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Teaching Games - Fun or Serious Business?

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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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