Randomly distribute one card from a playing deck of cards to each person. Instruct people to not look at their card.
Ask each person to place this card on their forehead so that it faces other people.
When ready, invite your group to mix and mingle.
As they interact, instruct everyone to engage with and treat all others based on the face value of the card on that person’s forehead.
All interaction must remain silent, ie no verbal forms of communication, but gestures are permitted.
After 1 to 2 minutes of interaction, stop the activity and remind people to not look at their cards (yet.)
Ask your group to divide and gather into one of three groups – low-value, middle-value and high-value cards.
Divided into three groups, people may then look at their cards.
Process this dynamic experience to explore topics of diversity, cultural norms, valuing others and inclusion.
How To Play Narrative
Grab a pack of playing cards, and distribute one card to each person in your group. Important – as you do this, announce that no-one should look at their own card.
Then ask everyone to place their card directly on their forehead, so that all others can see the face of the card.
When ready, invite everyone to start mingling around the room, holding their card on their forehead at all times. Then, explain that you would like each person to engage with and treat all others based on the face value of the card on that person’s forehead.
Most powerfully, invite your group to perform this task without ever talking to others, silently, allowing only non-verbal forms of communication. Gestures are absolutely permitted, but no individual should ever explicitly communicate the actual value of another’s card.
Initially, there may be a little confusion, but here are some typical behaviours you will likely see exhibited:
The royalty (picture) cards attract a lot of positive treatment, such as bows, high-fives and smiles.
The lowest value cards are often dismissed by others, perhaps even attracting dirty-looks, thumbs-down and the occasional uncomfortable frown.
The middle-value cards are mostly ignored, or attract an array of confusing signals from others, some good, some bad. They may attract a ‘so-so’ hand gesture or a shrug of one’s shoulders.
Sometimes, cards of a similar value start to hang-out together.
After 1 -2 minutes of mingling, stop the action – and VERY important, ask people to NOT look at their card (yet!)
What happens next is the most intriguing step.
Ask every person to divide into one of three groups – high-value cards stand to one side, low-value cards stand on the other side, and middle-value card holders stand in between. Naturally, this division is based entirely on their perception of the value of their cards (they still have not looked at their own card.)
Once everyone has associated with a grouping, take a moment for your group to observe the positioning of all others, and then ask everyone to look at their (own) cards for the first time.
Your group is now primed for a whole lot of sharing. Ordinarily, your group will erupt with all sorts of comments, stories and wonderment.
This activity can be a lot of fun, but critically, I recommend that you now invite your group to process what just happened to squeeze further value and teachable moments from their experience. In particular, follow the really useful sequence of questions as described in the Reflection tab.
Practical Leadership Tips
If possible, use a jumbo-size deck of playing cards – the larger the better.
In case you’re wondering, this exercise works best when you are intentionally vague with the directions. Figuring out what to do is a part of the game.
Poker Face is possibly one of the most dynamic – read, risky – group activities I know. It frequently evokes a lot of really powerful feelings for some people, so you will need to carefully sequence and facilitate the discussion that occurs at the end. I’m not trying to scare you – you just need to be aware of the power of what this simple, yet powerful exercise may generate. Ensure everyone leaves the activity with their self-esteem intact.
You will observe a range of very interesting, sometimes disturbing behaviours. For example, royalty cards may treat others poorly because they feel more powerful. Sometimes the people holding higher-value cards get bowed down to, while the lowest cards get pushed away and treated poorly. At some point, those with the low-value cards will usually back out of the middle of the mingling area. This can lead to a great discussion about a person’s willingness to fully participate in a group if they are being treated poorly.
Beware a group’s reluctance to respond to the discussion of certain behaviours with laughter only. Often, this is just a defence mechanism (to relieve the tension,) but it may also reveal a deep-seated, and unhealthy set of attitudes and beliefs about other people. Process carefully, and be open to exploring uncomfortable topics.
Be sure to review the Reflection Tips tab to be guided by a series of very useful questions to ask at the conclusion of the activity.
You could integrate Poker Face as part of a well-designed SEL program to develop your group’s ability to understand the perspectives of and empathise with others including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
Specifically, this activity offers opportunities to explore and practice the following social & interpersonal skills:
Linking Feelings, Values & Thoughts
Identifying Personal, Cultural & Linguistic Assets
Anticipating & Evaluating the Consequences of One’s Actions
Promoting Personal & Collective Well-Being
You can learn more about SEL and how it can support character education here.
Health & Wellness Programming
The dynamism of this fun group initiative will invite your group to interact and engage with each other in a manner that would necessarily speak to the benefits of having developed a set of supportive and healthy behavioural norms in advance. Or, if not, you could focus on any less-than-desired interactions or outcomes to explore what sorts of behaviours your group would prefer to see and commit to in the future.
For example, in addition to those described in the Reflection Tips tab, you could invite your group to reflect on the following questions to explore a variety of full value behaviours such as:
How did the group demonstrate its ability to care for self and others? Or not?
Generally speaking, how did you make decisions in regards to your interaction with others?
What social cues did you observe that governed your interactions?
Generally speaking, how did you feel throughout the exercise? Why?
Adding to those topics explored above, this activity is ideal for exploring the reading of and navigating a range of emotional competencies such as empathy, compassion, attitude, inhibitions, motivation, active listening, etc.
Say What You’re Thinking: Allow people to talk verbally with others as they interact.
Non-Royal: Remove the royalty cards (Jack, Queen & King) and play as normal.
Highly interactive ice-breaker, energiser & team event.
Conversation starter that explores personal choices.
Comfort Zone Circles
Powerful front-loading exercise to explore skill development.
Useful Framing Ideas
Cultural norms are a fascinating topic to explore. How do they develop, and how do they impact everyone from the individual to their community are really powerful questions to consider. This next, very simple yet powerful exercise will provide your group with an opportunity to experience a set of new cultural norms…
They say that first impressions count, and that for most people, we make up our mind about another person very quickly, often without any forms of verbal communication. How does this happen? Why does this happen? Let’s experiment with this for a few minutes…
Have you ever heard the term ‘poker face’ before? It is often associated with people playing the card game Poker, and refers to the tendency of some people to inadvertently communicate their thoughts or intentions by the look on their face. That is to say, there is a lot that can be discerned from somebody’s facial expressions and body language, and this will become very apparent in this next exercise…
Reflection Tips & Strategies
Coupled with one or more reflection strategies, here are a series of sample questions, presented in a particular sequence, you could use to process your group’s experience after playing this dynamic game.
As a starting point, focusing on one group at a time (begin with low-value cards,) ask:
What were some behaviours that you saw or were demonstrated towards you that lead you to believe you had a low/middle/high-value card?
How long did it take you to realise that you had a low/middle/high-value card?
Then, focusing first on the high-value cards (then middle and low,) ask each group these questions:
After you realised the probable value of your card, did it influence the way you played the game?
What were some specific behaviours you demonstrated towards others because of the value of your card?
The responses to these initial questions are pretty profound. Follow up with one or more of the following:
How did it feel to be a royalty card?
How did it feel to be a lower-numbered card?
What behaviours did you observe during the activity?
How were you treated?
Did you notice any secluded groups forming?
How did it feel to be left out? How did this influence your thinking and behaviours? Be specific.
How is this activity like everyday society? Give examples.
In what circumstances would a low-value card be valuable (eg playing Blackjack, golf, etc?)
The inspiration for Poker Face, and many more group games which utilise a deck of playing cards, was sourced from the following publication: