Games and Simulations

I spent a fair amount of time last year participating in, and running, games of one sort or another. It’s always interesting introducing games into a team or organisation: you run the risk of appearing “out to lunch”, and you can’t, in the end, force a group to have fun and learn at the same time. You need to be sensitive as to what will work with a particular team, and maybe more to the point find a context to introduce a game or simulation where it makes sense as part of a team’s practices. Retrospectives are clearly a good place to start, as are any more-or-less formal workshops or training sessions you’re running.

Some good sources for games: I’ve blogged already about theatre improv, and for me this is a great place to start. The classic book is Keith Johnston’s Impro, but his teaching and a whole bunch of other ideas are described in Tom Salinsky/Deborah Frances-White’s The Improv Handbook. We played a bunch of these games last year at an improv workshop for agile coaches Mike Sutton and I organised. Buy the book, or better still, sign up for an improv workshop at The Spontaneity Shop or one of the other groups that runs them.

Tobias Mayer put me onto the work of Augusto Boal - I’m reading Games for Actors and Non-Actors now. In Boal’s work, theatre is put at the service of community learning, empowerment and reconciliation: powerful stuff, with lots of lessons for work in organisations.

A book I’ve had for a long time - sadly now out of print - is Michael Laver’s Playing Politics. A brief description of the first game in this book will give you a flavour:

Primitive Politics (2 - 2 billion players, 1-1.5 hours)

  • One player takes the role of nature.
  • Each player gets a fixed amount of ‘cash’ at the start of the game.
  • Nature has a large amount of additional resources, represented by the same ‘cash’

In each round

  • each player contributes an equal amount to the pool
  • nature matches the total amount, doubling the size of the pool
  • players then bid in turns for the pool, raising a previous bid or passing if they wish
  • when all players have passed, the pool goes to the highest bidder, nature keeps all the bids made (including the winning one)
  • side deals and payments between players are permitted, but according to the rules of the game are not enforcable. However, only individuals can bid, and only an individual can receive the pool.

Sounds simple, but I think you can see there’s an interesting balance between the amount nature adds every round, and the amount it removes (by collecting all the bids). The game only gets to a stable state if players cooperate, but there’s plenty of scope for making and breaking agreements… Laver spends eight pages analysing and discussing the consequences of these rules, which leads on to my last point…

The value of all of these exercises lies in the quality of the debriefing afterwards. There’s a real skill to this - understanding the sorts of questions to ask, things to remind participants of (without explicitly directing the debrief, which spoils the learning). A good place to start, and a question I always put to participants, is - how did you feel when playing? A lot can be unpacked following this seemingly innocuous question.

So - what are your experiences of games and simulations? And do you have any favourite games, sources of ideas, questions for reflection?

Happy New Year everyone!

2 Responses to “Games and Simulations”

  • Ivan Moore responded:

    Hi David. I rather like “The XP Game”. It’s easy to run and the learning points are covered easily. I’ve found it to work for a large range of participants. I guess it’s a game which is easy to feel comfortable playing, which is important in order for people to be in the right frame of mind for learning. It’s a game which doesn’t require participants to be particularly good at anything or even to think particularly hard to play, so they can concentrate on the learning points that the game brings up rather than the game itself.

  • David responded:

    Thanks Ivan. I’ve looked at the XP game from time to time, but I have to admit to never having played it.

    Some other simulations that spring to mind (with a rich potential for generating fascinating observations) are Rachel Davies’ coaching game (which I don’t think she’s documented anywhere - a role-play of coach/worker/observer around a simple task, which creates many opportunities for insight), and John Daniels/Laura Hill/Dave Cleal’s pairing investigations, where members of a group both pair and work individually on a number of different types of task, then compare heir experience.

    I’ve always been a fan of games where part of the game is changing the rules of the game. To that end I’ve long been fascinated by Nomic, and have fun occasionally playing the proprietary card game Fluxx. Both recommended! For me one benefit of playing all sorts of games is realising that you _can_ choose and - if you wish - change the rules you play by, which is, as they say, a lesson for life.

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