The Twitter Communication game

I’ll confess that I’m disappointed that my wit and charm weren’t the biggest talking points from last week’s ALPS workshop here at Surrey. Instead, people seemed more interested in one of my games, which they got to play. Therefore, I’m going to try and do the ju-jitsu move and try to write about said game in a witty and charming manner.

The premise of the game came from an observation many years ago that Twitter (which I didn’t use at all) seemed to be a nonsensical medium: you pump out stuff (in tiny short chunks) and maybe someone reads it. Sounds lame, my (deeply suppressed) American side said.

So, not being one to waste an opportunity to share my powerful insight, I thought about how I could turn this into a game for the negotiation module/course I was re-writing at the time. The result, with only minor variations, stands before you.

Working on the basis that all students not only have web-enabled devices, but also tend to bring them to class, I wanted to use a Twitter game to help them problematise communication as part of negotiation. If communication is more difficult, then they’ll think about why that is and how they might address it.

How to play

A week beforehand, I tell students they need to prepare the following for the next class: a) have a web-enabled device with them, and b) have a Twitter account that they know how to use. They’re also asked to send me their username too.

I’ve yet to have a class where everyone’s happy about this: some have never used Twitter before, some have and hated it, and others again use it lots and don’t want to annoy followers with random tweets. These last, I tell them, can set up a separate account for the game. The others just have to get on with it.

When students arrive for class, I tell them they will henceforth only be allowed to push out information via their Twitter account, so no talking, note-passing, peeking over shoulders, etc. This makes it easily the quietest class I teach all year, bar the occasional muttered cursing.

twittergameStudents are each given a slip of paper, as per the photo to the right (which has four such slips). As you can see, everyone has the same info for Task 1, but different for Task 2.

Task 1 is primarily a matter of building competence in using the medium, since there is always a wide variety of ability in the room. Students immediately realise there are a number of problems to solve:

  • how do you find other people?
  • who are the other people you need to find?
  • how do people find you (this is often the least reflected-upon aspect, as we found in our workshop)?
  • if you’re looking ahead to Task 2, how are you going to talk to all these people?

The upshot is that they need to have a way of working out who’s in the room and their username. If they’re lucky, they’ll check on online learning space, where I’ve added usernames to the list of students. Either way, this can take 30-45 minutes for a class of 40 students, especially if it contains some people who aren’t part of the usual cohort (e.g. exchange students). However, once some works it out, then usually it’s pretty quick to spread out among the rest.

Task 2 asks something different of the group. Now they have to interact with each other to work out the soonest possible time to meet, at a location all of them can get to. As you can see from the photo, I give some limited information, with a range of constraints. Each location should be unique and not impossible to work out. The time is whatever time you’re playing the game.

In some cases, I’ll pair up sets of information, so someone will have a horse they have to travel with, and someone else will have a horsebox, or one person has left their passport at home, which happens to be near where another person is located.

I also insist that money can only change hands in person, so no wiring or BACS transfers. And if they’re meeting not the same day as the exercise, then they have to make sure they can feed and shelter themselves.

Now the challenges are:

  • where am I (I’ve given some very abstruse locations, including latitude/longitude or the placename in the local alphabet)?
  • where is everyone else?
  • how we all talk to each other (hashtags is usually the answer)?
  • how do we work out when and where is possible?

As you can imagine, this would all be hard if they could talk to each other, but on Twitter it’s almost impossible. This is due to the non-hierarchical structure and the not-quite synchronous nature of interaction: it’s easy to push out information, much harder to collect and process it. One suggestion from the workshop I’m going to try out next time is splitting the room into two, to do the same exercise, but with one half having a designated leader to impose more order on things.

To help them (and me) I usually open up the classroom projector and show a page from with the chosen hashtag: this lets everyone see these tweets (and the bots that often get involved) and lets me have a convenient means of tracking the main discussion.

Typically, this second task takes as much time as you have: I usually have to impose an end time, as we run out of classtime. The pattern of things is usually the same, whereby they pick a time that’s pretty far out from the present and they leave everyone to sort themselves out to get there: in debrief, we always have a bunch of people who couldn’t actually make it.

Debrief matters, in getting students to talk about what happened, why it was difficult and how they could address it. Asking them to identity specific issues is useful, since these will vary widely among them, from basic technical problems (someone’s battery will always give out) to trying to get answers to meeting-up issues.

What’s it good for?

This game has some of the best feedback from students of anything I do with them. Indeed, every time I play it (including last week), I get tweets from former students remembering it fondly (including some who had hated the idea at the time). So for community-building it rocks.

But it’s also very good for its headline goal of exploring communication. You could easily ship this to other online media to contrast dynamics: Facebook, email, your institutional VLE, etc.

In the workshop we talked about whether it can be re-purposed for more explicitly political means, but we didn’t really get far. While the game is necessarily cooperative in format, you might be able to introduce more competitive aspects and consider the tension that introduces. One idea would be that this is a prelude to another game with two or more groups, whose membership would be decided by who meets with whom here.

As with all the games we showcase here at ALPS, it’s an idea, but one that you can take wherever you like. I really like it, and not just because happens to boost the number of followers I get, and I’d love to see what you do with it.