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
We shall Remember them.

We shall Remember them.

As the dust settles on the Remembrance season for another year and we lay to rest the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, I have a story of personal struggle and personal triumph to tell.

How did we end up here?

It is 10:50 on Friday November 11th. I have just delivered the second of six sessions I am due to deliver today but already my brain has moved on and is focussing on the next appointment of the day.

When I say focus, I mean a laser sharp, all-encompassing focus on what I am about to deliver.

I am not going to lie to you: I am feeling the pressure. I am about to deliver a one-off, single-take, no second chances, must be perfect first time session.

I am definitely nervous.

Why am I feeling so much strain? Let me take you back in time a little.

Of course I can…

When I made the booking to visit a school on November 10th and 11th, away back in May, I was really excited to be delivering Remembrance sessions to an entire school. I love the opportunity to make an impact and to leave a lasting impression. Talking about Remembrance on Armistice day is just such an opportunity.



Part of the booking was that I would deliver an assembly to the school on both days. No problem, I could do a session teaching drill. It’s a great wee session that works better the more people you have.

Then, a month or so before the visit, the teacher asked me if I would do an assembly on the Thursday and lead the school Remembrance assembly on the Friday.

“Of course I can.”  The enormity of what I had offered hit as soon as I pressed send.

I was offering to lead a service of Remembrance for an entire school. Some things are important. Some things have a very precise, correct way of doing things. Some things you are morally and ethically obliged to get perfectly right. A Remembrance service is all three of these things.

I have attended many services over the years, I have formed up groups of students for the 2 minutes silence, but I had never actually led the service. This was new territory. This is not the time to be hoisted on my own petard.

There is no wriggle room, no chance to improvise. This needs to be perfect. First time. With no notes.

So I set about memorising the order of service. I set about memorising the Exhortation. I set about knowing the whole of the Last Post and I practised my bosun’s call.

All in all it’s a lot to remember. Especially when you slot it into the middle of a day where I had to deliver six sessions about D Day.

Back to the present

So that’s why I’m feeling nervous. I am acutely aware of everywhere my Second World War uniform is not sitting quite right. Every pace it’s digging in. I am abundantly aware of how hot the school is and I am beginning to get sweaty palms.



“I can do this, and I can do it right.”

I walk into the hall to be met by hundreds of small faces and the entire school staff looking at me. Also I am greeted by a Corporal from the REME who has offered to attend the service. I suddenly feel that my battledress is very out of place for this service, but there is no time to change and therefore I must focus and get this right.

Everyone sits down.

The lights go down.

I nod to the teacher with the laptop and the Last Post sounds from the PA.

It takes an eternity to finish.

Deep breath. Commit

“They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning:
We shall Remember them.”


Announce the two minutes silence.

Sound the call. Glance at my watch and remember the time.


Think about all the things I ask the children to remember. Think about the people who I talk about in my remembrance sessions. Think about the people I have known who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Glance at my watch.

Sound the call to end the silence.



Now back into my comfort zone

And then finish the service by taking the children through their drill before dismissing them.

They were absolutely brilliant. They managed to be silent and, relatively, still for the whole two minutes. Their drill was perfect.

I have never felt such a wave of relief and pleasure at having successfully completed something.

I put a lot of pressure on myself to get it right, because it was important. It was important to me to make sure I did this properly and it’s important to other people that I did this right.

I’m not kidding myself. Compared to being involved in a conflict, I was risking very little apart from opprobrium. Compared to the fear that soldiers feel going into combat, I felt very little. However, I had done my bit to remember their experiences and to help others remember them. I had treated the occasion with the respect it deserved.

I had done my bit to remember and to keep the memories alive.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session reports, Uniforms, 0 comments

A tough audience: honing the craft

I’ve done this thousands of times before, why am I nervous now?

I wasn’t nervous a couple of hours ago. Why am I sitting here, waiting for my turn to deliver with sweaty palms and the shakes? I’ve delivered funny, engaging talks and sessions so many times that I really can’t remember the number. I feel horribly undercooked and unprepared. I’ve delivered countless times with slimmer notes than this. Why now?

Because this is different.

I really have delivered talks for tough crowds like Royal Marines Warrant Officers (chaps with 20+ years of experience as soldiers), I’ve delivered workshops for critical audiences of my peers at conferences, I’ve engaged with unforgiving crowds like teenagers excluded from mainstream education. It really isn’t as though this is a new experience for me. So why am I bricking it now?

I’ll tell you why: because this talk is a Best Man’s speech for an old friend. I’m looking out over a sea of unfamiliar faces, many of whom are waiting for me to fail.

Photo: Thomas Farmer

I’ve seen my fair share of these talks. I’ve seen the best man so crippled by nerves he reads a speech to the table. I’ve seen the Best Man whose tale of the groom’s misdeeds is excruciatingly inappropriate. I’ve seen the Best Man who really didn’t have anything interesting to say. Right now, I’m hoping not to be one of them.

I’m looking at a tightrope. On one side: a boring speech that goes on too long. On the other: offending everyone in the room, particularly the bride’s family. Both sides are alligator pits of agonising failure. The gap between them is a hair’s breadth across. No amount of practice prepares me for that moment when I stand up an everyone is looking at me.

They’re all waiting for me to perform.

It’s time to dig deep. It’s time to remember my craft. I know I can do this. I’ve done it a thousand times before. I’ve succeeded thousands of times before. I’ve convinced highly experienced Royal Marines I’m trustworthy with their heritage. I’ve introduced my peers to new ways of doing things. I’ve even convinced teenagers that a museum visit might actually be something worth doing.

Hold on to that feeling.

I know my material.

Make eye contact with as many people as possible. Watch the signs. Deliver the opening gambit. Watch how it goes. Mentally recalibrate the next element based on that assessment. Watch how that goes. Make eye contact with a different part of the room. Hold on. Watch how that goes and recalibrate again. Ok, I’ve got a feeling for the flow. Move slightly to make eye contact with another table and watch their response whilst keeping the other eye on the head table. Keep going, use the momentum of the early gags to get over any duff ones later. Feel the room warming. Gain confidence and belief in my craft. I know how to do this.

I’ve stopped looking at my notes. I know my material from here. I know where to pause to let the groom know where the punchline is going to fall. I know how long to leave it before bringing everyone else in. Weave the disparate threads together so everyone’s relationship with the groom is included. Build towards the final gag. Steer people’s expectations, set them up so they think they know where I’m going.

Then drop the hammer. Deliver the last line. Back myself to stop on a high and not fill the space with chatter. Let it land and then deliver the toast. Sit down without overstaying my welcome.

Done. Feel the relief wash over me. I’ve survived. I’d be better next time. I’m already evaluating and improving just like I would at work. The slightly duff bits would be ironed out. The pauses would be different lengths. I’d swap the running order slightly and substitute bits that I didn’t include this time for bits that didn’t really work.

Then I remember: there will be no next time. It’s done and I don’t have to evaluate this time. It’s second nature: an automatic reflex now that drives me to deliver better every time I do it.

Not this time. This time I relax and allow myself, for the first time in the evening, a glass of wine.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session design, Thoughts, Uncategorised, 2 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