Agile Games? I wonder…

This is one of those “thinking aloud” posts, triggered by a recent discussion on one of the Scrum lists, where one person asks others something like: I’ve got this problem (person/situation), what game can I play to fix this? I’m simplifying greatly, but that is the gist of it.

For the past few years there is this growing idea that games are the way to teach, and that someone’s mindset can be shifted in this way. There is some truth to this, and yet I sense another cult in the making. Agile games have become the new silver bullet approach—and the approach is possibly just as mechanical, and manipulative as many before. It just wears more casual clothes.

In the spirit of “let go of your old ideas—even the good ones” I’d like to dissect my own relationship with learning games.

Eleven years ago, at the first Agile conference (Agile2005) I offered a session called “Agile Thinking”. It was a series of interactive games intended to help people shift their mindset. These were games/exercises I had originally learned and applied in a very different context, i.e. social/community work, but I believed had some bearing on what I was newly trying to do.

The session went reasonably well, and I made one very good friendship with a participant, who is an integral coach. He and I have continued learning from one another over the years.

One thing I’ve learned is that teaching new ideas to people is fraught with difficulty. I’ve written more about that here. I had the naive hope that by teaching through interactive exercises I would somehow touch people more deeply than I would through talk or presentation. Fact is, I still believe this, but today a little less naively.

My mistake in those first few years was not in how I taught, it was in the expectations I arrived with. I believed I knew what the learning outcomes should be, and I would be alternately frustrated or disappointed when people just didn’t “get it”.

Over the years I’ve learned to let go of my expectations, to drop my assumptions and adapt my work so there is essentially no intended outcome to the exercises I facilitate. There is only surprise. I now enter a learning space as much to learn as to teach, and on a good day, I tend more towards the former. Imagine running a workshop inside a company, an environment where people attending have been working for years. Who knows more? Certainly not me. I bring my experience and intuition; they bring theirs. And they bring their context. A game may release people, equally it may cause discomfort or downright irritation and resistance. With any outcome there is something to learn, and to do my job well I need to embrace the unexpected.

Sure, there are times when I’d like to open people’s minds or hearts to a particular way of thinking, or have them experience an aha! moment, but when I become attached to that, I’ve found the exercise or game works less well. It’s a difficult thing to let go of these hopes or expectations, and there are times I fail, or get muddled. Still I strive for this release.

The difficulty I have in reading about Agile games, and experiencing many, is that I can quickly guess what I’m supposed to be learning—and thus I feel manipulated and/or patronised. If you’ve got something to say, I think, then just say it. Don’t make me go through this charade.

Occasionally someone will offer an exercise that pulls the rug from me, opens my mind or my heart in a new way. These are rare, and they are seldom formulaic.

The problem with most of these games, and the many websites that list them, is that they are offered as recipes. Just print the cards, or buy the lego blocks, follow these rules and boom! this is what will be learned.

I no longer know what needs to be learned, so I shy away from such games. Another very good reason to stay clear is that, for me, it will quickly become boring. I’ll stagnate, or become a teaching machine. I need to be kept on my toes, learning from each new implementation, and from each person I interact with.

Play games, certainly; they liven up a learning experience. But be willing to enter the game space in a not-knowing frame of mind. Be prepared to fail, or be surprised, and embrace this as a learning moment, for yourself and hopefully the participants too.

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