Course creatively teaches anthropology through playing and designing games

University of Massachusetts Anthropology students created their own board games for a coursePhoto Credits: Matthew Medeiros / University of Massachusetts Amherst
Monday, January 22, 2018

It’s the end of fall semester, and Krista Harper, Professor of Anthropology and Public Policy, gathers a group of around 30 students and faculty in a University of Massachusetts classroom one chilly December evening. One by one, a half-dozen teams take their place in front of the class and present their final projects to their classmates. Presentations cover a range of topics: ecotourism, Hurricane Katrina and the evacuations that happened due to the storm, climate change in the Artic, and the plight of Syrian refugees.

The presentations end, and as the final presenters take their slideshows off the screen and filter back to their seats Harper heads to the podium to introduce the second part of the evening. She explains that pizzas will be delivered to the room soon, and everyone should begin moving from table to table to find out more about their classmates’ final projects.

Students gather at the tables around laptops…and game boards. The course, ANTHRO 297, is titled “Anthropology of/through Games,” and the students’ final projects involve taking part in an event called #AnthopologyCon 2017, a game-based learning exercise. The purpose of the course is to use tabletop, card, and computer games to explore themes such as play, cooperation, evolution and change, symbols, and power. Over the course of the semester, students have read assignments examining the anthropology of colonialism, racism and heritage in games, while also doing homework that involves playing board games like Settlers of Catan and video games such as Diner Dash.

“This is so exciting to me. It’s almost like I’m taking my own final,” Harper explains as the students begin to play.

“My favorite games are ones where the world is bigger than you,” notes Isaac Burg, whose team designed a game about helping Syrian refugees.

“It was difficult to design something fun,” adds Sadie Mazur, whose team developed a board game about ecotourism.

“I didn’t know game-based learning was a field. That’s very exciting. I’m very proud of my game and it was a really fun process,” she adds.

Harper writes in a Teaching Culture blog post that she first became interested in using games in teaching when she participated in an UMass IT workshop in 2013 titled “Designing Low-Tech Games for the Classroom.” Though she had some reservations about whether it could work, she notes that after hearing several presenters she “was inspired to bring games into my anthropology teaching, too.”

Since that time she started offering her own gaming course in Fall 2014, and recently received an Innovate Teaching Fellowship, awarded by the university to allow faculty to explore unique ways of teaching, for the work she is doing with game-based teaching.

Harper sees game-based learning as a vital focus for her moving forward, and she notes that in the future she plans to author a book on it with two collaborators. She also plans to expand ANTHRO 297 and offer it again in Fall 2018. “Analyzing, playing, and designing games opened up creative ways to do what anthropologists do: to unpack theories, to try on other people’s perspectives, and to understand both stated norms and improvised, embodied practice,” she noted in her Teaching Culture blog.

-- By Matthew Medeiros, SBS Commmunications Manager