My post on gamification last week garnered plenty of comments on LinkedIn. Many responses exposed the vague ways people use the word gamification to imply, well, something good about a service that some companies provide. Like advertising’s liberal use of improved! without explaining what’s improved, the genius of the word gamification is that it can be applied as a plausible sounding selling point to all kinds of products, without ever saying what gamification is, or specifying its benefits. So let’s explore the gulf between playing games and gamification in the world of events.
Gamification “makes about as much sense as chocolate-dipped broccoli”. Education professor Amy Bruckman, coined this analogy in a 1999 paper on game software design:
“Most attempts at making software both educational and fun end up being neither. Fun is often treated like a sugar coating to be added to an educational core. Which makes about as much sense as chocolate-dipped broccoli. The problem is that too many game designers are using long-outmoded models of what it means to be “educational”.
Game designer and author Ian Bogost makes the same point, somewhat more forcefully:
“…gamification is marketing bullshit, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business, where bullshit already reigns anyway.
Bullshitters are many things, but they are not stupid. The rhetorical power of the word “gamification” is enormous, and it does precisely what the bullshitters want: it takes games—a mysterious, magical, powerful medium that has captured the attention of millions of people—and it makes them accessible in the context of contemporary business.” —Ian Bogost, Gamification is Bullshit (2011)
Please stop treating adults like children at your conferences. (For an exception, see the end of this post.)
With children there’s an argument for broadcast-style learning. Schools originally developed as establishments for improving the efficiency of oral communication of information. They did this by bringing many students together, so they could learn simultaneously from one teacher. The key cultural reason why broadcast methods remain firmly embedded in our children’s education is the sheer quantity of knowledge that society — for whatever reasons — is determined to cram into young heads during formal education.
But with adults, unless you’re an expert training a bunch of novices, there’s no excuse for deciding unilaterally “this is what you will learn today”.
Instead, frame the scope of the session, find out what people want to learn or discuss first, then create the session they want and need. Five minutes of Post It! for Sessions, described in Chapter 26 of my book Event Crowdsourcing, is exactly what you’ll need for an in-person session. Or use this variant if you’re meeting online.
So, please stop treating adults like children at conferences. But with…
I have little memory of my earliest formal education though I suspect it has informed my entire life.
My mother decided that I should attend London’s Chelsea Froebel School. For a couple of years she valiantly brought me to school via two buses and a train, went to work, and then picked me up to return home via the same interminable route.
The school’s philosophy was developed in the early nineteenth century by Friedrich Fröbel, the remarkable German pedagogue who created the concept of kindergarten and espoused the importance of children’s games, singing, dancing, and self-directed play. I remember singing, writing poetry, and spending hours at water and sand play tables.
At the age of seven, my school environment changed drastically. I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to Dulwich College, a British “Public” (in actuality private) all-boys school founded in 1619. I say “lucky” because, as a child of working-class parents who were forced to leave school at thirteen due to the outbreak of the Second World War, my options for educational advancement were severely limited. By a twist of fate, the school had recently implemented what eventually became known as the “Dulwich College Experiment”. Local councils paid the fees for the majority of boys selected to attend.
Attending a private independent school with experienced teachers and small class sizes greatly increased my likelihood of access to higher education. On graduation, I won a second scholarship to Oxford University.
I’ll always be grateful for the opportunities Dulwich College gave me. But I had no awareness at the time of the poor learning environment it offered.
I sat at ancient wooden desks, complete with inkwell and carved with the initials of generations of earlier schoolboys. I listened to teachers sharing knowledge that the best minds had taken hundreds or thousands of years to figure out. A condensed précis poured unceasingly into my ears. Somehow, I was expected to absorb, understand, regurgitate, and use this information to do well at frequent tests and nerve-wracking national exams that determined my educational and vocational future.
Apart from the tests, I found this torrent of knowledge exhilarating. Apparently, as judged by tests and exams, I was capable of absorbing it better than the majority of my peers. It was only much later that I realized that for most people, immersion in a high-volume flood of information is a terrible way to learn and provides minimal opportunities to connect with others.
It had a cost for me. The school environment emphasized my intellectual side and provided almost no time for personal or social development. I made no close enduring connections at school, becoming a nerd, concentrating on my studies. Luckily, I never completely lost touch with the Froebel-nurtured, playful, and curious child buried inside me.
How I got here
After school, I began a thirty-year journey. It wasn’t until my fifties, after careers as a high-energy physics researcher, owner of a solar manufacturing business, college professor teaching computer science, and independent information technology consultant that I reconnected with the six-year-old who loved to sing and dance.
Throughout this period, convening conferences on my current professional interests fascinated me. I organized academic, solar, non-profit, and information technology conferences. In retrospect, it was an advantage to be an amateur. I hated the formal academic conferences I had to attend. Eventually I tried new approaches.
People started asking for my help with conferences on topics I knew little about. I eventually realized how much I loved to bring people together around common interests and needs. I became fascinated with the remarkable improvements that good process can have on the individual and collective experience and satisfaction when people meet. Eventually I decided to make inventing and proselytizing this work my mission.
Today, I’m happy that thousands of people and organizations have realized the value of what I’ve been learning and sharing. Over the last twenty-plus years I’ve worked all over the world, facilitating connection between people face-to-face. The current coronavirus pandemic has temporarily suspended this work. Yet I feel confident the value of well-designed and facilitated face-to-face meetings will only become more apparent during the period we cannot hold them.
I have learned so many lessons from improv. Here are more of my experiences and takeaways for event professionals from the wonderful five-day improv and mindfulness workshop Mindful Play, Playful Mind, held June 8-13 2016, at Mere Point on the beautiful Maine coast — followed by their relevance to event design (red). (Here’s Part 1.)
The YOU game
In the YOU game, participants stand in a circle and create — by saying YOU and pointing to someone — patterns of categories, such as people’s names or breeds of dogs, around the circle. (Detailed description & instructions can be found here.) When you have several different patterns going around simultaneously, things get hectic. When we add people moving to the next person’s place in the pattern while playing, things get…demanding! The game vividly drives home this golden rule: When communicating, make sure that your message is received! When everyone successfully implements this rule, the YOU game flows despite complexity. And when we slip up, the patterns mysteriously disappear…
Successful event professionals learn the importance of this golden rule early! Another way to think about and practice this rule is the ask, tell, ask formulation.
I have written about status in both my books, as it’s an important aspect of event design—and improv. At the workshop we played several improv games that explored status and allowed us to practice taking status roles and working to change our own or other’s status. One example was a two-person scene we played over and over again with the same dialog:
Player1: Hello. Player2: Hello. Player1: Been waiting long? Player2: Ages.
Each player had the option to choose their original status and then work to raise or lower their own or the other player’s status. Qualities of body stance, control of space, speech, and interaction affect status, and it’s something that I would like to be more aware of in my life. As a facilitator, I typically work to equalize status with people with whom I’m working, but, programmed by my upbringing, I also have a tendency on meeting new people to default to lower status until I know them better. Improv status work helps me become more aware of such proclivities.
Ted also introduced us to Patsy Rotenburg’s Second Circle model of communication and connection, which maps in many ways onto improv status work. Worth checking out!
If you’ve read my books or this blog you know that I am a proponent of replacing traditional preordained status at events with a peer model where individual status can and does change moment to moment. Such participant-driven and participation-rich events provide a fluid-status environment that supports leaders and experts appearing and contributing when appropriate and needed.
Building things together
One of the most wonderful things about improv is the opportunities it gives us to experience what can happen when we build something together with others, something that is a true joint creation that would have been different if any one of its creators had not been present. Improv games provide an environment of mutual support, where players add to what’s currently been created. The addition can be of more detail or deeper focus on some aspect, but the whole glorious edifice only increases in size and complexity over time.
Many improv games provide this experience. One that we enjoyed a lot was three-words-at-a-time poems. We wrote group poems, our only instruction being to read what we received and add to it in a way that seemed true to what had already been written. Sitting in a circle, each of us wrote the first three words of a poem. We then passed our paper to the next person who wrote three more words and passed the paper on again. Our papers circulated twice around the circle, with the starter of each poem contributing the last three words.
Here’s one we created together:
The Dinner The cold lasagna sat on the white stool. Uneaten, unloved. Unlovable. No cheese? What, no noodles? No meat? No because too much. VEGETABLES! The guests departed, deflated, never to return to my sugarless, soulless party. My hungry friends Even hungrier for the lost moment Of Italian goodness lingered beside White plates and glasses. Never host again.
I think the most satisfactory experiences I have designing, producing, and facilitating events occur when every person involved in the event contributes creatively to making the event what it becomes. It feels darn good to be part of something wonderful that a group of people built through their individual work.
I learned so many important lessons from improv at this workshop. Our five days together passed swiftly. Throughout our time together we had moments of play, joy, seriousness, sadness, intimacy, fun, learning, and much laughter. I love workshops like this, because they offer and support a unique experience for each participant—prescribed learning objectives are refreshingly absent, though I am sure that each person (including Ted and Lisa) took away something personally meaningful, valuable, and probably important. I’ve only covered some of what I experienced and enjoyed. I recommend Ted and Lisa’s skillful, supportive, and empathetic workshops to anyone who wants to explore the wonders of improv and mindfulness in a community of not-long-to-be-strangers.
I plan to be back next year; please join me!
Ted & Lisa’s excellent Monster Baby Podcast just published David Treadwell’s interview with Ted & Lisa, which was recorded during the workshop. They explain “why they offer these retreats, what the weekend usually covers, and how improv skills can lead to a better life”. They also consider what keeps people from such ways of being in their normal lives and when they themselves can get into the “no” mode. David asks about how the retreat can help teachers, business professionals, and those in personal relationships before getting into the rewards and challenges of leading such retreats. Ted and Lisa offer a few specific examples of the kinds of exercises they offer. The podcast closes with a few short testimonials from this year’s participants. And if you keep listening past the apparent end, there’s a hidden bonus track improvised performance from Ted and Lisa!”
You had to be there. In this case, “there” was a wonderful five-day improv and mindfulness workshop Mindful Play, Playful Mind, held June 8-13 2016, at Mere Point on the beautiful Maine coast. In this two-part article I’ll share a little of my experience and takeaways, followed by their relevance to event design (red).
How I got there
Many people think of improv as a form of entertainment. I am fascinated by my experiences of improv as a tool for better living. As Patricia Ryan Madson, a teacher of both workshop leaders, says: “Life is an improvisation.” In addition, I’ve been working for over 40 years (with erratic focus and success) on practicing mindfulness in my daily life. So, when I heard in 2015 that Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland, with whom I’d spent three days at a 2012 beginner’s improv workshop in San Francisco, were offering a workshop on improv and mindfulness, I badly wanted to go. Although that opportunity had to be passed up—PCMA made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: facilitating the 2015 PCMA Education Conference—I made it to the 2016 workshop.
I’m glad I did.
Where I came from
I became interested in improv after short experiences in various workshops during the last 15 years. After a three-day introductory workshop at BATS, I attended two four-day Applied Improvisation Network World Conferences (San Francisco 2012 and Montreal 2015). In Lessons From Improv, and other posts I’ve shared how improv shines a powerful light on core practices that improve events. Saying Yes to offers can allow amazing things to happen at conferences, Being Average improves our creativity by focusing on the possibilities inside the box, and Waking Up to the Gifts makes the importance of public and specific appreciations at events obvious.
Looking back, I’ve only one post about mindfulness. Not because it’s less important, but because I find mindfulness hard to write about.
The content and process of Mindful Play, Playful Mind was so rich that I’ll cover only a fraction of what one might learn from participating: the fraction that especially resonated for me at this time in my life. Here goes…
One of the key gifts I received from the workshop was the gift of practice of improv and mindfulness.
The principles of improv, though easy to grasp, require practice to master. I’m far from mastery. The first time I worked with a fellow participant in a simple game, Ted and Lisa gently pointed out that I blocked her first two offers. (Essentially, I said “no, not that” to what she had suggested about my character and motivations). I noticed that I sometimes say “no” to perfectly appropriate ideas. Improv doesn’t mean accepting anything anyone says to you; rather it is a way to expand a world of possibilities that one might otherwise reject. Practicing saying “yes” over our five days together helped me be more open to saying it in my life.
Each morning, Ted led us thought an hour of movement and meditation. During the last ten years, I have had a rather, well let’s just say, sporadic mindfulness practice. On the fourth morning of the workshop, I was so aware of the benefits of daily practice, I determined to start each day henceforth with yoga and meditation. This decision was a surprise to me. It may well turn out to be the most significant change in my life from this workshop. We’ll see.
After we have grasped the basics of event design, mindful practice is how we improve. We become better at noticing what happens and learning from it, more focused on the present, and less distracted by our ego. Improv practice increases our creativity in dealing with the unexpected (turning broken eggs into omelets), makes accepting offers (of assistance and opportunities) easier, and helps us to work better with and support collaborators.
It was a surprise to me to find during the workshop that I still short-change appreciations from others. I was taught at an early age to feel embarrassed by compliments, applause, or thanks. Though I’m better able to accept these things nowadays, I still feel a certain reticence at accepting these positive affirmations.
Although I had previously spent time with workshop leaders Ted & Lisa, I had never met my fellow participants before. All nine of us spent five days living, playing, and working together. We stayed in an old family home overlooking a stunning Maine estuary, and ate meals together. One afternoon we hiked together over Morse Mountain to Seawall Beach. Our workshop was held either outside or in the Mere Point Yacht Club next-door 😀.
By the end of our time together, I got to know Ellen, Nancy, Nahin, Ellena, Wendy, and Everlyn better in some ways than our Vermont neighbors (and friends), with whom we’ve shared a driveway for over thirty years. The improv and mindfulness exercises we experienced together allowed us to help each other learn and grow.
Well-designed events can change peoples’ lives through the connections we make during them and the learning and changes that result. What an amazing responsibility and opportunity we have!
Bernie DeKoven is a legendary American game designer, author, lecturer and fun theorist. He is most notable for his classic book, first published in 1978, The Well Played Game “one of the most brilliant and overlooked books on games to date”, for his contributions to the New Games Foundation, his pioneering work in computer game design, and for his long-running web site, deepFUN.com. Bernie has spent the last 45 years working to teach new ways to play and create community.
Bernie is also a sweetheart.
The blab will go live at 4 pm EST. Join us before 4:30 pm, when Bernie will lead us through the first ever online version of “Did I Mention“, which we will then use to collectively build our ideal conference.
Don’t miss this unique opportunity to play with Bernie, building a collective vision of what a conference can be. To participate, you’ll need to be logged into Twitter in the browser you’re using. Simply click on the “Subscribe Now” below to subscribe to (in advance) or join the blab. Haven’t blabbed before? No worries—this post by Jocelyn Gonzalez covers everything you might need to know.
[Added November 20, after the Blab was over.] Here’s a recording of the resulting Blab!