In 2017, I developed What The Block, a game and workshop, which utilises a game-based approach to help people learn about the potential of blockchain and web3 technologies. The initiative makes learning about a difficult topic, fun and accessible. To do this I designed and created a game, involving specially designed tools such as tokens, scenario cards, and a board, as well as Lego, to allow people to learn through play. The game evolves over 4 rounds, covering all the major concepts of Blockchain from blocks and mining, to tokens and smart contracts. Through this work, my intention was to make Blockchain more human, to inspire people of all backgrounds to take an interest in shaping the future of this transformative technology.
What The Block is a project which is all about engaging people through design, to learn and discover the potential of new technologies. As a designer working with Blockchain, I had been inundated with requests from colleagues, peers, clients, family and friends to explain Blockchain – the problem was I couldn't find any good existing material out there that could demystify this technology in a user-friendly manner.
So I decided to try and change that. The project began as a challenge, to see if I could use my skills as a designer to have another look at Blockchain and do a better job explaining it, and its potential, than the other methods out there. With that in mind, I set an objective for 2018 to develop and teach a workshop about Blockchain for people of all backgrounds.
From the initial research, I realised that many people were frustrated with trying to understand what blockchain is and had a poor understanding of what it could be used for. Since mass adoption of the technology is some way away, and there are few opportunities to really use it in everyday life, I oriented the approach towards trying to quickly address the basics of what blockchain is, before moving on to the more difficult task of allowing people to create their own concepts.
From the outset, I knew that the workshop would employ some kind of game to help demystify Blockchain. The logic being that games are fun, immerse people in a narrative, require engagement, and can allow learning to occur in a subtle, practical manner. In order to do this, I had to work out which elements of Blockchain to cover during a workshop, which required thinking through all of the core features and build a coherent program. Doing this enabled me to settle upon a structure of a four round game, with each round building upon the knowledge of the previous round.
Through research I came across a Bitcoin game developed by Maxwell et. al, which involved trading Lego blocks. I thought I could build upon this work, extending beyond Bitcoin, to create a game which covers all the major concepts of Blockchain from blocks and mining, to tokens and smart contracts. My desire was to unlock people's creative thinking for potential applications of web3 technologies that could build upon the exciting and emerging ideas of people like Vitalik Buterin.
To help design the game, I worked with designer John Ferreira. We began prototyping and rapidly iterating, trying out a variety of props and game tools. This involved various components and physical objects as we sought to build clear and comprehensible analogies to Blockchain elements. Working with a group of students, we tested our ideas repeatedly, taking on feedback and refining.
Eventually we settled on a format which employs cards to represent tokens, Lego blocks to signify transactions, a Lego plate which acts as a ledger, stickers which act as digital signatures and a game board, which becomes a hub of activity, a system where socio-economic interactions occur, rules and conditions are defined, and relationships are built, all recorded on a Lego Blockchain.
In round one, the game is relatively simple with participants trading resource cards of four types (land, fire, water, electricity), and getting used to trading in a peer-to-peer manner. All transactions are recorded on a central ledger plate. At the end of round one, participants then discuss what they think happened with facilitators, before listening to a short lecture on what really happened within a blockchain context, to cover the concepts of tokens, blocks and the ledger.
In round two, the workshop introduces the concept of mining and decentralisation. Participants trade, this time however trading is subject to market fluctuations which are instigated through the use of scenario cards deployed by facilitators. This round also has a sub-game, where members of each team act as miners, playing a specially created online game, to simulate the reality of mining. At the end of the round we once again seal the block, and the winning miner receives some tokens from a magical chest to simulate the creation of value that occurs in proof of work mining on the Bitcoin blockchain.
In round three, we deliver a short lecture on the future of value to expand concepts of value from money to more abstract and less pecuniary measures. The game then introduces blank token cards which teams use to deploy new concepts of value in order to trade with other teams, all the while recording transactions on the ledger which by now has been understood as a Blockchain. At the end of this round we have a discussion with participants, to understand which notions of value performed better than others.
In round four, another set of cards is introduced, which allow teams to create a set of If This Then That (IFTT) rules to govern transactions using their token class. This is designed to allow participants to reflect upon and design smart contracts for the system they are creating for and interacting in. At the end of this round we provide another short lecture on smart contracts, to provide some theory to the newly acquired knowledge.
While Blockchain is a digital technology, our approach deliberately involves using an analog game format, to create something tangible. From our research we understood that using physical objects helped people retain information better. Thus, each element in the game was carefully thought out and considered to help people build a mental and physical representation of core Blockchain elements such as Tokens, Blocks and Ledgers.
The game is intended to inspire curiosity and allows people to learn without any prerequisite knowledge, in a fun and fast-paced manner. Through top-down learning, we immerse participants in the world of Blockchain, build their vocabulary and knowledge, and allow them to start asking relevant and insightful questions, which often evolves into a group discussion. This is facilitated by us, using tools like lectures, slides and stories to reinforce knowledge.
The game is typically deployed as part of our 'Designing with Blockchain' workshops, which range from half a day to five day sessions. While shorter formats focus on Blockchain alone, in longer sessions, participants take on the full design process.
Tasked with a design challenge, participants are primed with a series of case studies and to demonstrate how the various features of Blockchain are used in existing projects. We also provide speculative examples to demonstrate how Blockchain features could be employed within products, services and systems in the future. These examples are supported by models and templates that we created for the workshop.
Working in teams are guided through initial research, insight crafting and develop opportunity areas. Teams then come together to ideate on a couple of their design opportunities, focusing on employing Blockchain within their given context, before selecting an idea to develop. Using the templates, the teams use the knowledge they gained through the game, and begin to map out their ideas using our templates and tools. These tools are intended to help them develop robust concepts, and put into practice the knowledge they gain from the early part of the workshop, namely the key features of Blockchain – facilitating value transfer, in transparent systems, where trust is a feature.
Once their tools are filled out, teams are invited to start prototyping. This once again involves the use of Lego, to create Lego Melodramas. This approach is intended to be inclusive, to allow participants of all abilities to participate in the crafting of an idea. The prototypes the teams create take the form of stories, told through Lego, incorporating a particular context, user journey, blockchain features and often an economy or wider system. Iterating on the prototypes allows the teams to strengthen their ideas and develop a realistic Blockchain proposition.
The final part of the workshop involves preparing a website, again filling in a simple template created by us, which allows each team to publish their work to the Internet for future reference. Teams also document their process in a document known as a white paper, which can include any additional information they would like to include that does not fit the template of the website.
As of the end of 2018, more than 100 people have played the game, and the feedback has been hugely positive. I've taught workshops from Copenhagen to Kochi, and heard from many people that they had struggled for months trying to grasp even the basics of Blockchain, but by playing the game, in just a few hours they not only could understand what Blockchain is, but could begin to craft their own concepts.
Many of our workshop participants work within NGOs or large public sector organizations and they have told me that the approach has helped them uncover a world of new opportunities, particularly by taking part in the longer format workshops, during which their knowledge can be applied.
I believe What The Block offers a unique approach, seeking to use design to engage with people's pure curiosity, to demystify a topic which many have found confusing. The game-based approach makes learning accessible and fun, which thus far has yielded great results.