Learning With Our Inner-Gamer: Using Board Games in the Social Studies Classroom

About Mike Dunn

Mike currently serves as the Director of College Counseling and Upper School History teacher at a small independent school outside of Philadelphia. He teaches courses in interest/career exploration, college essay writing, college admissions fundamentals, and African History. He is also the Principal Consultant for Mike Dunn Educational Consulting.

The idea of using games in the classroom has been a popular practice for teachers across varying disciplines for years. Board games have offered meaningful ways for teachers to easily captive students in learning experiences; scenario based games have offered teachers means to encourage students to think more deeply about topics; card games have offered pathways to logic and analytical thinking fluency. Today, accessibility to free and easy digital game platforms such as : GameSalad, Unity, and Scratch have changed the way teachers are able to use games in the classroom. They have made board, card and scenario games all but obsolete, while ripening the possibilities for classroom innovation.

When combined with game theory research, these gaming platforms offer up even more possibilities. Game theorists approach the use of games as a means to reinforce skills such as logical thinking and mathematical rules, while introducing concepts such as coding and design. When considering the engagement factor that games offer, particularly digital games, using these platforms for innovative teaching and learning seems almost too good to pass up.

While engaging and fun, digital games present many concerns. The first of which is whether students are simply enthralled in a game or if they are actually engaged in learning. Do digital games simply hook students, ultimately falling short of providing actual learning? Secondly, the question of authenticity and whether students should actually design the games must be considered. Should (and can) teachers spend weeks teaching students how to create games via these platforms? Both of these questions must be addressed thoroughly before entering the instructional gaming realm. But one overwhelmingly important question still remains: Is the use of games as an instructional strategy really worth it?

In my search to answer this simple question, I happened upon master teacher John Hunter. Hunter moves past the lure of using digital games to accomplish his goals and instead crafts a beautiful board game. Seen in this TED talk, Hunter’s game, entitled World Peace, brings 4th grade students into the deeply reflective, and often difficult to navigate, realm of international politics. He asks his young learners to engage in conversations surrounding the concepts of globalization, peace and war, collaboration, and major social issues all while in the gaming world. World Peace also uses creative role playing that requires students to reflect and make creative decisions about how to solve the issues at hand. This process elevates student learning to an even higher level as they are asked to consider their values and the role of themselves as leaders in our society.

Although I would like to say that I could structure my entire teaching strategy around using games, logistically, it is impossible. I have to meet my school’s requirements for standards, content delivery, and scope and sequence. Designing an all-inclusive curricular game would be a daunting and, legitimately, unmanageable task. But that does not mean I have left the gaming world untapped. The possibilities for creative learning through games is all too alluring for my teaching practice.

This past November, with the collaborative efforts of my colleague Chris Herman, we constructed a game called Colonization. The context of our game was simple: we wanted students to tackle the issues of international politics as they related to the colonial efforts of nations in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. We wanted students to be able to put themselves in the shoes of colonial powers and the native people they were exploiting. Although we could have delivered our content through lecture, or individualized projects, it seemed more meaningful to design the parameters of the colonial period and let students make decisions within these rules. This would give us an entire collection of ideas and choices to unpack through reflection and dialogue.

The premise of our game is that The United States has discovered a new island in the South Pacific and has taken land-grant applications from all of the states. Based on the applications, the government has granted colonial territory to four states.

We divided our class into five groups, each playing as a colonial state and one group playing as the island’s Native population. Our game board was a simple single landmass map with a grid. Each group was given a set of objectives based on resource needs, access to freshwater, and access to ports. Student groups took turns attacking and defending their territories, pursuing their objectives.

The authentic nature of the game began to take shape when students started negotiating treaties amongst themselves. Although not part of the initial game design, the addition of these treaties was indicative of the power they felt in their position as the decision makers in the learning process. These conversations also began to reshape the idea of “winning” the game. Achieving objectives became less important, while collectively coming to a compromise over what to do with territory and not eradicating the Native people emerged as crucial

After five days of play, we had to stop the game because of time constraints. At the point which we ended, student groups successfully created a series of treaties with the Native people, with two groups attempting to cooperatively achieve their objectives. Although a clear “winner” did not emerge, the intensity of the conversation and treaties that were being brokered were significant enough to end our sessions.

Although our objectives were to teach students about the intricacies of colonization, the true power of the game was much deeper. In our periods of reflection afterward, we uncovered many newly formed ideas surrounding diplomacy, developmental economics, cultural exchange, and the challenges of collaboratively achieving each team’s goal. To say that the game was a success, from a teacher’s perspective, would be an understatement.

Students walked away with countless new thoughts about the struggles of international ambassadors, the ease of which a new nation can resort to war, and the power that money holds when trying to build relations with one’s international neighbors. Again, all of this content could have been easily and effectively delivered through lecture, video, or any other non/traditional means. But the power was in the game.

By charging students with a mission and giving them the freedom to make decisions they felt were meaningful, we unlocked an incredible amount of deeper level thinking. We bypassed much of the rote knowledge delivery by basing our learning objectives on incredible high-level ideas. We then charged students to dig deeply and reflect on their values. These objectives allowed us freedom from fact-based teaching  that inspired students to learn more deeply. By following up with simple readings for information, students were able to anchor the fact-based ideas of colonization to an intricate foundation of knowledge built by the decisions they were forced to make.

Games are indeed powerful tools to have in your teaching arsenal. But they must be used with careful consideration and calculated objectives. Students can easily get lost in the worlds of Unity or Scratch, spending hours designing, coding, and playing what are fun and interesting games. But deep, meaningful learning can happen without the use of technology. We can ask our students to put away their i-devices and play games that are carefully crafted pieces of art relating directly to the deeper themes generated in our curriculum. Through these games, students will be able to reflect on their values and grapple with topics we could only hope to touch in our instruction.

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By |2016-11-01T14:38:39+00:00January 23rd, 2013|Instruction&Curriculum, Social Studies|4 Comments

About the Author:

Mike currently serves as the Director of College Counseling and Upper School History teacher at a small independent school outside of Philadelphia. He teaches courses in interest/career exploration, college essay writing, college admissions fundamentals, and African History. He is also the Principal Consultant for Mike Dunn Educational Consulting.

4 Comments

  1. Nicodemus Ford January 23, 2013 at 4:18 pm - Reply

    Great article!

  2. Rick Castorani February 9, 2013 at 8:09 pm - Reply

    The second to last paragraph perfectly exemplifies what gamification is capable of and designed to do. Congrats to you and Chris for conceptualizing and implementing such a great way for the students to learn.

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