That's why many HR professionals are turning to board games for training purposes. Board games provide information to participants in an entertaining way. Players learn while they compete. In addition, the interactive nature of games offers the opportunity for informal discussions.
One area of training that games have impacted in the last few years is diversity. Since 1991, at least three board games addressing diversity issues have hit the training-products market. Trainers are finding that they can use these games to introduce the topic of diversity to employees, or to incorporate the games into existing diversity-training programs as follow-up or reinforcement. Although each game is unique in design and play format, all three have the same objectives—to raise awareness about diversity topics in a nonthreatening manner and stimulate conversations about these issues.
The Diversity Game™, created by New York City-based Quality Educational Development Inc. (QED), is one of these products. The five year-old consulting company that specializes in the design of customized management training developed the game in response to client complaints about a lack of diversity-training tools.
"We were approached by our clients, who told us they were doing diversity training, but they couldn't find effective instructional tools," says Alan Richter, vice president of QED. "The only tool that was interactive was role-playing exercises, which many people find extremely threatening."
The Diversity Game entered the market in January 1992. Last year, the company sold more than 200 copies of the game. It sells for $395.
The Diversity Game offers surprising statistics.
Resembling the popular Trivial Pursuit™ game, QED's product has players answer multiple-choice questions categorized under demographics, jobs, legislation and society. (A player can be an individual or a team comprising up to three people. Teams provide better opportunity for discussion.) The questions deal with:
- Cultural differences
- Age issues
- Sexual orientation
- Physical disabilities.
Some of the questions require knowledge of statistics. One question asks: What percent of the work force in the year 2000 will be women?
(The correct answer is A, 47%. The game's creators document all answers in a game booklet.)
Other questions require players to determine the legality of certain practices. These are based on actual cases. For example: Two white employees and one African-American worker were charged with theft of company property. The white employees were discharged, but the African-American employee was retained because of concerns about racial-discrimination lawsuits. The employer's action was:
- Illegal; the law prohibits racial discrimination
- Legal; the law only protects minorities
- Legal, because this case involved theft.
(The creators cite A as the answer, explaining that the law prohibits disciplinary actions that discriminate on the basis of race.)
Players who answer these questions correctly collect colored tokens that correspond to the respective categories. After collecting the token from each category, players move their game pieces toward the middle of the playing board. On their way, they must pass through chance and test squares.
When landing on chance squares, players must move as instructed by a drawn chance card. For example, one card reads, "While attending a diversity training program, you realize that everyone is a minority within some context. Move three squares forward." Another card reads, "Your joke backfires in front of a diverse audience because the colloquial words you use are misinterpreted. Move back three squares."
When landing on a test square, players must answer a test question read to them by another player. These questions deal with all the different diversity issues.
Here's a sample question: You wish to congratulate a Mexican employee who has given birth to a child. Which of the following gifts would be inappropriate?
- A multicolored baby outfit
- A bouquet of yellow flowers
- A green baby toy.
(Answer B is the correct response. The answer explains that to many Mexicans, yellow flowers connote death, making this an inappropriate gift. The answer further explains that the significance of colors varies greatly across cultures.)
The player who reaches the middle square first, and correctly answers a question selected by the other players, wins the game.
Sharing adds additional interaction.
A similar board game designed as a diversity-training tool is THE DIVERSITY GAME—Understanding the Human Race™, created as a joint project by San Mateo, California-based Multus Inc. and George Simons International in Santa Cruz, California. The game addresses the same issues as The Diversity Game.
In THE DIVERSITY GAME, players take turns rolling dice and moving game pieces around a multicolored board that has a pattern resembling a racetrack. (Individual players are recommended for this game, to promote individual involvement and to keep the game moving at a quick pace. However, it can be played in teams of two.) Colored squares along the paths correspond to colored cards. When landing on these squares, players must read a corresponding card and follow directions.
Like the other game, some cards require answering multiple-choice questions. For example, when landing on green spaces, players must read from diversiSMARTS cards. One such card asks the question: In Hispanic families, one of the highest values is placed on which of the following?
- Being on time
- Respect for elders.
(The answer, according to the authors, is D. Just as with The Diversity Game, the question writers document their resources for all answers in the game package.)
What differentiates THE DIVERSITY GAME from the QED game is diversiSHARE cards, drawn when players land on blue spaces. These require players to share something about themselves. For example, one card states: "Name three similarities between yourself and the person directly to your right." Other cards ask players to relate personal experiences or to challenge other players to talk about their experiences relating to a particular topic.
DiversiCHOICE cards, drawn when players land on a yellow space, require players to choose the best option in a given situation. For example, one diversiCHOICE card poses this situation: A 61-year-old employee asks you to approve him or her for a leadership training program. Normally it takes seven years for the employee to advance to the intended management position. You should:
- Acknowledge the employee's right to participate and enroll him or her
- Reject the application
- Discourage the applicant and get him or her to withdraw voluntarily.
(According to the creators of the game, the correct answer is B—Reject the application because the long-term investment involved justifies this decision.)
Red cards don't pose questions but simply relay facts, similar to The Diversity Game's chance cards. Some of these cards send players to celebration squares on the board as players learn about a different cultural festivity. (Did you know that during the Islamic season of Ramadan, people fast for 30 days in honor of the revelations given to the Prophet?) These red cards also can send players into traps for making assumptions based on stereotypes or for displaying biased attitudes. (Assuming that the only male employee in your office will carry in heavy boxes will cost you a turn.)
To win the game, a player has to collect the most diversiCOINS, awarded for correct answers and each time a player's game piece passes through the middle THE DIVERSITY GAME square. Game facilitators decide on the amount of time for play.
Multus began selling THE DIVERSITY GAME at the beginning of this year. Its price is $595.
Diversity Bingo forces players to seek out differences.
In both THE DIVERSITY GAME and The Diversity Game, players must answer questions. A third game requires the players to ask questions instead of answering them.
Diversity Bingo, a $100 game created by Bloomington, Indiana-based ADVANCEMENT Strategies and distributed by Pfeiffer & Company in San Diego, has the players find other people from among the individuals in their playing group who match the descriptions printed in the squares on their bingo cards. The players must get these people to sign the appropriate squares, and when the players have completed a line across, down or diagonally, they are declared to be the winners of the game.
Although some of the people who fit the descriptions on the cards are easy to find without much discussion (such as finding a man or a woman), others require players to ask questions. For example, a person who has received welfare or who is a vegetarian can't be identified without some conversation.
Games get people talking about diversity.
Pamela Kiefer, an HR consultant with Corning, New York-based Corning Inc., has played Diversity Bingo with her employees. "The game got people up and talking to each other about these diversity issues," she says.
Connie Bates, vice president of Multus Inc., says that most people who play THE DIVERSITY GAME engage in conversations during the game. "A lot of the feedback we get is that the game creates conversation when the answers surprise people," she says.
Bates adds that one of Multus's goals in creating this game was to get people to talk about diversity issues. Alan Richter, vice president of QED, says the same was true for his company in developing The Diversity Game. "One of the objectives is to create the forum for discussion of those diversity issues," he says.
To ensure that discussion does develop, all three games come with facilitator booklets. These help in-house people to facilitate the games and lead players into productive conversations—both during the games and after play. The step-by-step instructions include:
- How to optimize learning
- How to troubleshoot
- How to manage reaction
- How to arrange the cards (in THE DIVERSITY GAME and The Diversity Game) to cover the issues that are most prevalent in the organization.
"It's important to have people facilitating the game who understand group dynamics, and who can monitor the game and follow up by answering questions," says Mary Kay Abernathy, HR director for the North Florida region of Price Waterhouse. Abernathy has played The Diversity Game with people in her unit.
Games serve as teaching tools.
Another goal of the games is to raise awareness and understanding of a multitude of diversity issues among workers. Sara Stevenson, education and development manager at Corning, says that The Diversity Game has made a lot of people in her organization realize that although they get exposed to many diversity issues, they don't know as much about diversity as they thought they did. "The game helps create the incentive to go out and find out more about EEO, affirmative action or the international multicultural issues of doing business," says Stevenson.
Tom Broitman, director of executive education at Price Waterhouse, first introduced The Diversity Game to his company's human resources professionals partly to elicit this same response. "I wanted the HR professionals, myself included, to realize that we don't know what we don't know," he says.
Broitman was able to use the game as a teaching tool at the firm's annual HR meeting last year. During the three-day meeting, Broitman exposed the HR professionals to many learning experiences, including a talk by a diversity specialist. At the end of one of the meeting days, he divided the 180 people into teams of three and engaged them in play, giving prizes to the winners. "It was exciting," says Broitman. "There was a lot of energy, and people had a good time and at the same time learned something."
Broitman's goal for the introduction of the game to the HR people was two-fold. Not only did he hope to create a greater awareness among the HR staff about various diversity issues, but he also hoped that the high involvement and interactive nature of the game would prompt the HR staff to want to use it in their own offices. "I wanted the HR people to see this learning tool as a positive, fun experience," he says.
Abernathy is one employee who has viewed the game this way. She plans to expose the whole office to the game by the end of the year. She will be implementing it for employees who have been with the company between one and seven years and who are training to become senior managers. The game will supplement other diversity training that Abernathy says employees receive "a lot of in their first year."
Abernathy also sees the game, which Price Waterhouse has customized for its employees, as an orientation tool. The company created some of its own cards that relate the issues to its culture and values, and that relay historical information. Some of the questions include:
- What is the percentage of men to women in the firm?
- Where did the first Price Waterhouse office open in the U.S.?
- What was the one factor that influenced candidates to accept a position with Price Waterhouse?
- In which South American country would someone from Price Waterhouse on a tour of duty need to know Portuguese? In Argentina, Brazil or Paraguay?
"There's a strong culture and a strong sense of history and pride that existed before the arrival of the new hires," says Broitman. "This invites them to be a part of that."
Cheryl Heggemeier, HR regional manager for Silver Spring, Maryland-based Manor Care, bought the THE DIVERSITY GAME game in February and plans to use it in a similar manner to Abernathy's use of The Diversity Game—in management training. Heggemeier oversees 11 centers in the Florida area. Each center employs between 12 and 15 managers. Having the game will enable her to conduct group diversity training during regular visits to the centers. "A game format isn't threatening for the learners," she says, "and when people are involved, they get more out of it than if they're just listening to a lecturer or a video."
She hopes that the game will help the managers feel more comfortable talking about diversity issues. "I've noticed that although people want something done to fix the problems they see occurring between two groups of workers who don't get along, or between a client and an employee who speaks English as a second language, there's a great fear of opening up the subject," says Heggemeier. "I think the belief is that it might stir things up in a negative way." She says that because a game format addresses the topic in a fun, nonthreatening way, the chance of this happening is reduced. Playing a game has helped Heggemeier break the ice within her group and helped to start people talking about this touchy subject.
Other companies are buying the games to serve this same purpose. At Menlo Park, California-based ADIA Personnel, for example, employee relations manager Petrice Paulson plans to use her recently purchased THE DIVERSITY GAME game to raise the awareness level of field-staff personnel on diversity issues and provoke them into thinking—and talking—about these topics.
At South Seattle Community College, Betsy Hale, director of the career center, organized a game-playing session for automotive instructors during a gender-equity workshop to encourage them to discuss diversity topics. (Although the meeting was arranged to address the difficulties these instructors were having incorporating women into their classes, their discussions during the meeting revealed that they were equally concerned about an abundance of people with limited English-speaking skills in their classes. Hale used The Diversity Game to address both these issues.)
Games reinforce other training.
Some companies that have extensive diversity programs, however, use the games not as icebreakers to introduce the subject, but as a follow-up to reinforce the subject. Corning, for example, has an ongoing program consisting of eight different training courses. Business groups complete each segment of the training together so that each member is at the same level as the others on awareness and experience.
Often, when these groups get together for informal brown-bag lunch meetings or regular staff meetings, diversity-related topics and issues arise. In these situations, group supervisors ask the education and training department for additional materials that they can use. "The game basically is used as a follow-up activity to keep the topic of diversity alive and viable for people who want to learn more about these issues, but who don't necessarily want to go through another formal training experience," says Stevenson. The training department has six copies of The Diversity Game that it lends to business groups requesting them.
Trainees have fun playing games.
Stevenson says that the response has been favorable from people at Corning who have played the game. The human resources personnel have all found it to be a useful training tool and recommend it to managers frequently for use in follow-up activities.
Hale says that the response from players at South Seattle Community College generally has been positive as well. There have been some people who reacted negatively to particular questions, however. For example, one African-American woman who played The Diversity Game, objected to a question that didn't include Hispanics as white. "It took a long time to get her off of that and back into the game," says Hale.
At Price Waterhouse, the HR staff who played the game viewed it as an efficient training tool. The HR people also enjoyed the game and found the questions challenging, despite their considerable knowledge of these issues. Abernathy says that as a group, the HR managers did best on the legislation questions and struggled most with the items that pertain to global cultures.
Abernathy adds that one of the great benefits of the game is that if the questions aren't challenging enough, a company can develop its own, as Price Waterhouse did. The THE DIVERSITY GAME game comes with blank cards for this purpose.
In addition, Multus is developing card sets that pertain to particular issues, such as gender-only cards and card sets on specific cultures. Multus also offers a service in which clients can peruse its data base of questions and choose items most relevant to their organizations.
Quality Educational Development customizes card sets for clients as well. It also keeps a data base of questions, and will release sets of updates to clients as needed. "The challenge is to continue to come up with questions that are interesting and startling," says Richter. "There must be a balance between fairly difficult questions that people won't necessarily know but maybe can deduce, and questions that are fairly obvious to any enlightened person."
It's this mix of questions that Manor Care's Heggemeier credits as the value of the game. "I feel that the knowledge about all these different cultures isn't something you can put together yourself," she says.
Because of its usefulness in making indivuals more culturally aware, Heggemeier says that the game is worth the cost. "I think that because it's a game, people find it difficult to understand why it costs so much. I get a lot of materials daily from companies trying to sell training products, so I know what training materials cost."
The experiences gained through the interaction of the games are as valuable as the knowledge learned. "People have told me that they felt closer to each other after playing the game," says Heggemeier. "Some of these people have known each other for quite a while, but they learned something new about their co-workers."
"It's a great team-binding activity," adds Corning's Kiefer, "and I thought it was fun." Adults, it seems, really do like to play games.
Personnel Journal, June 1993, Vol. 72, No. 6, pp. 78-83.