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Russian Games

by Elena Tonetti-Vladimirova, 1992

In Russia, during the 1980s, some innovative people engaged in powerful, grassroots initiatives, playfully and ironically called games, which were intended to improve the quality of life for people working in organizations and living in communities.

In Russia, during the 1980s, some innovative people engaged in powerful, grassroots initiatives, playfully and ironically called games, which were intended to improve the quality of life for people working in organizations and living in communities. I would like to tell you about these games. Despite their name, they had nothing to do with children since they were pretty serious "games" for adults. They took the form of big gatherings, each involving from 100 to 300 people. Each game lasted for about a week or so. They were held at a retreat center in the wilderness, somewhere far from the city, far from regular life with its jobs and domestic chores. A game leader, with a collaborative team of 10 to 25 facilitators, designed and implemented each game. Individual participants didn't pay for attending the games. The institution or corporation that hired the team to conduct the game paid for everything. Leaders in these organizations recognized the need for systemic change, and they called upon game leaders for help.

The work format was as follows. After the initial introduction by the game leader, all participants were divided into groups. During the first half of each day, participants worked in their small groups. During the second half of the day, everybody joined together in the conference hall, listening to each group's reports about what had happened in the group that morning. From the gist of the group reports, participants sincerely sought to discern where the whole group was moving, and everybody sincerely tried to understand one another, usually for the first time. Most of the participants knew one another, having worked in the same organization for years. The game, however, gave them an opportunity to look at one another from a different perspective. This sometimes brought unexpected and very intense results.

If the game was to be held with a huge organization with thousands of workers, the game leader, before even accepting the request to conduct the game, would explain to the manager of that organization that the game should have representatives from each department, ranging from the Board of Directors to newcomers. One of the game's rules was that people should forget who was who with regard to professional roles and the hierarchy of power. For example, the leading engineer would say that he was a bookkeeper, and the new technician would announce himself as a director.

The rules were determined by the game leader during the preparation and were announced at the very beginning of the game. They varied depending upon what kind of organization had ordered the game. Among the different sorts of organizations that requested games, there were, for example, a geological institution, a movie studio, a school, and a city council. Also, the structure of each game depended greatly upon the game leader's personality.

Games could be highly structured, with the number and themes of the groups announced in the beginning, and with a very fixed schedule. In that case, game facilitators in each group of 10 people would act like teachers at school. On the other hand, when the game called for a spontaneous, creative approach, it could be very flexible. Then participants themselves were invited to suggest themes for the groups, to explain what issues they thought it was necessary to work on, and to invite others to join them. In this case, some groups would have as many as 30 people, whereas other groups might have only two or three. Facilitators in such games were practically invisible. They were not officially introduced, and the groups often didn't even feel their presence. Their role then would be just to keep the group focused on the subject chosen by that group, gently facilitating their discussion.

It is very difficult to describe the games because each one of them was so different! The only common features were those that I mentioned. The rest was up to the moment when each interactive game was happening, especially in the case of the second, less-structured type of games. The creator of the games, one of the founders of the Russian School of Methodology, George Shchedrovitsky, designed them as highly structured, methodological, intellectual games with their own very complex terminology and ethical codes. In 1989, when he left the field of games to devote his time to writing and lecturing about methodology, four of his best students continued working in this field, and developed their own four styles of games. I'll give two examples.

The first took place at the nuclear station in the Ural Mountains (which is the border between Europe and Asia). It was the very first nuclear station in the USSR. By the 1980s, when the game was held, the station was in critical condition. It had already had a few major emergencies, and another one was expected at any time. When the station was created, no emergency plan was designed. There were no major repair instructions, or knowledge about how to stop the reactor, and no one involved in building it was still alive at the time of the game. Nuclear stations are like military bases, very secluded and behind tightly secured, barbed-wire fences. Three thousand people, workers and their families, were living at this particular station. The reason the game was requested was to brainstorm solutions to questions about what to do with all these people now that the station was breaking apart, and what to do with the breaking-down station itself.

This was, basically, the same reason for every request for games, because every single organization in the USSR in the eighties was in some kind of crisis. Without any advertising, each team of game-facilitators had about a five-year waiting list of requests from organizations all over the country. The game with this atomic station was a classic business type. People worked really hard under the pressure of circumstances, alternating between small groups and being all together, and changing roles, positions and self-definitions.

By the end of the week, the solution was found--to change the official status of the station, to "switch off" the working machine, and to turn the site into the subject of study, where results would be expected not in the form of product, but in the form of knowledge! In Russia, this meant a lot. It would lead to a big difference in supplies, subsidies, and people. The change in the status was possible, right then and there, because the "top dogs," the people who actually needed to sign the papers, were present. They themselves had gone through the whole experience of finding the optimum path in that uncertain situation, They, too, had experienced being thrashed, sifted, and renewed in the field of "the game," and they were part of making this decision themselves. According to the rules, no one could leave the game, no matter how hard it got and how much easier it might seem to simply run away from it. That's why the changes inside the organizations after the games didn't meet much resistance from authorities, because authorities had taken part in making the decisions that led to those changes.

The main problem after a game usually involved misunderstandings between those who had attended the game and those who had been left to work back in the city. This problem was solved at some point by ordering a whole series of games for the same organization, so everybody had their chance to play.

Also, the last day of the game was usually about helping the participants adjust to the reality they were going to face the next day at home and at work. The reality they had left a week ago seemed like a year ago. Dealing with this transition was a very important, delicate part of the game. Sometimes people were getting depressed about going back to their everyday reality. The effect on personal lives was dramatic, too. The games helped people to become very clear about what they were doing in their world, and why they were doing it. In many cases, it came down to the big question concerning whether they wanted to continue to do their regular work.

Games often revealed the informal leaders inside the corporation. This was a regular occurrence. During a game someone's unacknowledged, profound organizational skills would have a chance to shine and be recognized. Informal leaders were sprouting during the games, and receiving instant promotions and higher positions immediately following the games. Also, games often revealed just the opposite. Some people resigned after the games because they, and their colleagues, discovered that they were sitting in the wrong boat.

If an organization didn't have enough money to pay to the team of facilitators, but its people sincerely desired the game, many times the game happened anyway. Game facilitators were such devoted people that they would work for free sometimes.

One team of facilitators was able to provide one or two games per month. The normal pace of work involved 7 days to prepare, 7 days for the game itself, and then 7 days to digest, to process the results, to harvest the riches of the experience. This was then followed by 7 days to rest and relax. Sometimes the intensity of the game was so high that people forgot to eat and didn't really have time to sleep. Under the pressure of Soviet reality 2 games a month were held pretty often, though. Nobody could stand such intensity if it was not treated almost as a spiritual practice.

The average statistics showed that approximately two-thirds of the participants were able to "enter" the game. Approximately a third psychologically resisted participation. They just wandered around all week, having fun, or getting really angry at everyone else. It was unpredictable how an individual would react and whether he or she would be able to play or not. Sometimes people would step into the game on the last day and then feel sorry they hadn't joined in earlier.

The number of participants was an important factor for the success of a game. When we tried to do a game with under a hundred people, it felt like not enough critical mass to rock the pendulum to start the clock. It was more like a seminar or a workshop, not a game. When we involved more than 250 people, it became too chaotic, too hard to keep the focus. It still could be a very nice event, but, again, not the game.

Also, a game required at least a week to be successful. A shorter time such as, for example, a three-day weekend was not enough time for people to get truly disconnected from their routines and to surrender to the game completely. The process of "coming out" of the game was also a very necessary part, and it took a whole day.

I'd like to give you an example of a non-structured type of game. I called it the "Magical Theater," because on around the third day it became a field of pulsating consciousness with a mind of its own. It was unpredictable, almost metaphysical, and had a very powerful effect on people, taking everyone where they needed to be taken. This type of game had a somewhat flexible schedule, and by the third day the main action started to happen mostly after the official schedule was over, late at night, which gave it a somewhat romantic flare. There were virtually no leading positions. The leaders were releasing their own desire to become leaders. Or, to say it more accurately, there was one leader, and that was the biosphere of the game itself, which, I dare to say, felt like a living substance. After the game I am about to describe, I walked into the building where the game was held about a half a year later, and still I could feel the presence of "the field" in that place. The story of that game follows.

In the summer of 1987, the council of one small community in the Ural Mountains published an ad in the national newspaper, inviting people to take part in the contest to become a director of their new school. They also invited our team of game-facilitators to organize this contest and to be the judges, because the council members were not sure what criteria to use for choosing the director.

The situation with school education in the USSR reflected the total crisis of the country as well. For example, there were no modern history lessons for quite a while in schools, because the new textbooks with true stories were still in the process of being written, and the old textbooks with Soviet propaganda were canceled. In Russia, history textbooks were rewritten many times after the Revolution of 1917, according to the needs of the current Soviet rulers. Very few documents survived through the wars and fires and social turmoil, so it was difficult to find out what had really happened in our country. The teachers were at a loss, and history lessons were mainly about history before the 20th century.

So, that community in Yekaterinburg was about to create a new type of school for their children. They were trying to make a collective decision about what it was supposed to be like. To take part in this contest, one was supposed to have fresh ideas, to be a creative and communicative person without any of the necessary limitations of the Soviet era, such as membership in the Communist party, age limits, or certain educational requirements. That was a real breakthrough by itself already, because to be a director of a school in the USSR one had to be a member of the Communist Party, have a university education, and be a male over 45 years old at least.

This community, however, was very unusual and was progressively oriented. It was built on undeveloped territory by a large group of friends. They created their own life, as they wished, starting from zero. This took place during the mid-seventies, at a time when very few people were brave enough to open their mouths or dare to do something different from what was ordered by the government bureaucracy. Within a brief time period, the community members had cleared the forest and had built their own little town with their own cable television (the first in the country) and their own radio station, their own grass-roots, democratically elected Board of Supervisors, and hundreds of other things that regular Soviet citizens didn't have, such as their own sports club and childcare facility. Learning from their example, other people started doing the same all over the country. This community was the first of its kind, and now there are about 300 of them.

At some point in their manifesting the reality they had dared to dream up they ran into the necessity to create a school for their children. At that time, nobody there had heard about Montessori or any other kind of alternative schools. They decided to invite anybody who wanted to share his or her vision and to choose the best out of what would be presented. But how were they supposed to know which one was the best?

The game started with 21 contestants from different parts of the USSR who responded to their ad, with different backgrounds (engineers, teachers, housewives, 2 school directors, college students, and approximately 150 residents of the community, including a couple of dozen, school-age children (from 7 to 17years old). For the first few days of the game, all the contestants were presenting their programs, discussing with the other participants their strong and weak points. Then something happened! Nobody felt like competing anymore! People started to like each other so much that they started to help each other to improve their programs and all together to find out what was really good for our children. The groups changed their names from the names of the contestants to, for example, "Anthropotechnicians" ("anthropos" means "human being" in Greek), "Health Designers," and so on The number of groups lessened because contestants were working together in the same groups, sharing their discoveries, and because the vision of the school that was conceived and born during this game was not initially brought by any one of them. It was a collaborative, team effort.

The new school was named "Playing God." Students of the school were themselves to choose and create all subjects to be studied and how they would go about studying. In history, for example, they would learn through playing out any particular era they were studying. The same approach was adopted with math, geography, and all of the other subjects. This was more like inventing it all rather than just memorizing data.

The game did not have the expected result of choosing one person for the position of the principal of the new school. What ended up happening was that most of the contestants were invited to stay, and eight of them accepted the invitation, forming the Board of Directors. It was a brave move, because the community had only one allocated apartment and one wage designated for the future principal. So, the people who decided to stay agreed to go into a financially poor situation involving great personal discomfort. But it was worth it for them. They had all the faith in the world that they would make it work, and they did. In the early 90s I made a documentary in English about this fascinating community and their remarkable school. I love showing it on public and community-access television stations in the U.S.

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