Playing with Systems


Throughout the development of Western society, people have come to the viewpoint that the world is a mechanistic system where the components are separate with clear boundaries. We tend to divide things into small pieces and look closely at each piece, forgetting about how they impact each other. In such reductionist perspective, a system or object is generally understood by disassembling it into a collection of pieces, and trying to understand how those pieces fit together. This way of thinking has also been applied to living beings, ecosystems, and societies, also looking at historical events as a series of linear reactions. For example, the current migration of refugees in the world is seen only as a result of fleeing wars in far-off lands, without taking into account the combination of socio-economic and environmental factors that lead to human migration. Thus it becomes conveniently referred to as a “refugee crisis”, rather than looking at the present situation especially within the context of our Western socio-economic system of modern capitalism.

While the linear perspective certainly has its uses and has allowed significant advances in technology, science, and other fields, the challenge with this line of thinking is that it fails to take into account the true complexity of our reality. A collection of organs pieced together does not make a functional organism, and this line of logic is responsible for in the treatment of the planet and human social systems. However, societies and ecosystems do not function based solely on reactions, but as complex systems.

Complex systems have their own specific qualities and patterns. Looking at the amazing intricacy of a termite mound or beehive is an excellent example for understanding these type of systems. For example, termites regulate the temperature in their mound based on a series of chemical signals exchanged between individual termites, followed by water being strategically added to create cooling, or increased termite movement (by vibrating) to create heating. This complex biological and social structure could never be understood by simply examining one individual termite. For human beings to continue to exist on the planet, it is crucial that they gain a more sophisticated understanding of both the earth, and all the living beings on it.  We need to begin to look at our own social and economic systems, as well as the core ecosystems that make life on this planet possible, through the lens of complexity. We then need to interact with these systems based on this understanding.

Activity Type

Group [at least 10 people are needed for this exercise] / Experiential


Each activity takes about 30 minutes.

Learning Outcomes

  • Get a sense of “collective consciousness” where no one is the leader

  • Observe the complexity of systems

  • Notice how a system responds when the conditions change

  • Learn games that demonstrate concepts of systems and complexity


Required Materials and Tools:

  • A large open space where people can move around easily

Step-by-Step Instructions:

People Moving in Systems

  1. Invite the participants to secretly choose two other people in the group.

  2. Ask all the participants to begin moving around the space while trying to keep equal distance between the two people they have chosen. The group will  begin to move, as people re-arrange to maintain equal distance between their two chosen people.

  3. Ask the participants to try and observe the patterns in how everyone moves as they continue to keep equal distance between their two chosen people.

  4. Change the rules: Now ask participants to silently select two different people. This time they select one of the people as the “shield” who must always remain between them and the other person they have chosen. Again, make sure this is kept secret.

  5. Again, ask the participants to try and observe the patterns in how everyone is moving in relation to one another. See if they can observe any differences between the patterns of the first exercise and the second.  

Moving As One

  1. Invite participants to walk slowly around the space in silence.

  2. When a person feels like stopping, they can stop. As soon as someone stops, everyone else in the group must also stop.

  3. When one person feels like walking again, the rest of the group starts walking again.

  4. Part 2: Continue walking and instead of any individual deciding to stop, see if the whole group can start and stop without any one person deciding to do so.

  5. Part 3: Repeat steps 1-3 again BUT participants must have their eyes closed, moving slowly, tuning into their other senses so that they are able to feel when one person has stopped.


  • The Systems Thinking Playbook (Linda Sweeney and Dennis Meadows) 2010


  • People Moving in Systems: Did you notice any patterns emerging as you were all moving together? If so, what were they?

  • People Moving in Systems: What did you notice about moving together as a group?

  • Moving As One: If you initiated the ‘stop’ or a ‘start’ how did it feel to impact others’ actions?

  • Moving As One: How did it feel to move with the whole group?

  • Moving As One: When you closed your eyes: how did you sense when the group had stopped or started?

  • Is there anything else you would like to share about the experience?

Instructions for Submission

Submit a reflection of the experience, based on the Reflection questions (up to 200 words). Upload a photo from the activity. Instructions on how to upload photos and how to submit things in Moodle can be found here: Instructions on Submission&Uploading

Instructions for Assessment

Provide feedback to at least one participant that has done this activity. Instructions on providing feedback can be found here: Instructions on Feedback

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