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Psychological Safety in Training Games

Key Takeaways

  • Games are helpful for training when they connect as similes or metaphors for real work
  • It is best to keep with mechanical simulations when possible
  • The facilitator needs to be mindful not to traumatize or befuddle the participant
  • Training games need guardrails
  • Play-testing is an important safety mechanism.

Games can be safe places where people can learn lessons experientially under controlled circumstances and generate insights that can be applied to their daily work. Sometimes though, games can get too personal and uncomfortable. A facilitator can create safety mechanisms for these games, including making it easy and safe for people to opt-in and opt-out.

Tim Ottinger, Anzeneer at Industrial Logic, gave a keynote about psychologically safe training games at the Agile Games conference 2018. InfoQ is covering this event with Q&As and articles.

InfoQ spoke with Ottinger about using games in training and for adopting agile, how to prevent games from becoming too personal and people feeling uncomfortable during games, what’s reasonable to ask when playing games and how to find out if you are crossing the line, and how to create safe situations for playing serious games.

InfoQ: How do you personally feel about using games in training?

Tim Ottinger: I used to be against training games. I didn’t play them, and didn’t lead them. I avoided bringing them into my classrooms.

Too often I heard managers complaining about how much money they had poured into having whole teams “offline” at some training event, and their frustration when walking by the classroom to see their professional, adult staff playing with Lego, or Play-Doh, or coloring pictures, or folding airplanes. To the untrained eye, it looks like a lamentable waste of money.

I interviewed some of the people leaving these classes and asked what they learned. Many of them couldn’t answer that question. To the best of their knowledge, they didn’t learn anything, but it was fun and a nice break from doing real work.  The trainer, on the other hand, felt that the team had been educated on many topics.

Over time, I’ve come to appreciate training games when they are well-facilitated and well-debriefed, and the participants actually are able to extract meaningful lessons from the game without too much prompting.

InfoQ: What are the benefits that serious games can bring for adopting agile?

Ottinger: Games abstract away from the actual daily work. This is both good and bad, so be sure that you make the abstraction thin enough and transparent enough that people can  apply the lessons.

The abstraction creates a metaphor that is easy to recall, and not too easy to reject. It creates a useful bit of cognitive dissonance. When people connect the game to the real work, it opens up a nice line of inquiry.

Ideally, games can be safe places compared to real-world situations. In the game, maybe person X doesn’t hate person Y and have a seven-year history of opposing everything that Y suggests in order to prevent Y’s progress in the organization.  Maybe in the game, X and Y are able to partner up for five minutes, or jokingly play the part of faux adversaries within safe boundaries.

InfoQ: When and how should we use games in training and at conferences?

Ottinger: Games help break up the monotony of lecture, at the very least.  They’re welcome in the middle of the morning and the middle of the afternoon to break that “digestive slump” and “lecture fatigue” we’ve all seen.

They’re helpful as ice-breakers to introduce participants to each other. I find them better than the dreary practices of having everyone in the room introduce themselves.

Good training games go beyond mere ice-breaking and break-taking. Good training games give an opportunity to learn a lesson experientially under controlled circumstances. If the game is good enough, it generates insights that can be applied to “real work.”

Through games, people are invited to engage and learn in groups. Sharing, comparing, and contrasting their individual observations can help group members discover profound truths about the world of work.

People learn quickly and deeply in groups provided the groups are allowed to reflect and express what they learn.

InfoQ: There’s the risk that things become too personal when playing games, making people feel uncomfortable. Can you elaborate?

Ottinger: Let’s start with an introvert/extrovert split. Even pleasant interaction is draining to some and energizing for others. If people are expected to be in intense collaboration, we have to give recovery time and quiet time somewhere along the line.

Sometimes games don’t provide a safe environment. People ask difficult questions without being aware that others may have very hard lives, or very dark pasts, may be in witness protection, may be hiding from abusive ex-spouses, or may not have the educational or financial background the facilitator assumes.

For that matter, there are invisible physical limitations such as chronic pain conditions, or reduced mobility, loss of motor skills, and damage to memory. What if someone was asked to perform acts that would put them in agonizing pain or public humiliation?

Of course, in any large crowd there will be neurodiversity as well. What is “easy” or “fun” for one person may not be for another.

Almost every year at one conference or another people will want to ask people what their worst fear is. I never recommend such talks. They assume that the fear is something relatively trivial -- public speaking, public embarrassment, singing in public, etc. They don’t consider that some of the people in the room may be the victims of violent crime or emotional abuse. These are not appropriate topics for amateur psychologists and agile coaches.

Sometimes people are asked to opt-in to a game before they know what they will be asked  of them. It is irresponsible, I think, to assume people are physically “normal” with a “normal” past, “normal” training, “normal” affluence, and shallow fears.

InfoQ: What’s reasonable to ask when we want people to participate in games? What’s not?

Ottinger: We can ask almost anything, provided we make it easy and safe for people to opt-in and not embarrassing to opt-out. 

We can go surprisingly far if we create safety mechanisms. This can go well beyond a “safe word.” People have an inherent right to not talk about anything that they don’t want to talk about, even if the facilitator thinks that it might be cathartic for them to “let it out.”

It helps to talk to several people about a new game before taking it to a conference, or at least play-test it with people who are aware of the issues. It is sometimes disappointing to hear that your great training game idea might be painful or embarrassing to others, and might need reworking (at best).  Disappointing or not, rapid and early feedback can be crucial.

InfoQ: How can a game facilitator find out if he or she is crossing the line?

Ottinger: It’s not easy. I wish there was some kind of an indicator light that lights when I start to push the envelope or when I forget to consider other people’s strengths and difficulties.

Instead, I try to keep the lines of communication open, be sure not to judge those who opt-out, and build some recoverability into my process. I encourage others to own their participation and choose their roles.

I get a surprise now and then, even though I try to keep things safe.

One tip I offer is to try to keep the game focused on mechanics and mechanical principles you want to deal with, and stay out of other people’s emotional catharsis.

InfoQ: How can they deal with such situations?

Ottinger: When I co-presented a session with Ashley Johnson on the topics of trust and safety, we had an exercise that I knew could go to some dark places. We specifically needed to ask people about uncomfortable/unsafe work situations.

We agonized over whether we could pull it off and what we wanted from the experience. Eventually we were able to come up with guidelines that helped people to pull lessons from their past without reliving the pain of those times.

We gave some “safeties”:

  • We explained that there was no time for story-telling. We didn’t want them “time-traveling” so that they relived the experience. Instead we gave specific questions to answer with facts.
  • We explained that there is no time for people to try to solve past problems, and no point in it, since the past isn’t solvable. This saved time, but also saved people from answering probing and/or accusatory questions.
  • We limited the time so that people could only collect observations and look for commonalities.
  • We made sure that the room understood the “rules” first,  before choosing to participate. Once these rules were understood, each person could choose to participate or not, no questions asked.
  • We walked the room to spot and stop storytelling, solving, and time-traveling. When we saw any of these activities, we called them out and asked the team to move along in the interests of time.

We play-tested these guardrails by considering our most uncomfortable work relationships and listening for violation of the guidelines. We were able to ascertain that we were unable to really go into our hurts if we keep to the rules.

People approached us for several days after the session telling us that they appreciated the safeties that we included in the exercise and how the guidelines respected their emotional space.

I think that most anything that applies to agile development directly can be presented in a safe-enough way if we’re willing to build the safeties into our process.

InfoQ: Which suggestions do you have for creating safe situations for playing serious games?

Ottinger: Here is a summary.

  • Keep it voluntary
  • Be upfront about physical, mental, emotional requirements
  • Make opt-out an act of self-care and self-ownership, not an embarrassment
  • Try to make it educational also for those who just watch
  • Keep it light; don’t risk bringing up pain that you’re not qualified to handle
  • Pre-vet and pre-test your game
  • Let people know it’s okay -- the game is not about whether they are good enough but rather it illustrates a point about work. The lesson doesn’t need them to be great players
  • Listen to people with curiosity and compassion. Try to make their experience pleasant and rewarding
  • Learn to prep and debrief the games

About the Interviewee

Tim Ottinger is a long-time programmer (since 1979), manager, reviewer, speaker, & writer. Ottinger is one of the crew of experts at Industrial Logic, a premier agile consultancy, eLearning vendor, and thought leader. Ottinger muses about of his experiences on the Agile Otter blog, the Industrial Logic company blog, and long tweet streams.

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