Coconut Cracker: The Anatomy of a Game

This morning I was surprised with another Mother’s Day present – a game called “Coconut Cracker” which my 8 year old had created for me.

The essence of the game was that you had to toss a pencil onto a small piece of paper (a post-it note). On the post-it note were drawn nine small circles about the size of a marble. The objective was to get the pointed end of the pencil into one of the nine circles. If you got the pointed end in a circle, this first victory allowed you to peel off one of four pieces of cello tape which were holding a decorated paper cover onto half a coconut. The first three wins got to peel off one of the cello tapes. The fourth person to win would be able to uncover the hollowed coconut and get the surprise inside.

The game was fun! We were three players (my competitors were 8 and 6 years old.) The circles were just the right size, not too small and not too big, so that we had to try, test approaches, refine our pencil tossing skills, and then could succeed in the task. Each piece of tape lifted added to our anticipation, we got excited, we got a little sloppy. The final tape took us a full few minutes to get. And then someone won! We cheered, he peeled off the last piece of tape, lifted the coloured paper cover and exposed the contents of the coconut, which was confetti (hence the name, Coconut Cracker), and delightedly threw it all over the room.

That was a good game that he had created. It had many of the components of the kinds of games we play over and over for learning and recreation, including:

  • Roles (we each had an action we needed to perform which was clear)
  • Rules (these were introduced at the beginning and did not change, very important)
  • Accounting system (we counted our throws, and the tape)
  • Macro cycle (over all we were trying to uncover the coconut)
  • Micro cycle (each round we were trying to get the pencil in a circle, and we needed to complete four rounds successfully)
  • Props (pencil, post-it, coconut, confetti – this game was probably inspired by finding a coconut shell and thinking “what can I do with this?”)
  • Referee (well, we all did that, we might have needed a way to deal with disputes)
  • Safety procedures (no one could put the pencil in his/her eye, or eat the confetti)
  • Media for introducing or debriefing the game (here my son did it orally, we were allowed to ask questions)
  • Name (something that does not give away the game, here Coconut Cracker was just on the edge, but since we did not know what was inside it seemed clever afterwards)

One further thing a more complex game has is a causal model, which governs between decisions and results. I would have to think about that one for Coconut Cracker, which is ultimately a game of skill.

At the end of the game, my son said that next time he might introduce more “levels” to the game – like having layers of paper covering the coconut, which when removed could become the next “game board” (e.g. post-it), each one a little more challenging, like smaller holes and further apart, so it would prolong the excitement and add to the skills development. I was amazed (very proud of course), and it made me wonder why we don’t create more games from scratch as adults. If we wanted to use them for something specific, like team development, or maybe as an entry into an innovation process, we could put more context into the frame.

There are some amazing people for whom creating games is a great art, one is Dennis Meadows, with whom I have had the great pleasure to learn over the years about games. He created wonderful sustainable development games like FishBanks, and STRATAGEM, among many others. Games that are both complex in their models and learning, and elegant in the simplicity of play (both are also computer supported.) I took my list above of components of a game and slightly adapted it from a workshop Dennis gave in 1998 about using games for learning. I am not sure he would completely agree with my assessment about Coconut Cracker’s merits, and my interpretation of the components. I took some poetic license – it was Mother’s Day after all!

1 reply
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    You are amazing. I love your learning connections between the interaction with your children in daily life and the learning tools you use in your professional life. It’s a great way to capture our informal learning. Thanks. Cecilia

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