Teaching Anthropology of/through Games, Part 2

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  • posted byKrista Harper
  • dateSeptember 17, 2015
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CategoryMain Story

By Krista Harper with Sam Anderson

In my last blog post, I described my recent course on “Anthropology of/through Games.” Students in the class played, analyzed, and designed games related to anthropological concepts, and they also used ethnographic techniques such as participant observation and interviews to understand participants’ experiences of games. In this post, I take a closer look at game-based pedagogy in theory and practice.

Games4What do students learn from games and game design that they could not have learned from more traditional assignments? Russell Francis delineates a four-part model for successful games-based pedagogy: situated practice, critical framing and analysis, overt discussion, and practical production or design. Situated practice of games—especially role-playing games—provides students with “embodied empathy” and perspective-taking. These are important critical thinking skills, as is game analysis so that students begin to see how game designers represent or misrepresent people and events. Annika Waern writes of game analysis as a “signature pedagogy” and a critical media skill. Overt discussion of games ensures that the immersive play aspect of games does not devolve into “edutainment.” Finally, when students produce their own games, they re-apply theories and learn firsthand about the decisions designers make when representing a cultural phenomenon or historical event in a game.

In my course, all of us gained greater critical awareness of games, elementary design skills, and anthropological insights—the stated goals of the course. But we also acquired a new lens on our own creativity and self-awareness as learners. In the words of one student:

The game design process worked great for us as an approach to analyzing an article. We could actually express our interpretation in a way that users would experience and feel, rather than just read and imagine. Games are a great vehicle for affective learning.

Many students were excited by the challenge of identifying a central conceptual problem and pairing it with an appropriate mechanic so that players could learn anthropological concepts through the gameplay. One student reflected on her learning through the game design assignment:

I enjoyed this form of analysis more than an essay because it made me think more fundamentally about how to let another person experience and understand a concept. In essays, I have to express my own understanding, but in this case I had the opportunity to construct and guide someone else’s. This felt much more freeing and interesting to me, since I know how I think, but I had to try to open up my brainstorming to create a mechanism that could contain many different thought processes and still provide an opportunity to understand the concepts.

These students’ comments sum up something I grasped intuitively: games are a powerful experiential and empathetic medium for learning.

“Anthropology of/through Games” was limited by a number of constraints. As an experimental 1-credit course, I was given complete freedom—but the course only met for one 50-minute session a week. In my daydreams when planning the course, I pictured us playing longer-format games followed by game-analysis discussions linked to readings. Time constraints meant that we played only one longer-format game (Yams!) in class, and many more in-depth texts had to be flagged in brief mini-lectures or shunted off to a “further reading” list.

When I teach the course again as a full-scale course, I will allocate more time to playing and discussing games. My ability to be flexible and take chances was possible because the first iteration of the course was a small seminar with 10 students. Splitting a larger class into team-based learning groups could facilitate playing a wider variety of games. I would pair popular tabletop board games like “Settlers of Catan” with anthropological readings on settler colonialism and primitive accumulation. After playing the game by the rules, we would discuss whether it is possible (in the words of game designer Bruno Faidutti) to “decolonize Catan.” We could try out the game Eramat which was developed as a culturally appropriate research tool for eliciting East African pastoralists’ views on climate change and drought conditions. More and more tabletop and online role-playing games (RPGs) explore themes related to the social sciences and policy. Spent requires players to sustain their families for a month on minimum wage without going into debt, and Papers Please treats issues of immigration and national borders.

Scaling up and finding ways to integrate games into larger classes is the next challenge. Anthropologists have used the World of 100 People game in large lecture classes. Michael Wesch at Kansas State integrates a large World Simulation role-playing game (RPG) in his intro courses. Wesch’s game is based on Buckminster Fuller’s World Game and he frames the semester-length exercise in terms of the debate surrounding Jared Diamond’s account of “Yali’s Question”—how did the global North come to colonize and dominate the global system?—and Diamond’s anthropological interlocutors.

Expanding the game design component of the course is another challenge. In the next iteration, I will set aside a dedicated game design lab time for students to work on their team projects. Universities can facilitate innovative game- and design-based pedagogies by offering space and support. I have benefitted from consulting dynamic librarians and instructional technology staff who helped me develop this course and who have helped me train students in technologies for team-based work such as Google Apps. My colleague Sam Anderson, for example, inspired me to develop this course and offered support for the game design elements of the course throughout the semester. My institution (UMass Amherst) has wonderful resources, including team-based learning classrooms and the W.E.B. Du Bois Library’s new Digital Media Lab, with media production and 3D printing facilities that could be put to use in game design and prototyping.

The rewards of game-based teaching and learning are many. Each class session of “Anthropology of/through Games” brought a sense of anticipation, excitement, and surprise. Although I had no experience in teaching game design before this course, I plan to integrate more game- and design-based assignments in my anthropology classes in the future. My question is no longer, “Can I teach complex concepts through games?” but “How can I scale up teaching anthropology through games so that I can share this experience with more of my students?”

About the Author

When not playing tabletop games, Krista Harper is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Harper has conducted fieldwork in Hungary, Portugal, and the United States, and she writes about urban environmental mobilizations, shared public spaces, and participatory visual and digital research methods. Her blog is blogs.umass.edu/harper, and she is on Twitter @kristamharper.

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