About Learning-Games

         Many people aren’t used to thinking of play as serious.  Children and adolescents have little trouble with this, but some adults react to an invitation to play a learning-game as if it were frivolous, beneath their dignity and a waste of time. Rather than offend them  and have to coax them back, sometimes it’s easier just to say, very seriously, “I’d like us to try a different kind of learning experience now,” and never mention “game” at all.  Some people won’t be fooled by this; they’ll recognize that they’re about to be called upon to do something new, rather than just interact in familiar verbal ways, and they won’t want to.  It is usually best to get them to leave for the game’s duration; for nothing damps play so much as disapproving spectators do, making the players awkwardly self-conscious.

         We call them learning games, rather than techniques, because the deepest thing common to them all is a spirit of play.  Beyond this, they have some general characteristics that I think are responsible for their power as learning tools:

        (1)   Most of them engage people more fully and in wholer ways than seminars and discussions do. People play the games with their bodies, and with their emotions and imaginations as much as with their cognitive minds.  A few of the games are mainly verbal, but these use words in unusual ways, and cast speakers and listeners in new roles which engage much more than their minds.

        (2)  Each game is a disciplined form, with a simple, clear set of rules.  Within these rules, utterly free interaction is encouraged.  No game is concerned with  winning and losing (the Bone Game is a slight exception); the purpose of each is the play itself, and the learning that happens through it. Most of the games use an umpire, or gamekeeper, who states and administers the rules, and in general tends the process of the game.  Even a group that does not need to be led will find it useful to have, perhaps in rotation, someone who is part of the game but outside it, to give impartial feedback about it afterwards.

        (3)  In general, games are models.  They let us represent essential elements of a problem or situation in concrete, experiential ways, which provide their own experiential learning and also can be studied and discussed afterwards in more conventional ways.  Sometimes, as with psychodrama or simulation, this modeling is literal:  we use the game to act out the real situation.  More often, the elements of a situation are abstracted and symbolized, or represented by metaphor, as when an argument is translated into nonverbal dance.

        (4)  Beyond putting a problem in a new light, a game gives a group a common body of immediate experience to deal with, in a much deeper way than listening to a lecture, doing homework, or watching a film of someone else’s experience do.  That the experience is one’s own makes it interesting; that it is shared brings the group together, as does the game’s process, in which group members interact with one another more than with leadership figures.

        Recently, many people have grown interested in games as learning tools, and three broad streams of practice have developed:  simulation games, as in social science classes and think-tank decision-making; psychodrama games, as in encounter and gestalt therapy groups; and theater games.  Our work draws from each of these streams, but is not contained in them.  If at times below I talk as if we invented games, it is not from the illusion that we did, but rather because, even in a fertile climate, we still had to learn for ourselves what games were, how to use them and what for, and what it meant to play them.

        Through this process, I think we came to a more general and versatile understanding, and perhaps a somewhat deeper one, of the power of games as learning tools, than did people working within any one of the streams above.  If so, this is because our interest lay in learning itself, beyond any of its particular fields; and because we had such a variety of opportunities for play.  I will try to recapitulate what we learned in the form of an “illustrated catalogue” of our learning games, unfolding some theory as I go.

        Since much of my presentation refers to prominent concerns of student activists during the late sixties, our uses of learning-games may seem limited and dated. I hope instead that it will be clear that this is period and situational costume, for a pedagogic technology of boundless variety and applicability.


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