Image of many dots that form a circle

The Systems Game

Systems Strategies


This activity uses a fun game to demonstrate the complexity of a system. The game can be debriefed in a range of ways to focus on the most relevant key learning of a system for a group.

“The central purpose of the Work that Reconnects is to help people uncover and experience their innate connections with each other and with the systemic, self-healing powers of the web of life, so that they may be enlivened and motivated to play their part in creating a sustainable civilization.” –Joanna Macy

This lively, engrossing process provides a direct experience of the dynamic nature of open systems. It dramatizes two features of the new paradigm view of reality:  1) that life is composed not of separate entities so much as of the relations between them, and 2) these relations allow life to self-organize.

This exercise allows the group to explore some of the characteristics of systems in order to develop an understanding of what it may take to create systemic change.

  1. Ask the group to stand in a circle.
  2. Ask one or two people (depending on the size of group) to volunteer to leave the room. If you have a fairly knowledgeable group, be sure these are people who have not done this activity before.
  3. Once they have left, give these instructions:
    • Without saying anything or indicating who they are in any way, each of you must choose two people in the group.
    • Ask if everyone has chosen. Once everyone nods that they have, say the following:
    • There is only one rule in this game: You need to move so as to keep yourself an equal distance between the two people you have chosen.
    • Demonstrate that this does not mean just staying at the midpoint between the two others.  
  4. Ask the group to start moving. At your signal, people begin to circulate, each movement triggering many others in an active, interdependent fashion. It speeds up for a while, then may abate, accelerate, and again slow down toward equilibrium, but it rarely comes to stasis.
  5. Once the group has been moving for a minute or two, call in the volunteers.
  6. Give them a chance to observe and try to figure out what is going on, and then ask them some of the following questions (whichever suit your group’s objective best):
    • What do you think is going on?
    • Is this system working?
    • Do you think you could organize this process from the outside?
    • Try looking at it from a different perspective; get up on a chair.
    • Try to become a part of the system. Move into the mess and try to figure it out.
  7. Finally, while people are still moving, invite the volunteers to ask them what they are doing.

Have the group stand in a circle again and debrief the exercise. Include both the participants and the observers in the conversation. The simple question, “What did you experience?” evokes fruitful discussion.

  • Complex systems can arise from simple rules and mental models. Only one rule existed here, and look at the complexity that it created.
  • Systems are composed of interdependent parts. When you change what happens in one part of the system, it affects the other parts of the system as well. 
  • This system can’t be controlled or understood from the outside. You must step into the system and engage with those involved to see the whole. 
  • To understand the behavior of a system, you have to watch it in action over time. A single snapshot won’t help. 
  • Not everyone moved at the same time. Delays often occur that we don’t anticipate, which makes it harder to understand what is happening.
  • This system is composed of interdependent parts. We wouldn’t be able to understand the behavior of the whole by studying each part in isolation (piece by piece) or studying just the parts together. We need to see both the parts and the connections between them to understand the whole. We have to expand our view. 
  • We tend to expect the system to stop; we think that the goal is to find a stable point. In reality, this system could keep moving forever. The only constant is change. While systems may be goal seeking—that is, they try to reach stability—other processes prevent them from achieving equilibrium. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back. 
  • We often pay attention only to whom we are following and not to who is following us. How are our actions affecting those around us? Or those who are not in our line of sight? 
  • Even knowing the rules and parts, you can’t predict exactly how the system will behave. The outcome is shaped by the rule, the free will of the parts, and the context, i.e., the environment. Point out if the area they are playing in is clear of hazards or if there are trees they had to avoid, etc. that affected their behavior.
  • “Is this a closed system or an open system?” you may ask.  If people think it is a closed system because no one entered from outside, you can point out that energy originating from the sun powers everyone present.  We wouldn’t last long without food or drink from outside the system we just created.  Individually and collectively, we are open systems dependent on inputs of matter-energy and information.  Closed systems do not exist in nature.
  • “What feedback enabled us to fulfill our function (that is of staying equidistant from two others)?”  If there is no answer, you may ask, “Could we have done it with our eyes closed?”  You may note that not only visual perceptions, but feedback of all kinds guide us in our daily lives.
  1. Endangered Ecosystem.  Have everyone repeat the process, but this time tell them you will move through them and surreptitiously tap one person on the shoulder.  After silently counting to five, this person will sink to the floor or squat down.  Then anyone who has chosen to move in relation to this person will also silently count to five and sink down; and then those whose movements have been affected by these will follow suit, until the whole group is down.  After starting out slow, the progression begins to accelerate and ends in a cascade effect that is sobering and instructive.  If after you tap someone and they go down, nothing else happens, you realize no one else chose this person—so you go tap another.
  2. Social innovation. As a follow on to “Endangered Ecosystem,” have the whole group start out squatting down.  Walk through and secretly tap someone; this person silently counts to five and then rises, and so on. The above process now plays out in reverse, illustrating the accelerating effect of new ideas or behaviors spreading throughout a social system.
  3. Social restrictions.  As a follow on to the original game, and maintaining the same relationships, immobilize two or more players and then proceed.  In the discussion that follows, people may reflect on the diminished fluidity they sensed in the group as a whole, or on their own experience if one of their partners didn’t move.  The decreased responsiveness is often experienced as a dysfunction within the system, and comments on this fact can bring fresh insights.
  4. Large-scale exercise.  A variation used by Mark Horowitz involves a group of 75 or more. Here some 20 volunteers play the game with the remainder as an audience.  This works best when the audience sits around a central area where the game is played.
      1. The guide takes the volunteer players aside to give instructions.  Meanwhile, the audience is instructed to observe the action and try to figure out what is going on. If the seating allows, audience members may move around to observe from different angles. Then the game begins, while the audience observes with bemusement.
      2. After a few minutes, the guide asks four or five audience members to act as consultants to this “organization”.  Their task is to line up the players in order of height.  This will prove to be impossible, because the players don’t stay still.
      3. After some more minutes, the players are signalled to stop in place and the guide asks the audience what they observed and what they thought was happening.  The explanations offered are often creative, even hilarious.
      4. The consultants are then asked to report their (probably frustrating) experience, thereby illustrating the absurdity of trying to intervene in a system (human or other) without first learning what the system is doing and what its “rules” are.
      5. Finally, unless someone in the audience has figured out what was going on, the players explain the rules of the game, as well as share their experience and what they learned in the process.