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Building Joyful Connections with Chain Reactions

Building Joyful Connections with Chain Reactions

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Over the past year and a half, we've been in many Zoom meetings. A LOT of Zoom meetings. This got us wondering: how can we infuse more joy into these virtual meeting spaces?

Steph, Celeste, and I teamed up to take on this challenge last summer and came up with an experience we're calling virtual chain reaction, a collaborative activity that gets participants prototyping new ways to build connections between screens and infusing joy into a seemingly joyless space.

← Check out a prototype virtual chain reaction machine we made during an R&D session

In the spirit of R&D, we're still learning about how an experience like this fits into our tinkering practice, but we'd love to see you try it out! Here's what we've learned so far.

Step 1: Practice Building Different Types of Connections

As activity designers, we valued the importance of connection building and wanted to set up participants both emotionally and logistically. If you're interested in the logistics of how we set up the Zoom environment to do this, check out our resources below.

Once our screens were set up, we did quick warm-up exercises to move our bodies and start making connections. The results were often silly and helped break the ice and practice working with each other.

Prompt: Make a connection between two screens.

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Pass a LEGO brick.


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Roll a ball down a tube.


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Make a banana disappear and reappear. 



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Slide a bead down a string.



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Use a hairdryer to send a crumpled piece of paper flying.



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Make a ball ramp.


Prompt: Create a Collaborative Drawing

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If you’ve ever played the drawing game exquisite corpse*, you know how joyful and surprising it can be to collaboratively create a creature that’s more than the sum of its parts. With the goal of building joyful connections, we decided to try a version of this game over video. We took a few minutes to each draw a head, a body, or legs in our own space. Then, we did a big reveal and held our component parts up to the screen to combine them into creatures. We took advantage of the fact that you can move Zoom boxes around in Zoom to rearrange the parts into new combinations. This quick activity made the static video conferencing platform start feeling a step more flexible and playful.

*In exquisite corpse, a piece of paper is folded into thirds. Without looking at the other parts, one person draws a head, one person draws a body, and one person draws legs. Then the paper is unfolded to reveal the collaborative creature! 



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Step 2: Build a Chain Reaction Machine

After spending time creating connections, we scaled up our collaborations by talking a multi-step chain reaction machine using everyday objects around our spaces. This looked differently across workshops, some driven by a story (like this morning-to-night example below), while others were focused on the phenomena of cause-and-effect machines. Following what's joyful felt like a good north start for facilitating experiences like these.

Note that chain reactions rarely go off without a hitch! Embrace iteration and failure as you launch and relaunch your collective machine.


Our Reflections

On Joyful Connections by Steph

I’ve been in a lot of video meetings, and breaking free of the usual social expectations for the platform felt even more playful than I expected. Instead of sitting quietly on mute, we were all moving around our spaces, venturing off screen for new materials, carrying our laptops around, and playing with what we revealed on screen versus off screen to create optical illusion magic. When one person got excited about using a toothbrush, others also fetched toothbrushes so that we could “pass” objects around. In the same way that we created something that was greater than the sum of its component parts during the exquisite corpse drawing activity, our chain reaction took on an emergent life of its own. I’ve never been part of a Zoom meeting with so much laughter and so many moments of delight. I can only imagine how adding computational connections to actually set off events in another person’s space could extend this activity.  

On Overcoming Challenges by Deanna

Over the last year and a half, we've been met with many new obstacles in facilitating tinkering experiences remotely. We made many contingency plans depending on the number of participants, the ranges in participation (video off, observer-only, etc), and how ready their environment was for tinkering. We're thankful that we had great participation, and would love to try this experience out with more people.

On Getting Creative with Materials by Celeste

This activity encouraged me to see the everyday materials around me in a new light. Simple materials like a piece of paper can become a treasure map to guide the group, a note passed from one person to the next, or a paper airplane traveling across screens. Sometimes we had to get creative with how we used materials and a little bit of acting and stagecraft was required to sell the connections we made, adding to the overall delight of this experience!



Gather Materials

Before each workshop, we encouraged participants to collect materials that they may find useful for building chain reaction machines. These fell into general categories, including:

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  • Pen and paper: to support passing an object between screens and the Exquisite Corpse drawing activity
  • Construction materials: cardboard, scissors, string, toilet paper and paper towel tubes, books, and tape
  • Things that travel: balls, oranges and other fruit, wheels, toy cars, and rolls of tape
  • Inspiring objects: rubber boots, puppets, plants, instruments, and other everyday items

How to Set-up Zoom

Setting up the virtual workshop environment together was crucial to the success of this workshop. We used Zoom as our video conferencing tool for virtual chain reactions. One key detail that was crucial to the success of our chain reactions was the ability to make realistic connections between screens, but a challenge with this is that most video conferencing tools mirror your camera. 

Before starting, we asked participants to un-mirror their videos as well as select gallery view. On the host side, we would change the setting for participants to follow the order of participant videos so it was the same for everyone. These settings made it possible for us to start practicing making connections, which was a bit tricky to wrap your head around at first.


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Step 1: Unmirror your video by going to Zoom Preferences, Video, and uncheck the bock for Mirror my video.



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Step 2: Set your view to Gallery by selecting the option in the upper righthand corner.