Teaching with Board Games

By Sara Lovett


Four graduate students set up for the board game workshop.

On April 5, the UW Libraries and CIC co-sponsored an event on teaching with board games. The libraries have six board games (Risk, Betrayal at the House on the Hill, Settlers of Catan, Pandemic, Dominion, and The Resistance) available for check-out as part of a pilot program. At our event, participants rotated through stations and each learned about three of the six games and brainstormed how they might use these games as part of their teaching. In this post, I will recap overall takeaways and present specific ideas related to three of the six games.

Takeaways

  • Games are ideologically-rich, and they are an excellent site for critical analysis. Dominion and Settlers of Catan, for example, replicate a settler-colonialism narrative whereas Pandemic offers up a narrative of consent and transnational, interdisciplinary collaboration.
  • One attendee, Dorian, drew upon scholarship from comic studies to point out that games are easier to analyze than books or movies because of distance from the material.
  • Though it is not usually possible for all students to play a game at the same time, we came up with several solutions: 1) students can check out and play the game as homework, a task that would also orient them to the library’s space reservation and course reserves systems, 2) instructors can use a “fishbowl” structure, in which students alternate between playing the game and analyzing play while observing their peers, writing reflections and engaging in discussions on both experiences 3) students can use free online clients such as Dominion Online (https://dominion.games/) to play some games, and 4) for some of the games, instructors can request additional copies via interlibrary loan.
  • Games offer a site for students to engage with multiple modes (e.g. tactile, visual, spatial) and reflect on the literacy skills they used to learn and play the game.

Betrayal at the House on the Hill and Genre

Betrayal at the House on the Hill board game tiles and character pawns

Betrayal at the House on the Hill (click the link for a playthrough video from Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop series) is a narrative game in which players explore a house. Players explore a house by flipping over tiles and moving figures representing their characters from room to room. Characters’ traits change through items and rooms they encounter (e.g., a book might cause your character to gain knowledge). Though players begin on the same team, the “haunt” occurs partway through the game, and one or more players may turn traitor. The traitor(s) and the heroes (the remaining players) each read a separate set of new rules and story elements that affect the rest of gameplay. The game contains 50 haunts, so the gameplay experience varies with each new playthrough.

Betrayal lends itself to analyses of narrative construction and performance as well as genre analysis and production. As students play multiple Betrayal scenarios and/or peruse the game manual, they can take notes on the conventions of the genre of these scenarios. Then, individually or in groups, they can create their own scenario to be playtested by their peers. This activity can generate conversation on the topics of genre, uptake (i.e., do the rules in the scenario “work?” What kind of play is taken up by the playtesters?). Students could even create scenarios that teach particular course concepts (e.g., players need to construct a complex claim in order to successfully leave the house).

Pandemic and Remix

Pandemic board game board, cards, and character pawns

Pandemic is a cooperative game in which 1-4 players act as the world’s top public health specialists collaborating to stop four pandemics. We noticed as we were discussing this game that it facilitates narratives about cross-national collaboration–the players can travel easily between cities, and though there are four regions, there are no explicit borders between nations–and about consent: the dispatcher role card states that this player must gain “consent” before moving another player on the game map. This game offers opportunities for discourse analysis and remix. Specifically, we thought about how students might revise Pandemic to reflect real-world conditions such as unequal resources privileging the global North over the global South, international borders hindering collaboration, and separate research agendas and incentives for each player (think culture jamming for the classroom).

Dominion and Visual Analysis

Dominion board game cards

Dominion is a deck-builder (i.e., a game in which each player acquires, draws, and plays cards throughout the game). The rules of the game are simple: players play cards, take actions (denoted on individual cards), and buy cards.

We spent most of our time at this table discussing the theme, which is best summarized by the game’s creator, Donald X. Vaccarino:

You are a monarch, like your parents before you, a ruler of a small pleasant kingdom of rivers and evergreens. Unlike your parents, however, you have hopes and dreams! You want a bigger and more pleasant kingdom, with more rivers and a wider variety of trees. You want a Dominion! In all directions lie fiefs, freeholds, and feodums. All are small bits of land, controlled by petty lords and verging on anarchy. You will bring civilization to these people, uniting them under your banner.

But wait! It must be something in the air; several other monarchs have had the exact same idea. You must race to get as much of the unclaimed land as possible, fending them off along the way. To do this you will hire minions, construct buildings, spruce up your castle, and fill the coffers of your treasury. Your parents wouldn’t be proud, but your grandparents, on your mother’s side, would be delighted (Dominion game manual).

There is much to analyze in the opening text alone, and the cards offer even more material to unpack. We noticed, for instance, that most of the cards are gendered and raced in ways that uphold stereotypes. We wondered how the game itself would change if the images on the cards were replaced and nothing else were changed. Students could undergo this project as part of a visual analysis or a word inquiry project, investigating the origins of words like “witch” and “bureaucrat” and interrogating the relationship between card names, images, and game mechanics.

Playtesting the Curriculum

Certainly, there are many more ways to use these games in the classroom. What are your ideas? Feel free to share in the comments or at our next event on May 3rd, which will build upon the first. Participants will “playtest” a curriculum that I am developing based on the insights from the first event. I hope to see you there!

Acknowledgements: Thank you to the attendees of this event for collectively generating knowledge. I am especially grateful to Elliott Stevens for his continued support in facilitating this partnership with the libraries and to Holly Shelton and Ahmed Al Awadhi for serving as roundtable leaders (as well as photographers and editors).

Translation Apps and Pedagogy in Writing Classroom

Co-written by Gust Burns, Kevin deVoss, Katie King, Sumyat Thu

Rise of Translation Apps in Education

At the Praxis 2018 conference, Gust Burns, Kevin deVoss, and Katie King facilitated a roundtable discussion based on their research on the implications of the rise of using translation apps in higher education. Burns discussed a Marxist critique of machine translation app like Stepes. In 2015, the multinational localization company CSOFT debuted Stepes, the first on-demand and just-in-time human translation platform.  Self-described as the “Uber of translation,” the platform contracts individual bilinguals to translate texts on-demand for business customers. As the Stepes website puts it: “By seamlessly connecting businesses and individuals with the world’s linguists through our on-demand translation eco-system, we help break down language barriers between businesses and their customers, and among nations and people.” In Burns’ words, we can understand the mechanics of Stepes, along with both machine translation in general, by thinking with Marx in the Grundrisse, about machines, as manifestations of fixed capital that function not to “transmit the worker’s activity to the object,” as we normally think about labor in early industrial and even Fordist production, but rather so that “the machine’s work, the machine’s action” is maintained and supplemented by the human activity, the latter which becomes “a mere living accessory of this machinery” (692, 693). In other words, as human activity becomes subservient to the active determining functionality of machinery, human capacity is increasingly inseparable from its position within machines, it becomes fully subsumed, in a real way, under capital.

In deVoss’s work on computer-assisted language learning (CALL), he mentions much of pedagogical literature on CALL seems to focus on questions of  “best practices,” and ways to implement particular tech products into the classroom. But deVoss points out that what is missing is sufficient critical inquiry into these products, and of the ideological assumptions behind them as they spread into the wider academic ecology. Tech commodification has certainly touched postsecondary English language education significantly. For instance, Duolingo, which is probably the most popular language learning application currently on the market, has already set up English placement testing services within a lot of well-known universities. Many of the most popular massive open online courses (or MOOCs) through for-profit services like Coursera and edX, and who sponsor coursework at many American universities, have developed a lot of English language learning content both domestically and internationally.

Using discourse analysis methods, deVoss looked at media statements made by the creators of these kinds of tech-ed companies and found that the word “disruption” kept recurring with regard to the higher education system. “Disruption” is a kind of loosely-defined buzzword within Silicon Valley and associated with a variety of meanings, including: “innovation,” “marketization,” and even “destruction.” Of course, in these accounts, tech-ed industry figures unanimously viewed disruption as a necessary, positive project for the higher education system. But deVoss also finds that the “disruption” of English language education in higher ed was associated with a lot of troubling trends, including: the introduction of more student fees, higher course costs, low course completion rates, and disinvestment in faculty and academic student employment and compensation.

Google translate: Youtube or Vimeo?

In King’s research on Google Translate as a tool for literary translation, she argues that the process for “training” an AI algorithm is not only something we humanists can understand but also should understand, and teach. A machine translation tool is just that, a tool that has been created by human beings, and not all the available tools perform equally.  Google Translate not only did not perform well translating a complex literary paragraph from Spanish into English, it also did not learn from King’s feedback over time. But King found other researchers in Europe who have experimented with building their machine translation tool specifically trained to translate literature between French, German and English. Their results were limited but much better. King’s advice to researchers and instructors is to inform themselves for the benefit of their own knowledge about these evolving tools, and to introduce to their students the concept that they must check the results of translation tools carefully.

Translation Pedagogy in Writing Classroom

While teachers should be aware of the possible downsides of using translation technology as part of their pedagogy, encouraging multilingual students to use their human translation capacity has been found to be a helpful writing pedagogy. For example, Eun-Young Kim, an English language and second-language writing scholar at Southwestern Adventist University, asks her Korean and English speaking multilingual students to do translation exercises in order to raise students’ metacognitive awareness about how they write and things they may have missed in their writing process. In the first exercise, students were asked to read the final versions of their English essay writing and translate their own writing into Korean. Kim emphasizes that they should translate their writing as if it had been written by someone else. After finishing the translation, the students were asked to hand in a written response describing what they felt and learnt while translating their own writing into Korean.

Some students reflect:

“After I translated my writing into Korean, I discovered a lot of mistakes. There were many unconnected sentences. I think translating our own writing into Korean is important in order to measure our true writing skill.”

“Before I translated my writing into Korea, I had thought that my writing was pretty good. But when I tried to translate it, I was surprised that my expression was inadequate and the content was insufficient. Some of my sentences were not exactly what I meant.”

“I had to revise my writing four times while I was translating. Some sentences are smoothly connected, but others were a little too forced. I also realized that I missed some details because I was concentrating on my English. I like my introduction better this time. I could discover my mistakes more easily when I translated my composition into Korean.” (Please see the rest of the quoted students’ reflections on the article here).

It’s a great result for students’ self-assessment through translation that students are reporting they could have had better sentence transitions, logical connections, and more details in the writing. This level of self-assessment seems to engage students in a process of possible substantial revision  that goes beyond merely checking for lower-order concerns such as conforming to Standard Edited English grammar or mechanics.

In the second exercise, Kim asks her students to work with a peer partner and translate their partner’s English essay into Korean. Students were then asked to respond to their partner’s translation to see how accurate the translated essay was. Some students respond:

“I was very much afraid if my composition would clearly deliver my message to my partner. When I read my partner’s translation of my composition, I found out that she understood my composition differently from what I meant in the writing. I feel that my English was unclear; that’s why my partner didn’t understand it correctly …”

“The translated text is not what I meant. I wish my partner had translated my writing better. Professor [addressing me], I added some words to the translation in order to make my meaning complete. I think this [miscommunication] is because my composition is not clear.”

Though the second exercise is more complicated with the possible room for misreading and misinterpretation by a peer-partner, both of the exercises indicate that when multilingual students engage in translation between their languages, it heightens their rhetorical awareness and self-assessment ability to more clearly see where the students might have fallen short in composing their text and the different choices they can make because of this awareness. Multilingual students might also begin to critically reflect on cultural rhetorics and contexts behind using a particular language which might help them become sharper language users and writers.

Works Consulted:

Eun-Young Kim, “Using translation exercises in the communicative EFL writing classroom,” ELT Journal, Volume 65, Issue 2, April 2011, Pages 154–160.

New CIC AD Introduction

Hello! I’m Sara Lovett, the new CIC/182 AD starting this quarter and continuing through next winter. Sumyat has completed her term as the CIC AD, and she is teaching this quarter, so you can contact me with any 182/CIC concerns.

Any class can be multimodal and/or make use of technology, so even if you’re not teaching in a CIC classroom this quarter, please get in touch if you’d like to talk about how to engage with multimodality through your teaching. I am also now your primary contact (slovett@uw.edu) if you would like to reserve a CIC classroom.

My own interest in multimodality is rooted in in game studies and my experience as a board gamer. I’m the Graduate Representative for the Council for Play and Gaming Studies, a cross-institutional group of writing instructors who research and teach through and about games. I’m more than happy to talk about teaching with games. In fact, EWP and the UW Libraries are running a workshop on Friday, April 5 in Red C in the Research Commons (Allen Library) to discuss how to teach using the board games that the library has on reserve. Don’t let this shameless plug be go to waste–come talk about games with us on Friday!

In addition to game studies, I focus on the role of access, social justice, and civic engagement in writing education through the lens of antiracist pedagogy. I’m happy to talk about any of those topics too if they are of interest to you.

Keep an eye on this blog; I’ll be posting periodically throughout my time as the CIC AD. In the meantime, reach out–I always love talking about teaching!