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Teaching Games - Fun or Serious Business?

by Deborah Hartmann Preuss on Dec 10, 2009 |

Last month Michael McCullough and Don McGreal, creators of the Tasty Cupcakes teaching games website, published an article on  Fun Driven Development - Building Momentum for Agile Through Games. It seems the economic downturn hasn't squeezed these games out of our training programs - in fact, they've become a staple at events where leaders of Agile transitions gather to exchange ideas. They offer rapid ways to communicate convincingly about new ideas, and so are usefule for helping organizations make the paradigm shift toward self-organization and Agility.

Teachers and trainers have been using teaching games for a long time.

The modem business gaming movement came about through the fusion of developments in war games, operations research, computer technology, and education theory. Beginning with first applications in the late 1950s, the use of business games in the United States has now reached a mature stage.
-- Simulation & Gaming, Vol. 24, No. 4, 446-463 (1993)

Agile trainers in particular have used teaching games for over a decade. For years, people like Bill Wake have studied how to make good games (for example, at the NASAGA conference), and have created teaching games which they have contributed freely to the Agile community. Agilists have also brought games into their training from the domain of Improvisation Theatre - contributors include Tobias Mayer and most recently Mike Sutton and David Harvey.

Regarding use of games to teach Agile concepts, McCullough and McGreal wrote:

Adopting agile is about changing a value system and this is really about changing people. ...Communicating and conveying something as complex as a principle or value is hard.

Despite their apparent "silliness" these games persist because they provide rapid, gut-level learning in the areas of values and principles, without lots of theory or narrative explanation. They involve the senses and, at their best, the emotions - which magnifies and cements learning in a way that sitting and listening just cannot do. Despite its face-to-face nature, listening to a lecture is a rather low-bandwidth way to learn, when compared with more whole-body methods that add real-time interpersonal communication, movement, body-language and creativity.

Dan Mezick spoke to InfoQ at Agile2009 on this very subject. He pointed out that, in addition to high-bandwidth learning, these games get around resistance by teaching without use of triggering words and concepts:

These games take various forms, they teach various lessons, but basically, words can be very polarizing. When we say words like PMP or PMBOCK or Scrum, CMMI, ScrumBut, Product Owner, Scrum Master, Daily Scrum, these types of terms can be very polarizing. On the other hand, if ... as you walk in the door you are getting a set of playful materials, like cards and some dice and some paper and some colored pencils and all the rest of it and you are asked [to] "Go and have some fun!" it drops your filtering process, there is no polarization, it is not about opinions or positions; you're just involved in a game.

Now, we are focusing our attention on a certain task with others, we're taking in a rich set of information and we're getting some learning in an experiential way. That's a very effective way to accelerate Agile adoption. Most of us understand that and games are well developed in the community.

Incorporating games into your team's time together provides a change of mood, new non-verbal information, and new shared metaphors that help the team to work with each other and with Agile's new concepts. You needn't look far to find games explained and ready for use: try Google first. Also: look for games at conferences and on post-conference wikis (like AgileCoachCamp2008), on the Tasty Cupcakes website (which was created after Agile2008), and in the article cited at the beginning of this news item.

And if you'd like to try creating your own: Chris Sims and Elizabeth Hendrickson offer a course in creating simulations and games, specifically for Agile coaches & consultants (further described on the Agile2009 site). Links to more general resources are available on the NASAGA and ISAGA websites.

Read more on Agile Games on InfoQ.

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More agile games by Yves Hanoulle

I think you are missing a lot of populair agile games:

Vera Peeters & Pascal Van Cauwenberghe
The xp Game: best way to learn about estimation and planning:
www.xpgame.be

Vera Peeters & Pascal Van Cauwenberghe
The Business Value Game: best way to learn about setting value
www.xp.be/businessvaluegame.html

Portia Tung & Pascal Van Cauwenberghe
The Yellow Brick Road: Agile Adoption Through Peer Coaching
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall... Why Me?
Pinocchio: On Becoming a Lean Leader
www.agilefairytales.com/games.html


Portia Tung & Pascal Van Cauwenberghe

1 The Yellow Brick Road: Agile Adoption Through Peer Coaching
2 Mirror, Mirror on the Wall... Why Me?
3 Pinocchio: On Becoming a Lean Leader
4 The Real Options Space Game
5 I’m not a Bottleneck! I’m a free man!
6 The Nine Boxes

1, 2, 3 www.agilefairytales.com/games.html
4,5, 6 agilecoach.net/Materials.html

Yves Hanoulle & Ignace Hanoulle

The PairCoaching.net leadership game
Help my team is in War
The PairCoaching.net communication game
The PairCoaching.net agile game

www.paircoaching.net/games_en.php

Most of these are very populair in Europe.
You can download a lot of these under Creative Commons.

You also have Luke Hohmann's Innovative Games
www.innovationgames.com/

YvesHanoulle

Re: More agile games by Yves Hanoulle

and I also know that LEGO has a very big business unit about Business games

yh

experiential learning by Esther Derby

Activities, simulations, and exercises are a great way to teach. They are (usually) more engaging than lecture and help people get out of their heads and into experience.

There's another thread of influence you might want to mention: Jerry Weinberg. I was fist exposed to simulations as a teaching/learning method through Jerry in the early 1990s--though he'd been using experiential learning methods for decades before that. Working and learning with Jerry has certainly influenced the way I teach, and I suspect has influenced others directly and indirectly.

Simulations (the term I prefer) work best when they are based on sound principles of experiential education and include a debrief to draw out the learning. And, they demand more of the teacher because the results are not entirely predictable--as a teacher, you have to be prepared to deal with what happens.

I am a professional by Mario Fusco

I really don't understand. Why should professionals learn something by playing instead of by studying? Don't you buy books in your company? Have you ever heard about a civil engineer who learns how to design a skyscraper by playing with Lego? Fortunately I stopped learn in that way when I was 4 years old.

Re: I am a professional by Don McGreal

Hi Mario,

One of the points we wanted to come across in our article was that there are some things that you just can't learn from a book, no matter how much you study. How do you learn concepts such as 'Trust' or 'Team Work'? The only true way is to experience it.
We assert that the values and principles behind agile are the same. No amount of reading can convey the value of Individuals and Interactions over Process and Tools. Placing someone in a simulated situation can be a powerful learning tool.
And for the record, I agree with Esther. Simulation is a more accurate term. The term Game just gets people's attention.

Don McGreal

Re: I am a professional by Peter Rajsky

Who is talking about professionals? It is agile movement. It is not about SW engineering already - it is a new social movement:
- diversity over excellence
- practice over talent (see software katas)
- games over study
- equality over ambition

One-two years and you will see articles about "sex-driven development" on infoq - new approach how to build trust in agile IT team...

Re: I am a professional by Mark Levison

Mario - there's nothing wrong with being a professional. I felt the same way a couple of years ago. Then when I attended my first agile training (Thanks Mishkin), we played some games. My discovery I learned more from the games, simulations and the debriefs that followed than from the course material itself. And Mishkin is a good trainer.

Since then I've started to delve into the neuroscience, see: www.notesfromatooluser.com/2009/11/learning-bes... as an example. As I study and practice more in this field I become convinced that real learning happens as series of experiences that we then study and examine afterwards. However rather buy the claims I, Don, Micheal and others make. Find a traditional Agile trainer one using only slide decks and talking and then attend a training session with me. Tell me where you learn more.

Heck a promise: If you don't learn more in my experience/games based training - then I will refund your money :-)

BTW I realize this comment can be read like an ad. I'm passionate about the importance of experiential learning and am not sure how else to express this.

Cheers
Mark Levison
Cheers
Mark Levison
The Agile Consortium

Re: I am a professional by Mark Levison

Who is talking about professionals? It is agile movement. It is not about SW engineering already - it is a new social movement:
- diversity over excellence

Can you point us to some references on that?


- practice over talent (see software katas)


That's not what Kata's and Dojo's are about. They're about improving the skill level of team members. Yes naturally talented people will always do well. But the rest of us can use practice to improve.


- games over study

As I said in my previous comment - I've been studying the neuroscience in this for the past year and all I can say is it works. Too prove it to would require a small book and even then you would still tell me there were reasons you didn't buy it. Why not use the typical agile approach. Fail fast? Run a small spike, see what you learn and experiment.


- equality over ambition


I missed the article you're referring to here. A reference would be very helpful.

One-two years and you will see articles about "sex-driven development" on infoq - new approach how to build trust in agile IT team...


The best I can say is that I've put my money where my mouth is - I'm converting my training - one step at a time to an experiential based approach. Come take it and if you think its full of hokum then ask for refund.

Cheers
Mark Levison
Cheers
Mark Levison
The Agile Consortium

Re: I am a professional by Peter Rajsky

mark,
i am following agile movement on InfoQ only (as side-effect of following other communities), so I have references from InfoQ (there are probably better):
- "diversity over excellence" - see www.infoq.com/news/2009/10/diversity-IT-women-c... and discussion how social diversity (NOT diversity in thinking) leads to innovation.
- "equality over ambition" - see www.infoq.com/news/2009/11/scrum-individual-reward and discussion.

ad> "Come take it and if you think its full of hokum then ask for refund."
thanks a lot, but I don't have to try everything :) I do not think, that our problems with SW delivery are in missing values, missing shared metaphor or that we do not work with each other... I am looking for something else.

but good luck with your approach. I don't think agile movement is evil/hokum. it is strange only...

Re: I am a professional by Mark Levison

Sorry for the short reply - I'm in an airport with only minutes before my flight. I don't about the diversity article - although I would bet you would surprised with the evidence from "The Wisdom of Crowds". One of its discovery to benefit from the wisdom of groups you need diversity of opinion. In the Individual reward front I suggest that you look for Dan Pink's TED talk from a few years ago. He shows that scientific evidence is firmly against rewards for helping in creative work. So pay people well and then create the work env to support them.

Any I have to run and catch a flight.
Cheers
Mark Levison
The Agile Consortium

Re: More agile games by Deborah Hartmann

Hi Yves.
Yes, I originally included XPgame as one example of a teaching game well-established in our community. Apparently, while fighting with our CMS to get it saved, that version got lost. Thanks for pointing it out, and for adding a lot of other resources. :-)
deb

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