Organizational-activity games as a method of conflict resolution

Organizational-activity games as a method of conflict resolution

Uladzimir Matskevich, Tatsiana Vadalazhskaya & Andrei Yahorau

In our search for working methods in culture and cultural heritage, a significant place is occupied by studies of axiological, semantic foundations, techniques of reconstruction, and other professional directions, which help us better understand cultural phenomena. However, we all realize more and more now that culture is primarily a zone of social and even political interactions. Understanding that culture can be described as a process of transmitting and implementing norms, ideas, samples, and ideals in a specific historical situation. We know the intenseness and conflict of this sphere. What values and ideals should be and should not be transmitted? What norms and modi operandi should be implemented on the ground? These questions reside not so much in norms, values, and ideas, nor in their depth or aesthetic, substantial qualities, but rather in public dialogue and the coordination of perceptions of various groups.

Cultural heritage is the acknowledgement and reproduction of some part of the past, which is valuable to the present and to the future. As a social trait it is ubiquitous, part of the dynamics of power, and closely connected with the construction of identity on both collective and personal levels. The ‘value’ to be considered here is not as a constant or some feature inherent in objects; it results from an evaluation process—an activity aimed at an object—and this activity includes imagination, reflection, conceptualization, etc. As for the heritage sphere, the value becomes an object of activity.

It is possible to perform various acts regarding values: to forbid something, to regulate or allow the freedom of creativity and self-expression, to preserve, to accumulate, or to hide and protect, to restore, to sacralize or defile, and to reinterpret, duplicate, or forget. It is an incomplete list of what people do with values. Values are nothing if not dynamic. They never remain the same; they change according to time, place, and patterns of conduct. In an ideal world, of course, we could use laws or ethical and moral standards to allow creative and constructive actions and to forbid destructive ones, but that is impossible because values are part of the economic circulation. They are an integral part of people’s living spaces and the life cycle of heritage objects, which do not always coincide.

The difficult and intricate relations with historical and cultural values lead inevitably to misunderstanding, problems, and conflicts. There are conflicts of proprietorship and possession, when several various subjects and communities can lay a claim to their proprietary rights to a site—the land belonging to one subject, the buildings on it to another. There are conflicts of interest. An site of private, local authority, or state ownership can exclusively interest another subject who has no proprietary rights. Former religious buildings, icons, springs, may interest the Church or other religious groups. A private developer’s construction site can interest archaeologists. A private person’s archive can interest the police or a professional community. There are conflicts of values. One and the same monument with a long history can interest various professional, religious, or national communities at different times. The Temple Mount in Jerusalem changed proprietors and received a new axiological meaning as it went. There are conflicts of public priorities. Ecological, scientific, cultural, national, religious, and local communities can have different views about the same site. There are conflicts of fashion. In different periods of history, societies have different hierarchies of values. In one epoch, the values of progress, innovation, and change are on the front burner; at other times, the priority is preservation, archaism, and conservation. There are conflicts of aesthetics. When it comes to perception and taste, conflicts centre on the stylization during the restoration and exhibition of showpieces. And there are conflicts of techniques, methods, and ways of carrying out this or that restoration. Here there are disagreements between clients, contractors, scientific curators, and artists about various specifications, traditional or modern materials, etc.

These conflicts are a normal factor in culture and in public life. Any solutions which present themselves redound to the development of society and culture. There are various ways of reconciling disputes. It can be an established hierarchy of power, within the framework of which there is a subject that decides or there are principles of law that regulate the priority of rights, values, and the conflict resolution procedure. However, the most universal way is public dialogue about each specific situation, which abides by certain rules and results in a successful solution. With historical and cultural values, such a dialogue frequently requires not just a settlement and compromise, but also a search for fresh solutions: the reorganization of relations, a search for the full cultural value shared by different communities. In such cases, mediation or simple discussions are rarely enough. Instead, one possible method to try is organizational-activity games (OAGs).

OAGs appeared as a special method of solving various activity-related and public problems in the 1970s in the Moscow methodological circle (MMC). The MMC was a philosophical school that existed in 19571994 and united colleagues and pupils of the leader of the circle—Georgy Petrovich Shchedrovitsky. The MMC laid the foundations for a wide intellectual movement and a new theoretical and practical approach known as system thinking-activity methodology, aka STA methodology or just ‘methodology’. The MMC’s sphere of interest and objects of study were thinking and people’s activities. The history of the MMC had several stages, replacing each other as new tasks appeared and research methods developed. Until 1979, methodology developed mainly in a theoretical, scientific direction, although focused on questions of activity, including professional activities (administrative, engineering, designing, etc.). It is through the OAGs that methodology addressed practical tasks.

Among methodologists, the story of how the first OAG was planned and carried out became a legend. In 1979, the Ural branch of the All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Industrial Aesthetics (AUSRIIE) faced a task it could not solve: how to develop a programme to create the assortment of consumer goods for the Ural Region. No one knew what an assortment of goods for a certain region was, nor how to create “assortment of consumer goods” in the conditions of the Soviet Union’s planned (non-market) economy. The hopelessness of the situation led the AUSRIIE’s Ural branch to call in the methodologists, who set to work. As a result, the first game was carried out. The main result of that first OAG was not the development of a range of goods, and not even an understanding of its impossibility, but the appearance of the method aimed at working with insoluble tasks.

Today, this method is being practiced and developed in Belarus by a methodological circle headed by Uladzimir Matskevich. It became one of the key methods of the Cultural Policy programme aimed at transforming society with the help of reflection, reconsideration, and the working-out of norms and values of public life. OAGs were conducted to develop political strategies, to form concepts of contemporary secular education, to create a university, and to seek the foundations to overcome cultural catastrophes. All these and other topics arose in an avalanche in ideological, axiological, and active opposition between various groups. And every time, a game resulted in a concept that offered a solution of a situation, which was worked out during collective cogitative work.

What is an OAG?

Methodologists sometimes say that ‘an OAG is life itself, only of a concentrated kind’. If greatly simplified, an OAG is a game imitation of a certain field of activity. It is necessary to ‘imitate’ all the key positions and processes. For example, speaking about the sphere of cultural heritage, it is necessary to include the positions of the proprietor, the state and local authorities, local communities, and experts—historians, conservators, and so on. Besides the basic process—for example, restoration—it is necessary to consider communications, the management of culture, scientific maintenance, etc. It must be stressed that in any complete field of activity, we face a variety and a difficult mutual organization of professional positions and a complex of various processes. The more accurately and completely they are presented in a game, the more effectively the problems of this field of activity will be solved.

What does this ‘imitation’ entail? Unlike the theatre, where there is an imitation too, no one assumes a role during an OAG. Real people from a real situation or field of activity are invited to participate in an OAG. They come with their knowledge, experience and thoughts, and have in an OAG the same positions they have in real life. The only difference is that the players can reject conventionalities and features of a specific situation, and play out other scenarios of interaction between positions they could not allow themselves in reality. For example, a student and a university rector, who do not see each other often in real life, can meet during a game. In reality, even if they do meet, their relations are burdened with the weight of situational restrictions. The opportunity to enter a certain situation in a game allows people to talk seriously about the problems that exist in real life, but cannot be discussed because of the weight of circumstance.

In a game interaction, participants temporarily ‘refuse’ their narrowly professional viewpoints to see a whole field of activity, to study it together, to pinpoint problems and difficulties, to develop the ways of solving problems, and to overcome difficulties, and to master the ways of thinking and action to implement their solutions. Still, the main thing is that a game is built so it turns the attention of a game collective from the objects of activity—from what everyone usually works with—to the activity itself and to thinking—to the way where everyone does something. This ‘turn’ allows people to solve problems that have no solutions.

Why a game?

Thanks to many dimensions of freedom, the game is one of the highest forms of development of thinking and activity. It is during a game that a person can learn new, sometimes non-existent, roles and kinds of activity. In a game, it is possible to use the imagination to see and analyse the realities that have never existed before. Sometimes, some kinds of activity are created during a game. Johan Huizinga believed that the game can serve to generate culture, and proved that the majority of today’s social institutions and practices have been formed as a result of specific games.

During OAGs, no one, not even the organizers, holds the right answers to the questions the participants have to solve. There are only general frameworks and rules for how to play, looking for solutions of complicated questions and problems. Any game demands the player retain awareness of two realities, meaning the reality of the game itself and the reality of ‘real’ life. On the one hand, we are entirely in a game. Against the background of consciousness, there is always an understanding this is still a game, not ‘real’ life. Nonetheless, real life does not disappear from the game as it is represented by real people, and their knowledge, experience, and relations.

During a game, it is possible to represent all the completeness of human activity. Pure thinking (work with ideas, concepts, schemes), working processes (research, projection, designing), communication, and human relations simultaneously coexist. Unlike trainings and seminars, each process is necessary for a game, is drawn consciously in it, and becomes an important part of the game reality.

The game format allows ‘serious’ people to view their activities differently; to experiment, to ask questions, and to challenge something that is thought to be absolute and unshakeable. During a game, they can get away from their narrow professional tasks and views, see the whole field of activity, and understand other participants in their joint activity, which existence and whose problems did not bother them before. It is possible to see one’s own professional position in the completeness of all connections and relations, to regard it from the viewpoint of others. The game, in a sense, is protective for a person. In game conditions, everyone can say anything they want, criticize something that in reality cannot be criticized. Still, if a person crosses boundaries and feels disapproval or fear of their own boldness, their can always say, ‘I am playing, nothing else’. It is especially important for people with status—top-ranking experts, civil servants, officials—for whom the feeling of security means a lot.

Our focus here is the difference between OAGs and other game methods, in particular business games. The main difference is in what is played, what is the topic of a game. The topic of a game in both cases is a real situation that poses difficulties. However, the way the situation is worked out differs, depending on the game. For business games, experts investigate a situation and model it. The model allows them to predict the consequences of various actions of participants in a given situation. In this modelled situation, there is always the correct decision, the correct way of acting. During a game, participants try certain courses in a situation and observe their modelled consequences, thus learning to solve problems and difficulties. Still, only familiar, known, or typical situations can be modelled.

During an OAG, we know nothing about the situation—we cannot determine its type or build an adequate model, though we know basic processes and a set of positions. To study a situation is part of a game, where the role of researchers is played by players themselves, and without their participation such studies would be impossible. No one knows the right solutions, and the situation develops right during the game, the consequences of these or those actions are known neither to players, nor to the game’s organizers. The meaning of such a game ‘in the context of indefinitude’ is not to teach correct actions, but to develop a field of activity. Therefore, OAGs are not used during typical situations which patently have solutions, as more appropriate business games can be used here.

The major principle of OAGs—the principle of development—distinguishes OAGs from all other games intended to solve concrete tasks or situations. OAG participants do not obtain new knowledge, but participate in collective thinking and activities aimed at solving problems. In other words, they themselves find and master new knowledge.

What tasks are solved by OAGs?

First, an OAG is a form of organizing collective thinking and activities, aimed at solving various problems: sociopolitical, economic, scientific, administrative, and technical. The game deliberately creates artificial conditions for collective thinking, which is such a difficult, laborious activity it requires a special organization in order to exist. Second, it creates such conditions when the game participants can study and test their joint activity (to experiment, to build new relations and collectives) until the solution of a problem is found. Such experiments are practically impossible in a real situation because they would demand a stop of activity, which frequently can be dangerous and unpredictable. For example, if there are problems in the organization of collective activity at a nuclear power station, then real-life experimenting is out of the question, while a game creates a special space where it is possible to play out variants of changes to the organization of activities and their consequences.

The thing is that in reality people face not the problems themselves, but their consequences, obstacles, and difficulties. To formulate the problem itself, it is necessary to do certain cogitative work specially organized during a game. During an analysis of existing difficulties in activity, which are usually on the surface and obvious, the game participants reveal the real problems.

Second, an OAG is a means and method of identification and solution of problems, arising at the intersections of different professional areas. Today the most intractable problems occur within the framework of activity that is meant to have an interprofessional interaction. Actually, problem-like situations happen as a contradiction between various professional approaches and differing professional knowledge. Thus, it appears that they cannot be solved within the framework of just one profession or a scientific subject. All participants of joint activity must retreat from the limits of their professional competences and come to a specially organized space for collective thinking. In this space, free of subjects and professionalism, the problem is reformulated and a solution sought. Then there is a return transfer of the found solutions into separate professional fields of activity, but as ‘packages’ of professional, specific tasks. Within the framework of a game, this transfer is not to each discrete activity, but into complexly organized and coordinated activities.

Third, an OAG is a means and method of programming, scripting, and planning activities. Its form is such that it enables a collective not only to understand their existing problems through an activity, but also to organize their future work, both cogitative and practical. Such work can be presented as projects, programmes, scenarios, and plans. OAGs can be used as means and methods of introducing many innovations.

Fourth, an OAG is a means, form, and method of special, technically organized development of everything there is in a game: thinking, activity, collectives, and individuals. Every game can be specially focused on developing one or several of these elements. As for thinking and activity, the development is carried out by defining problems and reaching the borders of knowledge—the sphere of something unknown and not implemented before. For participants, an OAG is an enriching technology as it is a school of a certain way of life where people do not just live, but aim, think, and reflect. Besides, during a game, people and collectives can learn some, new for them and new in general, kinds of activity. This moment of learning something new through a game makes OAGs look like children’s games. An OAG is a children’s game dedicated to challenging topics and problems, and questions of human activity, which are not solved yet. For collectives and groups, an OAG can also be an integrative tool at the level of purposes, ideas, tasks, and methods. OAGs are used to research, analyse, and describe collective activity, to reveal and formulate the purposes of development of various systems of activity, to self-determine and self-organize in new conditions, and so on.

Fifth, there is one more sort of task, which is seldom understood as the main one, but is always carried out during OAGs in the shape of education, training, preparation, and the improvement of professional skills for experts and especially managers. Such secondariness of training is one of the distinctive characteristics of OAGs. For example, during training or business games, educational tasks are basic; during a game, education is only needed when the tasks the participants face are obviously an intellectual reach for the participants. And it applies to everyone, from the game master running the OAG and its methodologists to the participants.

How a game is organized?

Preparations for an OAG always begin with the working-out of a project and a programme for the game. The project is a set of the positions in an activity, which will represent a situation. The programme is a timetable of actions and tasks for a game collective.

The project should represent all the professional positions to be found in the real situation. Each will be a ‘working group’ during the game. For example, where we need to solve conflicts in the heritage sphere, the structure should include historians and culturologists, conservators, the site’s proprietors, local authorities, local communities, representatives of public associations who protect heritage, etc. Game organizers can add to a ‘game field’ such positions as might help solve a problem (a mediator, for example) or positions to help develop game processes (professional researchers, experts, developers, etc.). The more difficult a situation is, the more positions will be needed. It is important to consider the key positions—without them it will not be possible to present the complete picture of a situation.

For the completeness of the imitation, all the basic substantial or axiological oppositions should be present. For example, in reality, representatives of the same position can have different, sometimes opposing, views about their activity. Developing the game is often built on discovering the essence of these contradictions. Therefore, among OAG participants there should be carriers of the key ideas, values, and points of views. For example, in the Belarusian situation, there are topical contradictions in interpreting national history and evaluating the Russian or Soviet influence on our cultural identity. Also, the topical political opposition and many conflicts include significant contradictions between supporters and opponents of Lukashenko’s political regime. All these features of a situation should be studied and included, at first, in a game project and then in the eligibility requirements for participants.

During a game, all these participants are divided into groups; each group has its own purpose and, depending on this purpose, is included into the joint working process. Each group is to support its position, to implement its purposes, and to build dialogue with others. For example, if a game is dedicated to the revitalization of an object, a group of heritage defenders can have a task of preserving the originality of the object much, and a group of local authorities—to receive the maximum benefit from the revitalized object. During the game, it will be necessary for them to move towards their purposes, considering actions of others, and probably—to correct their positions.

In the beginning of a game, a list of possible group positions is presented to participants, and each participant chooses a position in which he/she will play. Most often, people choose the same position they have in real life, but sometimes a person can intentionally try on another position and experience this situation in ‘somebody else’s skin’.

Besides the basic structure of players, the game has ‘service’ positions (the headmaster of the game, methodologist, researcher, game facilitator), who are all together called the ‘game organizers’. Their functions are needed to provide the players with all the necessary means and to create the conditions where the basic players of the game could achieve their tasks. Control of the rules, the organization of work according to the programme, and provision with special knowledge are included here. The head together with game facilitators operate the game, conduct joint sessions and the work of groups, and rarely interfere with the content of questions, but they present an ‘orientation report’, in which the head announces all the rules, defines the framework, designates the basic topics and problems, and actualizes the purposes and tasks of the game. A methodologist has a special function in the game: providing the game collective with cogitative means and tools to perform the necessary work. Such means are methodological schemes that do not give substantial answers, but act as instruments with which to organize thinking. During a game, every group, and sometimes a whole collective, can reach an impasse in their thinking. In order to move forward, it is necessary to translate the players’ knowledge into another form that will allow them to skirt the obstacle.

The basic stages and course of a game

An OAG can be understood as a process with the sequence of stages, where each stage has its different meanings and tasks to solve. Everything begins with the preparation and formulation of a game plan. It may take several months, as it can be necessary to conduct preliminary research into a situation, and to define a circle of activity positions and possible substantial and axiological oppositions. It is necessary to prepare game facilitators, to describe a problem to them. At this stage, a game project is to be prepared—a list of groups, helped by which a situation is simulated. A programme is to be prepared too. At first, ‘the basic working process’ is defined—it may include design, negotiations, research, projection, etc. This process is defined depending on a concrete situation and a task of a game. Any of these processes has its own stages that are reflected in the programme.

Every day in the game programme there are several forms of work. The work in groups is to solve the task assigned by the topic of the day, depending on the purpose and tasks of this or that group. Based on the groups’ work, reports are prepared, which are discussed at plenary sessions. During plenary sessions, which include the entire game collective, the reports of the groups are read and discussed. Every working day is rounded off by a game technique reflection, during which the course of the game is analysed, and next day’s tasks are corrected. The game programme permits time for individual work and group dialogue.

The game programme only sets down broad contours of the organization of the working process, not a detailed description: the main principles of OAG say that the most important part of the game is to get into the sphere of the unknown, which cannot be planned but can be organized.

The basic stage of a game is actually the game itself, which goes according to the programme. Usually OAGs take 6–7 days, but depending on the problem they can run to 10–14 days. The number of participants also depends on a situation, but to simulate the majority of problems a minimum of 30 people will be needed. The top limit is set by the organizational possibilities.

As in any game, an OAG assumes there will be unexpected moments. During a game, its purpose, basic conceptualizations, group structures, and even programme can be rethought and changed. A game always has several phases. The first phase is when the game collective enters the problem situation. The primary goal of this phase is the participants’ self-determination, meaning their comprehension of their purpose and tasks, both in the game and real life. After the first phase ends, the collective must know the exact divergences between the available possibilities and their allotted tasks—what is known as ‘problematization’.

The turning point in an OAG comes when the former understanding of the activity—the habitual schemes and norms—are challenged and sometimes destroyed. The problematization stage forces participants to look at their activity in a new fashion and to move on to the solution of the tasks that have no solutions within the framework of their former understanding. The important point of problematization is to define a problem correctly. This definition should not just be a fix for an impasse; it must show what is stopping them from achieving their goal. If it is possible to formulate a problem in this way, then they will have the basic ideas for its solution.

After the problematization comes the second phase, which is where OAGs differ most from other methods. In essence it is a transition from subject-related and professional ways of thinking and activities to a different way of thinking. The search for the solution of the problems turns from an analysis of the situation into an analysis of how to organize new collective thinking activity and how to structure totally new joint activity. This is called ‘methodological work’, and there are special means, or methodological schemes, for it. In the second phase they are the most important ‘toys’ of OAGs. Thus, the game is set out on a ‘board’, where the schemes are created, developed, and tested. During this phase, the game collective finds new steps (presented in the schemes) in the organization of joint activities when the problems can be solved. For example, some missing positions, or even whole production processes not considered before, may be discovered.

The third phase co-organizes the game collective to run through the schemes they have developed. The players try out the new positions (or new functions in old positions) to play with the new relations. Their understanding of the ways of solving the problem, achieved through teamwork, is tested and corrected. Actually, the third phase is a sui generis return to reality; in the regime of scripting (programming, planning, acceptance of joint obligations, etc.), the players rebuild their own activity, oriented on real life. And the phase is completed by ‘an exit from the game’—a special procedure of transition from the game regime to the regime of real activity. Usually, it is obligatory for all participants’ final reflections on the game. All participants in an OAG, both players and organizers, should express their feelings about the game, and say everything they did not say during the game.

The final stage is for the game master, methodologists, and game facilitators, and takes place after the game. They sum up the results and discuss the special tasks allotted for the researchers and methodologists. The game master prepares a substantial report based on the results of the OAG. However, the main result of the OAG is not presented in text form; instead, it exists as the solution to a problem in the organization of an activity which the players discovered during the OAG. Perhaps the game’s most tangible achievement is the miracle that is collective thinking. And people really think—cogito ergo sum indeed. It seems obvious to us that the country can only be of value and its people can be free only when there is a place for thinking and there are thinking people in it.

What can OAGs do in the sphere of the cultural heritage? Every cultural situation is unique. Collisions of values, symbolic systems, and ways of life create dissimilar, atypical situations. This uniqueness is the root of the problem. Coordination and the search for a solution generate their own meanings and new cultural practices. Thus, the uniqueness becomes an object of care and development. It means there is a need of a method that will offer not ready-made decisions, but will involve all stakeholders and all contents in joint thinking and the search for solutions.

During a game, there is not just a search for a solution to a problem, but a collective subject gathers, a community, which after the game will implement the decision arrived at. People take this decision away from the game not as knowledge, but as something they have achieved, understood, and won. Plans of actions and fresh ideas appear in a game to the very people who will implement them. These people are now united by understanding, common experience, and general ‘language’. They become a collective for the solution of problems in real life.

Finally, OAGs are a school for democracy in the direct, exact sense of the word, because the ideas they are built on consist of co-organization and self-organization. Democratic life demands from each person a degree of effort, along with thinking abilities, self-discipline, and responsibility. A game is one of the means with which to develop activity and responsibility in collective conditions.