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More than fun and games: Professors share how teaching through games can boost engagement and deepen learning

Dec 8, 2020, 10:53 AM

In the fictional land of Learth, five nation states jockey for wealth, power, and ultimate domination, often using media manipulation to raise their approval ratings, spar with their opponents, even interfere with an election and incite war.

No, this isn’t the plot of the next Netflix blockbuster. It’s an instructional game designed by Judith Pintar (iSchool) to teach the impact of media propaganda and interference to students in her Global Informatics Seminar during the Spring 2020 semester.

Pintar, a Teaching Associate Professor and Acting BS/IS Director at the iSchool, and Dan Steward (Sociology) were the featured guests at The Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning’s December 3rd Art of Teaching: Lunchtime Seminar Series, where each discussed the use of play-based learning methods during their presentation, “Immersion and Engagement: Teaching through Games & Simulations.”

Pintar – who also directs the Investment for Growth project, Games@Illinois: Playful Pedagogy for Transformative Education – has been using tabletop and role-playing games in content-heavy courses for several years to boost student engagement and deepen the learning experience.

While she originally used study guides to teach content-heavy courses, it was hard to get students to complete the assigned readings. “I had very low compliance,” she recalled. That changed when Pintar reformatted the course material onto board game “playing cards” with questions on the front and a place for students to write the answer on the back.

“Having such a deck of cards let me turn my classrooms into game boards,” she said, explaining that students moved ahead on the board based on their ability to answer questions correctly, among other things.

Pintar also incorporated “light” role play into courses taught in flexible classrooms. There, students had room to push aside the furniture, embody characters, and enact scenarios, demonstrating their creativity and mastery of course content.

“I could have easily had them … do a PowerPoint,” Pintar said. But “adding this veneer increased their engagement tremendously.”

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Last Spring, Pintar and her Global Informatics Seminar students created a much more ambitious tabletop role-play game, in which students, playing roles as various nation states of Learth, engaged in global commodities trading, political machinations, and media manipulation. They were all set to play in March when the COVID-19 pandemic sent everyone home.

“I had to, in a week, make the game playable on Zoom,” Pintar said, recounting how she put the game board – a map of Learth drawn on large reams of paper – and numerous tokens – representing natural resources, industries, and other commodities – online, then make the tokens moveable.

She also set up a Wordpress website where students created fake social media accounts for their nation state, which they used spread propaganda – and, by doing so, change the course of the game.

“Teaching with games is serious work for faculty. But the discoveries students make through playing these games are worth it,” Pintar said. “Students connected with this role-playing game on so many different levels. And they learned so much. I would put the students in my course against any traditional classroom in terms of learning a significant amount of content. It works, and it (is) astonishing.”

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Later, Steward, a Teaching Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department and former director of the Liberal Arts and Sciences Teaching Academy, discussed how he’s used “Sociopoly,” a Monopoly modification game, in his classroom and has been working on a computer simulation.

“Many games are set up to illustrate various forms of stratification in society,” he said, pointing out a precursor, called the Landlord’s Game, was created more than a century ago to teach people about Georgist economics. “Sociopoly is a variation on a well-known game that lets students explore the ways social structures enable and constrain different groups in economic activity. It’s an experience they wouldn’t otherwise have through reading textbooks and writing papers.”

While Sociopoly is played with a conventional Monopoly game board and other components, Steward explained that students play in four teams representing different groups in American society: Team 1, non-Hispanic whites; 2, Hispanics; 3, African Americans, and 4, female heads of household with no male counterpart.

The rules, however, are biased against the marginalized groups. For example, Team 1 is given the standard $1,500 to start with, while each subsequent team is given lesser sum than the one before. And when Team 1 passes “Go,” it receives the standard $200 and two properties, but each subsequent team receives a lesser amount of cash and property than the one before.

In addition, Steward said, the rules about going to jail favor Team 1 and severely penalize Teams 3 and 4, reflecting another important inequality in American society.

“When … you’re talking to students about the kinds of inequality, they’re usually not surprised there are differences correlated with race and ethnicity, but they are surprised about gender,” Steward said.

Throughout the game, students are required to keep careful records of the game as it’s played. Then at the conclusion, they must analyze and critique what happened, and redesign the game to level the playing field between the “haves” and “have nots.”

Steward noted that the least advantaged team can win the game by virtue of the free parking lottery. This highly unlikely result actually occurred in one of his classes, prompting him to develop some computer code to show students how games are likely to end most of the time. A pilot test (1,000 games) resulted in Team 1 winning about 50 percent of the time and Team 4 winning less than 5 percent of the time.

While Steward is still working the bugs out, he is confident that future simulation runs will show more precisely the improved outcomes arising from incremental differences in socio-economic positions. In addition to computer simulations, he hopes to help students play many simultaneous games of Sociopoly by holding a tournament or game night once the pandemic is behind us.

To view Pintar and Steward’s presentation in Mediaspace, go to https://mediaspace.illinois.edu/media/t/1_0vwp0xj7/37226551. To view all Art of Teaching videos in Mediaspace: go to https://go.illinois.edu/artofteachingvideos.

The Art of Teaching: Lunchtime Seminar Series takes place from 12 to 1 pm on the first Thursday of each month through May, excluding January. Join us on February 4 when Emily Knox (iSchool) presents “Efficient and Effective Teaching for Student Success.” Register to receive a zoom link at: https://go.illinois.edu/artofteachingregistration.

To learn more about The Art of Teaching, please visit the website at: https://go.illinois.edu/artofteaching. To suggest a speaker/topic for the series, contact Ava Wolf at: arwolf@illinois.edu.