Kristen Toohill with Games to Future Proof Your Career | Episode 125

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Photo by Rick Bern Photography

Kristen Toohill believes that games are powerful tools for organizational development. She writes books that use the interactivity and immersion of games to solve issues that face organizations today, such as reducing unconscious bias and learning 21st-century human skills.

She has worked in the video game industry as a Quality Assurance Tester and SCRUM Master on an MMORPG (massively-multiplayer online role-playing game). She has also done organizational development and games work for Green Tree Games and Revelian. Additionally, Kristen has performed qualitative research within the technological mining and comic book industries.

Kristen received her Master’s degree in Business Innovation from Northeastern University and her Bachelor’s in Humanistic Psychology and Business Management from Lesley University. Currently, Kristen is a doctoral student in the Leadership PsyD program at William James College.

A regular day for Kristen, as a student, can involve reading as well as listening to lectures and posting to the discussion board for her online course. Kristen is also a teaching assistant as well as a tutor and therefore spends time on this aspect too. She tries to stay healthy by using yoga as well as a game: Ring Fit Adventure. Kristen also likes to take on additional projects to connect her degree to her love and passion for games.

Kristen’s favorite fail comes from when she ran her own independent game studio while she was getting her master’s degree. She gave herself the deadline of a year to either make it or not. In this time, she made 2 or 3 prototypes which she was proud of, but they never really took off. The reason for this, and the learning Kristen took away from this, is the importance of contracting with your team and checking in. Making sure it’s clear what the expectations are from both parties and that everyone is on the same page.

One of Kristen’s favorite stories of success comes from a recent time as she and her co-author Scott Crabtree just finished writing a book All Work and Some Play. They explored the idea of games giving quick feedback and having quick iteration styles and implemented this into the way they worked by taking it in turns to write a section before sending it to the other and this worked very well. They also play-tested their book by sending out copies to a large number of people with the intention of getting feedback and then adapted their book from this feedback. If Kristen had to give a piece of advice around writing a book it would be to just do it. If you don’t, it will never exist.

Her process comes from an understanding that both games and organizational development have similar ideas on how to go about making a change or making an idea real. For game development, it might be the prototype or iteration cycle and in organizational development, it is referred to as participatory action research. The first step involves identifying a problem, or in terms of a game, an experience you want to create. Then you would consult with a behavioral scientist, for games, this would be talking to other developers or subject matter experts. The next step is data gathering and gaining an idea of what’s going on based on the data. You then take this to the client or the people you are working with so it’s not just your idea and the people who are impacted also get a say. Working together, you then create a plan on the steps forward. It’s important after taking action to gather data from it and evaluate it, which turns it into a loop.

Kristen’s best practice would be ensuring you are using some sort of iteration loop or participative action research and are specifically going through each step not skipping any. In her experience, it’s often the case that although everyone agrees on how they should be doing things, they sometimes only go through one step instead of making as many iterations as time and budget allow.

Kristen would like to hear Katie Salen Tekinbaş on the podcast, she is the co-author of Rules of Play which is Kristen’s personal gamebook bible and therefore would love to hear her thoughts. In this book, they break down games into what makes them unique and special in an easy to read format and Kristen would heavily recommend it.

She would say her superpower is her love for learning new things, finding a creative way to apply them and having a strong drive to get things done. Her favorite game is Final Fantasy VII as this was the right game at the right time for her when this game came along, she hadn’t experienced games with a deep story and it really hooked her.

The way Kristen figures out which game mechanic to use is by testing them, only by testing it can you truly understand what will happen. You won’t know until you try – particularly with the current target audience.

Remember you can get their book All Work and Some Play, also we can find out about Kristen at and we can find her personally on LinkedIn as well.


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