual /Collective is an example of a big T Truth – which I currently define as the unavoidable paradoxes of being human. The big T Truths appear in the thin places where we admit to ourselves that we have to balance two mutually exclusive ‘values’. Other Big T Truths include the both/and Truths of power/love, past/present/future, and for sure: winning/losing. If you sit with this idea for a while it starts to change how you see the problem. I’m pretty sure the solutions we think we see on the surface are just distractions. My goal is to spend a long time concentrating on studying the problem and to avoid looking for conclusions until we see insights that lead to previously unconsidered solutions..

      BTW… What you call the “ends justifies the means” style of thinking is what I call the “utilitarian approach” It is dominant in masculine approaches to ethics but ony half of how many women’s approach ethics. For many men, it is dogma that no pain means no gain.. For women (and those who think with a more feminine frame) our moral circle of concern is so large that “first do no harm” overrides a significant number of utilitarian solutions. this is why men think women are obstructive. But I don’t want to get lost in gender here. Let’s keep talking about how poeple game the truth for a while.

      I’ll talk more on this but for now…I sure do appreciate you validating the frequency of the occupation game at work. There are nine others I think you will recognize in the same way.

  2. I’ve never met a storyteller that races to produce content. That’s not what we do; we co-create stories and we do it with our audiences and the narratives we tell. Therefore we can’t control “a” narrative – it’s not only up to us.
    There are a speed limit and a reach limit to what we do. We’re tiny. Our impact can be immense but it’s not about facebook-style reach or any other potential reach pumped up by technology. It’s not utilitarian. We use one channel to perform our art. We might use other channels for marketing, discussing etc.
    If we dare send a biting remark in the direction of anyone in the audience – that might be the last time we tell with an audience. We can only be grateful for the presence of an audience because, without it, our art does not exist.
    Not asking permission can kill our collegial relationships. Storytellers are usually generous with sharing but you need to ask permission. If you get a no, it’s no.
    The occupation game I’m contributing to this discussion is the occupation of a medium. It resembles ‘passing off’ in law. It seems that because storytelling is a communal medium, very strange to the trademark idea, occupiers think they can avoid the consequences of their deeds. Maybe they can, but they can’t avoid sabotaging humanity’s collective goals. Even with their best intentions.

    1. Limor, evertyhing you say is what I was taught, too. Thank you for calling out how traditional storytelling plays close attention to co-creation, speed limit, and artistic approach. That’s what I teach in business situations and it’s decreased my business drastically. I regret that the word “storyteller” has been co-opted by content providers and regret whatever part I played in legitimizing the use of the term for people who never studied the ethics/traditions of the storyteller. I really thought introducing storytelling to business would carry the ethics of storytelling into business situations. I was wrong. The rush to monetize all mediums of personal communications and social connections seems to now be limited to advice on how to monetize the form. It isn’t just storytelling that is occupied. Every medium through which we try to connect has been “occupied” by gatekeepers who extract tolls for the privilege of staying relevant. My experiments in reducing territorial games always depended on inducing a self-diagnosis/examination. That’s where I’m heading with this. I just can’t sit by and do nothing. I have to try. You may not play territorial games but most corporate workers seem to think that is their primary job. If I can facilitate a group to a. listen to stories about territorial games b. enjoy blaming everyone else, then sometimes the dialogue moves to c. How do I play these games?

      1. Annettte –

        Don’t underestimate your impact. It is often scary to people who have risen to some level of success to have someone else challenge them (especially someone with such a different experience base). I too know how that can seem to be detrimental to your business/career. But in the long run, it helps you, your story, and those they touch even if they don’t show appreciation at the outset. You don’t find that mindset (“not invented here”) any more firmly implanted than the military (especially Marines). So, when Art Athens (retired Marine Colonel) invited you to speak at the Volgenau event, I could tell you were getting through. You matter. Seeds take time to grow and bloom. You may not see the flower, but it wouldn’t be there without you.

      2. I’m seconding everything Steven wrote – don’t underestimate your impact. You matter. Even if you regret some parts of how much you actually matter. You’re not standing alone in that space. I feel the same, for one. If you’ve followed the recordings of Story the Future, you’ve heard Dough Lipman talking about cleaning his language. It’s an act of self-awareness that also recognizes how much he matters. You make war by drawing the sword. You make peace by putting it back into its scabbard. If you can do that, I don’t think there is something too big to regret.
        I’m not a traditional storyteller. I’m a modern day’s storyteller that took the time and curiosity to explore the work of my predecessors and my colleagues to find what I believe is the way of the storyteller. That’s good news. It means that it is possible to educate nowadays storytellers on the continuum of the ancient art without having to be traditional.
        All this is nice and good but let’s get down to the business part, because it’s important. I totally agree that it’s not just storytelling that is occupied. I’m reading all the beautiful words and intentions about the power of story and I have the feeling that this enchanting bubble is keeping most “believers” from noticing a mega shift: Plato’s saying “those who tell the stories rule society” might have been true once upon a time – I’m not totally convinced. What I see now is that those who own the infrastructure rule society. (Might turn this into a quote by Limor…)
        The game has changed. Completely. Think about how this influences the kind of corporate behavior you are looking at. I feel people think that territorial games are their primary job because they are desperately trying to tell stories to rule but they don’t stand a chance – unless they own the infrastructure or pay their respect (trying to hold some respect for them here) to those who own it.
        So I’m throwing in an idea. If you find the above compelling in any way, maybe there is a way you can facilitate a group to A. listen to stories about (leaving the space for your thoughts, it’s a dialogue after all) B. enjoy seeing their contribution to A, so that sometimes the dialogue moves to C. how can I do more of that?

        1. Thank you Limor for the encouragement! And while I see you as a modern day storyteller – I also see that your research, fidelity to truth, and respect for traditional storytelling gives you a much different perspective from most people who are calling themselves “modern day storytellers” and I want to keep that distinction clear – because it’s important. I have alot more to say about storytelling, but for now, I’m going to finish journaling about the ten games because…I can’t name it…I have seen the impact of naming these games and being specific about how they happen increase self awareness and self regulation. It’s like putting a mirror in front of people who can then see how they contribute the the division – in the privacy of their own minds, forgive themselves and change their behavior. The next game is the “Intimidation Game” – and I’ve even seen it happen when someone was using appreciative inquiry. (Granted this hypocrisy is more elevated in the USA) Even a question of supposed appreciation can display tiny signals that shut someone down and back them off from telling their own true story that will expose our lesser angels. I have found teaching people to be aware of, and self regulate their own lesser angels gives their better angels more room to slide in. The dialogues I facilitate (after pre-empting the ten games) are a practical way to encourage vulnerability in a “1, 2, 3, we both go first” manner. Of course I’ve never presented the games in an asynchronous digital format like this before. It might not work the same way it does in person. For one thing, I go through all ten games really fast and with lots of humor in an intact group. Maybe it is the laughter that makes room for self awareness. Or the “no blame, we all do these things” approach… but the whole goal is to remove plausible deniability, encourage a dialogue with yourself on the inside THEN beginning a dialogue with others. Ideally, staying away from hypotheticals and extrapolations that allow one to sit in a judgment seat rather than meet up in a raw dialogue ready to show each other our dirty laundry and judge ourselves. If a group only wants to talk about “those people” instead of “us people” it may sound like a real dialogue but it doens’t change behavior. Of course all of this was long before I discovered that storyteling was a thing.

          1. I’m detecting a theme. Getting past bad behaviors requires a level of introspection. Those that need the help are least likely to do so. Those that are introspective, are more likely to seek help but less likely to need it. Hmmmm. There are two ways to influence people. One is with the power of your ideas (which is what I want to do). The other is with the power of your power over others. Even though the latter may get the ideas in front of others, it still requires enough introspection to buy into it. When it is the power of the idea, others get to make it their own and run with it. Wish I knew how to be more effective getting that to happen. In the mean time, one foot in front of the other is what I try to do without succumbing to despair. Y’all matter (if to no one else, then to me). I’m looking forward to the other journal topics, but I sense this problem will show itself again.

          2. As long as the majority of the people in a room conclude that the people who “need help” are not themselves, and are less likely to be willing to self examine then connection and dialogue stays superficial. This is the assumption that I specifically challenge and overturn when I facilitate an intact group. I don’t know yet if I can challenge/overturn it with the written word. I definately agree the fear of introspection is worse than ever…but it is still not 100% true that this fear is malicious. I hunt down positive deviations that might scale up. Right now I’m sharing that presenting the ten games in a certain sequence as a guided introspection often causes people who fear introspection the most to do it anyway. For twenty years I’ve found I must encourage introspection first with group members with the most courage before it then becomes a group norm that is celebrated even by those who most fear introspection. Studying what works – rather than what should be, or what sounds like common sense – is the purpose of this research. The trick is to understand that the ones we think “need help” also think we are the ones who “need help” and there is a magic that happens when I can bring a group to an experiential sense that “oh crap, I guess we all need help.” This is the power of getting the group to make it their own and run with it. Or at least this is the most successful way I’ve discovered so far. It really does work. But it’s not an individual process – it is a group process.

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