The best way to learn is not by being shown, but by doing. And that’s something that games and fun allow us to incorporate into our efforts to cultivate a new world. They create unique and powerful avenues to engage, excite, and energize people about our movements.
My worker co-op, The Toolbox for Education and Social Action (TESA), is a movement-building organization. We create educational resources that help people learn about and create social, economic, and environmental change. However, we do something different than a lot of other movement-building organizations: we make sure to have fun. Too many organizations focus exclusively on the serious side of social change, which, as a result, leaves many people behind.
One of the core examples of how we at TESA have fun is embodied in our flagship product, Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives. In Co-opoly, players start and run a democratic business. Players must survive as individuals and keep their co-op afloat by wrestling with tough choices regarding big and small challenges, while simultaneously putting their teamwork abilities to the test. Throughout Co-opoly, there are many mini-games—such as charades, drawing, and unspoken—which creates heart-pounding fun and a room full of laughter; but are also the way that players earn money for their co-op. Co-opoly is an exciting game of skill and solidarity, where everyone wins—or everybody loses. You have to struggle to make sure everyone’s interests are met: if a single person goes bankrupt, everyone goes under. At the same time, you can’t ignore the collective whole, because if the co-op goes bankrupt, again, everyone loses.
Through an atmosphere of laughter and raucous shouting, Co-opoly forces players to unconsciously balance individual and collective interests in order to persevere together. What’s more is that while playing Co-opoly, players discover both the challenges and the benefits of cooperatives. They begin to explore and test the skills needed to succeed as a co-op. I’ve been to too many lectures and presentations that struggle to explain to the audience how co-ops work, where people still walk away confused at the end. Certainly, Co-opoly doesn’t give people all of the information about co-ops, but through the gaming medium it allows the players to search for and experience the answers themselves. This is the best way to learn about a subject, especially one that is so distinctly opposite of the norm—like creating an economy based on democracy and equality. The best way to learn is not by being shown, but by doing. And that’s something that games and fun allow us to incorporate into our efforts to cultivate a new world. They create unique and powerful avenues to engage, excite, and energize people about our movements.
We can look to the success of Co-opoly as one piece of evidence of how hungry people are for this kind of approach. Co-opoly has been extremely well received by people who have played it as well as professional reviewers, and has been featured in such publications as Rethinking Schools, Truth-Out, and The Guardian. We’re already nearly half-way through our second pressing, and we’ve shipped the game all over the world—from Argentina to the United States, the UK, Spain, India, Peru, Norway, and so forth. Roughly thirty countries, total. And as I write this, Co-opoly is being translated and localized to be distributed for Argentina, Spain, South Korea, Germany, Brazil, and more.
Co-opoly began when I wanted to make a workshop that simulated the cooperative experience. As the concept behind the workshop evolved, I quickly realized that I didn’t just want people to get a taste of what it was like to run a democratic organization. Even though my participants could make decisions about whether they should buy advertising or insurance or launch a new product for their fictitious co-op, it became clear that it’s difficult to simulate mental investment and dedication to these kind of decisions in a ninety-minute workshop. I’ve run many workshops like these, where we set up a scenario and tell people to discuss the situation and come to a democratic decision about where they should invest their organization’s resources. But the experiences are always largely artificial, because there are no stakes, and the participants don’t truly care about what happens as a result.
That’s when I realized I could use a game to get people excited and interested. I didn’t just want the participants to make democratic decisions for the sake of it; I wanted them to experience what it was like to be invested in the outcome and have to struggle together to get there. I wanted them to be engaged in the process. I wanted them to learn without necessarily thinking “I’m learning right now.” So I converted the aforementioned workshop into an early prototype of Co-opoly, with the goal to create an atmosphere of fun and engagement, so that the participants would actually feel like they were a part of a cooperative. Thus, in theory, they would become much more involved and invested in the process. Right away, after the first time playing the game, I knew this was the right path to take.
Below is an interview from people who played Co-opoly at a conference in the UK in 2012, describing how they couldn’t stop playing the game, and the lessons they took away from it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOdAEO1PQBE The end of the video is my favorite part: just as it’s fading out, a kid says, completely earnest, “yeah, it is really fun.” Here’s a young person playing a game with several adults, willfully and excitedly learning about a complicated subject and engaging with in-depth conversations – all because it is fun. Because it is a game. If this young person had sat down with three other adults to watch a powerpoint presentation or hear a lecture on the benefits and challenges of the cooperative model, how long do you think he would last before his eyes went dull, he started fidgeting, and his mind wandered? Not long at all.
Quite frankly, however, “fun” and “gaming” should not just be something that is perceived as a way to engage children and young people in social justice topics. It’s something that adults should be more open to as well. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that it allows you to experience the issue at hand in a no-risk fashion. You can practice cooperation without actually starting a business. You learn by doing, not just by hearing someone else tell you what’s important. You put your practices and beliefs into action. You get lost in the experience and absorb so much more as a result. Your emotions become part of the process, and you truly experience what it means to you. That’s one of the reasons Co-opoly has been so successful: it’s another way to engage a complicated and at times overwhelming concept (cooperative economics) in a casual and enjoyable fashion. And this principle can and should be applied to other movements as well. In fact, TESA recently released our second game: Loud & Proud. It’s a fast-paced, social justice trivia game that has been called “catnip for activists.” Loud & Proud is a political conversation starter and ice breaker for activists, leftists, radicals, organizers, and educators – covering a large range of issues, from civil rights to anti-war movements to your own personal beliefs. Quincy Saul, a main organizer behind the organization Ecosocialist Horizons, has this to say about the power of using Loud & Proud:
I had a fantastic time playing Loud and Proud with my mom, sister, and two nieces, aged (about) 7 and 10. The game provided excellent educational opportunities all around. The girls were excited enough with the shouting and the pace and the occasional opportunities for silliness (i.e., What would you protest? Not enough toast! Or, once that had already been used, The toaster is too slow!), that they were receptive to a pretty heavy trip down the rabbit hole about the state of the world. What are political prisoners? What is politics? What do you mean this country was founded on slavery?
But moreover, the adults learned just as much because it put us on the spot to explain these things. All the adults realized how little they knew! All of us extend gratitude to TESA for the game. It is challenging in good ways, especially for intergenerational groups, I think.” That’s the power of integrating fun and games into movements: it can engage people across barriers of age, class, gender, sex, race, and so much more. It can bring people together in formal settings like schools and workshops, but also within people’s homes and cultural spaces. By bringing gaming and fun to the forefront of our efforts for social, economic, political, and environmental change, we will make it so that people can experience and engage our movements within every aspect of their lives. So, what movements do YOU think would benefit from more games?