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Why Play Games When There’s Work To Do? Fun, Games and Social Change

“There are at least two kinds of games.  One would be called finite, the other infinite.  A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, and an infinite game is played for the purpose of continuing to play.  The rules of a finite game may not change; the rules of an infinite game must… The finite game player aims to win eternal life; the infinite player aims for eternal birth.” – James P. Carse, as quoted by Dale LeFevre*


“We must abandon completely the naive faith that education automatically liberates the mind and serves the cause of human progress; in fact we know it may serve any cause. It may serve tyranny as well as freedom, ignorance as well as enlightenment, falsehood as well as truth. It may lead men and women to think they are free even as it rivets them in chains of bondage… In the course of history, education has served every purpose and doctrine contrived by man; if it is to serve the cause of human freedom, it must be explicitly designed for that purpose.” – George Counts*


There’s so much to do!  Communities seem like they’re falling apart; and young people, old people, brown people, black people, poor people, and lots of other people aren’t getting the respect or power they deserve.  Why play games when there’s so much work to do?  There’s a lot of reasons to look at, but first let’s define what we’re talking about.


What Are Cooperative Games?

Cooperative games emphasize participation, challenge and fun rather then defeating someone. Cooperative games focus on fun and interaction rather than competition and alienation. Cooperative games are not new.

Some of the classic games we played as children are classic because they focused on play. There may be competition involved, but the outcome of the competition is not sitting out or losing. Instead, it may involve switching teams so that everyone ends up on the winning team.


What Are Initiative Games?

Initiative games are fun, cooperative, challenging games in which the group is confronted with a specific problem to solve. Initiative games can be used for several reasons.  The games can be used to demonstrate and teach leadership skills to people, which helps to promote the growth of trust and problem-solving skills in groups.  Games demonstrate a process of thinking about experiences that helps people learn and practice responsibility.

Some people avoid calling them “games,” choosing “activity,” “challenge,” or “problem” instead.  Whatever a group chooses to call them, these games can boost our efforts to create powerful, lasting community change.


Why Play Games?

When a group of people are preparing to participate in social change, there needs to be some breaking down of inhibitions before they become group participants.  “There is no ‘I’ in T-E-A-M” and all that.  Before a group can build effective solutions to the problems facing their communities, they need to trust each other and communicate.

Cooperative games also help set the tone of an action.  Social change work is often hard-driven and energy-consuming.  Many groups find that cooperative games offer a brisk, friendly way to couple passionate task-oriented goals with driven, group-minded teambuilding.  In other words, fun and games help propel social change.

Another purpose of games is to get people to think together, as a team, so that everyone in the group has input and shares ideas.  When we have input we have ownership, and when more people have ownership there is more success.


Aren’t Games Distracting?

When used right, games can actually accentuate the purpose of your day’s work or your group’s purpose.  Through a technique called “framing,” games become relevant and powerful tools to break down barriers, build up focus, and make your group’s process more effective and inclusive of all involved.

In all settings games should be used to build a sense of purpose, passion, and opportunity.  Without those pieces as goals, games become pacifiers for the grown, as their potential to stave off the appetite of a group that hungers for power is immense.  In classrooms where teachers use games as “fillers” the students mope lazily back to their desks, as they know the grueling pain of continuity is about to continue.  In classrooms where teachers use the games in context of the lessons, students aim to learn with eagerness and a sense of purpose.

The purpose of the games is often set during the introduction, or framing, of the activity.  Participants may be forewarned of the deeper meanings, or the activity may be introduced as a metaphor.  Another way to inject purpose into activities is in the reflection or debriefing of the activity.

An easy way to see the relevance of reflection is to picture games as a circle: you start with an explanation of the activity, framing its purpose and goals to the group.  The activity progresses, with the facilitator taking a more hands-on or less guiding approach as needed.  Finally, the group reflection helps participants see how they met the goal, and to envision the broader social change implications.  Then the group has come full-circle.


What Games Should We Play?

Games can be chosen to meet almost any purpose.  The following games mentioned are all in the book mentioned below. Does your group need to develop its teambuilding skills?  Try the Caterpillar.  Do you need to work closely and get used to each other’s physical space?  Try Sardines.  You’ve been inside all day, sitting on your butts and thinking, and you just want to play?  Check out Blob Tag or Human Scissors-Paper-Rock .  Your group needs to trust each mentally, emotionally, and physically?  Use the Trust Circle.  Learning, trusting, feeling and thinking together are the goals of these games.  Its helpful for every group to remember that.


Many people use games as an introduction or a closing to their activities.  However, its a good idea to add them throughout your day, between or as a part of a larger event.  Games are a great way to break up the monotony of a long day’s learning, or a hard day’s work.  They are also a great way to keep small children busy, and big children happy.  You may want to play a game to reinforce teamwork after a sucky day (because they happen) or play a game to relieve some group stress or build the scenario to work through a problem.  Games are actually tools that a skilled facilitator has at their fingertips in a time of need.


Great! How Do We Get Started?

Below is a list of easy-to-use games.  They come from a wide collection of games available from the Freechild Project’s FireStarter Youth Power Curriculum.  Check out this list and go visit FireStarter for more!  You can also look up the bibliography listed under the Facilitator’s Guide there.

For many more resources on cooperative and initiative games, visit the links on the right, and read some of the great books available (especially those by the greats Karl Rohnke and Dale LeFevre.  Play safe, play purposefully, play fun and play hard!


Selected Games

Check out our free book, The Freechild Project Guide to Cooperative Games for Social Change. This insightful new guide will help community workers, teachers, activists, and all kinds of people find fun, engaging, and powerful activities that promote teamwork, communication, and social justice.

  • LeFevre, Dale (1988) New Games for the Whole Family. New York: Perigee Books.
  • Counts, George S. (1963) Education and the Foundations of Human Freedom. Out-of-print.


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Share your thoughts in the comments below! For more information about how The Freechild Project can support cooperative games and teambuilding in your community or organization, contact us.

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