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On Board Games

Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.  Michael Jordan

The Only Option is...

You've probably heard this one before: two criminals, arrested on suspicion of a serious offence, are interviewed separately by the police. Each can either betray their partner and lie about their own involvement in the crime, or stay loyal by remaining silent. Rules that decide what happens next are:

  1. If they betray each other, they both serve 2 years in prison.
  2. If one betrays the other, who remains silent, the first will go free and the other serve 3 years.
  3. If they both stay silent, both serve 1 year in prison.

The question is, what should each criminal do? They can't discuss a strategy. Their choices are totally independent of each other. Game theory proves that the best choice is betrayal because it produces the 'least worst' combination of possible outcomes from each person's point of view.

What if?

But what if they could speak to each other, trusted each other, and made a joint decision? Clearly option 3 is now the only option; the price they pay for getting caught.

This thought experiment is the Prisoners' Dilemma which was framed in 1950 by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher. And it illustrates a key difference between two kinds of board game and two kinds of person.

Monopoly and Mysterium

Two more diverse games you could not find. Monopoly: the rule-based, dice-driven, grindingly-slow-death-defeat tribute to property ownership; and Mysterium, a cooperative murder-mystery where players are pitted together against the game itself and succeed through effective communication and creative visual thinking.

Monopoly is a zero-sum game: one person's gain is another's loss. They balance out. Someone wins. Everyone else loses. Mysterium is different; it's a positive-sum game. One person's discovery is a discovery for the whole team as they construct the narrative and deduce who the murderer is.

And isn't this the way with systems and people? And life in general. Some see it as zero-sum, others as positive-sum.

Why Board Games?

Creative thinking, collaboration, negotiation, communication, laughter, cooperation, deferred gratification, resilience, determination, analysis, relationship building, cognitive flexibility, happiness, modelling real life, patience and imagination. For starters. In fact, sociologist Michel Crozier in his seminal book, Actors and Systems (1977), models all organisations as games that the people in them are playing. And psychiatrist Eric Berne in Games People Play (1954) describes human interaction and relationships as just a series of different strategy games that we don't generally realise we're playing.

Trexit & Learning

They say that President Trump's approach to leadership is zero-sum. For him to win, someone else must loose. The news today, as I'm writing this, notes that he's is about to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital. And Brexit. It's December '17 and the UK is bringing to bear all the negotiation capacity it has on to the issues of EU trade and Irish boarders.

I really hope that it is January 2018 and you are reading this.

What to learn from games in a world like this? The easy option is to recommend every school has a games club that helps pupils to develop 21st Century skills. That's a valuable but minimal response. How about something radical? How about this:

That school curricula should be formally based around the following skills and that these skills must to be taught, progressed and assessed from ages 4-18. These are not optional add-ons. They are as core as Literacy and Numeracy.

  • Negotiation
  • Collaboration
  • Win-Win Thinking
  • Strategic Thinking
  • Creative Thinking
  • Critical Thinking
  • Analytic Thinking

And every pupil plays board games every school week and, with their teacher's help, maps what they learn on to real life contexts.

I've yet to find an evidenced, compelling argument to NOT do this. Though I'd love to hear your thoughts. And all about your favourite board games.

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