Table-top games and learning

card from phylo

Card from Phylo

Yesterday, Albion’s trendiest librarian, Megan O’Neill Kudzia, let me know that a series of table-top games I had suggested ordering had arrived as part of her Games For Learning project.  I am writing this post to lay out some ways I think such games might be useful for us as teachers.  The term “tabletop game” was coined to distinguish what used to be ordinary games from video or computer games. Table-top games can be board games, card games, or games played with just scratch paper and maybe some dice.  Using and even designing such games for a college class is a lot easier than using or designing computer and video games. And the games themselves can be useful in lots of ways.

  1. The game itself teaches our students.  This is the first thing that comes to mind when people think of games in the classroom, but it’s actually very rare to find a game that matches the learning outcomes of a particular class at the level of complexity appropriate for college. Among the games that arrived at the library yesterday, only Dominant Species might come close.
  2. Thinking about or modifying the game teaches our students.  There are many games that while they may themselves teach only fairly simple things are nonetheless based on complex and teachable concepts.  Asking students to think or write about how a game tries and/or fails to model reality can be a useful assignment. Asking them to modify a game to fit a slightly different setting can also force them to confront more complex concepts. For example, adapting a simple card game like Phylo to our local environment might help students think about biodiversity and the regional nature of ecosystems.
  3. The game mechanic can be re-used to teach specific concepts. Even if a game has absolutely nothing to do with one’s subject matter, it’s possible that what is often called the “game mechanic” (the set of rules and the elements of play) could serve as the basis for a game that you could design to teach your students. For example, I once robbed the game mechanic from 221B Baker St., a old Sherlock Holmes mystery game, to create a game set in sixteenth-century London and designed to teach some cultural history.
  4. The game can be a tool for service learning.  If a game teaches concepts but at a very rudimentary level, it could still be useful as a tool for our students if they are bringing their subject matter into local elementary schools.

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