Playing Games with Anthropology #2: Anthropological Futures

This weekend at the AAA Conference in Washington DC, we say an unprecedented amount of sessions related to various forms of anthropological futures. In a panel that I coorganized with several friends on twitter, we had a great discussion about the relationship between science fiction, anthropology, and imagining a better world in the present, past and future. In addition, there was an Anthropology Con, which focused on gaming, and included a “lounge” in which folks could come and play anthropological games including an ongoing D&D campaign. It was one of the best conferences I’ve been to in a while!

Piggy-backing off of this, I want to share an activity I designed for the students in my biological anthropology course. I’ve talked about using games to teach anthropological concepts before, and shared a game that I designed for that purpose with mixed effects in the classroom. This time, I’ve simplified the game, and made it more about building a narrative than about winning or defeating other teams. I ran it last semester, and it worked out great, so this semester I’m only making a few small tweaks before running it again on the final week of classes.

It goes like this. In the first session (download the PDF here), which I have students do after talking about environmental issues, they are asked to conceptualize a post-apocalyptic community. I give them an environmental scenario and ask them to make some basic choices to make about how their community is structured. I then ask them to think about how these choices help and/or hurt them in their given environment. Then I encourage them to creatively flesh out the details of their society including events, rituals, religious and political practices, foods, games, etc.

In the second session (download the PDF here), which runs a couple of weeks after the first session, I ask students to imagine the future of their community and how they will respond to challenges. The students must first describe their community ten years after the first session and think about how it has changed in that time. Then I have them run through three rounds, each representing one decade of life in the community, in which they encounter some challenge and must adapt to it. They roll dice to see which challenge they encounter and how severe it is. They are also given “resilience points” (I’m not a huge fan of resilience theories, but it’s all I could think of to call them), which they can spend to reduce the effects of the challenge. After rolling the dice and spending resilience points, the students must narrate the effects of the challenge, describing the event, how it affects the community, and, if they spend resilience points, how they were able to adapt to the challenge.

As I mentioned in my talk at the AAA panel, I think the ability to imagine other worlds and futures is an important muscle that needs to be exercised regularly. My hope is that this activity gives students the opportunity to think about potential challenges we might face and various ways to confront them. Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments.

3 thoughts on “Playing Games with Anthropology #2: Anthropological Futures”

    1. Oh of course, and it’s all speculative in its own way! Every year a lot of hand-wringing about the state of adjuncts and grad students, about the funding of various specific departments, about the discipline’s issues with race and gender, etc. The problem is that there is no solution internal to anthropology as a discipline or even, potentially, academia itself, so it just ends up being hand-wringing. And anthropology has demonstrated itself to be complacent and complicit in the face of oppression in the past, so I’m sure it’ll survive the neoliberal shakedown, but what it looks like afterwards is the real question…

      1. seems like that sort of defining impotency should be made central to all the other topics the field takes up, it might become yet another branch of business/personnel management and or product placement/testing but then schools are now even cutting back on MBA programs so we shall see.

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