Building Board Games to Teach Literary Studies

Part I: Open Access Kits for Teaching and Learning

Posted by David N. Wright on September 7, 2017

Building Board Games to Teach Literary Studies:
Part I: Open Access Kits for Teaching and Learning

Note: This is part I of a series. The rest of the series is coming…

Let me begin by setting down some context: this project is not about interrogating games or the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of game design. While I certainly hope to generate discussion in these areas when individuals participate in building the kit(s), I don’t think that this project is about games. Instead, this project is about how we might approach teaching the basics of literary studies using games, particularly the process of designing and building board games. I am interested in how the process of designing and building board games might manifest texts–and their underlying thematic or symbolic qualities–in a material way. I’m wondering whether rendering textual analysis and even the process of reading critically–what we generally call interpretation–in a way that is material displaces the text somewhat from the constraints and anxieties of comprehension. The board game kit tries to encourage a process of prototyping, building, and designing a game by incorporating a text, or a particular textual moment, in the game design thereby facilitating discussion about the implications of interpretation–why do we make the interpretive decisions about the meaning of a text? Why do we choose to represent actions, settings, philosophies, as we do? How do we restrict or enable character transgressions? As such, the process of designing and building a board game based on a text, or portion of text, using the kit makes visible those interpretive decisions that give rise to literary interpretation and argument.

By “materiality,” I mean the physical composition of concepts that are generally of the mind or, in this case, generated by the written text. In particular, I mean the material representation of characteristics that tend to underpin the practice of literary interpretation–concepts such as theme, character, setting, symbol, metaphor, point-of-view, and other general modes used to understand or interpret figurative language in a text. By extension, I am also hoping that the process of materially representing literary texts exposes a text’s underlying thematic representations–issues of race or gender for instance; socio-economic status, social mobility, historical perspective among many others. For example, where a character’s movement is restricted by racial bias, the gameplay will need to represent how those restrictions affect character movement in a material way–physical walls, penalties, other players, other intersections. The point of this is to make tangible the impact of such racial constructs on the interpretation of the text. The discussion about the implications of character representation then shift away from understanding what character is and how that might align with larger conditions of racism, toward the deployment of those racial conditions and the overt and covert restrictions those conditions place on character development, interpretation, and representation.

While there is no doubt that the borders I have set up above could be extended to include many different kinds of media, the work of doing so will need to be undertaken by others. For the purposes of this explanation, I’ll be sticking to a written text. All this to say that materiality registers the definitions of literary terminology such as character, setting, theme, point-of-view, and others, in a different way than traditional approaches. The task of designing a game-piece to represent the qualities of a character is different than discussing or writing about those qualities. Rather than outline the character’s qualities and the impact those qualities might have on how we interpret the text, individuals designing a game around interpretations of character must account for how those character qualities impact the materiality of the game design–how the pieces move, how they interact, how they look, even the proprioception of the game-piece itself. In short, I want individuals to think about how designing, building, and playing a game based on a text impacts how we might receive and understand the text itself and, by extension, how we understand the foundations of textual criticism we use to perform literary analysis and argumentation.

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