Rescue Me!

Today’s classroom game brought to you by my Critical Thinking and Methods of Inquiry class, with whom I will be conducting more trials of games in the classroom. Last week we played a disaster-simulation game with two decks of cards as a means of discussing how human error can impact the success or failure of a system. I found it on a classroom game wiki here.

The game plays as follows. One group – the larger group – plays the role of the victims, the other, the rescuers. With some experimentation, we learned that two or three rescuers out of twenty is about the right ratio for a good, high-stress game situation. The victim group is each dealt a card. They can keep the card or just remember it. They then go stand in the middle of the room. Every 30 seconds or so, I flip over a different card from the victim deck and call out the suit on the card. Victims matching that suit have to sit (if standing) or “die” (if sitting). Victims can be rescued while sitting or standing.

The rescuers have their own deck of cards. They have to match the number (but not the suit) of the victims. They can carry three cards at a time. They can ask about those numbers only. The victims can only answer “yes” or “no.” Once a rescuer has used a card, it is discarded. They may also choose to discard cards. Discarded cards cannot be brought back into play.

The goal, of course, is to rescue all the victims. You can put a time limit on it, if you wish. If you have more than one group, the goal can be altered so that each group’s goal is to rescue more victims than the others. We went through the game two or three times per class.

The first time, the rescuers are not given the opportunity to consult about their strategy. The second (or third) time, they can.

Interestingly, we discovered that the rescuers who didn’t consult were actually overall more successful than their thoughtful friends. Why? Systems theory. People make mistakes. They don’t think of potential consequences. They forget rules. For instance, one of our rescuer groups flipped through their deck until they each had different numbers, then rushed about trying to save victims. The problem with this strategy is that they were discarding duplicate numbers… but some of the victims had duplicates (because there are four of each number in the deck). This meant that the rescuers actually cycled through their deck before they successfully managed to rescue all the victims.

We did learn, though, that a triage-style approach seemed to work best – aim for the people sitting on the floor first, then go to those who are standing. But it was also important that the rescuers not focus only on the sitters… because of the chance that I would seat and then kill the other victims (or that they would miss those numbers, like the over-planning rescuers) before they got there.

We also discovered that chance plays a huge role in success or failure. One group lost because the first two cards I flipped were clubs, so all the victims with clubs “died” almost instantly. No matter how quickly the rescuers had worked, they would not have been able to save those victims. Success and failure don’t always rely on the human factor – or on leadership. In a couple of instances, the rescuers had a clear leader. In one of them (the one with the most thought-out plan), this was actually a bad thing. In the other, the rescuers were successful because their leader was making good snap decisions instead of adhering to a flawed plan.

There was very little that was terribly shocking about the process, although I was a little surprised to note that – in this case, anyway – instinct proved better than forethought. Since we only played through five times, though, I imagine that might be a bit misleading.

But the part my students liked the best was tweaking the game itself. They wanted to try it with more frequent “kill” cards, with less time, with fewer rescuers. In fact, every modification they made was to make the game harder, not easier. And that told me something very important about games… and about learning. Students – and, I think, most people – actually want to be challenged. We might not say so, we might not even think so, but ultimately we thrive under challenging conditions. We do our best work when it matters, not when we have all the time in the world and no consequences.

This isn’t a new revelation. Jane McGonigal makes the same argument in Reality is Broken. Our lives, as they exist day-to-day, are often mundane and monotonous. They aren’t interesting, they don’t challenge us, and the work we do doesn’t matter in a real, tangible, visible way. In games, choices matter, and we can see our progress clearly in the advancement of the game – or we can see why we aren’t progressing, make the necessary corrections, and then succeed. It’s one of the reasons that gamification has become increasingly popular – because it shows us that we aren’t just beating our heads against the proverbial walls, that what we do matters (even if only in achievement points), and it makes us feel good about overcoming a challenge, however small. Because the little things matter.

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