Teaching Tips | March 27, 2017

Serious play: Games in the classroom

Last Tuesday, we had a lively discussion of play in pedagogy with a diverse panel representing the fields of linguistics (Lauren Spradlin), English (Jeff Allred), the Library (Iris Finkel), and the video game production (Leah Potter). In what follows, I want to sum up some of the major themes we covered and provide links to some of the fascinating projects we learned about.

We began with Leah’s overview of games and pedagogy. Leah, a historian by training, drew from her experiences at CUNY’s American Social History Project and Electric Funstuff, where she is part of an award-winning team that produces a range of pedagogical games. Leah emphasized the challenges inherent in designing effective learning games, using Mission U.S. as a reference point, for example, the ethical problem of grappling with real historical violence and struggle in ludic spaces; and the narrative problem of representing often brutally confining social structures in the past (e.g., slavery) within a frame of user-driven choice.

Next we heard about two pedagogical games designed by Hunter faculty. Iris Finkel (Library) shared her “Atlanta Compromise” game, a role-playing game inspired by the Reacting to the Past games created at Barnard by historian Mark Carnes. In Iris’s game, students learn about African-American educator and activist Booker T. Washington’s famous speech at the 1895 Atlanta Exhibition by playing various roles and writing short texts from the perspective of their characters on the basis of original research.

In similar fashion, Jeff Allred presented Mantrap, a role-playing game based on the Ivanhoe concept developed by scholars at UVA in the 1990s recently turned into a WordPress plugin by UVAs Scholars’ Lab. Mantrap has students “play” Herman Melville’s novella, Billy Budd, by assuming roles in and around the text, ranging from Melville himself, to the characters in the text to “paratexual” figures such as editors, reviewers, and adapters of the text after its publication. Jeff emphasized the way the gameplay reworks traditional literary critical skills such as “close reading” and research into critical and historical sources, as students perform, in effect, an analysis of the text that also illuminates its “reception history,” the ways it has been read since its composition and publication.

Finally, linguist Lauren Spradlin regaled the audience with a series of linguistics games. In the spirit of what James Lang calls “small teaching,” Lauren has hacked familiar games, from Bingo to Bananagrams to Jeopardy!, to teach fundamental skills in her discipline, from morphology to IPA notation. The games are designed to punctuate the class hour with fun (if intense) bouts of practice that can be calibrated to challenge anyone from novices to advanced graduate students. A charming measure of success: Lauren recently offered to host a “game night” for students and consistently attracted a large group to play her games from 8-10 p.m. one night per week.

The takehome message from the panel that “play” should not be contrasted to the “serious work” of teaching and learning. The best teaching should incorporate the spirit of exploration and creative quick thinking that games demand, and constructing and conducting games in the classroom can enhance the traditional disciplinary work we do.

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