How Homogeneity Happens

So today a friend drew my attention to this little game of Polygons. It’s cute. There are happy squares and triangles. And apathetic squares and triangles. And sad squares and triangles.

And the point is to teach us about how our “natural” inclination to hang out with people like us produces segregation. Because a triangle surrounded by squares isn’t happy, nor is a square surrounded by triangles happy. And the “easiest” way to make everybody happy appears to be to make all the squares and triangles sit next to each other.

But history – and Jim Crow – should have taught us that isn’t really a good solution. Because segregation by race, gender, creed, or sexuality never actually accomplishes the fallacy of separate-but-equal.

The game doesn’t tell us whether the triangles or the squares will end up being institutionally oppressed or whether they live in a happy geometric land where they can be separate but equal, but it does show us how we tend to congregate like with like – and how easily and simply that produces factionalism, in-groups and out-groups. Even just in terms of where we choose to live without ever really thinking about it.

And that’s worth thinking about.

Games in the Classroom

So I’ve been percolating on something about teaching games that has been bothering me for a while, and it’s been difficult to articulate precisely why it bothers me. The issue is this: whenever people talk about games in the classroom, it is almost always assumed that the games must therefore be “educational” in the most cheesy, trite, or bland sort of ways. By implication, this means that the games that enter the classroom cannot be games first and educational tools second; “education” must come first, and thereby – usually speaking – render the game less fun.

I’ve recently purchased and implemented a prime example of such a game: Lucid, a card game designed to teach fallacies. Now it has its uses – I have used it in class to greater effect than I would have been able to use worksheets or quizzes or something more conventional. But it isn’t a game that anyone outside of a classroom would pick up just to play. It’s an educational game.

But it’s also a fluke in my classroom, whether I happen to be teaching my games course or one of my other classes. I teach with games, but I also teach games – games as texts, as works of art worth study in and of themselves. I teach Settlers of Catan, Werewolves, Clue, Pandemic, Portal, and Bioshock. I use them to talk about cooperation, trust, in- and out-group psychology, tragedy of the commons, systems theory, mechanics training, and sociopolitical theory.

I was first introduced to games as education – rather than educational games – with the first Civilization in seventh grade. One of the best teachers I ever had used it to teach us about how societies were founded, expanded, succeeded, and failed. It served as a foundation for a project in which we had to establish a city in the Brazilian rainforest for 5,000 people – plan its economy, entertainment, environment, and infrastructure (and for which we were allowed to use SimCity as a test).

When I talk to people about teaching with games, it is assumed that the games must be meant as teaching tools – not that they could act as teaching tools or even be the focus of critical inquiries. I’d like to see that change. I’d like to see games come into their own as objects of value rather than being dismissed as something we do when we aren’t thinking – like movies or television. In fact, like pop culture in general. All elements of pop culture influence our society in both positive and negative ways, and all of them tell us about ourselves, whether or not we want to listen.

Unbreaking Reality

Fair warning, regular readers, that this blog is about to become inundated with class things. The reason for this is that this semester (and next) I’m teaching a course called Games, Game Theory, and Leadership Studies, and that means that pretty much everything my students and I do in class is going to be relevant and fair game.

That said, as part of course prep I’m rereading Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken and thinking back on yesterday’s first class. McGonigal not only suggests that “Reality is broken,” but that we have the capacity to use games to fix it. I think she’s right, and I’m going to use my lovely students to guinea-pig that theory, since it’s very rapidly becoming their reality that needs the most fixing.

Today I read a post by Ernest Adams that talks about how gaming demographics are changing, becoming older, more female, more minority. How the industry needs to accommodate the fact that many of their gamers aren’t young, straight, white men. And – more importantly – how the young, straight, white men need to stop screaming about how their games are going to be RUINED by the infiltration of female gamers, gamers of color, and gay gamers. How that screaming demographic is actually the demographic we should be ignoring, not catering to. My class gives me hope that such a future will come to pass.

My class is, I have to admit, more than 50% male. They are all freshmen. But I do have a strong contingent of women who jumped right in and got going yesterday without even the slightest hesitation, unconcerned and unintimidated by their male peers. And I have a good percentage of my male students who are not white. (I have not asked them their sexual preferences because that information is irrelevant to me as their professor, although it might be interesting from a sociological perspective, and I’m not going to.)

By their very nature, they are all probably gamers of one sort or another. Maybe mobile gamers, maybe casual gamers, some videogamers, possibly some board or D&D gamers, but you don’t sign up for a games course if you aren’t at least a little bit of a gamer. I was, however, surprised that when I poured a pile of dice in front of them, they didn’t even blink before they started talking about possible win conditions, ways to add different mechanics (guessing, math skills, rolling, matching colors or types of dice, etc.) and what their game’s goal was going to be: one group even created a game designed to teach algebra.

They did this for 30 minutes. In 30 minutes a room full of freshmen who didn’t know me or each other before they walked in and sat down collaborated with one another to make games. And that’s why I have hope that McGonigal is right that games can bring us together and Adams is right that the trolls in the wings are shifting ever more to the margins. That we can become a gaming society in the same way that our parents were a television society. And that a gaming society can come together as a community rather than rip itself apart with hatred, bigotry, and verbal assault. We have a long way to go, but it seems to me that the next generation of gamers is already trying to unbreak reality.

Rescue Me!

Today’s classroom game brought to you by my Critical Thinking and Methods of Inquiry class, with whom I will be conducting more trials of games in the classroom. Last week we played a disaster-simulation game with two decks of cards as a means of discussing how human error can impact the success or failure of a system. I found it on a classroom game wiki here.

The game plays as follows. One group – the larger group – plays the role of the victims, the other, the rescuers. With some experimentation, we learned that two or three rescuers out of twenty is about the right ratio for a good, high-stress game situation. The victim group is each dealt a card. They can keep the card or just remember it. They then go stand in the middle of the room. Every 30 seconds or so, I flip over a different card from the victim deck and call out the suit on the card. Victims matching that suit have to sit (if standing) or “die” (if sitting). Victims can be rescued while sitting or standing.

The rescuers have their own deck of cards. They have to match the number (but not the suit) of the victims. They can carry three cards at a time. They can ask about those numbers only. The victims can only answer “yes” or “no.” Once a rescuer has used a card, it is discarded. They may also choose to discard cards. Discarded cards cannot be brought back into play.

The goal, of course, is to rescue all the victims. You can put a time limit on it, if you wish. If you have more than one group, the goal can be altered so that each group’s goal is to rescue more victims than the others. We went through the game two or three times per class.

The first time, the rescuers are not given the opportunity to consult about their strategy. The second (or third) time, they can.

Interestingly, we discovered that the rescuers who didn’t consult were actually overall more successful than their thoughtful friends. Why? Systems theory. People make mistakes. They don’t think of potential consequences. They forget rules. For instance, one of our rescuer groups flipped through their deck until they each had different numbers, then rushed about trying to save victims. The problem with this strategy is that they were discarding duplicate numbers… but some of the victims had duplicates (because there are four of each number in the deck). This meant that the rescuers actually cycled through their deck before they successfully managed to rescue all the victims.

We did learn, though, that a triage-style approach seemed to work best – aim for the people sitting on the floor first, then go to those who are standing. But it was also important that the rescuers not focus only on the sitters… because of the chance that I would seat and then kill the other victims (or that they would miss those numbers, like the over-planning rescuers) before they got there.

We also discovered that chance plays a huge role in success or failure. One group lost because the first two cards I flipped were clubs, so all the victims with clubs “died” almost instantly. No matter how quickly the rescuers had worked, they would not have been able to save those victims. Success and failure don’t always rely on the human factor – or on leadership. In a couple of instances, the rescuers had a clear leader. In one of them (the one with the most thought-out plan), this was actually a bad thing. In the other, the rescuers were successful because their leader was making good snap decisions instead of adhering to a flawed plan.

There was very little that was terribly shocking about the process, although I was a little surprised to note that – in this case, anyway – instinct proved better than forethought. Since we only played through five times, though, I imagine that might be a bit misleading.

But the part my students liked the best was tweaking the game itself. They wanted to try it with more frequent “kill” cards, with less time, with fewer rescuers. In fact, every modification they made was to make the game harder, not easier. And that told me something very important about games… and about learning. Students – and, I think, most people – actually want to be challenged. We might not say so, we might not even think so, but ultimately we thrive under challenging conditions. We do our best work when it matters, not when we have all the time in the world and no consequences.

This isn’t a new revelation. Jane McGonigal makes the same argument in Reality is Broken. Our lives, as they exist day-to-day, are often mundane and monotonous. They aren’t interesting, they don’t challenge us, and the work we do doesn’t matter in a real, tangible, visible way. In games, choices matter, and we can see our progress clearly in the advancement of the game – or we can see why we aren’t progressing, make the necessary corrections, and then succeed. It’s one of the reasons that gamification has become increasingly popular – because it shows us that we aren’t just beating our heads against the proverbial walls, that what we do matters (even if only in achievement points), and it makes us feel good about overcoming a challenge, however small. Because the little things matter.