Formicarium was one of many capacity-building games designed as part of the Office of Economic Opportunity's summer internship program, where energized participants from Community Action Committees were hired to develop technical resources for use in programs across the country.
The Community Turn
Relying on interns who experienced first-hand the underfunded nature of these programs throughout the 1970s resulted in the development of tools, tactics, and methods that were almost wholly-focused on strengthening core capacities within neighborhoods. This particular exercise was part of a suite of "icebreaker" experiments that, while interesting, rarely saw use outside the walls of our Office.
Regardless, this speaks to the overriding assumption at the time that we, as a federal branch of the United States government, could not look out for the Community Action Councils, and that the best thing to come from the Community Action Programs was their tendency towards internal capacity building. This, naturally, led to the formation of a plethora of self-organizing coalitions, which took up much of the anti-poverty work in neighborhoods without officially incorporating as part of this Office. Of course, Jackson attempted to restore funding to these programs and bring them back into the fold, but legislative gridlock forced him to settle on supporting these initiatives instead, providing them with tools to connect.
In this environment, it's no wonder so many of the technical resources developed during this time were focused, primarily, on building connections within groups and allowing members the chance to get to know one another.
How to Play
The rules of Formicarium, like many technical resources of this type, are simple. They are open to interpretation and editing.
Formicarium and other "icebreaker" technical resources were designed to require as few materials as possible.
- Strips of paper
- A pen or pencil
- One Six-Sided Dice
This exercise begins with a setting, sometimes magical, fantastic, or scientific. It is generally customized to fit with the overarching concerns of a specific community. The name "Formicarium" comes from the original constructed setting, a lab focused on the study of ants.
For those of us engaged in this new science, that of learning and interpreting the previously unknown animal languages, it is an exciting time. There is much for us to learn.
Our lab conducts research in cohort with our companions, ants, who communicate via the trails they cut into the earth. The lines - straight, organic, tangled, and branching - tell stories about how our companions live in common.
We ask questions of our companions, and they answer.
The rules are simple, asking players to roll a dice, and then respond to the dice roll. Players respond to the dice roll with and through crude drawings, which requires that the facilitator create a handful of these crude line drawings of shapes or patterns using the provided strips of paper and drawing instruments. These initial drawings are referred to as "cards".
- Draw three cards
- Roll the dice to ask a question
- Choose from the cards to answer the question
- Take heed
- Our companions share with us a beautiful new way of being. What is it?
- Our companions are flourishing. Why?
- Our companions fail spectacularly. How?
- Our companions issue a grave warning about a new social arrangement. What do they warn us?
- Our companions tell us to beware of a new behavior. What is it?
- We’re not sure what our companions are trying to tell us. Give it your best guess.
The combination of crude drawings and provocative questions, placed within the context of an imaginary setting, is designed to produce conversation. The fourth rule, which asks players to "take heed" was the crux of this exercise. It tasks players with producing some form of tangible effect from their conversation - whether a new way for Community Action Committee members communicate with one another or a new rule for future engagement.