Playing a Game Without Rules

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Cartoonist Bill Watterson drew the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip for a decade, from 1985 to 1995. At the height of its popularity the strip ran in more than 2,400 newspapers, featuring the hijinks of Calvin, a young boy, and Hobbes, his stuffed tiger.

Calvinball was Calvin and Hobbes’s favorite game.

Here are some of the whimsical rules, summarized from a Calvin and Hobbes fansite:

  • all participants are required to wear a mask
  • zones in the field are governed by rules declared spontaneously and inconsistently by the players
  • zones are named for their effect – a corollary zone allows a player to make a corollary (sub-rule) to any rule that has been, will be, or might be declared
  • zones may appear and disappear as often and whenever the player decides
  • any player can declare a new rule at any point in the game
  • players may do this audibly or silently depending on what zone they are in
  • flags are named by players who also assign the power and rules governing the flag for that particular moment in that particular game
  • songs must be sung spontaneously through the game when randomly assigned events occur – events that are named and pointed out after the player causes the event
  • scores may be kept or disregarded, and if a score is kept it has no logical consistency and no bearing on the game
  • rules can only be used once
  • you can’t play the game the same way twice

Sure, Calvin and Hobbes was only a comic strip, but Calvinball spoke a deeper truth to readers who experienced the same chaos in their working lives.


Chaos was nowhere more evident than in the military, which had to deal with an increase in global turbulence at the end of the Cold War.

In the 1990s, the US Army War College created the acronym ‘VUCA’ to describe situations with a number of unsettling characteristics:

  • Volatility – the situation is unstable
  • Uncertainty – the outcome is unpredictable
  • Complexity – there are many interconnected variables
  • Ambiguity – causal relationships are unclear

The challenge grew with the rise of global terrorism.

With disorder increasing in every system and at every scale, ‘VUCA’ is now widely used to describe conditions in government, business, and society.

Innovate and Improvise

We can’t just repeat what we did yesterday. The rules keep changing. New skills are needed. The pressure to innovate is relentless. Communities are hosting makerspaces and hackathons. Co-labs are powering change in every sector. Even governments are implementing design studios to promote creative, emergent thinking.

Many companies have started to experiment with new structures, replacing hierarchies with holacracies and teal organizations. The objective is to create agile, autonomous, self-managing cells that can react spontaneously and creatively to disruption — skillfully playing a game that will never be played the same way twice.

This article is an excerpt from a book in progress on collaboration and transformative change. It was first posted on September 26, 2017, on LinkedIn.

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David Forrest

David is the founder of the Integral Strategy Network. He is a writer, futurist, strategist, and facilitator of systemic change.

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