Board Games for Mediators

“Don’t be a d**k.” – Wil Wheaton

Who gets pneumonia suddenly just as the weather turns warm and a period of relative calm appears in both work and family schedules?  Apparently, that’s me. I’ve just spent two weeks laid up with pneumonia!  Still not recovered, but sitting up and taking the opportunity to share my (possibly) fever-induced insights…  For much of the past weeks, I have been too weary for much reading, and restricted in television watching by a promise not to get ahead of my husband on anything I’d really like to watch.  Netflix was misfiring on our device and wearing down my patience, so Youtube it has been – and a bizarre marathon of TableTop with Wil Wheaton.  For those readers unfamiliar with TableTop, the show is remarkably simple in concept: Wil Wheaton (now primarily an internet celebrity, but for older folks often better known as young Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation)  plays tabletop games with his friends (usually other internet and television actors, producers, writers, etc.) and introduces viewers to a wide range of cool games in the process.

No doubt occurring to me as a rationalization for my odd compulsion to watch every TableTop episode in order, I started thinking early on about the potential value of the various tabletop games played on the show for conflict resolution purposes.  And lo and behold, there really are quite a few that lend themselves to such consideration!  I’m going to concentrate here on two games that illustrate two different categories of possible interest to mediators:  Dixit – a game about understanding indirect communication (through a wide range of skills); and Pandemic – one of many collaborative games that require teamwork and joint problem solving to have any chance of winning.  There are many other examples of each of these categories of games, of course, but these two happen to have been featured on TableTop which allows me to link to a more detailed explanation – and they’re really fun!

Jolts for Mediators (and possibly for Mediation?)

dixit-odyssey-8n7jgji1. Dixit

Dixit is an award-winning European card game that I’d never heard of before my TableTop marathon.  It’s remarkably simple in concept. Each player starts with 6 cards with artistic images on them.  Players take turns being the Storyteller.  The player who is the Storyteller chooses a card from her hand and lays it down on the table face down, giving a short descriptive phrase that might allow others to identify the card.  Everyone else also lays down a card  – one that they think is most likely to fool other players into thinking it was the Storyteller’s card.  The cards are shuffled, turned face up, and each player places their bet as to which card was the Storyteller’s. The Storyteller scores points only if at least one player, but not all, chooses her card.  Others score by choosing the right card and by having votes on the card they played.

dixit_cardsIIHere’s a simple example:  Suppose the Storyteller played the second card in this set (the books) and gave the description “From above”.  Players might well choose photo 1, 3 or 5 instead – depending on how they understand the description.  So in essence, success in the game relies on the following skills:

  • Reading any clues from the Storyteller’s tone and body language
  • Interpreting the clue through the lens of the Storyteller (which means really listening to the clues a person gives from one round to the next and developing a sense of how they interpret visual images)
  • Fooling other players by selecting cards that you believe they will see as matching the description (which means, again, understanding the lenses that others bring to the game and speaking to their worldviews rather than automatically and unconsciously choosing according to your own)
  • As Storyteller, communicating to some, but not all of the people in the room (by utilizing clues that one or two people will recognize, but that you think at least one other will not).

It seems to me that each of these skills are closely connected with strong mediation skills, particularly the need to recognize and speak to different worldviews and backgrounds, and to do so consciously and with awareness.  One could certainly play the game without doing so, and I am sure that many players do approach it fairly unstrategically, but what a great warm-up/practice of conscious skill development when one is deliberately focused on that aspect of the game!

I can imagine utilizing the game as a pattern interrupt in a conflict resolution skills training workshop.  Allowing the participants to debrief the skills utilized and to practice them consciously could provide a great reinforcement of discussions of varied lenses, cultural differences, etc. while changing the rhythm should students reach a point of low energy or discouragement with the speed of their skill development.

The game is so simple that I suspect that in the right setting one could play a single hand (or a couple of hands) in an actual mediation to introduce a discussion of communication challenges.  Again, a pattern interrupt aimed at stimulating reflection on and discussion of the process as opposed to the content of the mediation.  Most tools that effectively shift parties to a discussion of process can be effective in breaking impasses based on positional posturing, and I suspect that Dixit could too.

If you’d like to watch the TableTop episode on Dixit, here it is.  Watch Casey McKinnon’s play, in particular, for a great example of explicit strategizing about clues that will communicate with one but not all players.

Pandemic2. Pandemic

This one is a bit “on the nose” for my current bout of pneumonia, but my daughters have kindly indulged me by letting me play multiple rounds with the intention of eradicating pneumonia (and three other diseases) from existence!

Pandemic is one of a wide range of collaborative board games.  Players are trying to wipe out 4 diseases that spread quickly throughout the world.  Each player has a different character who has different abilities.  Only by working together, and strategizing carefully do players have the slightest chance of winning the game and curing all 4 diseases.  There are three ways to lose the game, and only one to win.  Very difficult to win even at the simplest level of play with only 4 epidemic cards in the deck, and almost impossible at the highest levels!  But oh so much fun!

I love Pandemic because I love the way it brings people together to focus on problem-solving.  It very quickly feels like that moment in a mediation when everyone transitions from positional gamesmanship to solution-oriented communication. Gaming scholar, Carly A. Korucek, captures much of my reaction to Pandemic in her description of playing the game for the first time and her thinking about the culturally celebrated model of competition in games of all sorts.  Here’s a fairly lengthy quote from her blog, Casual Scholarship, that provides a gaming scholar’s insight into collaborative gaming:

I was impressed by Pandemic. Sure, it was fun, but I was more impressed by the effect it had on those of us playing. We weren’t just sort of working together, we were painstakingly thinking through the ramifications of every possible move for every player. At some points, we plotted out series of actions involving 3 or 4 players’ turns. We were sucked in. When we — all of us — lost, there was swearing and shouts of disappointment.

The point I want to suggest here is that playing collaborative games can be a very different experience than playing, well, most other games, which pit players against each other, either individually or in groups. In the realm of boardgames, games like checkers, Clue, Sorry, and other household names encourage players to compete directly with each other. This model is so established that when I ask people if they can think of any collaborative games, they often draw a blank.  …

In writing about the history of competitive video gaming, I have been thinking a lot about  models of play that aren’t based on competition among players, not because they are prevalent, but specifically because they are obscure. The fetishization of individualized competition in much of gaming shouldn’t be seen as either natural or neutral. Our investment and interest in the successes of individual gamers is part of a system that broadly values individual achievements and may, even in the case of corporate- or team-based achievements, give credit for success to individual actors rather than the collective involved.

Professor Korucek makes an important point when she notes that individual competition is neither natural nor neutral.  Competition is a value embedded so deeply in our culture that we don’t even question it.  We celebrate the most competitive individuals and strive to instil competitive drive in our youth, even while suggesting that we should all cooperate.  To quote a favourite song from Todd Snider, Ballad of the Kingsmen:

…First grade where they teach the kid pride
They tell him he’ll need to thrive,
In a world where only the strong will survive,
So he’s taught the art of more
To compare to and to keep score Monday thru Friday while
He stares at the floor til’ Sunday they make him go to
School once more only this time they make him wear a suit and a tie
And listen to some guy who claims to know Where people go
When they die tell him that only the meek are gonna inherit the earth…

In this context of unexamined competitive values, collaborative games like Pandemic are important in that they are every bit as fun as any competitive game you can name, and they reward wholly different values than games based on individual victory – the values that underlie all collaborative decision-making processes.  Of course, cooperative games were an education buzzword when I was a teenager, and they have been part of many children’s programs at least since then.  But, as Professor Korucek comments regarding video gaming, competition has remained the norm in much the same way that competitive bargaining remains the expectation when people sit down to negotiate.  The challenges that so many in the justice field have written about in shifting dispute resolution culture (and perhaps especially legal dispute resolution culture) to create space for collaborative approaches are the same challenges that any game designer faces in creating a collaborative game – we have unconsciously adopted competitive values from virtually all aspects of our culture and assume that competition is a universal norm, making collaboration risky.  This normalizing of competition has led us to simply not think of games as being collaborative unless they are didactic and offered in school to teach young children about cooperation.   Well, happily that is changing and games like Pandemic may just be a little wedge in the dominant culture of competition.

Pandemicg01t04How to introduce Pandemic to mediators, and maybe even sneak it into a team-building setting or other collaborative process?  Try playing Pandemic at a mediators’ retreat, or (and I would love to be invited!) at a monthly mediators’ gaming evening.  And introduce it to your families and friends to spread the word about collaborative gaming.  And yes, perhaps in the right setting, you could even use the game in a long term facilitation.  I’m thinking here of longer term work with families who need to learn (or re-learn) how to work together and might need to include pre-teens and teens in that process.  Playing a game might be a “homework” assignment to help the family prepare for a joint problem solving session.  Or similarly imagine the game used as part of work with family members planning around a loved one’s illness.  I found it remarkably therapeutic to name the red disease ‘pneumonia’ and set our to eradicate it as quickly as possible; others might find similar moments of unexpected lightness in bringing caregivers and family members together to defeat cancer or dementia.  (I think of dementia, in particular, as I look forward to Don Desonier’s upcoming CoRe Talk about working with families planning around dementia, but any illness might be equally appropriate). Likewise, workplace retreats and workshops aimed at building teamwork and increasing collaborative problem solving could be an appropriate situation for a game of Pandemic.  In many such events, games of one form or another are already normalized as part of team building.  I know I’ve attended a number of firm/faculty/workplace social events that involved competitive games. Doesn’t building an event around a game in which the whole team wins or loses more closely match the real workplace ideal of competing together than pitting half the group against the other half?

Here’s the TableTop episode on Pandemic.

And to circle back ever so briefly to the potentially obscure quote that led off this discussion, one of Wil Wheaton’s further contributions to the betterment of the world (beyond providing inspiration for collaborative gaming and mediation skills training) is the naming of July 29th (his birthday) as Don’t Be a D**k Day.  Simple message, but definitely one that will resonate with many mediators.  Personally, I plan to schedule mediations on July 29th whenever I can simply so I can declare at the outset that it’s Don’t Be a D**k Day and that the main ground rule for collaborative problem solving is just that simple.


One Comment to “Board Games for Mediators”

  1. OMG, so worth reading just to get to the last line! That’s pure gold.

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