Playing games: learning by having fun (or having fun learning)

Playing games: learning by having fun (or having fun learning)

I love playing games, it’s the reason I use them so much in my work. I enjoy unlocking patterns within games and I love the social interaction that is part and parcel of really good games. The ones I really enjoy are the ones where I learn something. Even if I only realise later.

Game-ify everything

It’s become something of a “thing” over recent years: if you want people to engage with something then make it a game. Or Gamify it. This is usually applied to games in the digital realm, which is great, but there is a special kind of magic that happens when people play together in the real world.

That magic is what gives people the kind of memorable experiences that I trade in. When it works, it gives me a kick every time.

So, when I’m asked to design things, I often turn to making a game out of it. It’s been fruitful and very rarely lets me down.

Kings of Coal

One of the very first pieces of design I ever did for a museum was back when I was a learning officer in Hartlepool. The brief was simple: we want something Hartlepool focussed, where families can take part together and does not need a member of staff.

So I built a pair of board games. One of them required you, literally, to take coals to Newcastle (well, Hartlepool & the Tees Valley, but bear with me). I was really pleased with it: the idea was to draw attention to the coal rush that made Hartlepool a boom town. It wasn’t desperately popular, but then family learning week was an odd thing. I’ve just dug it out, it hasn’t aged well and I wouldn’t be nearly as proud of it now. I suspect that the strongest part of the game was the taking “coals to Newcastle” bit.

But, I’d been well and truly bitten by the games for learning bug. It’s a thing I kept coming back to.

It’s a game where you play a role…

Whilst I still enjoyed playing and using those classic bard-style games, another of my gaming passions was better suited to designing learning experiences. Playing a role. It probably doesn’t even feel like a game when you’re playing (and theorists still argue vehemently about the role of the game in roleplaying games).

During my time at the Royal Marines Museum our family provision evolved very quickly into something quite unique. Every session we ran, participants played the roles of Royal Marines on a training exercise. They were immersed in the experience through dressing up, a formal briefing and, crucially, consequences. They learned all sorts of skills including planning, communication, teamwork, decision-making as well as gaining an understanding of the experiences of service personnel when deployed. Some of those scenarios became classics and were used with all kinds of groups from schools to staff training. The VIP close escort scenario gained the seal of approval from a Marine who had just returned from the exact same training exercise as part of his work.

Roleplay fun

Roleplay fun

These kinds of games can be very powerful and, when deployed appropriately can give a real insight into other people’s experiences or understanding why they make certain decisions. I used roleplaying scenarios for understanding how the Nazi Party came to power and the role of the Army in Northern Ireland. These were not laugh-fests, but created some very powerful and moving learning experiences.


I found myself immersing myself in the theories of game design and game playing. I’ve probably learned more maths from understanding probabilities and balance for games than in doing my accounts. The split between crunch (the rules) and fluff (the setting) was part and parcel of my daily thinking as was the GNS (and later Big) model of games, both were built into my planning tools.

I ended up taking these planning tools on the road and using them to spread the word about how powerful these games could be in teaching. I presented at conferences and gave workshops where I took people through this design phase to show how they could make their own games. I recall there were all sorts of odd games designed at these sessions, including one about the etiquette of golf and one about coal miners in their canteen.

RPG Planning sheet

RPG Planning sheet

It showed me that this kind of learning scenario can be turned to seemingly unlikely situations. Not only that but they can be incredibly successful.

Tell my story

One odd way in which games can really boost learning is in stimulating creativity. I love telling stories, it’s what I do for a living (amongst other things). I know that many people find it difficult to be confident enough to share their creativity, I know I suffer crippling stage fright before playing music or singing in front of people.

So, when I was asked to create something that helped teenage boys with literacy, this seemed the perfect opportunity. Out came the planning matrix and off I went. I’ve talked about the results in this blog, but the short version is that we created a scenario where the boys foiled a terrorist threat the museum. All they had to do was decipher the clues and do some writing of their own to get the next one. We never phrased it as that, but that’s what they had to do. It was brilliant.

Now tell me yours…

More interestingly, the following year we were asked to create something about ghost stories…No pressure. This is where the first of my collaborative storytelling games came to life. One of the big issues with asking people to be creative is that they get “blank page paralysis” so a good game will give structure to what they have to do. The other, especially with teenage boys, is the fear of being rubbish and being laughed at. So a good game will have rules to prevent that.

In this case, they were given a character archetype for a ghost story (such as the high-school jock, the geek, the ex-convict) to prevent them having a blank page. Each of them had to create a secret that their character had that they didn’t want anyone else to know about. Simple: what might your character have done or seen that they didn’t want anyone else to know? If they were stuck then the table could help them out. The rule here is that no idea is rubbish. If you don’t like it, you can only suggest a way of improving it (“would it be better if…”).

Then the first kicker. The person to their left was involved in that moment. It’s up to them to come up with how and then agree with you. Suddenly these characters are tied together by secrets. This way both of you are involved and probably neither wants anyone to know.

The second kicker is that the person to their right knows about it. How did they find out, what have they done about it and why haven’t they told anyone else?

Now you have a table of characters who are tied together by secrets and lies. Sadly, this was all we had time for. They went back to school to write their stories.

We can find a game anywhere

Surely, there must be a limit to this approach? There is. It’s that you have to give people the knowledge and information they require in order to take part. This is where museums are really strong.

Once you have that, the approach can work in surprising ways. You want me to use a roleplaying scenario and game to teach engineering in a way that engages unusual audiences? Have a look at the humanitarian scenario created for Aldershot Military Museum, where they used the museum’s collection to build their own vehicles that could be used to get emergency aid to villages cut off by a volcanic eruption. Yes, really.

Now, with driver

Now, with driver

You want me to use this to understand the form and significance of Bronze Age burials? Then the work I did for the South Downs National Park’s Secrets of the High Woods project will be right up your street.

You want a session where you learn about programming robots? Then maybe a trip to the National Army Museum for their On the Move session is in order.

You want a game that draws attention to the violence in the suffrage campaigns of the early 20th century? Actually, I found this today from 1908.

You want me to help you embed learning on a subject by encouraging creativity? In that case, take a look at my storybuilding workshops.

You want something different from all of these, or something a bit like it only different? Give me a shout and I’m sure we can work something out.

Game over: Lessons learned

So, after all these years, have I learned about designing learning games and game sessions?

  1. Always have multiple solutions to a problem. That way people can be creative and succeed in ways that will surprise you.
  2. Success makes people feel good, it’s not a test of how good they are. So make success happen, eventually. Unless the difficulty is the point (in a game where you highlight why people have made poor choices).
  3. Be prepared for running these sessions to be exhausting.
  4. There’s no such thing as a bad idea, but sometimes you won’t be able to make an idea work. Put it down, file it and know where it is when the situation arises that it will be useful.
Posted by Past Participants Andy in Thoughts, 0 comments
Zeebrugge: Per Mare Per Terram

Zeebrugge: Per Mare Per Terram

St George’s Day marks the centenary of a First World War raid that’s largely forgotten, but not by the Royal Marines.

I know there are a lot of things happening in the news on St George’s Day and I know there are a lot of First World War centenaries kicking about right now, but take a moment to remember this forgotten raid on Zeebrugge from 1918.

When the collective consciousness of the First World War centres on the Western Front and Tommies in trenches, this raid stands out as being something different.

This is intended to be a very brief account, but will give you a flavour of what happened that night.

Zeebrugge? Where? Why?

The raid on Zeebrugge was conceived to combat the threat of German submarines on cross-channel traffic. As everything from Britain to the Western Front had to cross the channel, they were a real problem. That submarine threat came from a triangle of canals that centred on Bruges in Belgium, so a plan was hatched to hinder them by blocking the Bruges Canal where it emerged into the sea at Zeebrugge.

The only issue was that, in order to get to the mouth of the canal, the block ships would need to get past the guns on the fortified mole, or harbour wall.

The job of occupying those guns fell to the Royal Marines and sailors from the Royal Naval Division.


The plan was very simple: that the troops would load up on HMS Vindictive, Iris and Daffodil (the latter two being more commonly known as the Mersey ferries), disembark at the outer end of the mole and keep the defenders’ attention long enough that the block ships could be sunk in the mouth of the canal.

Simple plans ever turn out that way. Vindictive “went to Zeebrugge ungainly and odd-looking, and returned a twisted mass of metal and debris.” According to S. M. Holloway.

Vindictive Bridge

Vindictive Bridge

No plan survives contact with the enemy

The plan had been to arrive under cover of darkness and smoke. According to Captain Arthur Chater RMLI: “Star Shell started coming over us and I realised how well we were concealed by our smoke. Then the wind changed, and the smoke suddenly drifted away…A moment later there was a burst of shell fire and shells came whistling round us.”

Sergeant Harry Wright RMLI noted that: “The slaughter was terrible, Col. Elliot and Maj Cordner was both killed with the same shell…while waiting to give the order to ‘Advance’.”

Added to this, the fire coming from the mole destroyed 12 of the 14 gangways or “brows” that were fitted to Vindictive for the Marines to get on the mole.

Private Bill Scorey RMLI remembered that “…our section was the first to land, what was left of us, and we were lucky too, for no sooner were we on top of the wall, than the German machine gunners had the range, and were playing hell with us,”

Sgt Wright’s No. 10 Platoon wasn’t quite so lucky: “Our casualties were so great before landing that out of a platoon of 45 men only 12 landed. No. 9 Platoon, led by Lt Lamplough, had also about the same number.”

Up close and personal

It turned out that Vindictive had come up against the mole about 120 yards from its intended position, which threw many of plans up in the air. In some cases, this only became apparent to the Marines, such as Lt Lamplough, as they landed: “On arrival at the brows I realized for the first time that the ship was berthed in the wrong position and we were…close to my objective.”

Private William Hodgson was part of No. 12 Platoon’s Lewis Gun section and explained what he carried ashore: “Loaded as I was with full equipment, small arms, ammunition, rifle and two panniers, each with four trays of Lewis gun bullets, it was not easy but somehow I scrambled over and dropped off the parapet wall.”

Private James Feeney RMLI was focussed on the task in hand: “in the anxiety to keep balance on the see-saw of the gangway, I forgot about the rain of lead, and really felt comfortable when I put my foot on the concrete.”

Once ashore, the Marines set about causing trouble wherever they could. Pte Feeney threw bombs at defenders of a dump-house in preparation for blowing it up. Pte Scorey and his No. 5 Platoon attempted to board a German Destroyer “but she sent oil fumes at us, and we replied with liquid fire.” Lieutenant Charles Lamplough also attempted to harass a destroyer and “dealt with a few Germans who came down the mole…as if in attempt to interfere with our scaling ladders.”

You will note that none of these things are what they went ashore to accomplish.

Vindictive Foretop

Vindictive Foretop

Home Again, Home Again

By 12:30 am thoughts were beginning to turn to withdrawal. Lt Lamplough was not relishing the return to the Vindicitve: “The whole time we were there German coast defence guns bombarded the Vindictive and Mole and a considerable number of shells burst at the base of the wall alongside the ship, not and encouraging prospect for our retirement.” Private Feeney was of a similar mind: “I felt rotten to hear the rattle of shells striking the funnels [of Vindictive], and could do nothing just then.”

Getting back on the boats as almost as difficult as getting off them, Pte Feeney RMLI: “we retired in twos to the ladders; it was running the gauntlet over that fire-swept zone…The gangways were heaving up and down now, the hail of shell was awful. Then for the first time it occurred to me that I might get hurt if I hung around any longer, so I was getting careful at last.” He described himself “getting nervous and funky from looking at the dead and listening to the dying.”

Pte Scorey’s No. 5 Platoon met more immediate resistance: “One fired point blank with his revolver at one of our lads, but he paid dearly for it, for our Captain [Bamford] crowned him with his loaded stick…we had to climb up the wall by ladders, which was about 15 to 20 feet high so it was no easy job. No sooner were we at the top than a shrapnel shell came and scattered us…I went in the water myself, but managed to get on board by a rope that was flung to me, she pushed off then leaving some men behind. I think I was the last man aboard.”

Worse was to fall to Harry Wright: “we took it for the signal to retire and commenced doing so when …the order was passed to return to our posts. W obeyed the order, and very shortly afterwards had the horrible ordeal of watching our only means of escape move slowly away.” Harry and his mates spent the rest of the war in German prison camps.

Was it worth it?

Pte Feeney summed up the scene as Vindictive sailed away: “one thing was evident- it cost a great deal of blood. I shall never forget the sight of the mess decks; dead and dying lying on the decks and tables where, but a few hours before, they ate, drank and played cards. In the light of day it was a shambles.”

The feeling on the way home seems to be one of failure. Understandably, as the message that the attack was diversionary appears not to have made it down to Lieutenants, according to Cpt Chater: “I discussed the operation with Bamford. We had failed to gain any of our objectives…We felt that our part in the operation had been a complete failure. We had lost many good men…We felt extremely despondent. We did not know then that…the attack on the mole had created the necessary diversion to enable the blockships to enter the canal.”

Edward Bamford RMLI VC

Edward Bamford RMLI VC

It seems that, for all the feelings of failure, that the raid on Zeebrugge had been successful and the returning Marines were greeted as heroes. Captain Bamford and Sergeant Norman Finch were awarded the Victoria Cross for their deeds. Of those whose voices I’ve used here Captain Arthur Chater was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, Lieutenant Charles Lamplough to Distinguished Service Cross and Sergeant Harry Wright the Distinguished Service Medal. Harry Wright had to wait until his repatriation at the end of the war for his medal.

Norman Finch RMA VC

Norman Finch RMA VC

Any discussion of the value of an operation in the First World War is open to interpretation, I teach a school session on it. So I am not going to pass judgement, merely to pause for a moment and remember those who went to Zeebrugge a hundred years ago, especially those who did not come home.

I will leave the last word to Private James Feeney RMLI: “There were some deeds done that night that make words seem light and not able to touch on the thought you wish to express.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Thoughts, 0 comments
Call it what you want: Co-creation is amazing

Call it what you want: Co-creation is amazing

Collaboration, co operation, co creation. Call it what you want: working together is brilliant

After a summer largely spent in the office, I am relishing collaborating with people again

One of the downsides of working for yourself is that you are often working by yourself. It is perfectly possible to go a couple of days without actually speaking to a human being who doesn’t live under the same roof. More worryingly still, it’s possible to do this without really noticing.

Which is why I am really enjoying getting out of the office.

Many is better than one

I am a relatively creative person. I have a lot of ideas for things bouncing around at any given moment. Anyone who has looked at my notebook will have seen that. I enjoy toying and tinkering with ideas for things. I enjoy rolling them over in my head until the bits all fall into place.

It’s a lot of fun.

Sometimes, people ask me for something and I can just pick up my notebook and say: “is this what you were thinking of?”

But it’s not always the best way of doing things.

I’ve been up in London a lot in September, working at one of the Nationals. I am used to working in a small office on my own or in front of classes of people. Suddenly, I’ve found myself in an open plan office with over thirty people in it. I’ll not lie: it’s been a culture shock.

Collaboration is worth more than the sum of its parts

Creating together

I really like working with other people. Creating together you can come up with something far more impressive than you would have on your own. People ask difficult questions and sometimes say things like: “wouldn’t it be better if..?” It challenges me to come up with better ideas and to work those ideas through to their conclusion.

I’ve been getting this kick from working as part of a team again. In my case I’m coming at things with fresh eyes, suggesting tweaks and alterations to things that hadn’t been thought of. It’s great to feel like I’m contributing and adding another perspective.

I am getting to see how someone else goes about things and seeing opportunities for my own practice. I am seeing ways of doing things and getting ideas for new things to do.  It’s great.

This is all well and good


I've got a brilliant idea

Co-creation is an odd thing. You have to pay for it. When I create on my own, I have full control over where I’m going with my ideas. I don’t have to bend them for anyone.

When I create with someone else, I have to give that up. I have to accept that I no longer have the final say over things. That can be hard.


But the payoff is massive. The payoff is that the result can be amazing.

I also love seeing the thrill that other people get out of it. I’ve run several storytelling sessions where the point is that no one has complete control. Everyone has to work with everyone else’s ideas. And that sense of surprise over where the idea goes can be electric.

I’ve watched groups write ghost stories where, part way through, they realised that one of the characters as the ghost.

I’ve led sessions on collaborative story creation with teenage boys. They were writing haunted house stories. One group worked together to create characters who all ended up in a haunted house together, because they all had a relationship with a local boy. At the end of the session I asked them to decide WHY they were there. The lad playing the boy declared: “I invited them all here so I could kill them to cover my tracks.” Everyone stopped dead. It was a moment of genius that only came about because of how the group had worked together and shared ideas. It was brilliant.

Having a blast

The easy and the hard

There are some things about co-creation that can be difficult. You need to have ground rules about how people work with other people’s ideas. You need to have a framework for who has control at any given moment. You also need some rules about how you treat other people’s attempts at creativity.

One of the things I reinforce is that there is no such thing as a bad idea. You are not allowed to say it. You can say “wouldn’t it be better if…?” but you can’t say it’s rubbish. This gives people the confidence to air their ideas knowing that no-one is going to laugh at them.

The other thing I try to do is to make sure that, at any given moment, a single person has control. The rules state when and how this control is handed over, which means their ideas don’t get trashed, they get built upon.

Try it: it’s a lot of fun.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session design, Thoughts, 0 comments
Breaking Rocks in the Hot Sun

Breaking Rocks in the Hot Sun

Where have you been?

Things may have looked quiet on the surface recently, but there’s been a lot going on at Past Participant Towers over the last month or so. There’s a lot of catching up to do.

The end of term seems to have signalled a real change.

We dig deep holes…

You may have noticed some odd pictures cropping up on Facebook and wondered what’s been going on. Well, it’s dead simple: I’ve been doing a stint as a professional archaeologist.

Archaeologist's trowel

Archaeologist’s trowel

I’ve been working in various heritage roles for so long now that it’s easy to forget that this is where I came from. I have two archaeology degrees, that’s five years of studying. However, I’ve not wielded a trowel in anger since 2003, so people I’ve known and worked with for a long time don’t realise that my background is in digging holes. That always comes as a surprise.

When people ask me what my background is I usually reply that I’m a reformed archaeologist. It’s always been a useful part of my skillset as a heritage educator. It gives me the ability to talk about a wide range of historic, prehistoric and environmental subjects with a sense of authority.

So, when the opportunity came up this summer to re-acquaint myself with a mattock, I jumped at the chance. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I really wasn’t sure whether I could still cut it after thirteen years out of the trenches. However, it was a chance to put my money where my mouth is, which is a challenge I can’t ignore.

…And fill ‘em up again.

So I donned my hard hat and flash vest and got ready to get dirty on an active construction site.

Three men in a pit

Three men in a pit

I’ve been re-familiarising myself with pits, fills, context sheets, plans and sections.

I’ve been enjoying working at the sharp-end of heritage as well as becoming the site expert in identifying ancient tree-throws (mostly by digging them).

I’ve even got to excavate my first skeleton in a very long time, albeit a lamb burial.

Lamb burial with trowel for scale

Trowel for scale

Some of it felt instantly familiar. Some of it far less so. It’s been over fifteen years since I last worked on a commercial site.

Working on a construction site has also helped me keep my engagement skills sharp. Many of the builders and digger drivers were really keen to know what we were up to. Often they’d drive their 9 tonne tippers right up to our pits to find out. Cheers for that.

It was a lot of fun to meet new people and enjoy the camaraderie that comes from a shared experience.

It was also pleasing to feel that I’ve still got it. Kind of.

And we never, ever, find a thing.

Working on a clean-stripped chalk site in the hottest weather of the summer has been…errr….challenging but rewarding. Hefting a mattock in 35 degrees of blazing sun with no shade was, I’ll admit, not a great deal of fun.

Desperately seeking shade

Desperately seeking shade

It’s has been good exercise and I reckon I’ve stored up enough Vitamin A to get through the winter.

But, I hear everyone ask, did you find anything?

Well….kind of. There was some cool stuff. There were several burials, there were things that may well have been Iron Age houses. There was even a Romano-British ditch.

There was also a lot of dross. By which I mean that, when you’re investigating things, a lot of the things you dig up turn out to be nothing much. Or, in my case, the boles of trees long gone.

That’s how I earned my nickname “The Tree Throw King” which was, I hope, meant affectionately.

I have also thoroughly enjoyed the experience of stopping off on my way home with me site kit on, hard hat & flash vest strapped to my back, covered in filth for a free cup of coffee in Waitrose. The looks I got were priceless.

The last days of summer

Sadly, all good things come to an end. It’s now time to refocus Past Participants on our core business. So I have, once again, hung up my trowel and returned to the office.

It’s going to be a busy and exciting few months. I’ll be keeping you up to date with the excitement as I get a chance.

Enjoy the photos.


Posted by Past Participants Andy in Uncategorised, 0 comments
Getting to the beaches: D Day landing craft remembered.

Getting to the beaches: D Day landing craft remembered.

The experience of a 19 year old Landing Craft Coxwain

Today is the seventy-second anniversary of Operation Neptune. It was the largest amphibious assault, the largest Royal Marine operation of the war and signalled the opening of the northwest European front.

By any stretch of the imagination it was, and still is a massive event. There were something like 160,000 allied personnel involved, of whom 16,000 were Royal Marines. If you think the scale of the event and what it signalled about the Second World War were massive, then spare a thought for the individuals who were actually there and how significant it was for them…

Many people will write many things about D Day today, some will insightful and well thought out. Many of them will invoke images of beaches and smoke and something reminiscent of a certain film starring Tom Hanks.

I’m going to wind the story back a little further than that. Before the Commandos and all the other troops could run up the beaches, they had to get there. More than that, someone had to get them there.

Over half of the Royal Navy landing craft were crewed by Royal Marines. Allow me to introduce you to a chap called Sergeant Drew:

I was 19, a Royal Marine, and Coxswain of a landing craft (LCVP) approaching the D Day beaches of Normandy.

Sgt Drew RM LCVP 1013
Think about that for a moment: he’s 19 years old, probably has never left Britain before and he is tasked with delivering a boat full of soldiers safely onto Juno Beach to take part in D Day. He has to make sure that the landing craft and all its passengers arrive in the right place in one piece. Just imagine the pressure.

So how did he feel?

Full of apprehension, fear of the unknown and the many discomforts associated with a small craft crossing the channel…


That pretty much sums it up to be honest. In case he wasn’t afraid enough, he drops this little bombshell too:

The losses were expected to be so heavy that in the next few days a spare crew arrived for each craft.


That’s right: they were so confident that the crew were going to get killed that they had a spare crew for each craft. The craft were needed to outlive the crew and still be useful. If you weren’t afraid before, you would be now.

The Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel was a little over 36 feet long by 10 feet across with a draft of between 2 and 3 feet. It had a crew of 4 and carried up to 36 troops. It was capable of 12 knots (just under 14mph). Sergeant Drew coxed this craft across the channel in darkness and rough waters.

we had been issued with chewing gum to prevent seasickness, but with the rough seas and our craft being flat bottomed, the continuous buffeting made a lot of the troops and some of the crews seasick.


Just imagine how miserable that crossing probably was for the Coxwain.

Then, as dawn broke:

As we approached the beach we saw the whole coast ablaze and I thought “My God, we’ll never get in there alive.”


Not only Was he expected to do it, but he was expected to do it several times.  The dangers facing in incoming landing craft were many: the rough surf, mines, underwater obstacles and fire from defending forces. In fact Drew describes this chilling moment:

At one point I said goodbye to the crew, for on the starboard side was a huge mine and I was sure we would hit it.


Imagine realising that you are about to hit a mine and what you would do about it. His diary doesn’t record exactly what happened but the fact we have his diary means they must have avoided it.

Sadly, their luck didn’t last:

We were hit amidships by a torpedo and literally blown out of the water. We had gone through hell for days and nights, Stukka Bombers, Coastal batteries…the lot. It was a terrible experience and one that I will never forget as long as I live.


LVCP (or in some cases LCA) 1013 is listed as having been lost during the operation.

So, when you’re thinking about the undoubted bravery of the troops on the beaches on D Day, spare a thought for those who put themselves in harm’s way to get them there in the first place.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Thoughts, 0 comments
The tales of Captain Bourne and Private Lambert at the Battle of Jutland

The tales of Captain Bourne and Private Lambert at the Battle of Jutland

Today is the centenary of the Battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle of the First World War. It’s a battle that provokes argument and debate amongst people who know about it and looks of blank incomprehension from people who have only encountered the Western Front narrative of the war.

I am not going to try to tell the story of the battle here, or even say which side of the various arguments I come down on. Instead I am going to explain why I find it so haunting.

For me Jutland really highlights the completely impersonal nature of naval warfare. It is completely different to land battles Read this quote:

Shots were continually passing over or falling short. The suddenly out of the mist, only 10,000 yards away, emerged a battle cruiser of the Lutzow class.

Cpt Hill, RMLI HMS Colossus

Yes, it really does describe the enemy as being “only” 10,000 yards, or slightly over five and a half miles away. Ships were engaging over vast distances where they could only see each other through binoculars. Sailors were engaging enemy ships rather than individual enemies, in this case not even an individual enemy ship but one whose class they can work out. Just think about that for a moment.

Admiral Beatty’s quote

One of the most famous lines from the battle was, allegedly, uttered by Admiral Beatty:

“There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today”

It was uttered in response to the catastrophic loss of HMS Invincible at 1830, HMS Indefatigable at 1603 and, worst of all, HMS Queen Mary at 1626. All of them blew up suddenly and sank with the loss of almost all hands. There really did seem to be something wrong with the ships.

It appears that the way that cordite was handled meant that a direct strike on a turret stood a good chance of setting fire to the magazine where the cordite was stored. This caused the ships to explode. It’s not quite as straightforward as that.

But this is where it gets interesting.

Alan Bourne on HMS Tiger

Captain (later General) Alan Bourne RMA was a Royal Marine in X Turret on HMS Tiger  at the battle and kept a diary of the day. It gives a very interesting, human scale view of the battle:

…when I could not see any enemy ships, I got the gun house crew onto the top of the turret to give them a change, and we passed the remains of the “Invincible” sticking up out of the sea- she had broken in half + the broken parts were on the seabed with the ends sticking up. The 3 or 4 survivors were standing on a raft + cheering as the ship went past.

Cpt. Bourne, MVO RMA HMS Tiger

So there were opportunities for a pause in the hostilities, but there is also the haunting sight of the wreckage of Invincible with only “3 or 4 survivors”.

However, it gets even more interesting with the tale of Private Lambert. I’d never heard of him either, but listen to this:

…to avoid this, Private Lambert, a young soldier of 19 years age who had been brought up as a spare No. 5 at the left gun in place of the No. 5 on leave, suggested to the second captain of the turret that the main cage should not be brought up until the Gun-loading cage was raised.

So, here’s a lad of 19 years, who is only temporarily in the crew, suggesting to his superiors that there might be another way of doing gunnery drill. You can imagine how that went down.

For some reason they listened to him, which is important because:

At 3.56 pm “X” Turret hit by 11” shell on the barbette, directly between the guns. The body of the shell and a large piece of the barbette lodged on top of the lever for jacking up the guns, and two more large pieces covered the manhole between the centre sight setter’s position an the working chamber. The central training shaft was knocked into the dynamo compartment and bent across the dynamo. There was a shower of sparks, like a rocket, in the gunhouse and working chamber, and thick fumes.

Indeed, Private Lambert’s suggestion was only

… completed some minutes before “open fire” and before the German 11 inch shell entered the turret. Burning material fell all over the empty receiving trays, and the fact of them being empty of exposed charges probably saved the ship from blowing up.


Or, to put it another way: there is a fair chance that, without the actions of the Private Lambert, HMS Tiger could have suffered a similar fate to Invincible, Indefatigable and Queen Mary.

Without Private Lambert’s actions I would not be reading Alan Bourne’s diary and he would not have gone on to the stellar career that he had.

The simple actions of one man potentially saved the lives of over a thousand.


Clr. Sgt. Magson got a “mention in Depsatches” but Pte. Lambert got nothing- to my regret, as I think he deserved it,

Often, when I think about the Battle of Jutland, I think on the poignancy of this simple story, and wonder how many others there were of simple bravery, intelligence and humanity that have gone unrecorded.


Posted by Past Participants Andy in Thoughts, 0 comments

The power of human stories

I shared this short clip on Facebook the other day because it was important. It’s important because it’s a human story that needs to be told.

Francine Christope-One amazing ladyWOW!!!!!!!! Seriously, stop what you are doing right now and watch this video. It’s not often that I post really serious stuff, but this woman is just amazing. Watch and share this, I promise you – totally worth it 🙂 ~ QC

Posted by I Do Not Need Anger Management, You Just Need to Shut Up on Saturday, 24 October 2015

I’m not going to blow the story by telling you what it’s all about: just spend a couple of minutes watching it. It comes from a film called Human. It is the story of a Nazi holocaust survivor. It’s a story that is well known and well-trodden. Then it changes and becomes human.

It’s also important because it chimes with what I’ve been trying to do with the history sessions at Past participants. I am talking about the power of the story of the individual. A story that has the potential to illuminate world-changing events, making them real, on a human scale, intelligible. These stories are often lost in the sheer scale of these cataclysms.

The First World War is just such an event. It’s too huge to truly comprehend, even for someone like me whose job is to understand and elucidate it. There are simply too many people, in too many places, having too many awful things happen to them to get your head round. This is why we have ended up with what I’ve called the “Tommyfication” of the conflict. The reduction of the entire war to the story of Tommies in muddy trenches on the Western Front, told through the lens of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (or even Blackadder). There is nothing wrong with this picture in itself. It’s when we extrapolate this simple picture to the entire war that we run into problems. Think about it for a moment: at the battle of Passchendaele (or third Battle of Ypres) alone there were 50 British and 6 French Divisions. That’s just over a million men on the allied side, of whom between 200,00 and 400,000 ended up as casualties. Think about that for a moment. To presume that their experiences were broadly similar doesn’t really make a lot of sense, even if you assume that they were all riflemen and ignore all the engineers, artillerists, messengers, signallers, medical staff and other assorted specialisations. The reason for it is simple enough: it’s easier to get your head round it if you’re dealing with multiples of similar stories, ie numbers.

Sgt Will Meatyard

Sgt Will Meatyard

When I set up Past Participants I wanted to approach the story from a different angle. I wanted children to encounter individuals, real people and their real stories. Sometimes those stories align with the recognised narrative and sometimes they run counter to it, but that’s because they were real people. I wanted children to encounter these individuals unencumbered by the numbers and statistics. I wanted them to feel that they had a handle on who these people were and what they were doing on the battlefield. I wanted these people to have a name and a face to go with their story. These stories are often more interesting in their wrinkles than the “barbed wire and machine guns” narrative. This is why I’ve had year 6 children ask, 2 years after they last saw me, “are we going to find out about Andrew Turnbull again?”. That is the impact of the individual when the class feels a sense of ownership.

Pte Andrew Turnbull RM

Pte Andrew Turnbull RM

I’ve found that, once they know how much detail there is in two stories, then suddenly children see that 200,00 stories is no longer a number, it’s a sense of scale. They realise that we could zoom in on any of these individuals and find something the same and yet different. This is the jaw-drop moment, the light bulb moment when suddenly the size of what we’re talking about makes sense. Seeing that moment makes it all worthwhile. It’s why I keep doing this.

This premise is the basis for my First World War history sessions. I deconstruct the “Saving Private Ryan” narrative in the same way when I do my D Day sessions, using the actual memories of those who were there to similar effect. Have a look at them.


Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session design, Thoughts, Uncategorised, 0 comments
Telling Stories

Telling Stories

Storytelling sessions are some of my favourites and the most memorable sessions I’ve taught.

There’s something incredible about watching young people create something together. The results are always surprising and unexpected so I never get tired of running these sessions no matter how much energy they take to deliver.
Getting young people, particularly teenagers, to create in public isn’t easy. Being creative involves revealing something of yourself and exposing yourself to ridicule from your peers. Some find that a very difficult obstacle to overcome. This, in itself, is one of the reasons why I find the sessions so rewarding when it works.

However, it means that a lot of thought goes into setting up the storytelling game to promote creativity and inhibit the tendency to make fun of people making an effort. The games I build are finely balanced to make sure that the experience is positive for everyone involved.

So today I’m going to lift the lid as I walk through a new storytelling game I’m developing for a new session. The game is currently going under the title “What if?”, it’s a little more fanciful than some of the games I use in the other sessions. The basic premise is that tables of 4-6 people will create a setting in which stories can happen. Each table will create something unique.

Bear in mind that this is very much an initial sketch and there will be a load of playtesting between here and anything going live, but you can see an idea beginning to form.

For a chance to see storytelling sessions in action check out Past Participants Literacy sessions

What If try out

The big idea.

Always start with a big idea. What if? Starts with the idea that members of the group make statements about the world the story is happening. However, only some of those statements can be made in isolation. These are called “What if?” statements. Most of the statements have to be built on statements the rest of the group has made. These will fill in the details.

The big idea is that every statement is true of the story world. Immediately.

Give them somewhere to start

Nothing, in a classroom at least, is scarier than being given a blank piece of paper and told to “create something”. Show someone a climbing frame and it’s only a matter of time before someone’s at the top of it.

So this game will start with three “What if?” statements already on the board. This means everyone’s story starts from the same place. These statements could be “What if you arrived at school and there were no teachers?” or “What if you all went on holiday together?” “What if you woke up this morning to find that there was a flood and your house was floating?” really simple but they set the premise for the story. They should inspire ideas.

For ease of play they’re written on green post it notes.

Give them options, but limit the options to keep focus

So, they’re looking at these “What if?” statements. What now?

The next kind of statement is a “Then…” statement. It’s a response to a what if statement. Where the “What if?” opens up a world of possibilities, the “Then…” says what impact that has on the people in the story. It refines the ideas, it hones them and makes them personal to the story. You can only make a Then…statement in response to a What if? Statement on the table. For ease of play they’re written on blue post it notes stuck on the What if?/ post it note.

What if you arrived at school and there were no teachers? Then…we could play football all day [not a particularly interesting story but somewhere to build from] Then…we would have to get into the kitchens to make lunch [that might go somewhere] Then… we could sneak into the cellars that people talk about but we’re never allowed into [now this is going somewhere].

What if? And Then… statements should form a feedback loop: What if? Statements suggest Then…statements which, in turn, suggest more What If? Statements

People. It’s about people

The Third and final element of the game is the “Who” statement. It adds characters to the story. “Who” statements are added to What if? Then… clusters they tell us who is doing this and something about them. It gives us a name followed by “Who” and something about them. These go on yellow post it notes

In our story about exploring the cellar someone might add “we went with Johnny March Who had the caretakers key” Why on earth has Johnny got that key? “My sister jennie came with us Who wouldn’t normally go anywhere with me” Now that’s odd.

That’s all there is to it.s

Now make a game of it

So the game starts with three notes on the table. Three What if? Statements. The game goes like this. Each person will take a turn. On their turn they can do one of the following:

  • Create a What If? Statement (limit this to the second turn to keep things on track)
  • Add a Then…Statement to any What If? Statement
  • Add a Who Statement to any What If? Then.. cluster.

There you go. Now some rules:

  • No one is allowed to say no to someone else’s idea. You can say “Wouldn’t it be better if?” but they are the ones making the statement
  • No real people apart from those at the table in the story. Otherwise you get all sorts of oddness.

That’s it. Play goes round the table with each person taking a turn to add something to the table. I reckon that’s all it needs.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session design, Thoughts, 0 comments