When a team needs to tackle a difficult, complex social problem that doesn’t have a linear path to a solution, Shannon Hopkins hopes they will break out a game.

In the simulation game Mission: Possible, participants (configured as one or more teams) draw a “problem card” that assigns them an issue to work with, such as attitudes toward mental health, child poverty or global wealth inequality.

Each team also draws “resource cards” that identify the specific resources they have to address the issue -- “five cars,” for example, or “three volunteers for two days a week.” The teams then walk through prescribed steps to come up with ways to address the problem using their particular arrays of resources.

​ The game Mission: Possible allows players to learn while grappling with real-life problems. Photo by Sally Hicks

This approach helps the group practice creative problem solving, as well as teamwork, design thinking and other skills necessary for innovation, said Hopkins, the founder and creative director of Matryoshka Haus, a community of designers and entrepreneurs based in London, which created the game.

Mission: Possible is offered for $550 online and is the first of more than a dozen tools in the Matryoshka Haus Change Makers Toolkit to be widely available.

Shannon Hopkins

For Hopkins, selling a game that helps Christian and secular organizations pursue their missions is a natural combination of her many interests and varied experience. A native Texan, Hopkins has worked in fashion merchandising, planted churches and served as a contemporary ministry consultant for the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

After moving to the U.K., she launched Matryoshka Haus, which began by designing creative solutions for social problems. It now has shifted its focus to teaching others as well as incubating its own social ventures. Matryoshka Haus offerings include immersion and training experiences as well as tools and instruments to share what they’ve learned from the work they’ve done.

Hopkins spoke to Faith & Leadership about the Mission: Possible project and how the gamification of learning can help nonprofits and other organizations do their work. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Why did you create a game as a tool for teaching innovation?

2018 Traditioned Innovation Award Winner

Leadership Education at Duke Divinity recognizes institutions that act creatively in the face of challenges while remaining faithful to their mission and convictions. Winners receive $10,000 to continue their work.

To be honest, it started out as an experiment. I am a bit uncomfortable with speaking and preaching, plus I am skeptical of the impact. However, I kept getting asked to speak.

So a friend asked me what I would do if I wasn’t locked into the lecture format, and I started playing around with this concept of gamifying the information I wanted to teach.

I wanted people to be empowered to go and do something; I wanted them to learn something in a workshop that they could walk away and apply.

You see, often if I would just speak and, say, tell the story of our project The Truth Isn’t Sexy, people would hear the story and think, “Oh, I should do something on trafficking” or, “I have to create a campaign.”

But if we have people go through the process, they learn how to design for impact.

I’ve done a lot of reading on learning styles, and lecture style tends to have a much lower retention rate than learning while doing. However, in the church, we keep leaning on this old model of training that promotes speakers.

I really hadn’t done any studying on game design, but we had a student intern who was studying design and technology. He was the one that pointed out we were really making games.

A lot of my work is like that -- highly experimental. It's also experiential -- learn by doing. That means working on realistic problems that model a process that we can apply on our own projects.

So here we are working on games at a time where it is the right time; people are starting to write about games and gamification.

For me, that is one way that I know the Lord is in our work -- the timeliness of it.

Q: What mindsets does the Mission: Possible game teach, and why are they important?

One is that it really does teach people to think about the problems they’re trying to solve. I think it helps people focus on design and impact.

What are they actually trying to do? How do they think about the impact that they’re wanting to have? How do we really think about the resources we have and the resources we may need?

Secondly, it leads people through a process that is both generative and evaluative, which are both important parts of the creative process. The game helps people understand both parts of the process and work through those principles.

Q: And how do you define the difference between generative and evaluative?

In this case, to be generative is to generate a multitude of ideas as to what could be, while to be evaluative is to hold those ideas up and ask, “Would that really work?”

I think often we tend to jump into the evaluative mode and squelch an idea too early. The game aims to let people stay in the design process a bit longer; it gives permission to generate more ideas, to think outside the box.

Q: So not judging but continuing to come up with new ideas?

Yes. I heard about an advertising agency that, every time they got a new client, they’d come up with a hundred ideas. And even if they were good ideas, they would make [themselves] throw them away and start over. Because sometimes we’ve got to get enough ideas on the table till we actually can refine.

Too often, what will happen is people will say, “Well, that’s not a very good idea; that costs a lot of money,” and it doesn’t go anywhere. So how do you stay in that process of creation?

Q: How does this game fit into the function or the purpose of your larger organization?

We design creative solutions for social change. There is a limit to how many things we can do in our lifetime; our hope is that the games will take our learning and multiply our impact.

In a lot of ways, Matryoshka Haus really is an incubator. In the tech world, you’ve got incubators that are creating things like Airbnb and Uber, but where are we creating the new solutions for social transformation?

For me personally, that comes out of the faith context. What does it look like to have faith in action? What does it look like to give birth to the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven?

Q: You founded this after doing many other things, in the church world and outside it. What’s the story of your faith journey?

My faith in Jesus really moves me to act in the world. I grew up in and out of church, but I had a really incredible discipler when I was in high school. So, for example, I read Bonhoeffer at 16. I really felt like I had a calling on my life.

I went to university, and it was the first time that I saw that most Christians I encountered … were in a “holy huddle.” The people that I saw transforming cities and university campuses were not people who were hanging out in the Christian clubs.

So I ended up going into business. And then in ’97, I sold everything that I owned and moved back to this very small town of Kerrville, Texas, and ended up planting a church called the Soul Cafe to reach young adults. And we were incredibly successful.

From there, the Baptist General Convention of Texas hired me, because I had this idea about bringing together people to reach people in a different way.

During South by Southwest, I met a whole bunch of Brits, and I never thought I’d move to the U.K., but I came on a traveling kind of sabbatical, looking at what was God doing in Europe, and what could I learn.

Through a series of events, I ended up moving here. I’m now connected to the Church of England through their [Pioneer Ministry]. I’m a recognized lay leader with the Church of England, and we’ve been written up through Fresh Expressions in the U.K. on best practices for reaching young adults.

I am also working now with the Methodists in the U.K., and in the United States with Baptists and Methodists.

Q: Is Matryoshka Haus a faith-based organization?

We have seminary graduates, vicars and people who have never been to church, and everyone else in between. We’re not all people of faith. We have people of faith. We have secular Christians; we have secular Muslims.

We have a community that’s exploring what it means to be human and what it means to live meaningful lives and what it means to make a difference in the world.

But then there’s this organization that has grown over time.

I started doing projects because I realized if you start a church, you get people that are very close to already coming to a church. They have some familiarity with church, and then you start a church, and then three years down the line it tends to look like any other church. You tend to do services and programs.

And I think that we can’t give birth to something new when we use that approach.

Q: What was the model, then?

We think of this as an incubator-innovator. That's who we are, in our organic nature as Matryoshka Haus. But there are different aspects of how we carry out innovation, and that's our organizational model.

Part of how we organize ourselves is about multiplying our impact through sharing the learning and training. Another part is this missional community of personal connections that exists around our organization, supporting and encouraging each other as we live life together. The third part of our organization is to continue to experiment and create social ventures, both projects and enterprises.

It’s sort of a three-prong way of being for innovating social change that interweaves educational, relational, and experiential -- that’s the model that unfolded.

[At the beginning] we started doing projects, and around our projects, we started growing a community. From 2004 to 2012, we did nine big projects like The Truth Isn’t Sexy, addressing the demand side of human trafficking; and The Transformational Index, for measuring the impact of social enterprises.

I really believed that if we did the very best work of the kingdom, then we would become sustainable and people would be very drawn to us.

Now, the people being very drawn to us is definitely what’s happened, and we are a relational organization, or a network, that’s full of creatives and entrepreneurs, innovators.

But the second part of what I believed -- that we would become sustainable -- actually wasn’t happening. It was amazing, but every project we did, we actually got less sustainable. But we were learning important things about innovation processes with each one.

So in 2012 we started asking, “What would it look like if we didn’t give our learning away? If we multiplied our impact through training and sharing our learning?”

So the process experience and gamified tools became part of that, and we also developed a couple of courses. We were asked to design the Missional Entrepreneurship Course for the Church of England’s Pioneer Mission Leadership Training. The other thing we did was the Learning Lab, for Americans to begin exploring what mission in a post-Christian context would look like, and how to do community and spirituality with young adults in a way that doesn’t look like church as you know it.

Q: The hope was that these would be more sustainable and more scalable?

Yes. And that it would multiply our impact. So we’ve moved away from doing more and more of our own projects, to helping train people to do the things we’ve done in the past -- replicating our processes, not just our projects.

The other thing that we’ve realized is that one of the things we suffer from is we’ve been very far ahead.

For instance, nobody was really talking about trafficking in America in 2005. So we’ve been ahead of the curve, which is a great place to innovate, but it’s a hard place to get sustainable. And the same thing with measuring impact.

We’ve had our Transformational Impact tool since 2009, and it’s just this year that people are coming to us and saying, “Now we want to talk about impact measurement.”

Q: And so where does money come from?

We’d really like a third of our funding to come from donations, a third from grants, and a third from income that’s generated through our tools and courses. Last year, 75 to 80 percent of our income came from the sale of our tools, our courses, from training, and the rest donations. We didn’t get any grants last year.

So our ideal is to have this mix of grants, donations and income generated which allows us to innovate. What the donations do is they allow us to stay on the front edge a bit and do things whether or not they’re going to bring money in.

And it just helps support our other community activity. So we’re doing some work, in partnership with another community, with refugees in Calais, for example. It helps us be able to be more generous, and exploring what we could do next and where God might be calling us.

Q: What is your current work?

We are focused on the Change Makers Toolkit. We’ve been gamifying all of our learning. We’ve built all of these games, and I think we’re in this place of, “What does it look like to train tens of thousands of young people to do mission in a more creative, innovative, sustainable, impactful way?”

This goes back to learning style issues and sustainability: Lecturing tends to add a few more speakers; teamwork games equip many more doers -- and social changers on mission are doers.

Do they really have a good idea? Have they thought critically about what they want to do? And do they have the knowledge to actually go out and do it, and do it well? How can we help them?

Americans are asking us to bring the mission entrepreneurship course that we do in the U.K. -- so we’re now going to do it with some other organizations in the States.

We are looking at launching the missional entrepreneurship course in the United States as a social impact boot camp in the spring of 2017.

So it feels like one of the things that’s growing is our work on both sides of the Atlantic, and it feels like the hunches that we’ve been following for the last couple of years are just paying off. Everything’s starting to grow and to scale.