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GAME OF THE MONTH: Contamination

Updated: Feb 26, 2021

There are so many games to choose from. But which ones are really worth the effort? Of course, being the Happy Scrum Master, I have quite a few favourites which I'm more than happy to share with you. Last month, I shared what I guess you could call my Facilitating Games. This month, I’m proud to share my own successful online adaptation of one of my favourite games.

This month we’ll be playing: Contamination – the offline and the online version ☺

This game will forever have a special place in my heart. Why? Because it helped me be fearless! I love this game so much that when I had the opportunity to host my very first webinar I just knew I had to find a way to recreate Contamination online so I could incorporate it in my webinar. I. Just. Had. To. And so, that’s exactly what I did!!

I’ll start by explaining the original offline version. Contamination is all about group interaction and the way people interpret how other people present themselves. It was created by Dov Tsal to show how easy emotions can travel through a group. I really don’t need to remind you how easy a virus can spread through a group of people. We’re all painfully aware of that right now, aren’t we? ☹

Emotions are exactly the same. They tend to spread like crazy and, as a Facilitator, that’s something you really need to be aware of when working with a group. One person can influence your entire session with their emotions. Both in a good way and in a bad way.

So how does it work? Contamination is made up of two parts. First, you’ll play a few rounds spreading the Unhappy Virus. Begin by asking people to stand anywhere in the room and close their eyes. Explain to them that they are part of a group experiment and that one of them is infected with the Unhappy Virus. Patient Zero is tasked with spreading the virus by projecting a subtle yet noticeable negative vibe using their facial expressions and body language.

Then, you walk around the group and randomly select a person to be Patient Zero by tapping that person on the shoulder twice. To keep it COVID safe, you can also choose to "prep" someone from the group beforehand by sending them an email or text with "Patient 0" in it, so you can keep your social distance to the group. Once you’ve done that, you ask everybody to open their eyes and wander around the room looking at other people’s faces for a minute or two. If they believe they’ve spotted Patient Zero and, as a result, have been contaminated they become a patient too and should join in trying to project a subtle negative vibe.

After two minutes you ask everybody to stop and close their eyes. Once all eyes are closed, you ask the people who’ve been contaminated to raise their hands. Quickly count hands and write down the number. Then, ask people to lower their hands and open their eyes. Facilitator pro-tip: make sure all hands are lowered before you ask people to open their eyes otherwise it ruins the game. Trust me on that one.

Continue by playing another round. People who were infected in the previous round remain contaminated and should continue to try and spread the Unhappy Virus. Between rounds, write down the number of people who have been infected to track the Contamination progress. Keep playing rounds until a fair few/the majority/everybody has been affected. I’ll leave it up to you to decide. I usually play a few rounds, Dov likes to continue playing until everybody’s been contaminated.

For the online version, I made a few changes. Because… well duh… it’s impossible to wander around the same room when you’re sitting behind your laptop at home. So first of all, instead of walking around and tapping someone on the back, I decided I’d send one person a private chat message saying: ‘You’re Patient Zero’. Easy, right?

The second change I made is the duration of each round. When you’re not walking around two minutes can be a really long time. So I decided to speed things up a little. Online rounds only last for 20 – 30 seconds, that’s more than enough.

Change number three: instead of walking around looking at people’s faces, I ask participants to set their screen to ‘mosaic mode’ and closely look at each individual square, flipping through the pages if it’s a really large group, to take a good look at other people’s faces. To make this work, everybody should be clearly visible and sit relatively close to the screen. It’s very difficult to show your facial expression on one of those tiny squares when you’re sitting halfway across the room.

And finally, after each round ends: instead of asking people to close their eyes and raise their hands, I’ll ask them to send me a private chat message if they’ve been infected. It’s as simple as that! And I’m delighted to tell you that it actually works. It may not have exactly the same impact as the offline version but, trust me, people are still getting contaminated.

So, now that we’ve finished playing the first part of Contamination offline and online: on with the second part! We’ve all been miraculously cured of the Unhappy Virus and are starting fresh. But this time, we’ll be spreading the Happy Virus. So, instead of spreading a subtle but noticeable negative vibe, Patient Zero and all those who’ve been contaminated should try to project a subtle but noticeable positive vibe.

At the end of the second part, it’s time to share the results with your group. What I usually do is play the same number of rounds for both parts so you can really compare results. Start by giving the total number of people who were contaminated with the Unhappy Virus versus the people contaminated with the Happy Virus. Then break it down to how many people were contaminated in each round.

What you’ll see is that more people will have been contaminated with the Happy Virus! Yay! And that the Happy Virus spreads much faster than the Unhappy Virus! So, the important lesson a group can learn from this game is that the attitude you’re projecting, usually without knowing, is contagious. But luckily, it’s more contagious when you’re being positive.

To end the game, I ask people to point out who contaminated them with the Unhappy Virus and with the Happy Virus. Again, this works better offline than online but even sitting behind a screen, it’s easy to see that most people have been infected by a different person.

Finally, I’ll ask the Patient Zeros to identify themselves. And this is where it gets really interesting. Because, well, I lied. There is no Patient Zero. I never tapped someone on the shoulder or send them a chat message. Weird right? How people were getting contaminated without a Patient Zero? Well, not really, because it’s all about perceptions. This game very cleverly demonstrates the impact the image you project can have on other people. But not only that, it’s also about the image people perceive you’re projecting.

I recently had the opportunity to co-host an online Contamination session together with Dov at #Play14’s online The Big One 2020 event. How cool is that? We received and came up with a few tips for improvement. For instance, instead of having people send me chat messages, create a poll they can fill in when they’re contaminated. Saves me from having to count messages myself. Another great tip was to put people in break-out rooms and then randomly rearrange the rooms between rounds. This way, people will have to look at fewer screens during a round while still coming in contact with all the other players. I’ll definitely look into that!

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