Blog > Using games from improvised theatre to build mental agility and responsiveness amongst humanitarian workers responding to disasters

November 1, 2013

During the 2013 Melbourne Knowledge Week, I was part of a group of people exploring the role of (mostly video) games for social good, organised by Games for Change.  Here’s my contribution.*

I was in Perth in the 1980s at a conference about soil science. It was a very grown-up and serious conference. In 1983 in Melbourne, the whole city had been enveloped in a dust storm. Years of drought and land degradation caused soil from the Mallee in north-west Victoria to blow across the State. Some of that Mallee soil was eventually found on the ski slopes on New Zealand. So soil science was a big deal.

We had partnered with a local songwriter, Fay White, to write some songs about land degradation – erosion, salinity, soil health. Back at the conference in Perth, imagine 800 or so soil scientists sitting in a plenary session (and yes, your assumptions about soil scientists are probably correct: male, middle-aged, conservative, bearded) and me (female, younger, a bit weird and definitely not bearded) inviting them to sing along with Soils Ain’t Dirt, complete with hand movements? There was a mixed response, though we did get a picture on the front page of the WA newspaper.

It was (on reflection now) the beginning of my journey to explore ways to bring playfulness to serious issues.

I play lots of games from improvised theatre. Improvised theatre is where the players get up on stage without a script, take a suggestion from the audience and spontaneously, improvise a performance. They draw on their existing skills and knowledge, and whatever else is available, and each other. It is the best expression of collaboration and team-work I have ever seen. They can do this because they play games together. Not because the games are fun – they are; not because the games keep them fit – they do. They play games because it helps them hone a set of practices that they need to draw on when on the stage. The games help build their spontaneity muscles. The games themselves teach what it feels like to let go, to look out for each other, to notice more, and to be open to whatever happens.

Humanitarian workers are called on to respond to disasters in difficult conditions. They are often the first people on site after an earthquake, a cyclone, a tsunami. While there are plenty of protocols to support their work, the first 24 hours might be just chaos – and they need to call on their own resources, and that of their colleagues, to asses what the situation is, do something and save lives. It might well be the start of many months, or even years, of involvement with the affected communities. Many humanitarian workers helping out in an emergency are not specifically trained – they might be finance people, development workers, in marketing and communications. All of a sudden, their whole world has been turned upside down – they, their friends and families, may even be directly affected. It is in these situations that the training in improv practices comes into its own: the ability to let go of expectations and the way things were; the ability to notice more; to be open to possibilities and opportunities; to act when you don’t know what will happen or the consequences; to try something and if it fails, try something else.

In a situations like this, there’s no time for the ‘tyrannies’ that can envelop us and render us useless. There are three ‘tyrannies’ that we work with to try and overcome through playing and practicing improv games:

1. The Tyranny of the Explicit – the fear of not knowing enough

2. The Tyranny of Excellence – the fear of not being good enough

3. The Tyranny of Effort – fear of not trying hard enough

Improv games reveal these tyrannies in a playful way. They also teach us to do something even if we don’t have all the information, feel inadequate and could do better if we just tried harder. Improv games break these chains and enable us to contribute as compassionate human beings, comfortable that our contribution is enough.

And who wouldn’t want that?

* Of course, it’s not exactly what I said – I improvised a bit, threw in a couple of games, and had the audience select three of 50 slides I had ready for Popcorn PPT.



Poynton, Robert (2008) Everything’s An Offer “Notice More – Let Go – Use Everything”

Sawyer, Keith (2007) Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration “When people improvise together, they develop innovative responses to unexpected events…”

Block, Peter (2002) The Answer to How is Yes “We need to be willing to address questions that we know have no answer.”

Koppett, Kat (2001) Training to Imagine: Practical Improvisational Theatre Techniques to Enhance Creativity, Teamwork, Leadership and Learning “The power of improv…is its ability to connect people to their intuition, their bodies, their intellect, and each other.”

Johnstone, Keith (1987) Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre “There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes’, and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.”

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