The Game-Game

         All these abstractions say little directly about how to design and run a useful learning-game. To do this is not only an event in the real world, but a learning-game in itself -- a meta-game, which I'll call "the game-game."

          On the whole, whatever may be said about learning-games, or done in them, may be said about or done in the game-game; and so the game-game is reflexive, describing and dealing with itself. This perspective is subtle, powerful, and confusing. It is easier, and probably more useful, to describe the game-game in terms of its phases. These are of course the phases of a general learning-game; and just as a particular game may omit some phases and change the sequence of others, so may a particular playing of the game-game. In what follows, I find it useful to think of a game in three ways simultaneously: as an "inner game", phase 6 below, which has within itself particular phases, as in the examples of games above; as an "outer game" or husk whose many phases encapsulate the inner game; and as a particular playing of the game-game which reflects all these phases as its own.

         Phase 1: Organizing.  A game begins by someone deciding to play a game. She may seek out others to help plan and organize the game; together they are the game's "organizing core," and may well continue as its gamekeepers. Strictly speaking, organizing extends throughout the game, and this phase is really meta-organizing. The organizing core's planning of the game's organization may be a full game in itself and quite long. 

         Phase 2: Recruiting.  Given a particular idea for a game, one may search for players to fit it. In this case the object of the game determines the nature of the players, and it matters less who they are otherwise or how they're recruited. Or one may have a general group of players in mind, and their nature and object will determine the game. Whether they are recruited to play the game directly, or to first design it, both the way they're recruited and who they are in particular will be important.

         Phase 3: Planning the (inner) game.  In a general sense, every inner game involves a metaphor. Arriving at the metaphor, and the rules that govern it, may be as simple as reading it in a book or may take a whole process of collective creation -- a group game in itself, and perhaps a formal one (like a variant of Synectics). There is also the task of deciding and providing for the necessary gamekeeping of the rest of the phases.

         A basic question concerns who to invite into this planning process. In general, unless it contradicts something essential to the inner game itself (as in Blue Eyes Brown), it is better to involve the players as much as possible in determining what will affect them. I quote Rick Kean: "In the process of planning learning-games in public, in creating participant planning, we were often able to develop, in a very dramatic and unselfconscious way, a direct progression from the kind of repartee or griping that usually goes on in almost any social environment, to social analysis; and then from that analysis into experimentation, and then into action for change."

         Phase 4: Setting context.  Here gamekeeping begins in earnest, or differentiates itself from meta-gamekeeping. Often the gamekeepers need to introduce themselves as such, defining their function, powers, and relation to the players. The gamekeepers then present the rules of the (inner) game to the players, taking care to be simple, orderly and clear; they may run a little sub-game to test the players’ understanding. 

         In general, we find it helpful to do more in this phase. We begin with a brief summary of where the learning-group has come to thus far, or of the problem or situation in whose light the (next) game is being played; and follow this with a sketch of how the game will fit in the group's sequence of learning and what will come after it, or of how it might otherwise be useful. This sets the broad context. Then we describe the (inner) game and indicate its phases of husk (usually 4, 5, and 7). Then we get down to detail about the rules and the gamekeeping. Finally we give whatever helpful advice we may have about how to play and what to expect.

         Phase 5: Warm-up.  Sometimes this is omitted or internal; sometimes it comes before phase 4 or even phase 1; if time permits, it is useful. Warm-up is a game which may be inner or active, group or individual. Often it takes some continuous gamekeeping, as when players are talked through a particular limbering-up routine. Warm-up may involve the body, the mind, the emotions, or all of these. Its function is to raise or make available the energies and mind-states that players need for the (inner) game. (Ice-breaking drama is the warm-up of an Open Circle process; research on one's role or character is one kind of warm-up for simulation. Sometimes the gamekeepers need to do much to provide for this phase.)

         Phase 6: Playing the (inner) game.  What the players do in this phase depends on the game. So do the particulars of what the gamekeepers do; but their general task, phase 6 of the game-game, is to tend the process of the inner game as the players play it. They keep the rules clear and enforce them when necessary. They serve as resources of information, communication, and decision that are necessary to the game but not provided by the players. They act to reinforce the secondary reality of the inner game by manipulating time, space, and environment (as by playing music, chasing spectators away, changing the pace or the day, and redefining territory). In general, they need also simply to watch the inner game as broadly and acutely as possible, to be prepared to gamekeep and to contribute within all of the following stages. Finally, they announce the inner game's ending, perhaps after halting it themselves.

         Time within the inner game may be real and uncontrolled, as in Making Love; totally unreal and arbitrary, as in Chess by Mail; or artificial and controlled, as in Student Power. But for the gamekeepers, phase 6 of the game-game, tending the process, always goes on in real time. Likewise, the space and environment of the inner game may be literal reality, a representation (as in Ecology) or an abstraction (as in Chess). But for the gamekeepers, the space and environment of tending the inner game are always real, and include both the players and other gamekeepers and the environment of the inner game in its literal, as well as its figurative, reality. Likewise, the players may be imagining or simulating a society, but the society created by the process of their play is real

         In these respects the game-game, or this phase of it, is less flexible than a general game. The gamekeepers need to stay well aware that in the act of tending the secondary reality of the inner game, they are also involved in a primary reality, which is no less real for being also the secondary reality of the game-game. This is normally no problem; but certain games, like Totalitarian Classroom and Evolution/Wilderness (discussed later), can sometimes generate strange secondary realities that are intense enough to suck an ungrounded gamekeeper into them. The result may be only a loss of perspective and perhaps the game's disturbance; but in the extreme, it may involve a kind of psychotic break for the gamekeeper and danger to the players through uncontrolled game dynamics.

         Phase 7:  Discussion.  Some inner games are reflexive, and proceed by experiencing and then discussing their own processes. For all games, there is more to be learned by discussion after the secondary reality has been broken and the group re-formed for this purpose by the gamekeepers. In part, this is because experience in the inner game is individual and largely unshared; in part because what one sees and feels within a secondary reality need not be what one sees and feels about it later. (Sometimes there is need of a phase 6a: a sub-game to break the lingering hold of secondary reality on the players' consciousness. More often this hold contributes to discussion.)

         Discussion itself is a game of various styles, and the gamekeepers are responsible both for tending its process and for orienting its content.  I’ve spoken of the open-interview process we usually use; within it, there are many ways of organizing special or representative testimony. (In an earlier example, Build and Respond is an open-circle process used to discuss the larger "inner game" of a conference.) At the opposite extreme, a single observer of the game may simply tell everyone his version of what happened, or his reaction to it.  As for orienting the content, the gamekeepers may do this in detail or not at all.  The heavier their hand, the more it interferes with the openness of the process.  What is to be discussed will depend as much on the larger context of the game and its purpose as on whatever happened in the inner game; and may be determined in advance or on the spot, perhaps with the players’ help in either case.

         There are endless questions to ask about any particular game’s play, and a focused investigation must make clear priorities.  Some kinds of games suggest a standard paradigm of questions – e.g., Susan Isgar lists nineteen questions to ask about the play of a simulation -- and others do not.  Regardless, it is always a useful exercise for the gamekeepers and then the players to go through the process of defining what is important to ask.  There is also an important difference between discussing the content of the inner game’s play, and discussing the process of its play as a game; in general we reserve the latter for phase 9.  Discussion itself being a game, the gamekeepers should help the players bring it to a sense of completion, or at least of wholeness, and then end it formally.  Having enough time always helps, and the gamekeepers should provide for this. Knowing when not to use more time is also important.

        The gamekeepers may also contribute their perceptions to the content of the discussion.  In doing this they become players within phase 7 of the game itself, rather than of the game-game (as they are above).  Again, it is useful to know which hat one is wearing and when, and to make this clear to all.  For the gamekeeper must watch herself as player and her influence on the play; and often the dual role generates problems.  As a discussant, she is simply an outside observer of the inner game, with the private authority of her own perceptions and knowledge; but both her previous and her present roles as a pubic authority tend to lend an artificial weight to what she says, and thus to make her a public judge.  Sometimes this is appropriate; sometimes one should be wary to keep a low profile; sometimes one should stand mute as to content.

         Phase 8:  Mop-up.   This phase is planned to take care of whatever happens that is not planned for in the other phases.  It’s a diffuse phase, often beginning during the play of the inner game, sometimes continuing as part of follow-up.  Some kinds of mop-up are predictable and may be programmed in advance; but this phase is also the province of the unexpected.  Usually it is vestigal, but sometimes it is major.  For the gamekeepers, it is an integral part of the game-game; yet the players may not be involved in it all, or may play it as part of the larger game, or may be involved but no longer as players of the game. 

         All this takes point in an example.  Midway in an inner game (of strong emotions) one gamekeeper notices a player huddled off to the side.  As she asks him why, he begins to sob hysterically; she takes him outside, leaving others to keep the game, and stays with him through some hours of comforting, talk, and mild therapy, long after the whole game has ended.  As a milder example, after Cooperation/Competition there is need to tidy up the environment, and perhaps to take up a collection to replace something broken.  There is no end to what can happen; gamekeepers are wise to think of the possibilities, and to prepare when they can.  When there is risk-taking in a game, reactions and failures may be anticipated; and it is a decision involving both resources and policy, as to how the gamekeepers plan to deal with them.  In the example above, a colder process or a single gamekeeper would leave the man to his own devices.
         Phase 9:  Evaluation.  This may continue the discussion of phase 7, in which case the gamekeepers would indicate a shift of subject (“Now let's talk a bit about the game itself, as a game…”); or it may go on even much later, perhaps in written form.  Its purpose is to recognize and analyze how the inner game worked, as a game, to accomplish its purposes; and to evaluate how well this was done.  Some sorts of games generate standardizable and detailed paradigms for evaluation – e.g., for a simulation, were the roles well-defined and informed, the groups sufficient, time handled well, and so on?  More generally, the basic metaphor of the inner game is open to critique.  How well the gamekeepers themselves performed is often an important topic; and sometimes there is reason to discuss the theory of how the game brought people to learn.  Again, it is necessary to be selective; and here, as contrasted with phase 7, the gamekeepers normally have a much better perspective than the players on what is important to evaluate (though they should be humble about their possible lack of perspective on their own roles.)

         To discuss the inner game as game, as part of the whole game-game, makes the whole game reflexive, in a limited way, for its players.  For the gamekeepers to discuss their own gamekeeping as part of gamekeeping makes the game-game reflexive in this phase.  When players and gamekeepers do this together, in the strange space of reflexive consciousness, the distinction between the game and the game-game dissolves, and everyone is cast equally in an integral reality.  This discussion is itself a game whose real-time gamekeeping is not unconnected with the earlier gamekeeping, and may be discussed and perhaps changd in its very process. 

         Often there is no need for the players to evaluate the game itself.  But this does give an additional perspective to their experience in the inner game; and it serves a far broader purpose.  As a pedagogic ideal, I think that every act of learning should be reflexive – that is, during or after it the learner should think critically about the process of his learning, how it worked and how to better it.  In this sense, his learning always has two purposes, to learn what he is learning and to learn about learning itself; and he is always a player and gamekeeper together, a kind of integral university.  As for the gamekeepers of any game, the evaluation phase is essential to their game-game, both to learn about game design and to reflect on the process of their own teamwork; and there is often reason to conduct it in much greater detail that the players can find useful, perhaps separately or later.  When the game is part of a sequence of games, an evaluation phase, however informal and brief, is always appropriate for both players and gamekeepers before the next game.

         Phase 10:  Follow-up.  The gamekeepers declare the larger game ended at the close of the previous phase.  But the game-game goes on, for the game may sometimes leave more to do.  What this may be, and who should tend to it, is impossible to summarize and often to predict.  Reports may need to be collected or circulated as a later act of discussion or evaluation.  Follow-up may involve the organizing or planning of a next learning-game, or some application of the learning or group identity generated by the game.  Someone may need to be thanked for the use of the room; someone may need to be visited in the hospital; and so on. 


         In the process of being general, I’ve made all these phases of game and game-game seem awkward and cumbersome.  They are rarely so in practice.  Running a game is usually a simple and natural business, and the game usually generates its own necessary gamekeeping, phase by phase.  Even so, there is a point to such general discussion;  for the gamekeepers need to be clear and conscious about what they are doing, if only for the sake of making the whole game simple and natural, and facilitating the spontaneity of each of its sub-games.  “The more work, the less it shows.”

         In a sequence of learning-games, these ten phases, however rearranged, are a cycle that repeats with each game.  For some of the games – see the sequences below – most phases may be implicit, accomplished already, or postponed, perhaps reducing them in sequence to only two phases, context-setting and the play of an inner game. But for the sequence as a whole, as an extended learning-game, all the phases should be carefully honored.  Indeed, any given game, with its larger husk, is also a sequence of games (except for phases 8 and 10); and so is its game-game.  The cycle of phases may be usefully understood to apply to each sub-game of these sequences.

         This perspective is technical and powerful.  Followed out in detail, it reveals a kind of infinite regress, one aspect of the recursive nature of learning-games.  Similarly, once the game-game of a game is understood as a game in itself, it is seen to be accompanied by its own game-game, or rather a (game-game)-game, and so on: again, a recursive aspect of games.  But in practice, all higher orders of game-game collapse into the basic one (unless someone else is overseeing the gamekeepers’ learning about games); and any sequence whose units are sequences is again only a sequence. 


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