Games connect

April 28th, 2017

Ghost-MongoliaOn our recent trip to Mongolia, in winter, I knew we’d be spending a lot of time indoors, with host families and with each other. It seemed like a good idea to take some table-top games to play. I chose games that did not require any understanding of English: Ghost Blitz and Skip-Bo

Both games were a great hit. It seems easy to forget the power of games to connect.

We learnt games from our Mongolian hosts too – mainly games using sheep or goat knucklebones, those things we used to call ‘jacks’. DSC01340 (1)A game of pure luck soon became boring; another game combining luck and skill was a lot more engaging, if often frustrating. A third game – Shagai, also known as knuckle-bone shooting – was surprisingly fun to watch. Teams of six to eight flick a token along smooth wooden tool towards the shagai bones, about 10 metres away, while singing traditional melodies and songs.


More recently my friend Lee arrived with the game Pandemic. Pandemic is unusual in the board game genre in that it is a cooperative strategy game. Four of us (including a real live immunologist) played it multiple times. It’s engaging, and addictive – and hard to beat the diseases, but importantly, not impossible.

Fast forward to the last couple of days where we have hosted our Creative Facilitation Master Class on Designing for Aliveness. There’s a lot of games in this workshop – games we play to understand the different mechanics of games and the effect of simple tweaks on the player/participant experience – and games we designed.

Some people tell us that they hate games. They say they don’t play them, and don’t want to play them. That’s a pity, because there’s much to learn from playing games, and from playing with others. Some of the newer games, like Pandemic, can be a revelation. People enjoy them, and learn something.

The Surf Coast Shire’s Fire Game is another example. It’s a game about a very serious topic – being prepared for bushfire risk. IMG_1881

There’s a very popular board game that’s been around since the 1950s called Risk. It’s a strategy game of diplomacy, conflict and conquest. It has simple rules but complex interactions.

That pretty much describes what it’s like for me as a facilitator to play games in workshops. It’s not so much the game of Risk – more the risk of games. One that I’m willing to take.


Connecting More Deeply

July 19th, 2016

ConnectingMoreDeeplyI’m riffing some ideas here based on the four themes we’ve been exploring for Creative Leadership:

Having bolder conversations
Connecting more deeply
Engaging the resistance
Staying alive

This is one of those things that’s easy to say, hard to do. We all like to think we’re okay with change, yet when it comes to the crunch, we all struggle in our own ways. I do, that’s for sure. I love travelling. Yet, on nearly every single trip – no matter where, no matter how good, or how exciting –  at some stage I wish I was home. I yearn for the familiar.

I guess the familiar equals safety. I can’t imagine what it was like for my ancestors to be bundled onto boats and shipped across the planet to an unknown, unfamiliar country. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people to do that today.

Connecting more deeply works for me at a number of levels, not just personal. It’s also about connecting to myself, being aware of my own needs, and also connecting to place – finding something in an unfamiliar place or even, emotional territory, that I can connect to.

This August, I’m lucky to be able to reconnect with some dear and loved friends from around the world. Just being with them will remind me what it’s like to open myself to change. Maybe that’s what we all need – to spend more time with people. One of my favourite ways of connecting is through play. As adults, we often don’t have the time, or the people, to play. Sometimes we think we don’t have permission to play. There will be plenty of play at our leadership workshop in Cambridge, August 31 – Sept 2. You betcha.

Where ‘YES!’ leads

November 18th, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEarly mornings are not my best time. People I used to work with joked that no-one should talk to me before 10 am. Bit rough, I reckon. So you will understand that dragging myself out of bed at 5 am to attend breakfast meetings in Melbourne, was, well, a touch out of character (this included about 2 hours’ of travel). There was a group called the Creative Performance Exchange hosting events each month that were edgy, different and intriguing. Unsurprisingly, it also attracted some very interesting people. Fast forward a couple of years and four of us who met at these meetings remain good friends. Despite different backgrounds and trajectories, we all find ourselves in a similar space right now – specifically interested in new and different ways of doing business. We’re all enthusiastic about games in their myriad forms: physical games, on-line games, improvisational games, participatory games, serious games, drinking games. Okay, maybe not drinking games…

Viv, Nicky, Marigo, LeeSaying yes to coffee, years ago, after a CPX gathering has led to this: a collaborative offering of a half-day experiential games event in Melbourne. That’s the four of us who will be hosting the event in the picture.

Will you say ‘YES’?

Games hold huge potential – for engagement, for tackling undiscussibles, for creating, designing, innovating, all while having fun. Alexander Kjerulf has been an advocate for happiness at work for a long time. And has built a successful business around just that.

Pablo Saurez works in the serious world of humanitarian aid. He uses games to ‘wake people up’ and to make some of the complexity around humanitarian decision-making more accessible. He describes it as moving from ‘Huh?’ to ‘Ah-ha!’

Don’t take our word though, or their word.

Come and find out for yourself what all the fuss is about games in business.

Thursday, December 11th. Book here.

Birdwatching from my desk

November 18th, 2014

Grey FantailGlancing just a little to my left of my computer screen, I can see, through my office window, one of the bird baths in our garden. It is an endless source of joy for me.

This morning I saw four different species using the bath at the same time: Grey Fantails, Red-browed Finches, Brown Thornbills and another unidentified SBB (small brown bird). When the New Holland Honeyeaters come to the bath, they frighten all the others away. They often come in raucus groups, all sitting on the edge chittering away madly and diving into the water. The much larger Red-wattle Bird visits alone, perches on the edge, looking around and then dives in sideways for a single dip and flies away. It will return a few times, repeating the procedure.

Crimson RosellasThe Crimson Rosellas nearly always visit in pairs or family groups. There seems to be a hierarchy. The highest ranking bird will bathe first while the others hang around calling and waiting their turn. The Blue Wrens visit whenever they want, and when the Magpies decide to splash vigourously in the birdbath, it quickly empties of water. Nothing compares to the sound of the Grey Shrike-thrush as it calls from the nearby trees. And if the Grey Butcherbird decides to visit, with it’s clear, melodious call, and treacherous beak and murderous intent, all the other birds take cover.

Simple pleasures.

Play is serious business!

October 6th, 2014

Too right!

“Play is absolutely fundamental for children’s physical, social, mental, and emotional development.” Professor Roger Hart.

I’d love to make a video like this about the importance of adults playing too.

The games we play

July 10th, 2014

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of games, play and movement. Recently I attended a MASHLM Humanitarian Summer School in Lugana, Switzerland. It was three days exploring games for humanitarian and development work led by Pablo Saurez from the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre and Eric Gordon from the Harvard University Engagement Game Lab. And a special callout to Paulo Gonçalves, Founder and Director of MASHLM, who made it possible for me to attend.

Imagine sitting around a table playing a game with your friends – preferably a fairly complicated game requiring you to make decisions without knowing the consequences. You take turns, maybe throw the dice, pick up cards, make choices, invest valuable resources aka beans. There’s time pressure – make a choice NOW! You have to stand, or stay seated, according to your choice. No going back. No changing your mind, no prevaricating. There’s winners, and losers, each round, and sometimes you get stuck with nowhere to go – you’re out of resources or out of options.

Now add a facilitator, a games master, who keeps the game moving, counts down the time left for your decisions, and occasionally offers options, that might, or might not be helpful, depending on your situation. Add a time limit for the whole game – say 10 rounds, representing 10 years. It’s not a race-to-the-end game (first past the post wins), this is a more subtle game, where there are still winners and losers at the end, some more so than others. There’s an element of chance, of luck, and there’s an element of understanding the consequences of our decisions. And it’s fun.

This type of game is known as a system dynamic modeling game that helps us to understand complexity. The game I described above is called Paying for Predictions and is a game about the cost, value and use of early warnings. It forces players to grapple with the shifting chances of disaster as they decide whether or not to invest in forecast-based flood preparedness.

Compare that to a powerpoint presentation on the same topic.

The important thing about this game, and many of the others developed by the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre – dubbed participatory games for the ‘new normal’ – is that they are based on the underlying science. They are not just ‘made up’. They reflect what really happens in the world. Post-game discussions are inclusive and reach depths rarely seen in more traditional approaches to sharing complex scientific principles, not the least because the game provides participants with a shared experience and a shared language to talk about abstract concepts such as predictions, probability, preparedness, risk and resource allocation. It also levels the playing field between experts and practitioners, and I suspect, opens up pathways for more constructive dialogue. And it’s emotional. You feel, in a real, visceral way, what it’s like to make choices.

While this type of game can easily be lumped with all other games, especially by nay-sayers, it’s quite a different experience to playing games on-line (even multi-player games) or playing physical games that facilitate interactions and discovery.

Pablo Saurez explains why gameplay beats powerpoint: “There needs to be an obstacle. Games can plant a level of confusion (huh?) and provide a sequence of interesting choices that builds curiosity, leading to the joy in the brain of figuring it out (Ah-Ha!). Powerpoint gives you nothing to guess about – the work has been done by the presenter.”

I still have lots to learn, and I’m excited about the potential of these sorts of games, especially when there is a big power differential in groups, when there’s no one ‘right’ answer, and the concepts are wrapped in impenetrable language.

As part of the course in Lugano we developed our own games, and that too was an interesting experience. We quickly learned that what makes sense on paper, or in our heads, may not work in practice. We discovered that too many rules make it harder to play. We discovered that too much realism can get in the way. We were exploring an uncertainty/complexity game around climate change and had focused on farmers. We kept getting stuck in conversations about what farmers would/or would not do in reality. We were going around in circles seemingly getting nowhere (I actually suspect this is an important part of game design) until we decided to ditch the farmers and focus on squirrels! It was a throw-away idea that saved the day – a classic example of yes-anding. We still had investments in infrastructure, diversification of crops (in this case, nuts), we still had external influences, and making decisions with limited knowledge, as well as climate probability data, in the game. It’s just that it was about squirrels in the forest, collecting different types of nuts, building nests and being threatened by deforestation and climate variability.

Other teams developed games on sustainable fishing quotas, and coordination of humanitarian providers after a disaster.

Fun games about serious topics? You bet!

A games-free zone?

January 28th, 2014

A couple of things got me thinking this week (and that’s no mean feat during the summer holidays – much easier to just forget about everything and enjoy the beach).

The first was a request from a facilitator for ideas about working with a group on one of those super hot Melbourne days where it’s even too hot for the beach, the air sucks the moisture from you as soon as you step outside, and even the smallest exertion is best avoided. You get the picture. It’s hot. Bloody hot. Too hot for a workshop, that’s for sure.

There was a bunch of suggestions around ice cubes, balloons, water fights and so forth. Even I was wincing as I imagined a bunch of academics in a city meeting room playing with ice and balloons. Seemed more appropriate for a kids’ party to me.

I know. This is the champion of games speaking. Stay with me.

The other comment was from another facilitator who was referring to his workshop ‘happy’ sheets (there’s a whole other post on happy sheets – maybe another day) and the apparently often-written comment “Thank goodness we didn’t have to play any silly games.”

Fingers poised to write a response, I stopped, and thought about the hot day, ice cubes scenario.

AnnoyedManAnd I thought about this chap, who turns up to my workshops in different guises (sometimes he’s even a woman). He’s not happy. He’s probably been asked to play a ‘silly’ game.

It’s a big responsibility being a facilitator. Okay, not as big as some other roles. But for a short time – a few hours, a couple of days – facilitators have a lot of influence over a group. We decide what people do, how they interact, when they break. We set up a space, we introduce activities, we question, we cajole, we interpret what’s going on, we play ‘silly’ games. Some of us do, anyway.

What is the point of ‘silly’ games, especially in a facilitated workshop?

Workshops are not business as usual, otherwise you wouldn’t be devoting the time, people and resources. Something’s at stake. That something is often a shift – in how people work, how they relate, their understanding, their knowledge, skills, perceptions. It’s about movement, not reinforcing what is.

Appropriate games and activities are a part of the mix. Appropriate. Not games for the sake of games (though some of the best times I’ve had with others in recent years have been simply playing games together – maybe a topic for yet another post!) In the hands of a skilled facilitator games can enliven and enlighten – particularly behaviours, attitudes, and the hidden undercurrents that, just like an ocean rip, can drag you under, take you off course, dump you somewhere you didn’t want to be, or kill your energy and enthusiasm.

Lots of times games are not necessary. Yet time and again, I’m seeing groups playing a different game – with me, and with each other. They are doing and saying what’s expected, using language to obsfucate rather than clarify, staying abstract and safe – and all the while sounding very grown up. In fact, they’re staying safe. They are not stepping to the edge of their knowledge or awareness, they are not taking risks (even when they espouse that they are a real risk-taking company) nor are they willing to be vulnerable. Oh, there’s all sorts of reasons why – and that’s part of a facilitator’s role – to unearth some of these undercurrents, to be compassionate and also nudge people just a little towards new thinking, new behaviours, new ideas. Otherwise, it’s business as usual in a different location. a change of scenery, but nothing else changes.

I have found nothing that works better than a game to reveal people’s behaviours and attitudes. And if it reveals it to me, you can be sure it reveals it to others as well. Many of us have become experts in our heads – we can say what’s needed, we can justify our position. A well-chosen game can break through all of that and reveal different perspectives and new insights. The skill of the facilitator is knowing, when, where and what games to use, and for what purpose. What the game reveals will be different depending on each individual. I’ve often introduced a game thinking it will illustrate, for example, collaboration. And the participants discover something else entirely. I’m constantly surprised.

So the comment “Thank goodness we didn’t play any silly games” can probably be taken at face value. Maybe people really do hate playing games. Or maybe it means “Thank goodness I wasn’t stretched.”

As a facilitator I could stay safe too. I could use some tried and true processes that generate plenty of outputs. And oftentimes this is just what’s needed. For whatever reason, the group is not up for the challenge. Yet when I do challenge myself, or the group, when I take the risk to try a game, or create an activity that I think might be useful, here and now, it pays off. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I fall, or I fail. Sometimes. At least there’s some movement, some creativity, and some innovation. And that’s what workshops are all about – getting unstuck.


Playfully exploring serious issues: what does that mean?

August 19th, 2013

Some issues are so serious they are hard, or painful, to talk about.

So we often see sombre meetings, and participants struggling to find words befitting the seriousness of the issue. These meetings are often long, painful and tedious.

Playfully exploring these serious issues is an alternative. It doesn’t mean trivialising. It does mean coming at these issues from a different direction. Here’s an example.

There are serious issues to be tackled in a Pacific nation where I was working where gender-based violence is the norm, substance abuse is common, unemployment is high, and violence is part of everyday life for most women and children. How to bring these issues into the open in a mixed group of men, women, officials and community?

We played a game called I Am A Tree. This is a game where people stand in a circle, one person comes to the centre and says “I am a tree” and strikes a tree-like pose. A second person comes in and says what they are in relationship to the tree, for example “I am an orange” and a third person comes in and might say “I am the leaves”. The first person then decided who should stay and might select the ‘orange’.  The game continues with the other two leaving the centre of the circle and a new scene emerges around the ‘orange’.

It is a warm-up game from improv theatre to emphisize commitment, making your partner look good and making and accepting offers.

After a few rounds of the general stuff the game naturally morphed into topics important to the participants. So we saw people coming to the centre of the circle and saying ‘I am a malnourished child’ or ‘I am a stick’ and ‘I am the wife being beaten by the stick’.

Serious? Yes.

Playful? Yes.

Powerful? You bet.

A surefire way to solve problems

October 12th, 2012

I now have a tried and true formula for solving problems.

I’ve tested it many times and it ALWAYS works. Most recently was yesterday. I was struggling with some work and finding a way to breakthrough. I was planted in front of my computer and I was frustrated and grumpy. Talking about it (complaining if the truth be told) didn’t seem to help.

This morning a whole lot of options have occurred to me. I feel happier and enthusiastic, and itching to get on with it (just as soon as i finish this post!)

The formula? It’s not new and it’s not very clever. But it works. Every time. It requires patience. And it requires trust in yourself.

The formula is activity followed by sleep. In this case the activity was playing games – not head games, physical games that required movement and concentration, sound and laughter, focus and attention. Then sleep. It’s a form of letting go.

My subconscious then got on with the job and did all the work.


Let the games begin

September 17th, 2012

The Olympics are over for another four years. But it’s not those sort of games I’m referring to. Not sporty, competitive games. Nor video games. And no, not board games either.

These games are for fun. They are active, playful, not too energetic (though they can be), not too competitive (though they can be that too). Easy to learn, easy to play, and best of all – fun! They will make you laugh, they will make you smile, they will make you feel good.

If games do all that, why don’t we play them more often? Good question. As adults, the opportunities to play games are few and far between. Plus it’s seen as childish. Well, to that I say bollocks!

So I’m delighted that my friend Genevieve Roberts has taken the initiative to start an Improv Play Gaming Group on the SurfCoast. Yay!

Genevieve says, “As a theatre practitioner and wellness facilitator I have seen Improvisation Games achieve great things, while people have fun. I’m currently doing a Master of Wellness and I’ve been researching Improvisation as a process which intrinsically supports wellness. Benefits of playing improv games include FUN!, creativity, resilience, flexible responsiveness, laughter, collaboration, and more. But most of all, fun.”

Every Thursday evening 7.30 pm – 9.30 pm

Anglesea Performing Arts 1 Macmillan Street Anglesea Victoria Australia

Can’t wait to play.