The games that people play

Learning: Competition - with others and with one's self - can help accomplish a broad range of goals, not least of which is passing an economics class.

Howard At Play

August 11, 2002|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Winning a five-buck bet at a New York Yankees game helped Steve Sugar form what would evolve into a trademark of his career - devising, playing and teaching games.

The Ellicott City resident said it was in the early 1970s when his brother Bert, now a well-known boxing journalist, offered a $5 wager that outfielder Bobby Murcer would get three hits. No way, Steve Sugar recalled thinking; even batters of Murcer's stature rarely got three hits. So he took and won the bet, although Murcer made him sweat, getting two hits before flying out on a 3-2 count on his last at-bat in the eighth inning

"As I collected the $5, I asked Bert, who was a big Yankees fan, why he had made such a fool's bet," said Sugar, who relates the anecdote in Games that Teach Games, which he co-wrote with George Takacs. It's one of three books he has written or co-written involving games, mainly, for the workplace. "His answer was simple: to make the game more interesting for me. And, it worked. I got absorbed in a dull game."

Sugar, 61, said that as a kid, he always was a "wannabe athlete." He sprinkles his conversation, if not his rather technical books, with analogies indicating interest in sports. But his livelihood has derived from using games that have goals quite different than entertaining fans.

His games teach students - from executives to bureaucrats to undergrads - to achieve goals that can range from storing facts to getting along better to enhancing profitability. Just as some people learn better by seeing, touching or experimenting with matter, he said, others grasp ideas easily through competing in a nonthreatening setting.

Games, he said, can function like that Yankees bet, spicing up the essential elements of tedious subjects. He credits self-devised games with getting him through economics, for example. A teacher skilled with games can even speed up the learning process while making sticky subject matter fun.

"Every game that has been successful must capture or intrigue the audience and then keep them involved," he said. "And when properly translated ... almost any classroom topic can be adapted to a learning game."

That goes for subjects as diverse as reading, computing with fractions, rescue work, politics, law, ethics, managing employees - you name it. Sugar, who has a master's of business administration degree, has honed his ideas through working variously as a government and academic trainer (business-speak for teacher, he said).

Two of Sugar's three books and two board games he designed ("You never make money on board games," he said) are aimed at corporate and government instructors, not the general public. They outline games that can be adapted to whatever material the instructor is teaching. So does his third book, Primary Games, co-written with Kim Kostoroski Sugar, his daughter-in-law and a teacher. But its market is parents with homeschooled kids and teachers of children through eighth grade.

Some games that Sugar and colleagues have modified as teaching aids might surprise you. They include tic-tac-toe (found in ancient Egypt), bingo, basketball and even the TV games Jeopardy and Hollywood Squares (bingo in disguise, he said).

Sometimes the playing surface is a wall chart. Other games require floor play. Some require scratch paper. Some are played seated; others require moving around. All require the mind.

Individuals compete against time or their knowledge in some games. More often, teams are formed, and even the process of corporate or governmental team-building has elements common in athletics.

Too many players can spoil a team, for example. But every team, regardless of the organization or subject, can benefit from multiple ways of examining ideas, as well as from a player who dares to be different - challenging the rules, opponents and even teammates' will and spirit.

Games sometimes teach on levels other than the intended subject matter, Sugar said, giving several examples:

As in life, some people cheat, although others - including many with sports backgrounds - faithfully follow rules. Nonathletes are especially adept at finding loopholes.

Women and men are equally competitive, but women often reach a solution communally; men tend to try an individual approach.

Athletes tend to pick up rules quickly and, in games with time constraints, typically use that time more efficiently than nonathletes.

Sugar got into organizational gaming when the concept was essentially unrecognized as a teaching tool. But things sure have changed, as gaming colleague Sivasailam "Thiagi" Thiagarajan wrote in the foreword of a 1998 Sugar book, Games that Teach: "In an informal survey that I did 20 years ago, only one trainer in 50 had used training games. Today, it is more like that only one trainer in 50 has not used training games."

Nevertheless, Sugar said, a grin forming, because of the limited market for his work, he keeps a day job at as adjunct business instructor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, even with a fourth book due out in October. He also has a Web-based business at www. thegamegroup.com.

"No," he said, "Tom Clancy doesn't have to be looking over his shoulder."

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