by Stewart Woods
G'Day! My name is Stewart Woods and I'm an Australian academic who studies board and table games. Mary has asked me to write a little for Games for Educators so I thought I’d take this first article as an opportunity to talk about how it is I find myself in this particular role, and what it is that drives my interests. This will at least go some way to explaining why I am so passionate about games and the importance of getting young people involved with non-digital play.
In 2002, I found myself in the fortunate position of being able to pursue research in the then-burgeoning academic field of game studies. At the time I was fascinated by the ability of computer-based games to simulate complex systems. Games such as Maxis’ Sim series and the various ‘Tycoon’ games appeared to me to be an ideal environment for young people to explore the way in which our society functions and to learn about the various issues involved with living in a complex and rapidly changing culture.
Of course, good constructivists had been using simulation as a teaching method for a long while, drawing on the notion that students actively involved in creating their own understandings of the world through experimentation would be better equipped than those who learned by old-fashioned rote methods. However, given the exponential growth of computing horsepower and the popular uptake of computer games in the mainstream, I felt that the potential for computer based simulation as a form of education appeared virtually unlimited. So, with notepad in hand, I set out to research anything I could on the topic of games and simulations. Fortunately for me, I came across a small problem.
You see, what with the field of game studies being relatively young, my first trip to the University library turned up very little about the relationship between digital games and simulations. What I accidentally discovered however, were a number of dusty old tomes from the 1970s that changed the way I look at all types of games, whether in an educational context or not.
Allow me to give you an example of what it was that struck me so forcefully:
gaming is a future's language, a new form of communication emerging suddenly and with great impact across many lands and in many problem situations. This new communication form represents the first effort by man to formulate a language which is oriented to the future. This future will in all certainty differ dramatically from the past, and the languages which have passed to us from antiquity will no longer suffice.
Pretty powerful stuff!
Perhaps surprisingly, sociologist Dick Duke wrote these words in 1974. Ten years earlier Duke had created a game called Metropolis for the City Council of Lansing, Michigan. The game dealt with issues of resource allocation in the area and was designed to enable planning students to ‘think through’ some of the problems associated with managing a complex urban environment. In one sense it was a direct pre-cursor to computer simulation games like Sim City. Yet in another, it was the antithesis of this type of solitary play in that there were multiple players who were asked to assume specific roles such as that of a land developer, mayor or head of a citizen’s group. Metropolis was very much a social game. So whilst the information available to players formed a part of the game, the genuine learning occurred in a very experiential way that was intimately linked to the communication between players. It was the intersection of the player’s perspectives that was the real ‘meat’ of the game.
As I read more about the early days of simulation games, I came across the field of Social Simulations – games that were designed to evoke in players a particular feeling that reflected how ‘players’ in the real world might experience a particular social system. Some great examples such as Thiagarajan and Steinwach’s Barnga and R. Garry Shirt’s Starpower took this idea further, to explore ideas such as the structure of power and cross-cultural misunderstandings (Both of these games are still available and well worth trying out with older children). What I found so fascinating about these examples was that once again it was the interaction between players, and not the rather abstract content of the game itself, which was the source of learning.
The writing of Duke and others in the field (well before the rise of computer games) changed the way I view games. I became far less interested in the content of games than in the way that the form of a game encouraged interaction and communication. For the most part I stopped looking at the games themselves and began to focus on what was going on between players – particularly in the form of the metagame.
Described by Magic: The Gathering designer Richard Garfield as “how a game interfaces with life”, the metagame is the term for the intersection of everyday reality with the pretence of the game world. The metagame isn’t a designed part of the game; nevertheless it is an important part of how players experience the meaning of a particular play session. To quote Garfield further:
A particular game, played with the exact same rules will mean different things to different people, and those differences are the metagame.
Metagaming has a pretty bad rap amongst hobby gamers who generally associate it with grudges and kingmaking. Yet as a gamer myself I find that the metagame is often where much of the pleasure of play occurs. Whether it takes the form of encouragement, taunting, kibitzing, or just casual socializing around the game environment, the metagame serves as the constant reminder that play is happening and, more importantly, that we are playing with fellow human beings.
Ideally, the metagame is a safe space to explore the apparent contradictions between competition and socializing that are inherently part of most tabletop games. When this safety is jeopardized, interesting issues are raised and can be addressed. This I see as a valuable tool in the arsenal of the educator. This isn’t a new idea – indeed, fellow Aussie Giles Pritchard has touched upon it in a number of articles in the G4E newsletter, questions like:
- Who should go first?
- How should I react to someone being mean to me in a game?
- How should I deal with a person who is angry about how they are going in a game?
- How should I deal with losing or with winning?
- Who should help pack up?
Are all raised and answered during the course of even a short game.
All of the questions that Giles mentions here are concerned with the metagame and are, for me, amongst the most important and valuable ones that games bring to the table for children (and adults) at any level. They are questions that do not necessarily have short or simple answers but, in drawing them out for discussion, players can be encouraged to work together and to think about how they function in a society that is simultaneously built upon the ideals of co-operation and competition. In a very real sense, sitting around a table playing a game is a social event that also simulates society in miniature, and the more young people play, the more they learn the skills necessary to operate effectively in such a society.
This is not something you can learn from Sim City.
I’m not suggesting that computer and video games do not have a place in education. Most certainly single player games such as Sim City allow young people to understand how complex systems work by leveraging the power of simulation, while multi-player computer games are playing an important role in helping them understand how the increasingly mediated nature of our society affects communication. Yet, despite the growing prevalence of digital mediation in our culture, the vast majority of our lives are still about communicating and interacting with other people in face-to-face encounters.
Tabletop games bring something to education that is largely absent from the videogame; the immediate and intimate experience of being thrust into competition in an ostensibly social and friendly environment. There are many reasons why the play of games has such a long history within most cultures around the world and fun is only one of them. I believe that players of all ages can learn from the delicate balance that is required for everyone at a gaming table to have an enjoyable play experience. Understanding and negotiating that balance is a skill that remains vital within our society, and one that no amount of solitary exploration in a virtual environment can provide.
Stewart Woods is a lecturer in Internet Studies at Curtin University of Technology and a PhD candidate exploring the nature of social play. He is also one of the co-founders of the West Australian Boardgaming Association, a not-for-profit group that promotes board and table games through community events.