Our mission statement, copyright notice, and cast of characters.

Back to Play
It's not a whole new ballgame.

Second International Trainers' Conference and Workshop
See you in Vancouver, Canada!

Seven More Laws of Learning
Make sure that your training games don't break these laws.

Tool Kit
Email Games: Zero-Cost E-Learning
From adding short interludes to delivering long courses.

Guest Gamer
Interview with Thiagi by Matt Richter
An experienced facilitator turns the tables on Thiagi.

An alternative to the discussion-and-flipchart approach.

Your Teaching Style
Do you know how and why you teach this way?

Book Review
Six Principles and 50 Activities
Improve your improv skills with Kat Koppett's new book.

A Cryptic Name
A puzzling comment.

Twisted Pairs
Two at a time.

Contest Results
Lost Consonant
Cash awards leave employees feeling leased.

A Puzzling Contest
Send us a puzzling message.

Pithy Advice
You Don't Need a Big Budget
Cheap thrills!





To increase and improve the use of interactive, experiential strategies to improve human performance in an effective, efficient, and enjoyable way.

Editorial Roster

Editor: Sivasailam (Thiagi) Thiagarajan

Assistant Editor: Raja Thiagarajan and Les Lauber

Managing Editor: Brenda Mullin

Editorial Advisory Board: Andrew Kimball, David Gouthro, Diane Dormant, Kat Koppett, Matt Richter, Steve Sugar, and <type your name here>

Copyright Info

The materials in this newsletter are copyright 2001 by Workshops by Thiagi, Inc. However, they may be freely reproduced for educational/training activities. There is no need to obtain special permission for such use as long as you do not reproduce more than 100 copies per year. Please include the following statement on all reproductions:

Reprinted from PLAY FOR PERFORMANCE. Copyright © 2001 by Workshops by Thiagi, Inc.

For any other use of the content, please contact us ( for permission.

Subscription Info

All registered subscribers receive PLAY FOR PERFORMANCE free of charge.

However, to prevent us from becoming bankrupt, we have decided to adopt a Busker Protocol. If you like what you read, if you find it useful, and if you'd like us to continue publishing the newsletter, please feel free to chip in with any financial contribution. Our estimated annual cost for this newsletter is $30,000. So we suggest an annual contribution of $30 (which is less than one-third the subscription cost of Thiagi's earlier paper-based newsletter). We would appreciate any amount that you send us, but make sure it is less than $30,000 (since we don't want to make a profit). You can mail your check to Thiagi, 4423 East Trailridge Road, Bloomington, IN 47408 or call us at (812) 332-1478 to charge the amount to a credit card. We will be happy to send you an invoice if you (or your organization) need such documentation for financial record keeping.

Feedback Request

Thiagi believes in practicing what he preaches. This is an interactive newsletter, so interact already! Send us your feedback, sarcastic remarks, and gratuitous advice through email to . Thanks!


Back to Play

As I listened to the uproarious laughter during the banquet at the annual conference of the North American Simulation and Gaming Association, I felt that things were returning to normal after the September 11th terrorist attack. It was back to work.

In our case, it was back to play.

Of course, things are not going to be “business as usual” or “play as usual”. But U.S.A. is back at play. New York is back at play.

Just a few minutes ago, I watched the President make his appearance at the World Series baseball game. He emerged from the Yankee's dugout, wearing a blue FDNY jacket, and gave a thumbs-up. He then threw a looping strike to Yankee backup catcher Todd Greene.

Right now, I am watching Michael Jordan score 19 points, but the New York Knicks won the basketball game at Madison Square Garden by 93 to 91.

Play is the best form of therapy.


Second International Trainers' Conference and Workshop

Don't miss this conference—especially if you are on the west coast or in Canada.

Location. The conference takes place in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. It will be held in the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) Downtown Campus.

Dates. The conference begins at 6 p.m. on November 16, 2001 and continues on November 17, 2001. A special two-day Thiagi workshop on 52 interactive strategies for improving performance will be held on November 18 and 19, 2001.

Costs. For conference and workshop: $1,070. Workshop only $963. Conference only: $321.00. Don't panic. These prices are in Canadian dollars. Call (604) 683-5430 for U. S. Pricing.

More information. Visit this website:

Conference Highlights

Friday, November 16

6 p.m. - 7 p.m. Opening Keynote: Jolt Participants into Awareness and Action. Thiagi. A jolt is an interactive exercise that lulls participants into behaving in a comfortable way and then suddenly delivers a wake-up call.

7:30 p.m. - 8:30 p.m. 99 Seconds. Learn from 30 presenters who offer learning nuggets in 99 seconds.

Saturday, November 17

8:30 a.m. - 10:00 a.m. Breakout Sessions

Building the Courage to Train. David Gouthro. What is courage? Why is courage important for trainers? When and where are the opportunities to apply it?

Can Your Kneecaps Learn? Leslie Robinson and Dan Doherty. This session blasts through the myth that much of what we learn is stored and processed in our heads. Learn how to use all six senses and learning styles.

Blended Learning: Combining Face to Face Training with E-Learning. Ken Bellemare, Michael Capp, and Andrew Scholes. It's better to be the first of the new than the last of the old. What you know about e-learning will help you as a face to face trainer.

Encore Session: Soap Opera, Just Good Clean Fun. Deborah Calderon. Learn how to use tricks like bubble-go-around and bubble inside a bubble to keep your audience fascinated.

10:30 a.m. - 12:00 p.m. Breakout Sessions

Once Upon a Conflict. Gary Harper. What can The Three Little Pigs teach us about conflict resolution? Examine conflict from the perspective of the victims, villains, and heroes.

Encore Session: Games Teams Play. Jay Lundy. Explore a variety of games and activities that focus on leadership, communication, and problem solving in a team context.

Improv for Trainers and Facilitators. Jay Ono. Learn a number of improv techniques and activities that add new life to your training.

Connecting Personal Mastery with Reading the Invisible. Dawna Jones. Humans are walking expressions of a dynamic interaction among their mental, emotional, spiritual, intuitive, and creative selves.

12:30 p.m. - 2:00 p.m. Luncheon Keynote Presentation: Putting Intelligence to Work. Bob Wiele. Improve your thinking skills and you will improve your life. It's really that simple!

2:00 p.m. - 3:30 p.m. Cracker Barrel. This round-table discussion format allows professional to share information and expertise in a relaxed and fun atmosphere.

4:00 p.m. - 5:15 p.m. Closing Keynote Presentation: A Close Look at Closers. Thiagi. Closing activities in a training session are more important than the openers. Learn how to use effective closers.


Seven More Laws of Learning

In my paper-based predecessor to this newsletter, I presented seven universal laws of learning. I also discussed how each law applies to interactive experiential learning activities.

Here are the seven laws from the original set:

  1. Law of reinforcement: Participants learn to repeat behaviors that are rewarded.
  2. Law of emotional learning: Events that are accompanied by intense emotions result in long-lasting learning.
  3. Law of active learning: Active responding produces more effective learning than passive listening or reading.
  4. Law of practice and feedback: Learners cannot master skills without repeated practice and relevant feedback.
  5. Law of previous experience: New learning should be linked to (and build upon) the experiences of the learner.
  6. Law of individual differences: Different people learn in different ways.
  7. Law of relevance: Effective learning is relevant to the learner's life and work.

An Update

I would like to add seven more laws of learning to the list.

1. Law of learning domains. Different types of learning require different types of strategies.

Learn to recognize different types of training content and objectives. Don't use the same game or type of activity to teach different types of training. Have suitable framegames to help participants achieve different training objectives related to concepts, procedures, and principles.

2. Law of response level. Learners master skills and knowledge at the level at which they are required to respond during the learning process.

If your training activity requires participants to merely talk about a procedure, don't assume that they will be able to apply it in their workplace. If you want participants to solve workplace problems, the learning activity should require them to solve problems. Avoid trivial, closed questions with rote-memory answers in your training games. Challenge participants with complex, open questions that require innovative solutions. Even if you begin with simple tasks in your training activities, gradually progress to complex challenges.

3. Law of self-direction. Most adults are self-directed learners.

Don't force everyone to participate in the same activity. Identify training objectives and let participants to select among different resources and activities to learn at their own pace and according to their personal preferences. Involve participants in setting training goals and selecting appropriate types of learning activities.

4. Law of self image. Adult learners have definite notions about what type of learners they are. These notions interfere with or enhance their learning.

Reassure participants about their ability to learn new concepts and skills. Motivate them to attempt challenging tasks. Ensure frequent and early successes by making initial tasks simple and by progressing in small steps. However, avoid patronizing participants with simple, trivial tasks. Incorporate learning tasks at different levels of difficulty in your activities.

5. Law of expectations. Learners' reaction to a training session is shaped by their expectations related to the content area, training format, fellow participants, and the trainer.

Some learners are anxious about mathematical concepts and skills. Encourage them with intriguing puzzles and short-cut techniques. Other learners feel uncomfortable about making fools of themselves in public while playing games. Establish ground rules that reward risk taking among participants. Demonstrate non-judgmental behavior by applauding participants for their effort. At the beginning of the session, clearly specify your training objectives and activities.

6. Law of multiple criteria. Adult learners use a variety of standards to judge their learning experiences and accomplishments.

Provide different ways to “win” in your activities. In simulations and role-plays, keep scores related to different criteria. Encourage participants to choose personal standards and scoring systems. During debriefing, discuss alternative criteria for measuring participants' performance.

7. Law of alignment. Adult learners require the training objectives, content, activities, and assessment techniques to be aligned to each other.

Create a training situation that closely resembles the job situation. Teach and test for the same content, using similar strategies. Make sure that the scoring system used in your training activities rewards the mastery of the training objectives.

Tool Kit

Trainers and facilitators can use a variety of interactive, experiential strategies to improve human performance. Based on his two decades of research, Thiagi has identified, catalogued, and explored several different strategies. You may periodically review a constantly expanding list (currently with 53 items) of these strategies.

In each issue of Play for Performance, the Tool Kit section explores a specific interactive strategy and presents practical suggestions and field-tested examples.

Email Games: Zero-Cost E-Learning

An email game is the poor person's gateway to online learning. In this format, the facilitator and players communicate with each other by sending electronic notes. All interactions are limited to low-technology text messages. We currently use 24 different email games associated with different types of learning. Most of these games incorporate several rounds of play spread over a number of days.

Limitations And Benefits

First the bad news. Here are some problems associated with email learning games:

Now for the good news. Here are some advantages of email learning games.

An Extended Example

Here's another advantage of using email games: You can use them in a wide variety of contexts, ranging from a minor follow-up to a major course. Here's an example of how a series of email games were used to deliver a “complete” course.

The context

A multinational high-tech corporation, with offices in eight different countries, recently shifted to a team-based work mode. This change transformed traditional managers into team facilitators. Because of the geographic dispersion of manager-facilitators, the training director decided to use an online learning approach. We were authorized to conduct a pilot test of an email-game approach with a group of 17 participants in different locations.


We sent out an email note briefly explaining what we were planning to do: We emphasized our mutual goal of improving everyone's performance as a facilitator in face-to-face team meetings. We explained that our email-game approach involved setting aside 30-45 minutes every day and responding to each round of the game within 48 hours. We pointed out that our approach would parallel on-the-job teamwork activities and encouraged all participants to keep a log of their workplace experiences. We also distributed a resource list identifying books, videotapes, and web sites with relevant information.

POLL AND PREDICT: Characteristics of Effective Facilitators

Our next email note introduced the first game, called POLL AND PREDICT, by asking participants to reflect on what makes an effective facilitator. Each participant was asked to send a list that contained as many characteristics of an effective facilitator as possible. We compiled a consolidated list, adding a few more items from the research literature on facilitation, so the final list contained 20 items (such as confidence, empathic listening, expertise in process skills, flexibility, integrity, and inclusiveness).

The second round of the game required participants to review this list of facilitator characteristics and complete two tasks:

Participants sent an email note with their personal choices and predictions. In return, we sent them the results of the poll with the 20 items arranged in order of popularity. We also identified the participant who made the most accurate prediction and declared him to be the winner of the first game.

The impact of POLL AND PREDICT was to expose participants to different characteristics of an effective facilitator and to have them think about these characteristics.

DEFINE: More Details of Facilitator Characteristics

We began the next email learning game by identifying the highest-rated characteristic of an effective facilitator (which was confidence). We asked participants to send an operational definition of this characteristic. In response, we received definitions such as these:

We collected these definitions and sent back a complete list to the participants with a request to select the top three items. We identified the definition that received the most votes and declared it to be a winning entry. We also conducted a content analysis of all definitions and listed the critical attributes of confidence in a facilitator.

We repeated the same process with each of the top five characteristics of effective facilitators. The outcome of DEFINE was a deeper understanding of the factors that contribute to effective facilitation.

DEPOLARIZER: Exploring the Dark Side

During the earlier DEFINE game, there were some inklings that the characteristics of effective facilitation had some negative aspects associated with them. We explored this possibility through the next game.

Once again, we began with confidence in a facilitator. In the first round of DEPOLARIZER, we assigned a negative role to half the participants and a positive role to the other half. We asked people in the first half to send us three or more reasons why confidence in a facilitator could negatively interfere with the performance of a team. We asked the other half to send reasons why confidence could positively enhance the performance of the team.

Here is a sample of a negative impact of facilitator's confidence:

Here is a sample of a positive impact of facilitator's confidence:

We collected all comments, arranged them with negative and positive comments alternating with each other, sent them back to participants, and invited them to reflect on them. We repeated the same process with each of the top five characteristics of effective facilitators. The outcome of DEPOLARIZER was the realization that facilitator characteristics may produce different results in different situations.

101 TIPS: How To Be an Effective Facilitator

We began this email learning game by asking participants to send practical tips for being an effective facilitator. We encouraged players to generate these tips on the basis of the earlier email games, personal experiences, what they heard from others, and what they read in books. We told participants to keep the tips brief (not more than 75 words) and to send us at least one tip and not more than five tips before the deadline. By sending in a new tip (different from the samples that we used), a participant earned 10 points. In addition, a panel of judges selected the top three tips at the end of each round. The best tip received a bonus score of 70 points, the second-best 30 points, and the third-best 10 points. At the end of each round, we sent emails with the latest collection of tips along with the names of the top three scorers.

Here are a couple of sample tips received during the play of this game:

The outcome of 101 TIPS was a set of practical tips for effective facilitation. In the process of playing this game, participants also became aware of different facilitation styles and their own preferences.

SUPERLATIVES: Debriefing Facilitation Experiences

By this time, all participants had actual face-to-face experience facilitating their teams. This email learning game was designed to compare and contrast the facilitation experiences of different participants. The game began with an email note asking participants to reflect on their experiences and to briefly describe an experience related to each of these five superlatives:

The next email note asked participants to predict the nature of the most-frequently-mentioned experience for each of the five superlatives. Later, we gave participants a complete list of responses for each superlative and identified the most accurate predictions.

The outcome of SUPERLATIVES was increased awareness of how different facilitators react to different experiences.

CREATIVE SOLUTIONS: Dealing with Challenging Cases

This email game began with a mini-case that was based on the responses to the most challenging, the most depressing, and the most confusing superlatives in the preceding game. Participants received this case through email along with an invitation for them to send their suggested solutions. We organized the 17 responses into two sets of six and one set of five. These sets were sent to groups of participants in such a way no participant received a set that contained his or her solution. Participants reviewed the five or six solutions and selected the best one (in terms of creativity and practical utility). We tabulated these choices and identified the top three solutions (one from each group). During the next round, we asked participants to select the best solution among these three.

We repeated this email game with other mini-cases that incorporated different types of problems.

The outcome of CREATIVE SOLUTIONS was increased ability to analyze facilitation problems and to generate effective solutions.

FOUR HEADS: Generating Practical Ideas

This email learning game provided additional opportunities for analyzing and solving facilitation problems. We began the first round by sending four different mini-cases to four randomly selected participants and asking each of them to come up with a suitable solution. During the second round, we sent each of the four solutions to two other randomly-selected participants. One of the two participants was instructed to write a critique of the solution focusing on its weaknesses. The other participant wrote a testimonial for the solution focusing on its strengths. During the third round, the original solution along with the critique and testimonial was sent to the fourth participant who improved the solution by removing or reducing its weaknesses and emphasizing and reinforcing its strengths.

The outcome of FOUR HEADS was increased fluency in recognizing and solving facilitation problems.

HALF LIFE: Discovering the Essence of Facilitation

This email game provided closure for the course. During the first round of this game, we asked each player to write a guideline for effective facilitation, incorporating the key insights they gained from the earlier games and their workplace experience, using exactly 32 words. We sent these guidelines to all participants, identifying the top three guidelines selected by an external panel of judges. During the next four rounds, we asked participants to successively shrink their guidelines to exactly 16, 8, 4, and 2 words—while preserving the essential message. During each round, the panel of judges selected the top three guidelines. Also, after the final round, participants voted for the best guideline of any length.

The outcome of HALF LIFE was to focus on the essential ingredients of effective facilitation.

The Show Goes On

Although the HALF LIFE game brought the course to a kind of closure, we reminded participants that learning to be a better facilitator is a lifelong pursuit. We suggested that participants continue playing 101 TIPS, CREATIVE SOLUTIONS, and FOUR HEADS as frequently as they wanted to.

The pilot group of 17 participants helped us to concurrently design, evaluate, and modify the course. In addition, they generated a lot of relevant content. While we incorporated these content elements in future versions of the course, we did so only after encouraging each new group to respond to different questions on their own.


This table summarizes the structure and organization of the team-facilitation course:

1. POLL AND PREDICT Identify characteristics of effective facilitators and compare these characteristics with one another.
2. DEFINE Identify critical features of each characteristic of effective facilitation.
3. DEPOLARIZER Identify the negative aspects of each characteristic of effective facilitation.
4. 101 TIPS Develop and evaluate practical strategies associated with each important characteristic of effective facilitation.
5. SUPERLATIVES Review facilitation experiences along different dimensions.
6. CREATIVE SOLUTIONS Analyze facilitation problems and generate effective solutions.
7. FOUR HEADS Analyze facilitation problems, evaluate strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions.
8. HALF LIFE Summarize the essential elements of effective facilitation.

While the preceding example shows how email games can be sequenced to deliver a complete course, a more exciting application of these games is to use them as brief interludes that support training activities. The following four examples show how email games are used to reinforce other training sessions:

101 QUESTIONS Before a Workshop

Before a face-to-face training workshop on cultural diversity, we used a variation of the 101 TIPS (described above) to conduct a rapid needs analysis: A couple of weeks before the session, we sent an email note to all participants inviting them to join the 101 QUESTIONS game and asking each of them to send us at least one and not more than five questions that they would like to be answered in the workshop. By sending each question, the participant earned 10 points. After a week's time, we emailed the complete set of questions to all participants and asked them to identify the three most important questions among them. The top three questions earned bonus scores of 70, 30, and 10 points. The participant with the highest total score received special recognition and a prize that was awarded at the beginning of the workshop.

101 SUGGESTIONS During a Course

We incorporated another version of 101 TIPS in an online course (on a technical topic related to the measurement of bit error rates in electronic devices). In addition to completing regular course assignments, we invited trainees to participate in the 101 SUGGESTIONS game played in the background. Each week, all participants were invited send at least one and not more than five suggestions on how to improve the course. As in the original game, each suggestion earned 10 points and the top three suggestions (selected by the instructor) received additional bonus points. (Many of the suggestions were incorporated to improve the delivery of the course.)

HALF LIFE at the End of a Course

One of the last activities in the online course involved the use of the HALF LIFE game (also described earlier). During the final Monday of the course, all participants were invited to summarize the most important points they had learned in exactly 32 words. A complete set of these summaries was shared with all participants with the three best summaries (as selected by a panel of judges) being clearly identified. During the next four days, we asked participants to successively shrink their summaries to exactly 16, 8, 4, and 2 words.

101 TIPS as a Follow-Up Activity

A month after an instructor-led sales training workshop, we conducted the 101 TIPS game as a follow-up activity. We invited participants to join this email game and submit their best-practice ideas from the field as tips for use by other sales people. The game continued for several months acting as an effective clearinghouse for innovative ideas.


The preceding examples suggest that email games need not be limited to training activities. They can also be incorporated during and after the design and implementation of other types of performance-improvement strategies. Here are three additional examples of such use:

CHAIN REACTION for Needs Analysis

We invited employees of a large organization to join an email game and help us in conducing a performance needs analysis. A randomly selected group of employees received an email note asking them to complete this sentence: “What this organization needs right now is ________”. In addition to sending the response to the coordinator, each participant was asked to send a similar email note inviting one of her coworkers to respond to question and continue the process by sending a similar note to another person. After a month, we summarized the needs-analysis data and posted a report on a web site. We also tracked down the longest unbroken chain of notes from the first person to the last and publicized this information.

CREATIVE SOLUTIONS for Continuous Problem Solving

We have used this email game (described earlier) as an ongoing problem solving strategy. We invited company employees to email a brief description of a technical problem to a registered group of game players. The facilitator compiled different suggestions and sent them to the group of players, inviting them to select the best solution. The top-ranked solution was awarded a prize and all participants were encouraged to adapt their own combination of ideas to their unique situations.

DEPOLARIZER for Feedback Collection

When a new expense-reimbursement system was introduced in an organization, we wanted to collect employee feedback on its usability. We used a modification of the DEPOLARIZER game (described earlier) by inviting one set of participants to write a critique of the new system (attacking its defects) and another group to write a testimonial to the new system (praising its merits). We sent back a list of these comments to participants, alternating positive and negative feedback—and used them to make suitable revisions to the system.


Traditional instructional designers use a systematic procedure to create a tightly structured training package. E-learning platforms and professionals have taken on this systematic approach toward producing final versions of training packages. We believe that this is a major mistake because a “final” training package is an illusion in these days of rapidly changing content. Furthermore, the pursuit of a replicable training package neglects the enormous power of the online learning environment to continuously enhance the depth and breadth of the course by encouraging participants to generate additional content and incorporating these content elements in future versions. We believe that the field of improvisation provides better guidelines for online training design than traditional instructional design.


Marie Jasinski has borrowed the concept of jamming from jazz improvisation and applied it to the instructional design context. The heart of design jamming is the assumption that online training courses are created collaboratively by facilitators and participants interacting with each other. Here are some aspects of the design jamming concept as applied to the online course on facilitation skills described earlier:

Emergent objectives. While we knew the overall training goal of the course at the beginning of the project, we did not conduct a detailed task analysis to specify a list of training objectives. Instead we let the performance outcomes emerge from the interaction among the facilitator-designer and participants.

Serendipitous paths. We started the project with recipes for the email games and an open mind eager to incorporate new insights. The experiences and outcomes of the first email game suggested the second one. One of the unique concepts in the current version of the course is the realization that an excess of any desirable facilitator characteristic could result in undesirable outcomes. We arrived at this insight not through interviews with subject-matter experts but by reflecting on the spontaneous comments during an email game. Similarly, an effective learning activity in the current version of the course involves analysis of facilitation problems and synthesis of creative solutions. This activity is based on authentic mini-cases created from participant responses to an earlier email game.

Life-long interaction. In one sense, the facilitation-skills course does not have a conclusion. Near the end of the course, participants are encouraged to form themselves into an informal network and to continue learning with each other by replaying several of the email games with new and relevant content.

Accumulated content. The responses given by each group of participants in email games provided a rich source of additional content. We have archived these responses for review and analysis by future groups of participants. However, we required each participant to come up with his or her responses to the email game questions before being given access to this archived information. This is because we believe that true learning emerges from participants struggling with these questions and coming up with personal responses.

New resources, new games. A novel email game emerged to make use of the increasing amount of archived responses. This game (called CLUSTER) requires participants to review previous responses and to organize them into logical categories. A critical twist in this game requires one group of participants to apply the category system created by another group. The learning outcome of CLUSTER is increased understanding the relevant variables associated with each set of responses.


The previous section discussed the application of the design-jamming concept to a complete course. On a smaller scale, email games invite facilitators and participants to play with the rules instead of playing within the rules. Here are brief samples of how our associates have been improvising with these games.

Same process, different content. We have used 101 TIPS to collect strategies and suggestions for solving different types of problems in the workplace such as cross-cultural communication, coaching, rapid instructional design, conflict management, and consulting.

Same process, different outcomes. The original 101 TIPS game was designed to collect strategies. Our associates have currently created different versions to share relevant information (101 FACTOIDS about a product), collect important questions (101 QUESTIONS for use in FAQs), and express feelings and opinions (101 COMMENTS about a new product).

Same process, different uses. While most email games were originally designed as learning activities, they are now being increasingly used for needs analysis, idea generation, participatory decisionmaking, and evaluation.

Email games build on the belief that resourcefulness is more important than resources. They provide low-cost, low-tech alternatives to complex and costly approaches to online learning and web-based collaboration. Email games result in effective learning and problem solving because the technology disappears into the background.

Guest Gamer

When I tried to interview Matt Richter for this month's Guest Gamer column, he turned the tables on me and suggested that he should interview me instead. Matt argued that some of the newer readers of this newsletter might not know who I am and what I stand for. Here's an edited version of Matt's interview of me.

Interview with Thiagi by Matt Richter

Matt: Thiagi, what is your specialty area in games?

Thiagi: If I have a specialty area, it must be not having a specialty area. I seek out different types of interactive, experiential strategies for improving human performance without becoming enamored with a specific type. I continuously explore strategies that I am not familiar with.

Matt: When did you get into designing and using games?

Thiagi: My interest in game design started when I was 7 years old. That's when I decided that I did not have the skills to win board games (such as PACHISI) or athletic games (such as Cricket). So I suggested to my teammates and opponents that we should modify the rules of the games to make them more exciting. Strangely enough, the modified rules that I proposed increased my winning percentage! Later in my life I realized that I was not actually cheating but just thinking outside the box.

My interest in instructional games began during my first of year of teaching an unruly group of teenagers in a high school in Chennai, India. Later in my life I realized that the dysfunctional behaviors and low attention span of this group were actually shared by most intelligent adult learners around the world.

Matt: How long have you been designing and using games?

Thiagi: For about 50 years.

Matt: Where do you use games?

Thiagi: If we define “games” as structured interactive approaches, I use them all the time. I incorporate games in most of my training and professional presentations. Even my lectures are embedded with interactive interludes. I don't limit the use of these games to training. I use them for conducting needs analysis, designing different interventions, negotiating with clients, solving problems, planning projects, and exploiting opportunities.

Matt: How do your clients respond?

Thiagi: Very positively. I have not met a client who is not enthusiastic about the use of interactive techniques. However, in most cases, I don't call them games.

Matt: How do your participants respond?

Thiagi: Very positively. I frequently run into people who say, “I still remember all those variables in aquaculture because you played a quiz game 10 years ago!” I have used games in 27 different countries in Asia, Europe, North and Central America, Africa, and Australia with consistently enthusiastic acceptance. In most cases, I don't use the label “games” until I have established my credibility with the group.

Matt: What is the most embarrassing moment you had in conducting games?

Thiagi: During my early days as an instructional designer in a family planning project in India, my mentor Krishnamurty and I came up with an experiential activity that required family-planning workers to discuss explicit pictures related to human sexuality using plain language. This was our strategy for desensitizing village-level workers (recent high school graduates) from feeling embarrassed about discussing sex with older men in the village and using sterile, clinical, euphemistic language that obfuscated the communication process. This desensitization activity was so successful that we had to admonish our participants to clean up their obscene language during day-to-day conversations with ordinary people!

Matt: What advice do you have to newcomers?

Thiagi: During design, think of games as one component of a total training package. Design the total package to include activities that come before and after the game. Briefing and debriefing participants are too important to be treated as afterthoughts.

During facilitation, seamlessly integrate games with other activities. Don't abruptly insert a game with the announcement, “We are now going to play an exciting game”. Combine your passive presentations and hectic activities in such a fashion that participants cannot figure out when the game began or when it ended.

Always do your homework and establish your credibility as a subject-matter expert or a skilled facilitator. Participants should realize that you are using the game because it is the most appropriate strategy and not because you are incompetent or lazy.

Matt: What do you think is the most important characteristic of a facilitator, an effective instructional game, and a receptive participant?

Thiagi: An effective facilitator has deep faith in participants' abilities to identify and solve their own problems. An effective instructional game is clearly related to participants' jobs. An effective participant is one who can suspend her disbelief and get into the flow of the game.

Matt: What is one thing that you dislike the most in a facilitator, an instructional game, and a participant?

Thiagi: An ineffective facilitator knows all the answers. An ineffective instructional game employs an exciting format and rewards performances that have nothing to do with participants' jobs. An ineffective participant is one who is preoccupied with not making a fool of herself.

Matt: What types of games do you use most frequently?

Thiagi: This changes from time to time. Right now I am working with a brilliant team at QB International in designing web-based framegames. I frequently use these games in technical training situations. In general, I use a lot of spontaneous lecture games and rapid jolts.

Matt: What is your favorite game?

Thiagi: This also changes from time to time. Right now I am excited about effective applications of the improv game, WORLD'S WORST, which I described in our July issue. In this game, participants roleplay inappropriate bumbling behaviors in response to different situations. The important learning element is the debriefing during which participants create a list of appropriate behaviors. This game combines the fun of improv with the power of the double-reversal creativity technique.

Matt: Who are your favorite game designers?

Thiagi: I have several favorite game designers. If I were forced to choose, I would name Garry Shirts and Ken Jones. In the area of recreational game design, my favorite people are Bob Abbot and Sid Sackson.

Matt: What book recommendations do you have?

Thiagi: I have hundreds of book recommendations. Again, if I were forced to choose, here are my top four: Bernie DeKoven's The Well-Played Game, James Carse's Finite and Infinite Games, Orson Scott Card's science fiction masterpiece Ender's Game, and Margaret's Gredler's Designing and Evaluating Games and Simulations: A Process Approach.

Three recent books impressed me so much that I contributed forewords for them: Kat Koppett's Training To Imagine, Marc Prensky's Digital Game-Based Learning, and Steve Sugar's Games That Teach.

Matt: What is your prediction about the future of games?

Thiagi: I am extremely optimistic. Several forces are currently ensuring that games and simulations (especially the online variety) emerge as a major training strategy and leisure-time activity. We cannot stop this momentum. We might as well join it.



Many trainers use this standard method: They ask a question and jot down key points from participants' responses on a flip chart. Then they make comments, correct misconceptions, and present additional information. This approach is definitely more interesting and effective than a straight lecture. But it does not encourage all participants to participate.

Here's a quick alternative:

  1. Ask an open-ended question and instruct each participant to write a brief response on an index card. Impose a suitable time limit.
  2. Organize participants into teams of approximately equal numbers. Collect the responses from each team and give them to another team.
  3. Ask team members to read the responses and select two of them: the “best” one and the one that is the most “different” from the others.
  4. After a suitable pause, ask each team to read the two selected responses. Comment on each response.


Your Teaching Style

Are you aware of the details of your teaching style? Have you reflected on how you teach and why you teach that way?

Most people, including you, probably teach the way they were taught. You may realize that the way you were taught in your school and college is ineffective and uninteresting. But you may still unconsciously use the same procedure.

If you are more enlightened than the average teacher, you have progressed beyond modeling your teachers. Instead, you probably apply a special version of the golden rule and teach the way you would like to be taught.

Many people feel smug about their innovative teaching style just because it makes sense to them. But you may be making a terrible mistake. The way you prefer to be taught may not be the way your participants prefer to be taught. You need to progress beyond the golden rule and take into account individual differences in learning styles.

Debrief yourself by thinking about how you teach and why you teach that way. Consider the possibility that the best way to teach is not to believe in “The Best Way” but to become fluent in a variety of teaching styles. Find out your preferred teaching style and challenge yourself to effectively use the opposite style. If you like teaching with games, for example, see if you can do the opposite thing and make effective lecture presentations.

Book Review

Six Principles and 50 Activities

Recent articles and books have begun extolling the virtues of improvisational theater techniques as tools for organizational design, training, and performance consulting. Some of these publications are heavy academic tomes with no indication of practical applications. Others are “how-to” lists without any explanation of the “why”. Kat Koppett's new book, Training to Imagine, strikes a nice balance between theory and practice.


Training to Imagine is divided into two sections, labeled Principles and Activities. The principles section provides an overview and six chapters dealing with each fundamental principle related to improvisation. The activities section contains detailed instructions for 50 improvisational exercises. Useful appendices relate the activities with improvisational principles and appropriate training uses (such as warm-up, team building, problem solving, and closing).


According to Kat, these are the ways improv techniques help you in your training and consulting activities:

Throughout both sections of the book, Kat gives a theoretical rationale and practical procedures for obtaining these benefits.


In the first section of the book, Kat identifies six fundamental principles employed by improvisers. Here are brief descriptions of these principles:


Improv games occupy a favorite place in my training tool kit for three reasons: They are more fun than other interactive techniques; they are more effective in inviting participation than other strategies; and they provide versatile frames for plugging in your own content.

Kat's book lists 50 improv games, conveniently classified in two reference tables. All activities are explained in a structured text format with side headings such as overview, purpose, supplies, time, number of players, game flow, variations, tips, suggested debriefing questions, and source.

This is how I adapted three of the improv activities from Kat's book in a recent workshop on diversity:

STATS. I made a minor modification to this musical-chair activity and used it as an icebreaker. Participants take turns standing up and announcing a “stat” such as “I am a basketball fan” or “I am a visual learner”. All participants in the room who share the same stat stand up and remain standing. When the next participant announces a new stat, these participants sit down (unless they share this stat also) and other participants stand up. We repeat the process at a fairly rapid pace. During debriefing, we identify similarities and differences among participants and discuss which differences make a difference in the workplace.

STORY EXCHANGE. Each participant carries an index card with a random two-digit number. During the first round, participants pair up and tell each other a personal story related to some unfair treatment they received earlier in their life. (Example: My third-grade teacher made fun of me because I was overweight…) At the end of this round, partners exchange their index cards. During the next round, everyone finds a new partner and tells the story they just heard (and identified by the number on the index card) to one another in the first person, as if they were the victims of the unfair treatment. At the end of this round they exchange their cards again and repeat the process. After the fourth round, participants form into groups of seven and take turns to tell the story they most recently heard. During the debriefing everyone discusses the nature and the impact of discrimination.

YOU'RE OUT. Participants organize themselves into triads and plan for the closing ceremony at the end of the day. Each participant aligns herself with the person on her left and ignores the person on her right. For example, when the person on your left makes a suggestion, she praises it immediately and talks on and on about how brilliant it is. When the person on her right makes a suggestion, she ignores it, changes the subject, and says something to the other person. After about 3 minutes, participants reorganize themselves into new triads and repeat the process. During the debriefing everyone discusses the feelings and emotions associated with being excluded.


I must confess that Kat Koppett is a friend of mine. She is also getting married to Matt Richter, who is another friend. (Kat and Matt met at a NASAGA conference. Isn't that romantic!) Kat comes with impeccable credentials. She has degrees in Drama and Organizational Psychology. She is the co-founder of StoryNet, a consultancy built around the use of storytelling in training, and Corporate Division Director of an improv theater company, Bay Area Theatersports®.

Details: Training to Imagine: Practical Improvisational Theater Techniques to Enhance Creativity, Teamwork, Leadership, and Learning by Kat Koppett. Stylus Publishing, 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling, VA 20116. . ISBN 1-57922-033-9. $19.95.


A Cryptic Name

This year's North American Simulation and Gaming Association (NASAGA) Conference ended yesterday.

I remember my first NASAGA conference in the 1960's in Baltimore. I was a freshly arrived graduate student with few friends or acquaintances. My nametag had my full name occupying two long lines of print: Sivasailam Thiagarajan.

As I was walking around the conference hotel, I noticed an interesting cultural phenomenon. People glanced at other people's nametags and greeted them profusely as if they were long-lost friends. They would shout with great glee, “Hello, Ted! How are you?”

Many people looked at my nametag but did not greet me. Instead, they quickly looked away.

This avoidance phenomenon continued for a long time.

One of the people, however, did something different.

He looked at my nametag and immediately looked away. But then he did a double take and stared at the nametag again. He grinned mischievously and said, “I get it! It's not your name. It's a cryptogram puzzle. We have to solve it to get a prize!”


Twisted Pairs

We summarized the key points of one of the articles in this issue in a single sentence. Then we converted this summary sentence into this twisted-pair puzzle:


How To Solve It

To solve a twisted-pair puzzle, unscramble the first set of letters to discover two words. Decide which word comes first and which word comes next. Then unscramble the next set of letters to discover the third and the fourth words. Repeat this process until you have unscrambled all sets of letters, discovered all the words, and reconstructed the original sentence.

An Example

Here's a sample twisted-pair puzzle:


Since there is only set of letters, this is a two-word sentence. Working with the letters, I identify the word WALKING. That leaves these letters: OPRSY. I create the word PROSY with these letters, not sure whether it is a legitimate word. Even if it is, PROSY WALKING or WALKING PROSY does not sound like much of a sentence. So I decide that WALKING is not one of the two words.

Next I try PARKING. That left LOSWY to be formed into a single word. Still no luck.

I work with the word ASKING. Using the remaining letters, I create two words: PRY and OWL. For a moment I decide that the hidden sentence is PRY ASKING OWL. Then I remember that the sentence can have only two words.

I keep playing with other words, intuitively feeling that one of the words should end in “-ING”. After several minutes of torture, I end up with the correct sentence: PLAYING WORKS!

Your Turn Now

Go back to the twisted-pair puzzle at the top of this page. See if you can solve it, two words at a time. If you want, you can look at a hint.

A hint

The solution

How To Create a Twisted-Pair Puzzle

It is easy to create a twisted-word puzzle as a review of your training topic. Here's how you create the puzzle:

  1. Type a sentence summarizing a key learning point. Example: Confrontations are healthy.
  2. If the sentence has an odd number of words, rewrite the sentence so it has an even number of words. Example: Confrontations can be healthy.
  3. Divide the sentence into pairs of words. Example: Confrontations can/be healthy.
  4. Take the letters in each pair of words and arrange them in alphabetical order. Print the resulting set of letters in capital letters: AACCFINNNNOOORSTT ABEEHHLTY.

Your puzzle is ready!

How To Use Your Puzzle

Here's an effective way for using the twisted-pair puzzle. Use the puzzle that you created to demonstrate how to solve twisted-pair puzzles. Then organize participants into teams. Ask each team to write a sentence that summarizes one of the key points fro the training presentation and to convert it into a twisted-pair puzzle. This encourages participants to refer back to their notes and review the content. When the teams are ready, have them exchange their puzzles and solve them. This gives participants another round of review.

Contest Results

Lost Consonant

Our September contest involved an approach to humor from the delightfully funny Australian illustrator, Graham Rawle. The challenge to our readers was to send us sentences from imaginary business books. Each sentence should miss one (and only one) consonant. The spell checker would ignore the loss because the resulting combination of letters is an acceptable English word. We were looking for sentences that were humorous.

Apparently not many of our readers have this Australian sense of humor (which is strange because we have many Australian readers). We were depressed because only two people submitted entries to the contest.

George Spelvin sent this lost-consonant sentence:

Les Lauber sent us three entries:

Just as we were ready to give up, our reader Deb Calderon sent us an email with seven entries! And then she sent us another email with six more entries. And then she sent us one more email with 10 entries.

What impressed us the most was not the quantity of Deb's lost-consonant sentences but the brilliant quality. Here are a couple of Deb's creations:

The interesting thing is that even with the lost consonants, these sentences make ironic sense.

Rather than print all of Deb's contributions, we decided to ration them at two items per issue. So you will have to check out our future issues.

In the meantime Deb wins our $50 gift certificate for Workshop by Thiagi products. Congratulations, Deb! (Sorry, Les.)

You too can win our contest (and become famous). Check out this month's contest. Remember, you can't win if you don't enter.



The third word is “USUALLY”.

For another hint, read the Introspection department.

Back to the puzzle


Every month, we challenge our readers with an exciting contest. The winner will receive a $50 gift certificate toward the purchase of any book or game from Workshops by Thiagi, Inc.

A Puzzling Contest

Have you read this month's puzzle page? It describes twisted-pairs puzzles, which require the solver to discover a hidden message. We frequently use the twisted-pairs format to focus participants' attention on some key point in our training session.

Training puzzles of this kind should meet three important criteria:

Contest 111 invites you to create a twisted-pair puzzle on some popular training topic. Here are some sample pairs:

The Contest

To enter this month's contest, create a twisted-pair puzzle (using our instructions) and send it to us. Don't include the solution so we can try to solve it ourselves to gauge the difficulty level. (Be sure to include your email address so we can check our answer!)

If the judges rate your puzzle as the best one, you win the contest.

The Rules




Back to the puzzle

Pithy Advice

You Don't Need a Big Budget

Resourcefulness is more crucial than resources.

I got this quotation from my Aussie colleague Marie Jasinski and tracked down its origin to Dr. Karl Weick who writes extensively on organizational redesign as improvisation.

In game design, this aphorism reminds me that the effectiveness of a training game depends on the power of the design and not on expensive equipment or computerized bells and whistles.

A resourceful facilitator can derive effective learning out of mundane experiences involving everyday objects.