The laughter and clapping erupting from our room can be heard all the way down the corridor outside. Inside, we are sitting in groups of six players around five tables with a game board set up on each table. Could the site of such hilarity really be a high-calibre academic conference, rather than a bingo hall or a casino? Yet here we are in Pretoria, South Africa, at the ESRC-DFID Impact Conference on Lessons from a Decade’s Research on Poverty - Innovation, Engagement and Impact.
Using board games for learning
I first discovered academic board games as a tool when we were training young deaf academics at a workshop at the International Institute for Sign Languages and Deaf Studies (University of Central Lancashire). Rather than presenting a long power point lecture based on the intricacies of academic publishing, I turned the topic into a board game. According to the feedback from participants, this was the highest-rated session of our training programme, while also being great fun. This opened the door for further experimentation.
Playing the game
The Cross-Sectoral Collaboration Game is played on an A0-sized paper, with the walk-through course proceeding via the project milestones of “initiated”, “planned”, “implemented” and “celebrated”. In the spirit of the game, evaluation and dissemination are subsumed under the “celebration” phase.
Now the game starts: Players roll a super-size dice and move wine corks across the board. Each player has taken on the role of a hypothetical project partner from academia, business, civil society, and the public sector.
Throughout the game, we experience a microcosm of real life. We commiserate with our “civil society” player, who is sent back to the start twice by unlucky event cards - didn’t we all know how tough it is in the NGO sector! However, she subsequently catches up, reading out the next card to us: “Your partners accept your suggestion to include an explicit paragraph on institutional culture in the Collaboration Agreement. Move ahead four steps.”
Understanding the culture and psychologies of collaboration
We discuss: Why is it a good thing to be explicit about institutional culture, particularly in a cross-sectoral project? What would be the problems if working cultures are very divergent or incompatible between the business sector and the public sector? How can a project benefit and shape institutional cultures in each sector, and how is the project itself affected by the different values and beliefs of the implementing players (actors)?
Interpersonal psychologies are another favourite topic in the 96 event cards. Our “public sector” player is thrown off course by this: “You have to produce internal briefings at short notice, but the academic partners are not available to help. Lose a turn to catch up on the extra work.” While he might just be able to produce an acceptable briefing for his boss, the big question is how he is going to feel about those non-responsive academics - probably they are off to some fun-filled, sunny, well-catered conference, leaving me in the lurch! Will he still collaborate with academics the next time round?
Is gaming around effective?
Why does this work? Well, it was notably more memorable than just listening to a lecture. Based on the feedback from participants, there are a number of reasons why using a board game works:
- The event cards prompt relevant and real-life discussions (in my group we talked about virtue ethics,collaboratoriesfourth sector companies, and corporate volunteering schemes).
- It is a non-threatening environment, where people feel on an equal footing and are able to express themselves in ways that would not happen in more formal settings.
- It creates a space to get to know the people in a short time, both as professionals and on a personal level (I was particularly struck by this effect).
As a linguist, I readily admit that don’t know much about poverty alleviation, so I was glad to contribute to the conference in this somewhat unconventional way. Also, I will need to adjust the event cards, as it seems I had stacked the odds (perhaps unconsciously?) in favour of the business sector; at several of the tables, the “business” players arrived first at the celebration stage. Or is it just that those business people, as we had always suspected anyway, are just better at outsmarting the other sectors?
The author would like to thank Anne Tallontire, Marion Ouma and Gina Porter for volunteering to support this session as facilitators.