Using Games to Demystify Complexity

by: Michelle F. Fox

ISET-International has developed a workshop titled “Using Games to Demystify Complexity”. Through games, we present otherwise complex and abstract concepts in a memorable and accessible way to engage stakeholders around issues relating to urban systems, climate change, and resilience. Topics include:

  • the importance of social networks, and how they contribute to the resilience of an urban system;
  • how social and legal institutions and/or norms can dramatically enable or constrain social behavior, or provide the catalyst for innovation and adaptive strategies;
  • nine resilience characteristics to look for in systems, agents, and institutions;
  • core urban services as a foundational component to building urban climate resilience; and
  • working with uncertainty.

This workshop is designed to leverage the value of games as creative, collaborative exercises. Games are a powerful way to engage audiences around complex issues because they are simple, fast, fun to play and encourage collaboration and learning.

While these games are simple enough to be played with a non-technical community, they can also be used to help experts across a range of fields and practice areas come to a common understanding of and develop a shared vision for addressing complex problems as a team.

The workshop is designed to facilitate conversation among participants. Brief presentations are given by the facilitators to help guide the conversation, but the intention of the games workshop is to bring out knowledge that is held already in the group.


The workshop games include:


Game 1: Sociogram

As a way to understand who is in the room and get participants interacting with their peers, we began the session with a few simple questions including:

  • Who is familiar with the term resilience and who is new to the concept?
  • Who lives in a big city, little city or suburb, or rural area?
  • Who works with marginalized vs population at large?


Participants are asked to respond by lining up across a spectrum in the room. This encourages participants to talk with people around them to see where exactly they fit into the spectrum. The process of answering as an individual quickly becomes a collaborative process for the group. This simple exercise is a great warm-up for getting the group engaged and ready for the rest of the workshop.


Game 2: Making the Invisible Visible


Relationships are critical at every scale from local to international. Although invisible, these connections increase access to resources and knowledge. Strong, well connected networks are therefore a core element of resilience.

In this game, participants are asked to introduce themselves by name and the city that they live in. Participants then go around the circle calling out someone’s name and city that they remember. If correct they toss a ball of yarn—holding on to the string so that a web is eventually created in the middle of the circle. Twice as many tosses are allowed as there are participants.

Some people may be completely left out of the game, while others may have received tosses more than once. The facilitator then tosses a large beach ball onto the web as a metaphor for disruption. If the web is evenly distributed, and everyone is included, the ball should be able to stand on the web of string. This game offers an opportunity to talk about equity and access, and the need to include all portions of the population in resilience planning. If portions of the population are left out, the entire system becomes more vulnerable to disruption.


Game 3: Constraining Rules and Regulations


It is easy to stick to the things that we know and that we can see, touch, and feel, but invisible dynamics and institutions, such as policies or social and legal norms can have dramatic effects on human behavior. To illustrate this, we use a simple ball toss game where participants are numbered off 1–4. With each new round, the facilitator introduces a new rule to part of the group. This game illustrates how cultural and legal norms influence system behavior and how the ability to collaborate and innovate in a changing, constraining environment is critical in building resilience and developing adaptive strategies.



Game 4: Resilience Tumbling Blocks

The final game resembles a life size Hasboro JENGA set. Here we introduce three new concepts: uncertainty, core urban services, and characteristics of resilience. The tower of blocks become a metaphor for a city, with color coded and labeled blocks stacked with ecosystems and core urban systems at the bottom, and agents and institutions at the top. Characteristics of resilience are evenly distributed throughout the tower, and the goal of the game is to collect at least 7 characteristics of resilience before the tower comes tumbling down. Every other turn, players have to roll the “Dice of Disruption” and pull a block of the corresponding color that the dice falls on. Taking turns between players, the group is encouraged to build strategies, and if necessary help one another pull blocks from the tower. Each time a characteristic of resilience is pulled, the player reads out the characteristic and provides an example from their work, they can also let someone from the group respond. This game invites everyone to engage with resilience concepts, but it also facilitates a group discussion about what resilience is and is not and how we all think about these terms differently, and often with some bias to our own experiences or the context that we work.

More information on the Resilience Tumbling Blocks at this blog.




To find out more about our games workshop please contact michelle[at]i-s-e-t[dot]org

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  1. Pingback: Using Art, Games and Narrative to Communicate Resilience | ISET

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