Using Analog Games in the College Composition Class

This week’s blog post comes from David Chandler, OCH Fellow and Assistant Professor of English at Tulsa Community College. David is currently teaching a freshman composition curriculum that uses boardgames and the experiences of playing them as the basis for understanding narrative and exposition.

In a community college classroom on an otherwise uneventful weekday night, a group of students learning about composition were planning a revolution. They took turns leading missions to strike back at the governing powers that kept them in a dystopian state of subjugation, and they suspected that some among the group were loyalists who would sabotage their operations. While the rebels try and root out the spies in their midst, the loyalists attempt to hide their agenda by spreading doubt among the ranks of the resistance, and each person makes careful notes of their opponents’ actions to determine who among them they can trust.

By the time my composition students have finished playing The Resistance, a tabletop game about hidden roles that takes between 20 to 30 minutes, they have catalogued their experience, employed social deduction to evaluate their classmates’ arguments, and created an emergent narrative. All of these elements inform foundational lessons about the writing process–from rough sketches of narrative content to practical rhetorical strategies. Indeed, the experiences my students have in playing and discussing games are among the most valuable they gain in their writing class.

Before discussing the use of games in a college classroom, I want to emphasize that I am not talking about gamification as a pedagogical tool. For advanced courses, I can see how classes built around gamified progress provide a welcome change from the standard classroom template. However, for my community college students, implementing ancillary features like experience points or roles to play could obscure their learning goals rather than elucidate them.

Indeed, I find that the classroom is always already a sort of gamified space for students. Here’s how Johann Huizinga describes the area of play in Homo Ludens:

All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the “consecrated spot” cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc, are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.

Huizinga’s description looks more specifically at sacred and performative spaces, but a classroom, safely tucked in a pocket of a larger building devoted to learning, invites comparison. My classroom has rules and expectations after all–explicit agreements of conduct regarding participation and prior reading of the current texts, to name a couple.

In The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, Bernard Suits coins the term “lusory attitude” to describe the psychological state a player must cultivate before they can play a game. Essentially, a game needs not only rules, but also “the acceptance of constitutive rules so the activity made possible by such acceptance can occur” (emphasis mine). A classroom makes similar demands of students: they must be game to learn before learning can begin.

So, with the classroom itself always already gamified, I encourage my students to approach games as texts to be read as well as played. In the example above, students played The Resistance after reading selections of dystopian fiction: Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas.” They compared the two stories with the narrative that unfolded as accusations of betrayal and paranoia flew around the room, each student finding ways to argue for their innocence or build their cases against others at the table. Then, after a discussion about the differences between simulating a dystopia and reading one, they write about how these different texts operate in terms of tone, audience, style, action–all the hallmarks of writing freshman identify in rhetorical analysis.

Recently, I’ve expanded this format by bringing several games from my own collection to have a sort of board game cafe day in class. Students roll dice, play cards, and lay tiles in games such as King of Tokyo, Exploding Kittens, and Tsuro, after which we talk about their experiences. Within minutes, students explain how rolling dice simulates chaos as giant monsters destroy a city, how placing cards in a deck sets up ridiculous traps for their opponents, how moving a stone across a path is an exercise in abstract meditation. These exercises build critical thinking skills to interpret games as more than just fun diversions, though they are certainly that. Games become engines of social interaction to be tinkered with and interpreted.

The trick, of course, is to tie this into the requirements of writing, and while there is certainly no shortage of skepticism of organizing courses around specific themes, in my experience critical readers become critical writers. When students articulate strategic choices in a game while delving into how its mechanics communicate a theme, they do the work of blending active learning with analysis that they then organize into an essay. Colleges across the country put so much emphasis on the need for critical thinking; perhaps it’s time to emphasize critical playing as well.