As we know from Ian Bogost’s theorization of procedural rhetoric, games can be used to launch valuable, stakes-driven rhetorical. Play can be a medium to teach students how to make meaningful arguments to specific audiences through multiple modes.
In my “Reading and Writing Board Games for Social Justice” course, students analyze and create games to learn composition skills such as argumentation, audience, stakes, and multimodal design. Students in my class have created games about complex, timely topics, including voting access, fake news, microaggressions, and intersectionality.
In this post, I present several activities from my course that engage students in analysis and recursive playtesting to launch procedural arguments. Feel free to adapt these ideas and materials for use in your own classroom!
I discuss three activities: a critical analysis of the game Puerto Rico, analysis and design of board game rulebooks using Canva, and a board game design project using Tabletop Simulator.
Analyzing Puerto Rico
I lead a class discussion analyzing the board game Puerto Rico after students watch a critical analysis video about the game. In class, we analyze the colonial themes in the game using multimodal analysis.
Using the above modes, I frame the discussion with the following questions:
- What dominant narratives does this game challenge and/or uphold?
- What are the stakes (i.e., why does this matter)? Who is affected? How? Why does it matter?
- How are visual, spatial, interactive, etc. elements used in this text? What is the effect? (Student responses below)
- The workers are referred to as “colonists” (linguistic mode).
- The workers are brown (visual) unpaid laborers (gestural).
- Workers in the game harvest (spatial, gestural) crops that traditionally were harvested by slaves.
- The crops are harvested on plantations (linguistic).
- What is your idea for a game that challenges the dominant narrative you have identified?
Using Canva to analyze and design rulebooks
To learn about genre, students analyze board game rulebooks (available online) to identify common conventions of games. Below, I list some of the conventions that they identified and some of the questions I assign them in small groups to analyze the genre of board game rulebooks as well as unique traits that indicate the audience, tone, and purpose of a game.
What are the common genre conventions of games?
- Consistent design theme
- Game setup
- How to win
- Number of players
- Age range
- An example turn
- Images of the game
- What are the conventions (common traits) of the genre of game rulebooks? (4-5 traits)
- Which visual design choices are effective/ineffective? (2-3 examples of each)
- What audience is this for (age, views, interests, game experience level, geographical location)? How do you know from the language and design choices?
- What is the tone of this game? Informative? Satirical? Serious? Playful? How do you know?
Students then create their own game concept and corresponding rulebook using Canva, a free online graphic design platform. They apply their multimodal design skills and genre knowledge to create their finished product. See below for the assignment prompt:
- Include an explanation of the premise or theme of the game that connects to your claim and stakes (you do not need to explicitly state your claim).
- The game should have a beginning, middle and end. In other words, setup and game components, basic rules, and how to win the game.
- Use Canva (free online) to design your rulebook. The visual design choices should communicate the claim of the game and its rules through layout, image, typography, and color choices.
The examples below illustrate students’ demonstration of genre knowledge. The first image shows an example turn and cards from the students’ game. Students identified example turns and images as important useful features of rulebooks during the genre analysis activity.
In the example below, students demonstrate genre conventions including the overview, player count, objective, age range, and table of contents.
In the following example, students demonstrate genre conventions including the overview, player count, objective, age range, and table of contents.
Using Tabletop Simulator for board game design
In the second half of the term, students work in teams of three to design their own claim-driven, evidence-supported playable board game (corresponding with the rulebook they designed in the previous activity) on Tabletop Simulator, a $20 software for playing and designing board games. I assigned the software as students’ textbook for the course.
Through playtesting (which I often liken to peer reviewing an essay), students see how their claims are taken up by players (readers). They engage in a recursive playtesting process and practice skills like making stakes-driven arguments, applying research, and using elements of design to persuade and work with genre conventions.
By watching others play and manipulate a game, students see how different iterations of their projects are received by an audience. Cards are read out loud. Pieces are moved. Players react to each other and to the game. These forms of engagement can happen in other ways through essay peer review, but they do not often happen in real time or through as many modes, and there is a layer of detachment from the audience. The applied nature of the board design assignment and opportunities to receive and respond to many rounds of playtesting feedback cultivate a rich learning experience.
The following examples are among the most successful procedural arguments made through games in this class.
The first of these two groups designed Beyond Democracy, a satirical game highlighting problems with voter suppression and accessibility. Players buy districts, steal money from their opponents, and bribe other players while intentionally preventing working class and BIPOC individuals from voting. The winner is determined by the amount of money and votes suppressed. The Beyond Democracy designers used a satirical tone in their rulebook and subverted traditional symbols of American imagery, such as Lady Liberty covering her eyes and the US Capitol Building on fire, on their game board to indicate distress and a lack of democracy.
While Beyond Democracy takes a satirical approach and targets an adult audience, another successful group tackled an equally serious topic by creating an educational board game for children about racial microaggressions. In The Troublesome Path to Wonderland, players draw situation cards and discuss positive and negative responses to observing microaggressions. Part of the design process in Tabletop Simulator, where students created, revised, and playtested the game is shown below. Example cards are shown in their rulebook in the previous section.
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions if you adapt these activities and materials. As always, good luck and have fun!
Beyond Democracy was designed by Annicette Gilliam, Pedro Rodriguez, and a student who wishes to remain anonymous. The Troublesome Path to Wonderland was designed by Estella Khieu, Nancy Le, and Rumie Lee. My gratitude goes out to these students for allowing me to share their work!
About the Author
Sara Lovett is a PhD candidate and writing instructor at The University of Washington. They design educational LARPs, teach using board games, and study equity and accessibility in higher education. She distracts herself from dissertation writing by hanging out with her two dogs, drafting Magic: The Gathering, and acting in musical theatre productions.
This piece is part of a series written by CPGS members about current thoughts, reflections, or projects in and around games and gaming in the context of college writing pedagogy. If you are a CPGS member and would like to contribute, please us via email@example.com or the CPGS Discord server.