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Board with education: Learning through games

Kyle Ott By Kyle Ott Published on June 24, 2016
This article was updated on July 5, 2016
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Image via Hubert Figuière

Board games are often relegated to a cupboard only to be dragged out in case of power cut or family social emergency. When you make board games, though, they come up in conversation all the time, and invariably draw the same responses. People usually ask what my job entails, or exclaim something about how much fun it must be before the conversation turns to the weather, beer, the local sports teams, or local weather beer. 

While making games is incredibly fun it's a challenging proposition at times. In an increasingly digital age, convincing people about the value of something that exists on cardboard is an uphill battle, while convincing people that board games can teach us something about others and ourselves can be downright impossible... but they can.

Squirrelled away between decks of cards and hidden under dice is a lot of potential. It's this potential that made me want to make games in the first place. When I played them as an RA, I watched residents come out of their shell and make friends over poker. When I first played them, I found myself racking my brain and developing a tenacity that only comes after long hours of getting the crap kicked out of you. In the classroom, I watched students use games to open up new worlds.

For two years, Dr. Greg Murry and I were tasked with developing games that could be used to teach students about historical concepts and get them invested in what we were teaching. As it turns out the social benefits I had always seen in games appeared in force in the classroom. In an effort to spread that knowledge (and a healthy appreciation for games), I'd like to share with you what we discovered.

One of the key things in education is investment; a person who's truly interested in a topic is an almost unstoppable force. Interested people are the ones that burrow into the footnotes of obscure editions of Shakespeare's plays to get extra insight. Interested people are the ones that pore over old manuscripts in the library when they should be sleeping, eating, or playing Ultimate Frisbee. My point is that if you can get someone invested in a topic they'll go to untold lengths to master it. In a regular classroom this means finding a lesson or subject to draw the students in. In a classroom run by games, this meant finding a way to get the students invested for those first few turns and then letting the game work it's magic.

One of the ways we got people invested was by challenging them; for our class, the biggest challenger was Dreadnoughts and Diplomacy. Dreadnoughts was a game we designed to replicate the political climate of pre-World War I Europe. In layman's terms, we made a game in which war payed off big and peace was only attainable by trusting your opponents. It was designed to be difficult, bordering on impossible, so that students could understand just how hard it was for those countries to avert war.

After we had our lesson on World War I (which helped to put the game and it's mechanics in context) we let the class have at it. Within 45 minutes, our little “Europe” was engulfed in conflict... just in time for the end of period. To our surprise, a group of students approached us after class with a simple demand, they wanted to play it again. They were sure that now, more aware of what it took to maintain peace, they could correct the course of (board game) history and fix Europe. 

In a move that mirrored the tactics of their historical counterparts these students spent the rest of the week devising strategies and forming out-of-class alliances. When they arrived to replay the game they were confident that they could forge a lasting peace. Then, in another true-to-historical-form moment, they turned on each other once there was a shred of doubt about where loyalties had been placed.

This idea about students mirroring things that actually happened in history is something that was the most important. I like to call it “hands-on context.” Essentially, it's the idea that students are more apt to understand something that happened in history if they've done something similar while playing a game. 

It's easier to grasp the importance of a lesson when it's tangible. If you tell your average student, “Managing alliances in renaissance era Italy was a daunting task,” they'll nod their head, shrug their shoulders, and forget about it. By contrast, if you force them to choose between honouring their word and protecting a friend, or cutting out of a deal at a moment that could be potentially advantageous to them, all while said friend is watching, suddenly they get it just a little bit more.

We found the best way to get context was to treat our students like adults and force them to make hard, irreversible decisions in game. By doing this, the effects of their actions were readily apparent for them and everyone else to see. They left the game with a greater appreciation for their forefathers' struggles.

While there were a lot of moments (and almost ruined friendships) like that in our class, one sticks out to me more then the others. We were in the middle of a game we had designed called Ahead of the Curve, which was designed to simulate the distrust accompanying the French reign of terror. Students were separated into Moderates, Radicals, and Royalists at the beginning of the game, with the objective being to overthrow the radicals, or to root out the two smaller non-revolutionary factions.

Over the course of each turn, a number of players were accused and summarily executed (kicked out of the group, as much as we liked The Hunger Games we could only go so far). At this point, players were allowed to explain why they shouldn't be kicked out. This was designed to remind students of instances from the Reign of Terror in which people would testify that they were friends of the revolution. 

Over the course of one of these phases a student looked at us and said it was "real messed up" making people beg for their “lives” like that. To which I responded, “Yeah until you realise people did this for real.” His face dropped and he suddenly got the point of the whole exercise. It wasn't about winning or losing, it was about coming to an understanding of the past.

Kyle Ott is an entrepreneur and game designer who's worked for Mount St. Mary's University and is developing a new game which can be found at the50worstdates.com