In June 2018, I had the chance to take part in an Erasmus + training course in Sermugnano (Italy), which dealt with the topic of gamification. The title may sound surprising. War games? What does this have to do with the School of Public Life? The title was inspired by an American sci-fi from 1983, in which an adolescent boy used his knowledge gained from computer games to stop an all-out nuclear war. The topic of the training was using the theory of game design and games themselves in our educational and youth work.
For me the nine days I spent with teachers, youth workers and trainers from 20 different European countries were very useful and rich in experience. I had applied to this training because we have wanted to build gamification into the methods of the School of Public Life for a long time. Of course, I do not consider myself an expert as a result of this training, but did learn and understand a lot about this approach and I also had the experience of creating our own game.
The location of the training was unique. We stayed in Sermugnano - a medieval village with a population of 60 people - in a building maintained by the training team in cooperation with the local municipality. The building used to be a school, but unfortunately there are no children in the village any more so it had to be closed. With the current utilization, however, both the building and youth activity have been preserved! An organic part of the training was “service & care”, which meant that every morning we spent one hour in small groups to maintain the building and its garden. We did cleaning, washing-up, gardening and other tasks related to the training (for example managing the Facebook page of the training and administrative tasks) in a rotating system.
The context of the training was provided by the classic Dungeons and Dragons role playing game. On the first day, everyone had to create their own avatar based on the enhanced instructions of Dungeons and dragons. I will be honest: this was the first time I heard both about this game and the concept of an avatar as a basic element of game design. Also, already on the first day, we got the task of creating a one-page game - in any way we wanted about anything we wanted. At first this seemed a bit impossible, but then everyone managed to complete the task and we also played with each others' games, which was quite liberating.
We dedicated a whole day to the methodology of LEGO serious play. This approach seems to have many creative elements and I could feel that there was potential in it to develop self-confidence and self-knowledge or even to develop common strategies, but I don't think we managed to fully understand how this method works and what it is was especially good for. In any case, it was an important lesson that playing with LEGO is in itself a source of joy for most people. As it turned out, for most participants LEGO was among their favorite games as a kid - and for many, it still is. This is when I also realized that I was a serious LEGO builder when I was a kid and that I could use this passion today as an adult as well in both my free time and educational or activist work.
The training did not promote one specific political philosophy, which would have been impossible due to the participants' diverse backgrounds and fields of interests. There were museum employees, youth workers, union activists and university teachers among the participants, who all wanted to apply their new knowledge in very different fields. At the same time, it was important to me that we spent a whole morning discussing the dominant values in European societies as well as the values that are important to us personally and professionally. In order to do this, we used the theory of basic human values by Shalom H. Schwarz, and we analyzed current political messages focusing on the implicit and explicit values communicated by them (for example Viktor Orbán’s statements about the Hungarian nation, the Brexit-campaign and Apple advertisements).
We also took a peek into some training and gamification methods. During the short introduction to drawing and illustration, we became convinced that all of us are able to express our thoughts and intentions in an aesthetic way if we don't give in to the inhibitions socialized into us from early on. We also tried the group discussions method called ‘Council’ and some elements of improvisation theater. Another inspiring method was shared storytelling, which was hard to begin, but later we did manage to synchronize our feelings, knowledge and inspiration, and we created good stories together.
We also received information about the history of games, the mechanics of game development and the meaning of gamification. For me, the most useful experience was when we took a short walking trip in the vicinity of Sermugnano and simultaneously experienced the heros’ journey - the background story to almost any game or story. The theory about the hero’s journey originates with anthropologist Joseph Campbell, who studied stories and myths from around the world and created a nearly universal model to describe the development and motivation of characters. In fact, many games are built according to this logic and aim to find the perfect balance and combination of the milestones of challenge, extrenal support, failure, learning and success, which can result in both a great game and learning experience.
We dedicated a whole session to video games: we discussed their pros and cons and spoke about their hidden potential. As this topic is very far away from me in all senses of the word, I could not participate in this discussion. But I definitely learnt that I should and could not neglect the fact that if millions of people spend their time playing with video games, which often transfer violent and negative values, then it is a field that should be recolaimed and used for our own pedagogical goals.
During the training, we spent a whole evening trying out different board games and this was the first time for me to try Monopoly. I not only lost all of my assets and investments, but also my dignity due to the success of the other capitalist players ;-)
Unquestionably, for me the most important part of the training was the development of our own games. We did this in small groups according to our different fields of interests. In my group, we ended up creating a boardgame where the goal is to realize successful grassroots campaigns around given social and political topics while utilizing resources, opportunities and partnerships in the best possible way. We worked on the game for many days, we tested it, and then we finalized it in a local board game club where we had the chance to play with local residents. The groupwork was a great experience for me and I was amazed at how in such a short time we managed to become a real team and create a working and enjoyable game, which can actually be used in our pedagogical work. So watch out, this game may appear in one of the upcoming trainings in the School of Public Life! :)
In all, the War Games training was very useful and rich in experience, and I'm sure that it will have a long-term effect on my work in the School of Public Life. The most important lesson for me was that gamification does not mean simply using games during our trainings, but a lot more: it means adopting the theories of game design in an area outside of games - for example in public transportation, museums or teaching. If we want to use the learning and growing potential of gaming, it is not enough to use some gaming elements, but we have to build activities and processes consciously by using the heroes’ journey and other essential elements of game design.