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Playing with Rules workshop at Lift Conference Geneva 2014

We ran our “Playing with Rules” workshop at Lift Conference in Geneva earlier this year. We’d hosted it once before at Mozilla Festival and before that it was part of our consulting repertoire as an exercise for clients. Above is a video of the outcomes we had this time around.

In the weeknotes I link to above there are some takeaways already, but I thought it would be useful to document them here for posterity. We continue to be interested in running this as a workshop at future events, but we try to take iterative design to heart and change things about the format each time around.

In this case, we mainly focused on improving the on-boarding. We spent some time discussing the background of the game everyone started with; a variation of Pachisi known in NL as “Mens erger je niet!” (“Do not get annoyed, man!”). We also tried to create a common frame of reference for the admittedly slippery term “social issue”. Definitions are hardly ever useful, so we provided some description of the dynamics we’re interested in (conflict in society between various groups) and listed some obvious examples (unemployment, racism, widespread government spying, etc.)

Most importantly, we stepped through some example rules changes, which we took from the games created by players at Mozilla Festival. By simply showing the act of articulating a design goal, defining a rules change, playing the adjusted game and finally reflecting on the experience we got everyone on the same page as to the work part of the workshop. This is what we would be doing for the next few hours.

One thing I really like about our setup is that before we get started people can already join a table and start playing the game as it is. This is a superb ice breaker and a natural result of the workshop setup.

Looking back, what stood out for us were a few things:

The starter game might affect the issues participants are inclined to choose. For example, we had a game about road rage, which is a great fit for the setup of Parcheesi, because it already involves a race around the board. We’ve also seen quite a few games about immigration, which again are a good fit because you’re moving pawns from one area on the board into another area. It might be interesting to start from a different boardgame the next time around. Or demand from participants that they pick a theme that seems at odds with the game as it is.

Adapting a boardgame is a very effective way for novices to become acquainted with game design. It is also a great basis for getting comfortable with the notion of iterative design in general. Finally, making a game about a subject, in a diverse group, is an interesting way to facilitate a discussion. It focuses conversation on what can be expressed as systems and what can be modeled in a way that is directly experienceable. In this way, it’s an odd but effective way of rational thinking and empathy combined.

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