Most of the following design games are based on improvisation exercises for the theater and dance. The games are about listening to other people and learning to work in a group by building on the energy and ideas of others.
I learned some of these exercises at the Stanford Design Experience; some I learned when I was an apprentice in the theater; and some were given to me by students.
N.B. All these games (except perhaps Bean Bag Chain) can be adapted for people with physical limitations. For games with partners, the partners should talk for a minute about limitations, which may not be obvious. If you have bad knees and can’t jump, tell your partner before the game starts! People have a tendency to go along and tough it out. I rarely tell my students that something is dumb, but hurting yourself so you don’t look like a wimp is dumb. Know your own limits and don’t let yourself get pushed beyond them.
- How to play the game: Form a circle of about 10 people. One person starts by tossing an imaginary ball to another person while saying his own name. The other person catches the imaginary ball while repeating the other person’s name. That person then tosses her name to another person in the circle.
Joe: Joe. (Said while tossing imaginary ball to Mary.) Mary: Joe. (Said while catching imaginary ball from Joe.) Mary. (Said while tossing imaginary ball to Jane.) Jane: Mary. (Said while catching imaginary ball from Mary.) Jane. (Said while tossing imaginary ball to David.)
- What this game is about: Listening to other people. To catch (repeat) the other person’s name you have to listen. Tossing is easy because you know your own name. The hard part is remembering to catch the other person’s name. It’s OK to remind people to catch if they forget … Or remind them if they toss the other person’s name instead of their own.Remember to catch!
Name Ball 2
- How to play the game: After you’ve played Name Ball for a few rounds, you can switch to Name Ball 2. Name Ball 2 assumes that you were listening during the first game and now you know the name of everyone in the circle. To play Name Ball 2, you toss someone her name. If you get the name right, she catches her own name and tosses someone else his name. If she gets it wrong, he tosses the ball back to her, saying his own name.
David: Mary. (Said while tossing imaginary ball to Mary.) Mary: Mary. (Said while catching imaginary ball.) Nancy. (Said while tossing imaginary ball to Jane.) Jane: Jane. (Said while ricocheting the imaginary ball back to Mary.) Mary: Jane. (Said while tossing imaginary ball back to Jane.) Jane: Jane. (Said while catching imaginary ball.) Joe. (Said while tossing imaginary ball to Joe.)
- What this game is about: Reinforcing the names learned in the first round of Name Ball. If there are a lot of people in the group, you can form new circles and play Name Ball 1 and Name Ball 2 again.
- How to play the game: This is like Name Ball, but now you toss sounds instead of names. Someone throws a sound to another person (again accompanied by an imaginary ball). That person catches the sound by repeating it. And then throws a new sound to another person.
Nancy: whoosh. (Said while tossing imaginary ball to Jane.) Jane: whoosh. (Said while catching imaginary ball.) sssh. (Said while tossing imaginary ball to David.) David: sssh. (Said while catching imaginary ball.) wooga wooga wooga. (Said while tossing imaginary ball to Mary.) Mary: wooga wooga wooga. (Said while catching imaginary ball.) phah. (Said while tossing imaginary ball to Joe.)
- What this game is about: Paying attention, being spontaneous, and remembering to catch. Making the motion to throw the ball is an important part of this game. When you start to toss the ball you may not have any sound in mind. By the time you are done tossing, some sound will have come out of your mouth.
- What this game is not about: This game is not about thinking up clever sounds. If you start trying to think of clever sounds, you won’t pay attention to the game and will miss your turn when someone throws you the ball. Listen to the sounds that are being tossed around rather than trying to think of a clever sound.
- How to play the game: This is like Sound Ball, but now you toss words instead of sounds. Someone throws a word to another person (again accompanied by an imaginary ball). That person catches it by repeating it. And then throws a new word to another person.
- What this game is about: Listening and responding to what you hear.
All the ball games are about: listening, paying attention, responding in the moment to what is tossed to you, learning about other people, remembering not to stockpile and not to hog the ball.
Definition: To stockpile: To think of lots of things ahead of time so that when it’s your turn you have something to say. The problems with stockpiling are: 1) While you are stockpiling, you are not listening to other people. 2) When you take something out of your stockpile, it doesn’t have anything to do with what has been going on recently and tends to throw the game off.
- How to play the game: Find a partner, preferably someone who you don’t know. Introduce yourself. Find out something interesting about the other person. (If there are an odd number of people, three people can play together.) To get started, stand facing your partner. One person begins to move in place. The other person mirrors what the first person is doing. After one person has been the lead for a short while, switch leads.That’s the warm up. Here’s the real game. Both people move synchronously, switching the lead back and forth without talking or signalling to each other. The goal is to make is so that someone watching will not know who is leading and who is following and will not see the roles shift. (Switching leads is easier than you would expect — Try it and you’ll see.) Talking is not allowed.
- What this game is about: Paying attention to the other person and following subtle cues.
- What this game is not about: Jumping and turing and making complicated moves that the other person can’t follow. The goal is to trick the person watching, not your partner.
Bean Bag Toss
- How to play the game: Find another partner, again preferably someone who you don’t know. Introduce yourself. Toss a bean bag back and forth between you. Now start to move around the room, still tossing the bean bag back and forth. Don’t forget that everyone else will be moving too. The goal for the entire group is to keep any bean bag from hitting the floor (and to prevent collisions). You want to make it easy for your partner to catch – but you do have to keep moving.
- What this game is about: Concentrating on one thing while paying attention to a lot of other things.
- What this game is not about: Moving in lock step with your partner or heaving the bean bag to where you think your partner might be.
Bean Bag Chain
- How to play the game:Getting Started: Make a circle of about 10 people. Pile all the bean bags in front of one person. (There should be about half as many bean bags as people.) The person with the bean bags tosses one bean bag to someone else. This is the first link in the chain. The first person puts her hand on her head to indicate that she is already in the chain. The second person throws the bean bag to someone else. That’s the second link in the chain. The second person puts his hand on his head. Only toss the bean bag to someone who has both hands free. Continue until everyone is in the chain. Remember who tossed the bean bag to you and who you tossed it to!Playing the game: Take your hand off your head. The first person starts the chain again – tossing the bean bag to the same person who she tossed it to the first time. Practice the entire chain once. Now start another bean bag, following the same chain. The first person should keep tossing new bean bags until all the bean bags are in play. Remember that the chain doesn’t change. Now start moving. Remember that other groups will be moving too.The goal of the entire group is to keep the bean bags from hitting the floor. The room will be chaotic. But you only have to keep track of two people: the person you catch from and the person you toss to. And of course you shouldn’t collide with anyone and you should make sure that none of the bags hit the floor.
- What this game is about: Concentrating on two things while paying attention to a lot of other things.
What Are You Doing?
- How to play the game: Find another partner, again preferably someone who you don’t know. Introduce yourself. In this game, the partners take turns naming an activity for the other person to do. Sounds easy? Here’s an example:
Mary: What are you doing? Jane: I'm counting the tiles in the ceiling. (Mary starts to count the tiles in the ceiling.) What are you doing? Mary: I'm turning in little circles. (Mary is really counting tiles) (Jane starts turning in little circles) What are you doing? Jane: I'm scratching my head. (Jane is really turning in little circles.) (Mary stops counting tiles and starts to scratch her head.) What are you doing? Mary: I'm walking like an ape. (Mary is really scratching her head.) (Jane stops turning in little circles and starts to walk like an ape.) What are you doing?
Each person keeps doing the previous activity until the next one is named. Every once in a while you will forget and say you are doing what you really are doing. As soon as you realize this, start over with a single activity or you will never get straightened out.
- What this game is about: Paying attention, being silly, and learning that you can take as much time as you want before you name a new activity. In this game it is impossible to stockpile. You and your partner can just keep counting and turning until you think of another activity to do.
- How to play the game: Find another partner, again preferably someone who you don’t know. Introduce yourself. In this game, the partners take turns naming activities, but this time, they do the activity together. Each person accepts the other person suggestion with great enthusiasm.
John: Let's go look out the window! Nancy: Yes let's! (John and Nancy run to the window.) Nancy: Let's hop up and down! John: Yes let's! (John and Nancy hop up and down.) John: Let's write on the blackboard! Nancy: Yes let's! (John and Nancy run to the blackboard and start writing.)
- What this game is about: Accepting other people’s suggestions with enthusiasm and at least trying out their ideas.
- What this game is not about: Getting totally out of control.
- How to play the game: The group forms two lines facing each other about 10-15′ apart. Let’s call the lines A and B. One person from line A starts by walking over to line B taking something imaginary with him. For example, he could be taking a basket ball, a dog, a jump rope, some compost, etc. When someone in line B guesses what the imaginary thing is, the person from line A hands the imaginary object to her. The person who guessed now takes something else imaginary across to line A. Only people in the line that the person is headed toward are allowed to guess.
(Joe walks toward line B making gestures with his hands.) Mary: A yoyo. (Joe keeps walking.) Jane: A slinky. (Joe keeps walking.) Mark: Gum stuck on your hand. (Joe hands the imaginary gum to Mark. Mark walks toward line A skipping and twirling his hands.) Sally: A jump rope. (Mark hands the imaginary jump rope to Sally. Sally walks toward line B making gestures with one hand.)
- What this game is about: Trying to convey an idea without talking; being willing to look a little silly; forgetting and calling out what something is even though you really don’t want to take your turn going across.
- What this game is not about: Picking something so difficult to convey that no one can guess it.
- How to play the game: Object Telephone is a silent game. Sit in circles of about 10 people each. One person starts by using an imaginary object. Once the object is established, the first person passes it to the next person in the circle. The second person shows that she knows what has been passed by using the object correctly. She can either do something new with the object or morph it into something else. Again, once the object has been established, it is passed to the next person. If the next person doesn’t know what the object is, he passes it back and the other person must try again to show what it is.
- What this game is about: Very rapid prototyping; trying to convey an idea without talking; being willing to look a little silly; paying attention; not getting out of control.
- How to play the game: Be There is another silent game. Form groups of 5 to 10 people. One person in the group pretends to be somewhere – like a baseball game. As the other people in the group realize that one of their group members is at the ball game, they join that person – doing an activity that would be done at a ball game. Once the whole group is at the ball game, someone in the group goes somewhere else, like a boring lecture. As the people in the group realize that one of their group members is at a boring lecture, they join that person at the lecture. Once they are all at the lecture, someone in the group goes to a new activity. Note: No talking and no assigning roles.
- What this game is about: Paying attention to other people; working in a cohesive group without needing a designated leader.
What is it?
- How to play the game: Make circles of 3, 5, or 7 people. (The number of people in each group should be odd. If one group needs to have an even number of people, the number shouldn’t be divisible by 4.) Going around the circle, the first person answers question 1, the second person answers question 2, etc.
- What is it called?
- Who is the market?
- What is the slogan?
- What is it?
The last question is the hardest and usually takes a while to answer. That’s OK.
Joe: It's called a Wiggler. Jane: The market is new born babies. Mary: The slogan is: "Don't stay home without one." Mark: (after a pause) It's a Snuggly-like thing that will let anyone hold a baby safely no matter how much it wiggles.
Keep going around the circle until everyone has had a chance to answer each question at least once.
- Optional continuation: Each group picks its favorite product and creates an advertising skit for it. The groups put on their skits for each other.
- What this game is about: Rapid product design; taking what other people give you and using it constructively.
All of the acting games are about taking cues from other people, working with what other people give you, letting go a little; realizing that you don’t always have to be right; understanding that group work requires many different skills and that different people bring different skills to a group.