07 Oct

Cursed problems in facilitation

What happens when we take the analytical work of a game designer and feed it back to a group of people working on real-life collaboration problems? 

Thanks to the invitation of Myriam Hadnes I was able to put on my mad-scientist hat once more and create a workshop for the Never Done Before community of facilitation professionals. By definition my workshop had to be something new and for this one I thought I’d use as a starting point a talk from Alex Jaffe called “Cursed problems in game design“. 

When I first watched this talk from the Game Developers Conference I was fascinated by the patterns that Jaffe was describing. Among other things, he addressed the question of inner contradictions, which I thought might be relevant to a whole lot of other human problems. 

But it is a fairly technical talk, filled with jargon and game examples. Actually the more I studied it, the more I realised how dense it was. A first challenge would be to make the essence of the content accessible, without sacrificing too much of the process that gave rise to the pattern of the “cursed problems”. 

Two cursed problems in game design: the kingmaker and quantified creativity

A second and more daunting challenge was the relevance of the framework. In the words of Alex Jaffe himself: “Those who aim to intervene on wicked problems usually have less agency than game designers have on cursed problems.”

How much of the knowledge would remain relevant outside of the magic circle of the game, in professional contexts where rules are sometimes obscure and players, unwilling? 

Insights from the Cursed Workshop session

The wisdom of facilitators surprised me again with fresh insights.

🎨 When asked to give typical facilitation problems a name, participants came up with lots of cool answers: Secret service, Impossible dream, Chicken run, Awkward peacekeeper, Lame ideation, Holiday mood, Unhappy hostage… Interestingly the names already foreshadow some of the inner contradictions. 

🧩 In the world of workshop facilitation, contradictions often spawn from the complex web of constraints in which people are embedded: conscious and subconscious processes, power plays, expectations, and of course, who holds the keys to the purse. Becoming more conscious of these processes, by making the implicit explicit, allows us to reclaim our agency over decisions that have been made for the wrong reasons, or that come with unsolvable contradictions keeping us trapped in a double-bind. 

🧙 Often the magical power of well-designed workshops lies in temporarily reshuffling power structures and decision processes in such a way that new answers will come to light. Not just to make things easier (“facile”), but to direct our attention to the correct challenges, to work on the problems worth solving and to host the conversations worth having. In other words, the art of facilitation is to create an arena where agency is redistributed so that meaning can emerge. 

✨ In that sense, the safe space of a workshop is not unlike the magic circle of a game. Except that the goal is very different: not just to have fun, but also to achieve better results. And when everything else fails, there is always the marshmallow technique: let participants jump into the fire together and show them how to enjoy themselves. 

Many thanks for joining the Cursed Workshop Anna Darmenia, Mirjam Lennissen Florentine Versteeg, Elise Keith, Myriam Hadnes, Anuschka Ruge and Vy Nguyen

Play session Streets of Rage at The Cursed Workshop
Canvas for cursed problems in facilitation

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