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

Three Statements
If you can teach it, you can play it.

10 Characteristics of Authentic Activities
Does your training reflect the real world?

Guest Gamer
An Interview with Bill Matthews
Insights from a marketing perspective.

Letter from the Future by Bill Matthews
Back from the future.

Contest Results
Conflicting Cases
One situation, three points of view.

Basic Books
Eleven books that explore different aspects of gaming.

Pithy Saying
Limit the number of games.





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 Editors: Raja Thiagarajan and Julie England

Managing Editor: Brenda Mullin

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

Copyright Info

The materials in this newsletter are copyright 2002 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 © 2002 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. Or you can charge your credit card online, through Workshops by Thiagi, Inc. Please let us know if you need an invoice 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!


Three Statements

Two days ago, during a long flight from Edinburgh to Washington, I worked on compressing my approach to interactive strategies into three short statements.

Here they are:

  1. Anything that you can teach by using any method, you can teach by using training games.
  2. Training games can be designed rapidly and inexpensively.
  3. Training games engage the learners and produce effective results.

Let us discuss the first of these three statements: Anything that you can teach by using any method, you can teach by using training games.

Many people disagree with this statement by immediately proclaiming, But you can't teach my subject by using a game. It's too serious for that. This objection is the result of confusing games with fun activities that are mindless and irrelevant. If we adopt a broader definition of games as structured interactions, this objection becomes invalid. In Edinburgh, for example, I facilitated a game that explored death and dying. It involved guided visualization that resulted in participants feeling very sad and getting in touch with their basic values and beliefs. Several other games similarly deal with serious topics. None of them is fun, and all of them are highly engaging. War games, for example, provide an effective strategy for exploring serious principles and procedures.

Another objection: People in my group are different. They don't like to play games. I have facilitated training games with people from different cultures around the world. I have played games with children and adults, with blue-collar workers and corporate presidents. My experience shows that as long as we approach our participants with respect and facilitate a game that is relevant to their needs, there is seldom any resistance. Obviously, we should not be violating cultural norms and should make appropriate adjustments to our language (such as not calling the activity a game) in order to use a game effectively with different groups.

One more objection: We don't have time to play games. We have too many topics to cover. This objection reflects confusion between presenting information and achieving training objectives. As my friend Harold Stolovitch points out in the title of his best-selling book, “Telling ain't training.” If we don't have time to provide interactive opportunities for practice and feedback, we could be efficiently replaced by audio- and videotape recordings.

Other objections: It takes a long time and a lot of money to design a training game. People don't learn anything useful from playing games; they just have a good time.

These objections are related to the second and third statements in my list. I will talk about them in future issues of PFP.


10 Characteristics of Authentic Activities

In the August issue of PFP, I wrote a piece entitled “Reflect the Real World” in which I stressed the importance of keeping your training session as close to on-the-job training as possible.

At a recent online conference, I had an opportunity to chat with my friend Tom Reeves (a professor at the University of Georgia) who has been doing some remarkable work in the area of authentic activities. Here's a checklist related to this concept, paraphrased from a research presentation by Tom Reeves and two colleagues from Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia: Jan Herrington and Ron Oliver.

You can use this checklist to evaluate and modify your training simulations and activities to make sure that they reflect the real world.

  1. Authentic activities have real-world relevance. These activities reflect what professional do on their real-world jobs.
  2. Authentic activities are ill-defined, requiring participants to define the tasks and sub-tasks needed to complete the activity. The problems presented to participants cannot be solved by the simple application of a step-by-step procedure or formula. Participants must break down the problem into tasks and sub-tasks in order to solve it.
  3. Authentic activities require participants to spend a lot of time in exploring and solving problems. Truly authentic activities will require days, weeks, and months rather than minutes or hours.
  4. Authentic activities provide the opportunity for participants to examine the task from different perspectives. The activities will require participants to use a variety of viewpoints and resources rather than use a single theory or model.
  5. Authentic activities provide the opportunity to collaborate. The activities (and their real-world counterparts) will require teamwork among participants.
  6. Authentic activities provide the opportunity to reflect and involve participants' beliefs and values. These activities require participants to make informed choices and provide ample experiences for reflection and discuss during debriefing.
  7. Authentic activities can be integrated and applied across different subject areas. As in the real world, these activities should encourage a cross-functional approach that requires participants to play different roles.
  8. Authentic activities are seamlessly integrated with assessment. The activities will incorporate real world performance assessment, rather than artificial paper-and-pencil tests.
  9. Authentic activities create polished products valuable in their own right rather than as preparation for something else. The activity will result in a ready-to-use product instead of some artificial object.
  10. Authentic activities allow competing solutions and diversity of outcomes. The activity will permit different unique and creative solutions, rather than a single correct answer obtained by the application of predefined rules and procedures.

Guest Gamer

This column features interviews with outstanding designers and users of interactive experiential activities. Our guest this month is Bill Matthews, who is a performance improvement consultant with the Alteris Group in Birmingham, Michigan. Bill is also an adjunct lecturer at the University of Michigan-Dearborn where he teaches a course in educational games and simulations. Several of Bill's activities have appeared in the series of sourcebooks on training, performance, and organizational development, published by McGraw-Hill. He is also co-author (with J. Tom Buck and Robert Leach) of 101 Ways to Power Up Your Job Search, also published by McGraw-Hill.

An Interview with Bill Matthews

Thiagi: Bill, what's your specialty area?

Bill Matthews: I started my career out as a family systems therapist. That area heavily focused on systems thinking and understanding the nature of relationships that result in dysfunctional behavior. So it was natural for me to specialize in leadership and organizational development. However, I don't imply that today's leaders and organizations are dysfunctional.

Thiagi: How did you get into designing and using games?

Bill Matthews: Family systems therapy employs a lot of experiential activities to help people to analyze the nature of their relationships. Much of my early thinking about experiential activities was influenced by the writings of therapists rather than game designers: Virginia Satir, Milton Erickson, and Salvador Minuchin, to name a few.

But I probably got interested in game design at a younger age. I am an only child and before I was two years old, my parents moved out to what was then “the country.” For years, we lived in an isolated area without any neighborhood playmates. So I had to keep myself amused by inventing my own games.

I have also been the director of a residential treatment center for runaway and throwaway children during a time when budgets for mental health and children's services were being slashed. We worked with children who suffered from various forms of learning disabilities and who had no use for school. We were required to offer them educational services while they were in our care, so the staff and I started adapting common games to give them an educational flavor that would engage our adolescent clients.

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

Bill Matthews: In the area of organizational development, I have been working with games probably since the late 1980's.

Thiagi: Where do you use games?

Bill Matthews: My use has shifted over the last few years, away from stand-alone games to connected series of experiential activities. Let me explain this shift with a couple of examples: A few of years ago we developed a leadership conference for auto dealer management teams. Our client insisted on the use of computers and the Internet. So we placed computer stations around the conference facility and designed activities that required teams to email questions (such as, “What are the top three things you would like to see this leadership team improve?”) back to the employees at their dealerships and get information in return. This simple frame got participants working as a team, forced them to learn to use the computer and the Internet, and started them on empowering their people.

At the same conference, I constructed a template for evaluating the effectiveness of a business website. One evening during the conference, we provided participants with some refreshments, organized them into triads, and asked each triad to play the role of official website evaluators. Participants had to go online and evaluate three auto dealership websites using the template. We even created the role of a Dr. Gweeb (complete with lab coat, pocket protector, and eye glasses taped at the bridge) who provided technical consultation to anyone who got stuck.

Thiagi: How do your clients respond to the use of games and activities?

Bill Matthews: I am very fortunate because the company I work for, Alteris Group, brings together talented people in organizational development, marketing, communication, event planning, and Imagineering. So our client base is comfortable with—and insistent upon—experiential learning events and products.

Thiagi: What is the most unusual moment you had in conducting games?

Bill Matthews: I was doing a leadership development conference on Mackinaw Island for a manufacturing company one summer. Most of the participants were engineers, and so I designed an activity around one of Boyd Watkins' devices that used two very tall pyramid structures. The parts required for assembling this pyramid were shipped to the island via ferry. They were to be then transported in horse-drawn wagons.

Our devices were delivered just as we were scheduled to start the activity. We had taken the group outside to enjoy the nice weather and the beautiful view. I was about to announce a quick break to give me time to set the two pyramids up, but before I could do that, things fell apart. The participants saw the boxes containing pieces of the pyramid and ran to them like kids at Christmas. My co-facilitator and I had to apply the art of flexibility. We did an instant redesign (since nobody was listening to us anyway) and made assembling and operating the pyramid as the main activity. It wasn't long before we had a crowd of island visitors watching and cheering the teams on.

Thiagi: What advice do you have to newcomers about designing games?

Bill Matthews: If you want to be a serious game designer I suggest finding a few seasoned designers and volunteering to help them. Fred Goodman at the University of Michigan used to hold the Tuesday Evening Gaming Group where you could show up and help someone with a design in progress, or get some help for a design idea you had. I learned a lot that way.

Thiagi: Any suggestions for more effective use of games?

Bill Matthews: Less is more. I don't like using a lot of games, but I choose games that have an impact. And I prefer ones with simple instructions and steps.

Thiagi: What advice do you have for getting acceptance for the use of games?

Bill Matthews: Call them by an appropriate name: experiential learning activities, training events, or OD strategies. When people hear game, they think of wasted time. This is an unfortunate reality.

Thiagi: What do you think are the most important characteristics of a facilitator?

Bill Matthews: Flexibility and the ability to read the moment. It is important to remember that people will get out of a game the learning points that are important to them at that moment. A good facilitator realizes this and never forces participants to focus only on the learning points listed in the facilitator's guide.

Thiagi: What makes an effective training game?

Bill Matthews: Simplicity works best for me: Simple to set up, simple to explain, simple to conduct and simple for the participants learn from.

Thiagi: What is your favorite game?

Bill Matthews: That's easy, Barnga. I have found more applications for that game than any other I have ever used.

Thiagi: Who are your favorite game designers?

Bill Matthews: Thiagi—from an overall perspective from game design to facilitation and debriefing. From a pure design perspective, I love Garry Shirts' simulations. We have incorporated Starpower into one of our leadership conferences to simulate how easy it is for leaders to get trapped into making up policies and procedures that are in their best interest, and not necessarily in the best interest of their stakeholders.

Thiagi: Do you have any book recommendations?

Bill Matthews: Nelson DeMille and Lisa Scottoline are two of my favorite mystery writers. Seriously though, I have a number of gaming books but haven't really read them. I use them from time-to-time as resources to stimulate my thinking when I have to design something. I have probably used Silver Bullets and Cowstails and Cobras II more frequently than any other. For teambuilding and leadership development, they are two of the best I have found.

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

Bill Matthews: I have changed my thinking about games and instructional design in general these past few years. Both the company I worked for last and the company I am with now, operate from strong marketing models. I went in thinking I would set them straight about training activities, but they ended up changing my perspective. Joseph Pine & James Gilmore wrote a book titled, The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre & Every Business a Stage. I think the same can be said about workplace training. Today, people's lives are so complex and training budgets are so tight that week-long and even day-long seminars have gone the way of the dinosaur. Clients are asking to have all their training web-based and participants have no time to access online learning if they want any real life outside of work.

I, and the people I work with, tend to be minimalists and come at design from a very practical perspective. We believe that we have to win the hearts as well as the minds of our participants. We feel that we have to do that as efficiently and as effectively as possible in order to get them to invest their time and emotional energy in training. This is where instructional gaming comes in. And these games have to be transparently relevant and the learning immediately applicable to the workplace.


Letter from the Future
by Bill Matthews

Teams that fail to develop a shared vision of what they are all about and what they need to do suffer later on when team members start implementing the common mandate based on individual assumptions. To help teams get started on the right foot, Tom Buck and I have put this process together for creating a shared vision.


To create a common or shared vision for your work group


1-2 hours


Flipchart (one for each team)

2-3 felt-tipped markers (for each team)

Masking tape


Part 1 - The Set Up

Divide the team into subgroups using any strategy that makes sense to you. Ideally, each group should have a minimum of three participants and a maximum of six. Assign each team a working area and provide its members with a flipchart and markers.

Introduce the process by presenting the following content in your own words:

In a few minutes you will develop a shared vision for your team. If you have ever done visioning exercises before, you may find this approach to be different from what you are used to. If you have not done visioning exercises before, this should be a relatively painless process for you.
Before I explain the process, let us spend a few moments thinking about all the likely changes that could take place in the world during the next 5 years.

Ask the group to speculate about changes in different categories such as world processes, shopping habits, and communication systems. Invite participants to share their ideas by calling out potential changes.

Part 2 - Letter Writing

After 5 minutes of sharing potential futures, inform participants that they are now going to create a vision of the their teams' future by writing letters back from the future!

Ask each team to think of someone who is with the organization today but who may not be with the organization five years from now. Inform the team that it will be writing the letter to this person.

Remind teams that a good letter has an opening, a body, and a close. Write some prompt questions such as these on the flipchart:

Suggesting that the team's letter should address these questions.

Tell the teams that they will have about 25 minutes to write their letter. Ask the teams to get started.

Monitor the time. Give teams up to 30 minutes, as long as they are working and making progress.

Part 3 - The Reports

Announce that it is now time to read the letters. Invite participants to listen to other teams' letters and identify significant themes in each letter.

Choose a team and ask for a volunteer to read the team's letter. After the letter has been read, ask other participants to call out the major themes in the letter. Record these themes on a flipchart.

Now ask the members of the team that wrote the letter to respond to these questions:

Give a round of applause to the team. Ask other teams to take turns to read their letter. Repeat the same process.

Part 4 - Follow Up

Facilitate a dialogue around the common themes and integrate them into a shared vision for the future.

Ask participants to prioritize different themes in terms of their importance to the team's future.

Ask participants to identify specific and realistic themes and convert them into goals.

Finally, conduct a discussion of suitable strategies for translating the common vision into reality.

Contest Results

Conflicting Cases

In the July issue of PFP, we challenged readers to come up with a case that involved presenting the same situation from the perspective of different characters.

The winner is Sonia Ribaux, a long-time PFP reader from Montreal. Congratulations, Sonia! You receive a $50 gift certificate. Please visit our online store at and use the money to purchase any book or game.

Here's Sonia's three-character case:

GamesWorld Inc.

GamesWorld Inc. designs games for children and adults. They have recently acquired the rights to create toys based on an animated movie character called Tziffer the Mongolian Cat. Tziffer is currently the best loved character in Japan and its popularity is rapidly expanding all over Asia and Europe. GamesWorld is planning a variety of promotional items including Tziffer dolls and clothing, Tziffer soccer balls (Tziffer is an avid soccer player), Tziffer dishes, Tziffer children's accessories, and Tziffer the Mongolian Cat Game.

Jeffrey Tannis

Jeffrey Tannis has been working as a game designer at GamesWorld for 12 years. His latest project is to work with his team to come up with ideas for a children's game featuring Tziffer the Mongolian Cat. Currently working with Jeffrey and his team is Georgia Alison, a young design student who is doing an internship. Jeffrey and his team work together on several ideas and finally agree to present three prototypes to their boss Carrie Levy, who then presents them to the Selection Committee. At this point, Jeffrey leaves on vacation.

Several weeks later, the Selection Committee announces their choice. Much to Jeffrey's surprise, the idea they chose is one that he has never heard of! He finds out from Carrie Levy that Georgia had submitted this idea while he was on vacation. Jeffrey is infuriated that a beginner has come up with a better design than the one from him and his team. He loses his temper and accuses Georgia of being greedy and conniving.

Georgia has complained to Carrie and now Jeffrey is called to a meeting to resolve this issue. He wants Carrie to recognize that he is the head designer on this project. Jeffrey knows that this an important meeting because his bonus and his chances of being assigned other important projects depend on it.

Georgia Alison

Georgia has been enjoying her internship at GamesWorld even though she feels that Jeffrey has not given her opportunities to use her talents. He often ignores her ideas and even puts her down. When she presented the game idea to Carrie, she was not trying to go behind Jeffrey's back. After all, he was away on vacation. Georgia was enthusiastic about her idea and she had not given any thoughts as to who would get credit for it. When her idea was selected by the committee, she was on cloud nine, but not for long. Jeffrey ruined everything by his angry and selfish behavior. After Jeffrey's outburst, Georgia talked about the situation with her friends and family. They were indignant and encouraged her to ask for recognition and financial compensation for her design. After all, GamesWorld would make millions of dollars from her idea. So why shouldn't she get something, especially since she didn't even get paid a salary during her internship. Being recognized as the designer of a popular game sold worldwide would be a great start to her career. She has explained her side of the story to Carrie Levy. At this point, she does not want to sue (as her father has suggested) but she wants to be recognized as the designer of the game and paid a suitable financial compensation.

Carrie Levy

Carrie knows that she should have been more careful. She should have presented Georgia's prototype as a fourth idea from Jeffrey's team. But time was short and in her note to the Selection Committee she mentioned that an intern had designed it. Big mistake. Now that fool Jeffrey has offended Georgia who wants financial compensation for her idea. No one has mentioned a lawsuit but that might well be the next step since Georgia's father is a lawyer.

Carrie has consulted HR about the problem but they have told her that they have no specific policies about work done by an intern. She has called a meeting with Jeffrey and Georgia and hopes to resolve everything.


Basic Books

Here's my recommended reading list for anyone with a serious interest in the field of games and interactive experiential strategies. The collection includes books with philosophical, academic, and practical perspectives.

Finite games are the familiar contests of everyday life. Infinite games are unscripted, unpredictable, and more rewarding.

The Guru of Glee explains how a well-played game can bring joy to you and to the others who play the game.

This book is an excellent introduction to the design and use of training games.

Written by an educational psychologist, this book provides a scholarly introduction to the design and evaluation of instructional games and simulations.

The book provides a practical introduction to the debriefing process.

Ken Jones is one of the most brilliant designers of training games and simulations.

This book is the classic in the field. Kolb's model has formed the basis for the design of experiential learning activities for two decades.

Kat provides a collection of improv games and explains how they can be used in training and management.

Although this book is about computer games, Marc's discussion of the new generation of learners and basic principles of game design can be applied to any type of learning.

John Sleigh is the best training game designer from Australia.

Steve presents an excellent collection of framegames for achieving different types of training objectives.

Pithy Saying


Don't count your games; make your games count.

With thousands of games to choose from, I find myself repeatedly using just half-a-dozen of them.

Here are some implications of this pithy saying:

Don't overload your session with too many games. As Bill Matthews advises in his interview, select a few games with great impact rather than several games of questionable relevance.

Keep playing with a few games. Modify the rules to improve the flow. Plug in new content on old frames. Modify the scoring systems to focus players' attention.

Conduct fewer games so that you have more time for debriefing. Let the participants reflect on their experience, come up with valuable insights, and share them with each other.