Using Non-Competitive Games for Education and Building Community

When people think of games, they often think of competitive games where one player wins, and everyone else loses. Competitive games encourage players to work against each other, rather than together. Competition can not only be discouraging for the majority of non-winners, but over time can turn people off from playing games all together. Why play when you’re just clamoring to beat other people? Feels like there’s enough of that already in the world.

Cooperative games, on the other hand, offer players a chance to work together as one team, collectively aiming to achieve a unified goal. Some educators find cooperative games to be not only more fun for students, but also more encouraging of positive participatory engagement that can lead to more confident students, and more productive teamwork.

During July, TESA got to play one of our favorite cooperative games, Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives, multiple times across the country! (Of course, we might be a little biased…) We had loads of fun, and the experiences also helped us learn several important lessons about using games for education and building community.

Los Angeles: Using Games to Explore Local Alternative Economies

co-ops, non-competive games, cooperative gamesFirst, TESA Collective member MD Spicer-Sitzes met up with her friends with the L.A. Co-op Lab in Los Angeles to play their giant version of our Co-opoly board game, with alumni of The Bridge Program. Bridge is a free academic program for low and no income folks in the Los Angeles area. In Bridge, a person’s incarceration history, immigration status, diploma status, and gender representation are not barriers to acceptance.

Together, before playing Co-opoly, we discussed what cooperatives are, and why co-ops might be a better way to do business for communities impacted by economic disenfranchisement.

In Los Angeles, redlining and other forms of racial discrimination have been a tactic used by developers, lenders, and key officials for a long time. This was obviously on players’ minds, because one participant asked the rest of the group, “South L.A. and East L.A have been facing unfair treatment from banks for years, what are we going to do about it?”

The Co-opoly players included Bridge alumni, faculty, teaching assistants, and staff, as well as the L.A. Co-op Lab. At the start of each game of Co-opoly, players are supposed to create a cooperative they want to play as throughout the game. During this session, the group came up with a Co-op Community Market that supplied GMO free locally grown foods, and provided services like appliance repairs and community wellness classes. Players ended up winning together when they were able to start their second fictional cooperative: a co-op taco stand.

We closed the evening by discussing what cooperatives they’d like to see in their neighborhoods. Here were what the participants voiced:

  • Wellness centers
  • Education hubs
  • Grocers
  • Banks
  • Street vending
  • Mental health clinics

Some players commented on how Co-opoly opened the vision for dreaming up new opportunities in a way that felt non-invasive and fun. When there is constant feeling of competition in daily life for necessities like food, housing, and clothes, competitive games may uproot negative feelings and reactions. On the other hand, non-competitive games like Co-opoly encourage unification rather than division among players. Collaboration builds trust and focuses on winning together, rather than beating other players in order to be the solitary winner.

The idea of cooperatives are no secret in Bridge and the program has been long supportive of democratic engagement in their offices. TESA Collective’s own MD Spicer-Sitzes previously worked with the Bridge Program alongside Bridge Program Coordinator Karen Ochoa (our game facilitator pictured in red), and both are founding members of the L.A. Co-op Lab.

Hayward, CA: Engaging Youth with Games at the Fierce Love Day Camp

Next, we got to play Co-opoly with The Fierce Love Day Camp at Our Space, a brave and safe space for LGBTQ2plus youth 12-17 in the Bay area. Before we got started, we had a discussion about capitalism and how it affects our daily lives. The camp theme was all about building alternatives to capitalism, and the youth had already learned what cooperatives were before we even got there (which was super cool!). The youth had a lot to say about inequalities in the economy and one participant even spoke about how LGBT people of color are more likely to face lifelong poverty than white LGBT folks and heterosexuals.


Front door of the Fierce Love Day Camp in Hayward, CA.

When TESA Collective asked how many participants had thought about starting their own business, hands around the room almost unanimously shot up in the air at once. As it turned out, they’d already been thinking about how to stay creative in the workforce, and did not like over all what they viewed as the most likely options.

We played the game and all lost together when our second cooperative failed. Still, it was great to see the players build their pretend business together (an eco-friendly cosplay shop!) and then later comfort one another when their businesses did not succeed.

“We just couldn’t beat the corporations,” one player said, somewhat joking. Others giggled. “We just couldn’t beat them,” they repeated.

“This game helped me not feel competitive, and I could see how this would work better in schools as a way to teach people about working together and why it’s so good,” said one of the older game players.

LGBTQ2plus youth are subject to bullying more often than their straight counterparts. Homophobia, biphobia, heterosexism, transgender oppression, and intersex oppression, or HBHTI can stigmatize and alienate LGBTQ2plus youth, and for these reasons many young folks suffer depression, social anxiety and other traumatizing experiences that can lead to dropping out of school, and even suicide. Non-competitive games encourage a sense that we all have each other’s back and in that way, we win or lose together.

Chicago: Teaching Community Groups that Non-Competitive Games Can Activate Student’s Imaginations and Build Community

games, co-ops, cooperative games, non-competitive games

Small groups discussing how games can be incorporated into their work.

In Chicago, our collective member Brian Van Slyke ran a workshop with adults as a part of the Communities in Schools of Chicago’s NAVIGATE Institute. There, we engaged with around thirty participants, all representatives of different community groups that educate K – 12 students on issues ranging from personal health to environmental sustainability. Our workshop focused on the concept of using non-competitive and cooperative games for interactive education as well as fostering community. First, we introduced the concept of how cooperative games can be used in educational settings, and then we ran the participants through three example games. The first game was a variation on hot potato, altered to make it cooperative and so that it could also be used to teach younger children about vegetables, fruit, and food. The second example was a variation of the game “fax machine” (similar to telephone), which could be used to educate on a variety of subjects, including history and social sciences. In our game example, we used it to demonstrate a lesson on how climate change facts can be obscured by powerful people with agendas. And finally, the third game example was our own Co-opoly, which we facilitated to show that there are games where everyone wins and loses together, and that we can learn about subjects best by collaborating – not competing against one another.

After we played these games, we engaged the participants in an activity and discussion where they digested the games they’d just played, their own experiences with games and education, and how they could further incorporate games into their work.

Here were some of our main takeaways from our conversations with the participants, as well as some of our top points about why non-competitive and cooperative games are important educational tools:

  • Cooperative games are inclusive. It’s exciting to work together for a common goal in a game format. Ultimately, this can help build a positive community and classroom.
  • Non-competitive games can help address issues of bullying, which often are manifestations of larger societal structural issues.
  • Games are a form of popular and experiential education, especially when they incorporate the pedagogical methods of problem-solving and dialogue.
  • Cooperative games are better at benefitting all students, as the focus is on the success of the team as a whole.
  • Cooperative games foster excitement and a classroom where everyone is participating.
  • Games allow students to take on different rolls more easily and understand other perspectives more readily.
  • With games, learning happens by doing. Not by telling.

    games, co-ops, cooperative games, non-competitive games

    Participants recording their main take aways.

  • In non-competitive games, “fail” is not considered a four letter word. Students are encouraged (and excited) to try again.
  • Cooperative games allow participants to more readily share their experiences, skills, and understandings with each other.
  • Games can get students invested in understanding more complex issues.
  • You can easily adapt simple games you know to be cooperative, based on teamwork, and focused on the subject you’re trying to teach about. For instance, after the workshop, we learned that one of our participants went on to alter a “Family Feud” style game into a cooperative game where their students had to work together to figure out the top excuses people make for not recycling.
  • Games can either be used to help students explore a subject for the first time, or they can be used to dive deeper after they already have experience with the matter at hand. Games can also be used to help assess students understandings of concepts.
  • While playing games, participants create fun and positive connections with the content, which ultimately helps them understand and retain the content.
  • Games aren’t just for young kids. Teenagers and even adults like to play games. Though the kind of games you play will change with your age group.

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