from the Library of Maura

We Make the Game By Playing

March 22nd, 2012 · No Comments

Recently we were at housewarming party for our friends and one of their son’s games caught my eye: Rivers, Roads, and Rails. It’s a simple matching game consisting of cardboard tiles each depicting a combination of a river, road, or rail segment. Players start with 7 tiles and go ‘round placing tiles to match the segments on the floor. The instructions in the box were sketchy, so we added that if a player can’t place a tile, draw from the facedown pile, place it if you can, and keep it in your hand if not. The game is physically lovely as well: the cardboard tiles are thick and sturdy, and the illustrations are pretty and whimsical.

Interestingly, we couldn’t convince any of the kids at the party, aged 2-10, to play the game with us, so gameplay involved 5 of us, all adults. And a rollicking good time was had by all: we found ourselves telling little stories about the segments and associated pictures on the tiles, and ended up being more interested in the possibility of connecting every tile to the board than of someone winning (we had decided that the first person to place all tiles in their hand was the winner).

One aspect of Rivers, Roads, and Rails that I really enjoyed is that the game board is created in the process of gameplay. Carcassonne, one of my favorite board games, uses the same mechanic: players draw tiles with segments of cities, roads, and fields, then place their pieces (called meeples) to claim features, each with different point values. The game ends when the last tile is placed and whomever has racked up the most points is the winner. It’s a fantastic game: the basics are easy enough to grasp to make it fun for beginners, but there’s also real strategy possible which keeps more experienced players engaged.

But what does any of this have to do with the library? I’ve been thinking lately about ways to incorporate more games and game mechanics into my library and information literacy instruction, and speculating on the possibilities for games that could help our students with their research assignments. Because the mechanic described above, which I like to think of as “we make the board by playing” (a riff on the title of a book designed for first year experience coursework called College: We Make the Road by Walking), is so interesting to me, I’ve found myself considering how to use it in research instruction.

In some ways the experience of building a game space as you play the game is very similar to the process of doing research for an assignment: you begin with some parameters (taking your turn or coming up with a research topic), you take an action (draw a tile, start your search [engine]), you figure out what to do with what you get (place your tile, use or reject your search results), and then you adjust accordingly the next time around. In a tile matching game the landscape shifts with every turn, just as it does in the research process as topics broaden or narrow, and the iterative nature of research means that the sources we find mold and change our topics, which feeds back into how and where we search for sources.

It’s all very well to point out the similarities between the research process and a tile matching game, but how can we actually use that to help students learn how to do research? I’m not convinced that creating a game to teach research competencies that is itself separate from students’ research needs, most often determined by the requirements of the research projects assigned in their courses, is the best way to proceed. But I wonder whether the research journal connects well with the tile matching mechanic?

Sometimes students are required to keep a journal of their research process, which they may have to hand in along with their research paper, presentation, or project. At its best the research journal forms a kind of story of the journey students take as they do research: the hesitant beginnings, wrong turns, forks in the road, unexpected shortcuts, and (hopefully) the successful outcome of completing the research needed to finish their project. And we hope that students find it useful to reflect on their own research process, and that they begin to understand the iterative nature of research, that it’s not just a straight line from point A to point B. What if we asked students to create a game that tells the story of their research rather than keeping a research journal? Would students achieve the same goals of recording and reflecting that they do with a traditional research journal? I’m not sure, but I’m considering giving it a try the next time I teach my department’s research and documentation course (and I’ll report back if I do).

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