How to use conversation kits to get across info about complex topics

Democs-HEethicsIn a blog on June 6th, I described the Wee Play conversation kit that I helped develop and use for the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. In this blog, I’m going to explore how the Democs conversation kits, of which Wee Play was one example, get across information about complex topics.

Each kit supports a small groups of 4-8 people to have a discussion over 1 ½ to 2 hours. One person acts as the dealer. They introduce a question that playing Democs is intended to answer, and then introduce three sets of cards.

How the cards work

First, a pack of ‘story cards’ is dealt out, one per person. Their purpose is to tell stories of how individuals are affected by the issue. With something like nanotechnology, it is important to show it can or will affect our everyday lives if people are to be able to get stuck into the topic. They are usually written as dilemmas, to encourage people to think about them. The group as a whole chooses one card that will best help them discuss the question.

Example of a nanotechnology story card


I’m a GP. A patient came to me with a persistent cough. I asked him for a blood sample to do a genetic test to find which antibiotic best matches his genetic profile. “Nanotechnology!” I explained, “With this lab-on-a-chip machine, we can now read all your genes in a minute.” The print-out told me which drug to prescribe. However, his genetic profile also showed a high risk of developing an incurable liver disorder. This man only came about his cough. Do I tell him? Does he want to know?

The personal stories in the cards often trigger personal stories from participants. Here is part of a report from the facilitator of an event HIV/AIDS held at a homeless shelter in Vienna. Participants consisted of homeless people and shelter staff members. The facilitator said:

The story cards were probably the most important. These people related to them very directly – not in a hypothetical sense, but by what they had experienced themselves. For example, a man had contracted Hepatitis C from sharing a needle with an infected person, fearing also for HIV transmission. A woman sleeps with her HIV+ partner unprotected “because she loves him and he does not like condoms”, knowingly risking transmission. Another man talked about this one-night stand with a woman who his friends later said was positive – and how he feared until he had the results of the test. And many more… They were extremely open in how they talked about their sexuality, alcohol and drug abuse and how this affects them in their choices.

Next, 40 or so ‘information cards’ are dealt out. Each player, individually, chooses the two cards which will best help them discuss the question. There are two go rounds in which the players take turns to read out a card and to explain why they chose it. This usually gets a little discussion going. Everyone contributes from the cards in their hand: everyone gets to ask basic questions without looking stupid.

Example of a nanotechnology information card

A2 What happens at the nano scale? 1

Nanoparticles have different properties to the bulk material. As particles become smaller their surface area becomes relatively greater. That is why icing sugar dissolves more quickly in water than granulated sugar.

[I liked it] “when we had the cards and we had to choose which was most important which made me feel like I could contribute…”

“The format of sorting through the cards, had a sort of awkwardness at first, passing [them] around to make sure everyone seen everything, but that soon ended as you began to pick things out that felt important to you and actually talk to the group about it.” – Male,33, museum exhibits director, UK

This is then repeated with the pack of ‘issue cards’. Whereas the information cards are factual, usually about the current situation, these expose players to a range of attitudes, opinions and ideas for changing the situation.

Example of a climate change issue card

B8 Jeremy Clarkson (UK TV presenter of motoring programmes)

“What’s wrong with global warming? We might lose Holland but there are other places to go on holiday.”

This phase, which takes 30 – 40 minutes, gives a group a shared stock of information. The second phase, which takes about the same time, is to make sense of that information.

using-democsThe effect of the cards

The statements below come from students in a school who were discussing MMR vaccination. MMR stands for Measles, Mumps and Rubella, and at the time a doctor called Andrew Wakefield had attracted a lot of attention with a claim that a triple vaccine that covered all three could cause autism. His paper in The Lancet was later declared to be fraudulent and he has been banned from practising as a doctor in the UK.
By half way through the discussion it was noticeable that the students appeared to be engaging with each other in a more focused way than hitherto, building on each other’s statements as they discussed an information card about parental choice:

— NHS has most of the information so they should be the ones who decide about vaccination

— No, they should give the information to us (said strongly)

— Yeah they haven’t told us

— If they tell us we can use it, making our own choices

At the end of the Democs game, students were asked if there were things that they found surprising, or things they learned in this activity. There responses offer further indications of the understandings that they had gained through taking part.

— I was surprised that doctors got paid more if they did single jabs

— I found the card that showed the increasing autism since 1997 surprising

— If you get MMR vaccine, get it after 15 months since before that we don’t know about autism.

Returning to adults, a striking illustration of how a single fact can change someone’s mind comes from Rachel Collinson, who took part in a focus group convened by the Science Museum in London to gather evidence on how effective Democs was. She said:

Before I started to play Democs all I knew about stem cell research was gleaned from snippets of news reports and pro-life propaganda. I was sure that I didn’t like the idea very much. However, playing Democs with people of varying viewpoints was a great eye-opener. It prevented our discussion from descending into histrionics. All parts of the debate became very clear and understandable, and I learnt things that I didn’t know before, which was a very pleasant surprise for me. My stand on the issue (and I am well known for taking stands on issues) clearly moved from where it was at the start of the game, to something quite different. Even now, four years later, I can still remember the exact argument that changed my mind. I came to the debate with a belief that the foetuses involved were generated just for research, and I didn’t like that. During Democs, I learned that in the UK most research is done on aborted foetuses. I felt that as they already existed, it was best to make use of them.”

In conclusion, a participant called Robert Whittle summarised the potential benefits of using the cards. I can’t claim that every event works as well as one that he describes, but when they do they are a joy to watch:

I was fascinated at how quickly (notably in the Facts and the Issue Card sections) all members of the group opened up and became confident at using new terminology and paraphrasing ideas and in making connections between issues – thus demonstrating their rapidly growing understanding or confidence or both. That does seem to be an astoundingly rapid progress using the game.”

Want to know more?

Democs background and download conversation kits on many different issues including GM Food, climate change & Community Empowerment

Human Enhancement Democs kit

More resources & inspiring stories with kits developed as part of PlayDecide