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Untold Play

Any game can inspire learning games: From the playground to the car journey, take inspiration

Any game can inspire learning games: From the playground to the car journey, take inspiration

by Terry Pearce

A year ago

My interest in games and things like games runs deep and has been with me as long as I can remember. I used to play games walking along the street, based on which paving stones were okay to step on, when I was very small. As I’ve grown older, I’ve developed a taste for more complex games, in both work and leisure. 

But I’ve always felt that a game doesn’t need to be cutting-edge or complex to have something about it. Games are a little like memes: those that don’t work on any level, don’t survive. So if it gets passed around, something about it is worthwhile. And that means that, with my games-based learning hat on, anything could inspire a learning game or a mechanic or component of one.

When I came across the book The Floor is Lava by Ivan Brett, I saw an opportunity to test this idea. It’s a book of 100 simple games that people play with no need to buy anything–only common household items such as pen or paper are used, if any. Games you may have played as a child, or with your family, like charades. So, here’s my pick of the games in that book, and how they could inspire learning games for serious workplace topics.  

‘Car Cricket’: taking a stake in the mundane 

Car cricket is a game played in a car, which fuses the world rushing past your window with the structure and points of the Sport of Cricket. As in cricket, players take turns to be ‘batting’, during which time they can amass runs (or points), or be bowled out, making it the next person’s turn. In car cricket, your runs are scored based on the names of pubs you pass. There are different variations, but things like colours or numbers of legs in the pub name score points, but the word ‘arms’ or ‘head’ means you’re out.

This is a great example of putting a game layer on the world. Nothing has changed about the world passing your window, but suddenly you have a stake in it. You care, you focus, and you have fun. You can apply this to any work-based situation, whether using cricket or another frame. What do people score points for? What gets them ‘out’ or loses them a life? Spectators may become keen observers when given something to look out for and a reason to care.

‘Murder in Paradise’: goals, obstacles and deduction

Murder in paradise is intended to be played by a group on holiday. It’s set up like a murderous secret Santa: everyone’s name goes into one hat, named ‘weapons’ into another (although they should actually be non-dangerous items), and locations in another. Everyone pulls a paper from each hat, and presto, you have: a murder target, weapon and location.

The game is then played over the course of the holiday: if you can get your target and weapon together, alone with you, in your location, you ‘murder’ them (win). Cue a little thought, strategy, light paranoia, and striving to get your ducks in line without your victim getting suspicious.

Whether or not that sounds like your ideal holiday, it’s a great example of getting people thinking. They have a goal, resources, and obstacles. They have to strategise and not tip their hand. And look out for whoever is after them. You might have to think carefully about how to adapt this, but could people’s goals be to get a word into conversation, or get somebody else to say something? Can your debrief be about reading people and strategising?

Story tornado: creativity and weaving in prompts

The game named as story tornado in the book is a bit similar to things like Rory’s Story Cubes or the online Story Dice. The basic idea is that an exercise in storytelling is given shape by random prompts which the teller has to weave in.

Whether the prompts are generated by dice, cards or just dreamed up by players, the result is often a madcap, fun, sprawling story. But to adapt this for a professional or topical context would be pretty easy. Story prompts don’t have to be random. Especially with a card deck, they could be carefully chosen, curated or created.

If your cards/prompts were important concepts within your topic, then you’d be getting people to think deeply and creatively about how these ideas might translate into the imagined reality of their story.

‘Control the Robot’: communication and assumptions

This is a fun game where one player is a ‘robot’, and takes on a simple task like making a cup of tea. Other players give instructions, but it’s the robot player’s task to look for any way to follow the letter of the instruction in a way that achieves something different to what was intended. So, if they don’t specify where to pour the water, there could be real problems (although please take health and safety seriously if you play this). 

It doesn’t take much thinking to see how this could become an activity in how communication can be imprecise, and clarity takes effort. Such simple principles can be taken for granted – a physical, interactive demonstration can have a lot of impact.

This inspiration is one of the most direct – the game when played for fun does the job without any modification. But that makes it a great example of how you should always be on the lookout for how any game you come across might link to a learning principle you’re interested in – inspiration is everywhere.

‘Dice Football’: basic simulation and use of space

In this simple game, paper and other craft materials are used to create a football pitch, with ‘zones’ marked out and each given numbers that can be rolled on dice. There are variations on exactly how it works, but basically the player with the ball rolls dice to see if/where they get the ball to next, or if they give it away.

The very fact that this game could span a huge range of complexity is informative. At it’s most basic, you could just roll dice to see where the ball goes next. Or you could build in more complexity, for example, the player with the ball could choose where they want to pass to, and have a dice-based chance depending where the other player’s team were placed.

And it’s this element of building up a simulation that I think makes this inspiring. A simulation game doesn’t need to be complex or online. If you use simple elements like dice and counters, you can ask yourself: what would simulate the situation I’m teaching about? The more rules and elements you add, the closer you might get to the real situation.

And even if the simulation is some distance from the reality, the gap can be a great topic of debrief discussion. In what ways was it different? Why are they important?

Inspiration is everywhere

These five games are just a small sample of the games in the book, and there are many, many more at large in the world. Maybe you played a game when you were younger (or more recently) that you could now look at in a new light.

So many things happen in games. As I quote in another article, we sculpt player agency when we create games – we guide players into doing things, and doing them a certain way. So any time you see a game, no matter its context, think: what do the players do in this? Could some part of it work well for me in a learning experience? Could I adapt or be inspired by something it does well?