The Story Theme Game

Today I got to meet 18 young people who volunteer with Vijana Amani Pamoja (Youth Peace Together) and get their impressions on what a collection of local stories could be used for. After introducing myself, we played a game with 120 stories printed on sheets of paper.  These were a random slice of the 2530 stories GlobalGiving collected in 2010, when young people visited friends and neighbors and asked them to talk about a time when an organization or person tried to do something in their community. “Just talk about what happened,” Zip, our local coordinator, says when instructing storytellers. “Your story should have a beginning, the middle, and the end!” She would add.

This being my first try, I was hoping that as they interacted with the stories, they would provide us with insights on how we can better categorize, parse, illustrate, summarize, and generally make sense out of these groups of stories.

To begin with, I gave each person a paper with one or two stories on it to read as they entered the room. After everyone had read them, I went around the room and had each person read the title. This was more of an icebreaker. I thought it was important to emphasize the diversity of all these stories, but it didn’t spark any reaction.

Next I asked one person to choose a category that his story might be fall under. He summarized the story (about Kenya’s post-election violence) and chose Peace Rally. I gave him a slip of paper and a marker, and he placed his story on the floor under that category.



One after another, people read the title and placed it under a category on the floor. But each person was choosing a new category. This wasn’t what I expected to happen. After the fifth paper had been placed, I invited anyone with a story that fits until these categories to go and place it now. I wanted to speed things up.

I introduced some game rules and explained that you get the best score by introducing categories that were not too broad or narrow. This would be defined by the number of stories sitting underneath each category label at the end.

It turned out the various rules I had thought about for this game were irrelevant, and that the real game device for driving people to first try to place their story into an existing category before starting a new one was the limited number of markers and scissors to cut the slip of paper and assign them. If a person had to wait for the maker or the pen, they looked at the floor and tried to plausibly place their story into one of the piles on the floor.

Before long everyone was reading and assigning stories at the same time. After the last story was “drawn from the deck,” I asked anyone who had been holding a story for a while to return to me. I placed them in a “difficult to classify” pile. These happened to be titled “Interested in learning,” “Road Safety,” “Good news turned sour,” and “Wangld Hospital.”

I invited them to look at these piles of stories. “We began with a bunch of stories that seemed to be about everything. Nothing connected them to each other. But in a few minutes you as a group have read them, chosen your own categories, and developed your own classification scheme for these community efforts,” I said.

I them gave them the task of putting similar categories of stories together. “FGM and Witchcraft are actually the same thing,” one man said.
“Explain.” (I was surprised to hear this.)
“Well they are both negative traditional practices.”
“Okay. Good. In that case, write a new category for both called ‘Negative Traditional Practices’ and lump them together. Give this man a point!” I added, looking at our designated scribe and scorekeeper. A more general category was clearly needed, because there was only one story filed under each of these specific categories. It also built a bridge between two topics I (as an outsider) would never equate. It then became obvious to others that this new catgory should be moved beside “Women Empowerment,” but not merged – because women empowerment already had a lot of stories.

One by one we merged orphaned categories with other, larger categories and moving related categories beside each other until the floor looked something like this:

The most contentious move was around Prostitution. A girl wanted to place it in Women Empowerment and a boy argued it should be under Criminal Activities. A third person chimed in, arguing that maybe it was best under Advice and Counseling. Everyone had strong opinions on this, and could argue it one way or another, which for me reflected the true nature of this complex problem. Organizations with similar goals likewise frame prostitution along each of these three orientations. The US State Department treats it as a crime and would probably place it beside gender violence. Hillary Clinton has spoken out against it often. And yet some NGOs have a mission to help “sex workers” that aligns the problem along the lines of women economic empowerment. Religious organizations frame it as a negative life choice and provide counseling, spiritual healing, and job training – just as the third person suggested. I caught part of this discussion on video:

The value of working with specific stories and not general issues became crystal clear at this point. “Why not read the story and decide what the way the author sees it?” Someone said.

“Wow! What a great idea!” I thought. (It’s nice when an exercise leads some young people to the means to resolve a controversy that paralyses an entire NGO sector. See also: PEPFAR, AIDS, and Condoms) At least in this specific case, the author ended his/her story by saying that the government should arrest these “Twilight girls” and clean up the streets. So we all agreed to put it beside Criminal Activities, but that another prostitution story might fall somewhere else.

We then looked at the three largest categories: Projects (9), Community Care (22), and Criminal Activities (8) and noted that they were all very broad – too broad in fact. I told the person who had proposed the broadest category – “Community Care” that she had lost points. With more time we should have subdivide these categories, but instead we moved on because something interesting appeared to emerge from our community map – a natural product of these young people instructing me to group similar story piles together:

At least to me, the clusters resolved into social, economic, or physical categories – the same three broad categories we used in our survey.

I’ve shaded the in-between categories a lighter shade of blue, red, or green above. (i.e. Illicit brews in our discussion could be about making money or causing social problems.) Oddly, social relations once again encompasses much more floor space than health related categories. There were many more economic categories here, yet fewer stories were tagged as having an economic focus by the storytellers themselves. I left Projects and Community Care in the middle because these categories were too broad to fall clearly into any one category.

The derived quantitative map of these stories (from the storytellers’ point of view) looks like this (click map for more context):

(This triangular map of the social, physical, and economic elements of each of our 2530 stories was generated using SenseMaker(R) software developed by Cognitive-Edge. I’m sorry that the axes are rotated relative to the paper map above, but you get the point. Each blue dot is a story, placed somewhere in the triangle by each individual storyteller.)

I had hoped this “game” would illustrate to the youth that community issues are complex, and that it takes a group effort to understand that complexity. Defining the problem in a new and useful way is the challenge; in fact it’s 90% of the effort in solving it, according to Einstein. That’s the reason we at GlobalGiving are here, trying to facilitate more community feedback, offering a more realistic vision of a complex world, and thereby helping local people see and solve problems. In two words: fostering innovation.

That’s a big hairy theory, but it should make sense as I share more stories from my experiments in understanding complexity in development.

For more on complexity theory and storytelling, see The Wisdom of Clouds by Cynthia Kurtz.

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10 thoughts on “The Story Theme Game

  1. Great post Marc. Things I like most about this:

    1) I love your point about the CONDITIONS of the session (limited number of markers and scissors) working better to shape the interaction than the RULES you set up. I find that shaping interactions without giving direction provides a respectful balance between self-direction and guidance. It says to people, I will help you achieve your goals rather than, I will make you achieve your goals. Even when people very much want to achieve their goals, this can have a huge impact on success.

    2) I love it that you learned from the people in the group. Most of the best parts of the techniques developed by myself and others in this area have been heavily influenced, if not entirely dependent, on the great ideas people have had in group sessions (even though they usually didn’t know they had had them). The more you go into sessions expecting to learn new things and expand your understanding, the more your methods will improve. The more you go in knowing how to do things right and expecting to have to correct everything people do, the more your methods will decay.

    3) There is another really important good thing you did which many people couldn’t, or wouldn’t realize was important or necessary. You built room for failure into the process. When you asked people who had been holding a story for a long time to bring them to you, you made things work by helping things NOT work. You also communicated that the people themselves had not failed, but that the process had reached a necessary and important point of failure (to classify) that needed to be folded back in to keep things moving. If you had allowed people to believe that THEY had failed because they were still holding stories, the entire process might have fallen apart.

    Great insights and great work! Hope to see more of it in future.

    Cynthia

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