Using Rapid Games Design to help groups tackle messy problems

Imagine you’re going to a one-day workshop to discuss a key issue for your organisation or project. However, the problem is very ‘21st century’: it’s messy, complex and there are widely varied ideas about what the problem itself actually is!  For example, “how do we create a resilient and equitable food system under the threat of climate change?”.  The organisers might well have been pulling their hair out trying to come up with a format that caters for a diverse group of people who come with conflicting strong opinions, opinions they doubt, or no opinion at all.

With only one day available, how can we help participants frame and discuss this challenge? Is it possible to deliver durable new shared understandings in an immersive, inclusive, thoughtful and light-hearted way?

An RGD kit featuring the ever-popular plastic rhino.

Rapid Games Design attempts to solve this problem. The approach, developed by Bruce Lankford and myself, involves small groups of participants designing (but not playing) table-top games using nothing more than the groups’ ideas, paper and pens, and games materials (e.g. counters, dice, money and the occasional plastic rhino).

During the workshop, participants build up and question their understanding of the problem as a group.  The four steps are: an introduction to games designing, the game designing itself, the groups presenting their game to the whole workshop, and then a plenary workshop discussion on the topic.

The games create a common world or language which participants use to talk productively about deep issues. For example, the decision about what is in players’ power to do and what comes from a chance card stack leads to discussions about where players assume system boundaries to be, and avoids asking the question in a direct and polarising way. By comparing the various games produced participants can dive into the wide variety of perspectives on the problem which often exists. Facilitators can also reflect on the day and the games in order to then circulate a follow-up communication.

Interested? Read more on the Rapid Games Designing website.

More information on the approach can be found here and a recent paper on the application of the method, applied to several recent workshops is located here. The citation for the paper is Lankford, B.A.; Craven, J. Rapid Games Designing; Constructing a Dynamic Metaphor to Explore Complex Systems and Abstract Concepts. Sustainability 2020, 12, 7200.

Based on a text by Bruce Lankford.

Developing the Planetary Health Game

Feeding the global population while protecting the natural world is one of the greatest challenges facing us today. One in three people worldwide are affected by some form of malnutrition – hunger, obesity or micronutrient deficiency. Agriculture is key for food security, but is both a driver and a victim of environmental degradation.

The Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security at Edinburgh University brings people together to work on this complex global challenge. Postgraduate taught programmes at the Academy need innovative teaching methods to help students navigate the extremely complex trade-offs involved in feeding the world. Games are increasingly used as immersive teaching tools, where players can experiment and learn together. And so we developed the “Planetary Health Game”, where players battle to keep people, the planet and their own businesses healthy.

To develop the game, we began with a day workshop where we worked out the most important message of the game, and then got straight into prototyping our ideas. I then took these away and built them into our first playable prototype.

At our first play-testing session we played the game with several players aged 8 to I’d-rather-not-say, from board game novices to veterans. We did very well at first. Buoyed up by our (misplaced) confidence, we adjusted the rules to make things a little harder. The second time – catastrophe! Another small tweak and the last couple of plays were neither too easy nor too hard.

There also seemed to be too much information in the game, so we hid some of it away. Trying to guess together what the impacts of the policies would be was what the game needed to get people talking – which is its real job. The final version of the game is now being printed ready for the beginning of the MSc programme.

Interested in developing your own game? I can help in lots of ways, from kick-off workshops to beginning-to-end game design – just get in touch!