Read an interview with Brian Remer that appeared in Play for Performance, the monthly newsletter of Sivasailam "Thiagi" Thiagarajan, the nationally recognized creator of highly flexible, interactive games and simulations for learning.
Working with Brian is a distinct pleasure. He is smart and intellectually quick, but more importantly, he is a student of learning. When you combine a smart person with a passion for learning about their area of expertise you are off to a great start! Brian naturally takes his passion and expertise and translates that into engaging, thought-provoking and relevant learning experiences for all those lucky enough to work with and learn from him. I am happy to say I have been one of those lucky ones on several occasions - both as a colleague and a participant.
- Kevin Eikenberry, Chief Potential Officer The Kevin Eikenberry Group (www.KevinEikenberry.com)
Thanks again for what I found to be a skillfully facilitated, productively interactive six hours of building a solid base to continue this work!
- Elizabeth Christie, Executive Director, Windham Child Care Associaiton
"This was the best training I have had in many years! Informative, thought-provoking, inspiring! [Brian's] respect for participants and the "tools" he used and the activities he used to get his points across were very creative and inspiring!" -Barbara Parfume, participant, Substance Abuse Prevention Counselor
"Participatory, endlessly interesting, instantly applicable both personally and professionally." -Participant
"I really enjoyed everything - well balanced between lecture and experiential learning." - Participant
"I think the reason you're such a good teacher is that you give the impression that you're learning from your students, that the adventure is mutual. That's a great gift." - Participant
"I was really dreading coming here. I hate this sort of meeting but you made everything so easy!" -- from a corporate visioning session
"You could really herd all these cats! This was very good." -- from a combined meeting of Board of Directors and staff
"This was just the right mix of fun and serious stuff. We didn't stay too long on any one thing." -- from a strategic planning meeting
"Did you dream up all these activities? I loved the variety!" -- from a team building session
"Very interactive without putting anyone ill at ease." -- from a training of new managers
"This piece of the series was a lot of fun and encouraged a lot of self-analysis and the ability to keep others in mind as a leader." -- from a leadership training series
"Brian was well prepared and kept the group moving along, while still allowing for discussion, sharing, and questions." -- from a mid-level managers' training
"I really enjoyed Brian. This was the first time I have had trainings with him and would definitely be pleased to have more." -- from a workshop for emerging leaders
"Brian was wonderful at engaging people at times when the group was losing steam." -- from a two-day leadership event
"A breath of fresh air -- creative, nonjudgmental." -- from a training of trainers workshop
The following interview with Brian Remer appeared in the August 2004 issue of Play For Performance.
Thiagi: How did you get started using games in your training?
Brian: I was looking for ways to make smooth transitions between different activities in my workshops. I wanted to help participants make better connections among the various objectives so I started learning about icebreakers and energizers. That led to the world of games and simulations.
Thiagi: Why do you use games?
Brian: The obvious reason is for fun. When people are having fun, they relax and learn more.
In addition to that, there are so many advantages. In a game you can experiment with different roles and responses. I do things in Monopoly® I would never do in real life. You can also practice skills safely without fear of the consequences. I often tell people when they are playing a game that they can win by getting the most points or they can win by learning something new.
The other thing I really like about games is that they draw you into their own world. This world of the game is a place where you forget about the persona you have been practicing for public consumption. Instead, you become so involved with the game that you begin to reveal bits about who you really are that perhaps you were unaware of. In this way, games provide a wealth of data which, when invested with a good discussion session, can yield profound learning.
T: When did you first use simulations or games?
B: The first time I used a simulation, I didn't even realize what it was. I was to give a lecture about my experiences living in Egypt, which for me was a crowded, noisy, exciting, three-year cross-cultural encounter. How could I possibly convey any sense of what that meant in just a few minutes? I lined up some chairs at the front of the room to represent an Egyptian bus. Every twenty seconds, someone gave a signal and another person from the audience got on the bus. Soon, people were sitting on each other's laps and standing nose to nose in the aisle.
By the time I was finished speaking, most of the audience had a visceral idea of what it might be like to ride a bus through Cairo. In addition, the timing of people entering the bus represented the actual frequency of births in the burgeoning population of Egypt. When I saw the "Aha's" in the audience, I realized how important it is to involve learners and ground your training in an experience. I was hooked.
T: What type of games do you use?
B: I like games that have a metaphorical connection to the training topic. The connection can either be that the game invites people to use a metaphor or that the game is itself a metaphor for what you are training about.
T: Can you give some examples?
B: Well, in a game of mine called Five Ten Five, people have to write five sentences using ten key words in five minutes. Now, of the ten key words, half are related to the training subject matter and half are totally random words. So people have to think of all the words metaphorically or their sentences won't make sense. It's a fun way to summarize a workshop and people leave with catchy phrases they are likely to remember.
On the other hand, you can take a Bingo-type grid and load it with different job titles then have people mill around searching for others who fit the job titles. If used in a workshop about professional networking or building sales contacts, the game becomes a metaphor that represents what you are teaching about. Yes, people meet each other but you also can ask serious questions: How meaningful or trivial are most of our contacts? What's the result of making contacts for a short-term "win"? Who determines or controls the "score card" you use when making business contacts? What is a real life analogy to the "free space" on a Bingo card? How can we take advantage of that to develop our contacts? And so on.
T: What's so special about using metaphors?
B: Our brains are made up of the physical connections between neurons and each new thought results in new connections. So the more relationships we can establish between different concepts or ideas, the stronger those ideas become in our minds. Memory improves and concepts become incorporated into our thinking. Metaphors make those connections in unexpected or novel ways. They give our brains a unique hook to capture our new learning and secure the old.
Another thing that's wonderful about metaphors is that they are all around us. If you look for them you can find connections and analogies between any two objects. So you can literally turn anything into a metaphor if you challenge your mind to make the connections. That means that anything, objects, events, interactions, can become a teaching tool. Obviously, some metaphors work better than others but the concept still holds true. So using metaphors can dramatically increase your options as a trainer and teacher.
T: Who has influenced your use of games?
B: Andy Kimball has helped me see the value of identifying a theme or fantasy for a game to involve the players. All things being equal, most people would rather play a game based in the old west than today's office cubicles, right?
Mel Silberman has been very inspiring to me. He uses a lot of short, quick, simple games and activities but he gets a lot of mileage out of them. He does that by asking people to make connections between real life and the process or the activities of the game. He treats the game as a metaphor. That surprises people and that's why his jolts have such power for learning.
And my third big influence has been you, Thiagi. You tend to do the opposite of Mel. You are constantly demonstrating how to use whatever you are given in the moment as a metaphor for what you are teaching. I think it's important for trainers to make that leap; to use whatever is happening and help the participants see the connections to what is being taught. When you can do that, the whole world becomes your training room!
T: What was your worst experience as a trainer?
B: I once had someone tell me after a workshop that the skit I had done brought up painful and traumatic memories for her. She wanted me to promise never to use that skit again! Well, I was surprised because I hadn't intended anything of the sort and I had never gotten this type of response before. In fact, what the woman was describing had never occurred to me, it was so far from my own experience.
I think it's very important to be sensitive to cultural differences and to be politically correct. You've got to avoid what could be triggers for your participants. Unfortunately, you can't predict everything. And you can't be responsible for the past experiences and coping abilities of individuals. They, themselves, need to take responsibility for how they learn from those past traumas.
T: So what about your best experience?
B: I think my best experiences as a trainer come from what you might call "reality training." By that I mean using something that has really happened as a metaphor for what you want to teach about. This could be something that people haven't even realized was going on as part of the training.
For example, in a workshop on wise and sound decision-making, I begin with a discussion about how each person decided where to sit in the training room. Sounds sort of lame except several chairs have been "customized" for the event. One has a block of wood with nails sticking out of it. Another has a "reserved" sign on it. A third is facing into a corner and a fourth is right in front where everyone can see it. No one ever sits in these special chairs. So, as people explain their chosen seating, we discover that even our casual decisions are influenced by our logic, past experiences, social norms, personal expectations, and emotional needs. Each of these influences has an analogy in one of the chairs. People are struck by the complexity of their decisions and how much they take decision-making for granted. And now they are ready to look at their corporate and team decision-making process more seriously.
The reason I like "reality training" is that it sensitizes people to expect to learn from anything. Hopefully they transfer that to their job and begin to improve performance on their own.
T: Seems like there is some potential danger in "reality training" if people don't know what is really real in the classroom.
B: Well, you do hear once in a while about the high school assembly where everyone is told several teenagers have been killed in a car accident just to point out the dangers of drinking and driving. It causes intense emotional reactions and then outright anger when people realize they have been tricked. Sometimes a simulation is too real and the facilitators should ask themselves whether the learning will outweigh the psychological damage this type of simulation can cause. It can also do serious damage to the facilitator's reputation. Will anyone trust that facilitator the next time or will they always be a bit suspicious?
I think what I'm trying to point out to people is that there are opportunities for learning all around them and at every moment. So I am trying to find ways to highlight those learning moments in a harmless and playful way. We don't know when we will have our next opportunity to learn something or what we might learn from any given situation. It's helpful to have practice deconstructing our experiences in the classroom so we can be more open to learning from our experiences in the world.
T: What advice do you have for other game designers?
B: I would say begin by thinking as creatively as you possibly can. Ask yourself, "How can I make this material more engaging? How can I bring it to life? How can I make it fun?" So, if you feel you have to lecture, what props, metaphors, and examples can you use to involve people. How can you hook them? That will probably lead you to a game - or at least a playful way to make your material interactive.
When you already have a game in mind you can be more creative by stretching its metaphor. For example, if you're using the board game Clue® as a basis to teach about customer service, give people the props or costume elements a detective would have. People get involved with the fantasy of the game and you suddenly have the potential of adding more meaning to what you are teaching.
And then, for game leaders or facilitators, I would say be open to serendipity. Anything can happen in a game and anything that does happen can used to teach something. We learn from the data we gather and you can begin collecting data as soon as people enter the room.