Using Games to Explore and Experience Complicated Issues

Games and game-like activities can make the process of thought visible to players, and help them explore issues and topics that are difficult to understand except through experience and interaction. This is the theory of procedural rhetoric, which “argues that games can make strong claims about how the world works—not simply through words or visuals but through the processes they embody and models they construct.”

Here are two short web-based examples:

  • Parable of the Polygons: A Playable Post on the shape of Society – This game shows how small individual biases (conscious or no) can add up to major systemic biases. Based on the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist and game theorist, Thomas Schelling, this simulation also posits a more happy outcome if individual collectively prefer just a little more diversity around them. Nicky Case, one of the creators of this game, recently keynoted the “Now I Get It!” Game Jam, a weekend of game creation “pairing developer teams with domain experts to design & build digital experiences that create moments of insight.”
  • You Draw It: How Family Income Predicts Children’s College Chances – This New York Times article uses several game-like and interactive elements to let the readers use their existing mental models to predict how family income predicts college success. Math education luminary Dan Meyer has an excellent breakdown on why this kind of experience can be so valuable.

Commercial games can also help players explore difficult, fraught topics, like digital game Papers, Please (focusing on immigration policy and authoritarian governments) and tabletop roleplaying game Dog Eat Dog (focusing on the effects of colonialism).

At a larger, more higher ed-focused scale, Reacting to the Past is series of in-class games where students take on historically-informed roles related to significant ideological conflicts, such as Confucianism and the Succession Crisis of the Wanli Emperor, 1587, and Greenwich Village, 1913: Suffrage, Labor, and the New Woman. The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed have both written positively on this method (now more than 15 years old).

In a future post, I’ll write about a Fall 2014 UMass Amherst course where students created games that successfully helped players explore complicated issues.

Are you interested in using (or designing) games to help students explore complicated topics? Contact the Instructional Media Lab at 413-545-2823, or and we can work with you (along with our campus partners like the Center for Teaching & Faculty Development).