Challenging mental models through games

By Henry Rabinowitz, 2019 United Way Campaign Associate

Life in scarcity can be tough to imagine for people who aren’t experiencing it firsthand. Even for the most empathetic people, research shows that it can be nearly impossible to suspend mental models and truly grasp the experience of decision making in scarcity. This represents a major challenge for the businesses that partner with United Way’s Working Bridges initiative to deliver resource coordination to their employees in the workplace.

The Working Bridges model is built on the idea that even though a person has a job, they may not have achieved financial stability. A surprise expense or an emergency at home can cause people to leave the workforce if they need to step out from their job in order to manage it. Meanwhile, there are many programs out there to help support individuals as they build stability at home, but it can be a challenge for people in scarcity to find the time outside of work and other obligations to find those programs, to understand the requirements and what is available to them. This is where Working Bridges’ resource coordination steps in, meeting employees where they are, building the relationships needed to understand when an employee could benefit from a given resource, and then building that connection.

Working Bridges also helps managers at the partner companies learn how to recognize employees who might be in need of help, and how to step in before it becomes a problem for the individual, or for the team they work with. “After we talked with our partner about the kind of training they needed for supervisors and managers, I immediately asked myself how we can illustrate our work in a way that helps people to understand resource coordination and Working Bridges’ philosophy,” says Connie Beal, Working Bridges Innovation Manager. “But we needed to find a way that’s really accessible, that could encourage dialogue and teach some of the content that we hold as resource coordination. We often hear things that folks might not think about, might not see, and so it felt like an important opportunity to be able to share those things.”

After running through some tried and true workshop facilitation techniques, Connie found herself turning to a family game night classic as a surprisingly encompassing metaphor for her work.

“Talking about challenges people face can be hard. It can bring up painful experiences, it can bring out judgements that can be hurtful, or that could lead to deeper conversation. But one of the things I thought about is the game being a judgement free zone—or rather, to set the stage and say ‘bring your judgements’ and really dig into them, but in a safe place that can allow us to challenge it, or frame it differently,” Connie says.

After some trial and error, Connie was able to reach out to Game Theory Co, a local company that creates games for education and research, to refine her creation. “Working with Connie was unbelievable!” says Shannon Mitchell, Game Theory Co’s COO. “She has such a great positive energy and is so ready to think through ways to show and demonstrate a really complex subject. Even though she’s an expert on the subject, she can break these issues down without making anything feel unapproachable or intimidating.”

With some help from United Way staff as test-players, the Working Bridges Tower Game became an unexpected new educational tool and an opportunity to bring an effective new training to Working Bridges partner companies.

This card represents a life challenge experienced by many Vermont workers participating in United Way’s Working Bridges Employer Collaborative.

This card represents a life challenge experienced by many Vermont workers participating in United Way’s Working Bridges Employer Collaborative.

Picture a Jenga tower. You draw a card that presents you with a realistic life challenge, leaving you on the hook for removing four or five blocks from the tower. The pace of the game means that the tower of blocks quickly becomes perilously unstable. But there’s a way out—draw a resource coordination card at any time, and you end up with extra blocks that can be wedged back into the tower, giving you (and the tower) extra stability while you overcome the life challenge. In the process, players learn about a community program or resource they likely never knew exists.

“I loved how she pushed to incorporate real stories and real experiences at every step of the way to make this important topic easy and enjoyable to participate in,” Shannon says.

Many participants in the game find that for the first time, they understand how challenging it can be to ask for help, even during moments of extreme need. Others have found themselves understanding more about the kind of emergencies that might affect someone in scarcity, areas where one cultural expectation might be different from another. It can be equally surprising to find out the breadth of the resources there are in our community. Lack of information, and lack of time and bandwidth to do research can be huge barriers to access.

“I think this will become part of the way we launch Working Bridges with new partners and potentially in ongoing training with supervisors and managers,” Connie says. “Our messaging has really shifted in a really, really good direction in a lot of ways, I think we’ve been able to examine our work in a way that can build some common ground of understanding about why we’re doing what we’re doing when we figure out a scarcity. And when we get everyone to understand, you can experience that you’re a part of that community.”

“Oftentimes when we have trouble changing our minds and our mental models, it’s not because we don’t want to but rather because we haven’t been introduced to a new idea in a way that ‘clicks,’” reflects Shannon. “When you enter a game, you expect it to be hard, and you expect to mess up and learn new things. Games have an incredible ability to encourage us to take a chance we wouldn’t normally take, and to try something which might otherwise be hard or uncomfortable. They reward us for taking a chance and working to improve.”

You can learn more about Game Theory Co here.

And learn more about United Way’s Working Bridges Employer Collaborative and its approach to resource coordination here.

Alison DeFisher