Playing Games with Anthropology


For the past week in the Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course that I’m teaching, I had my students play a game that I designed in order to explore some of the implications of global decision-making processes and the relations between different groups with different resource and values (you can download the rules for my game here). I think simulation games of this kind are good ways to examine complex issues in an experiential way. Rather than simply talking about colonization, militarization, environmental problems, health problems and so on, students can grapple with the limitations and implications of these issues directly in a simulated, safe environment.

My game is not perfect even though I spend a lot of time thinking through the various scenarios and the relationships between different variables. There are things that I simply could not represent very well like the internal dynamics of a particular nation. Sometimes the game was too complex for students to grasp in a handful of sessions – I had to explain rules repeatedly, and I think the reasoning behind some of the rules and limitations might have gotten lost on the students. Regardless, there were some interesting results, and the students had interesting comments in our discussion at the end. I asked them to write a one-page reflection on the game as well, because I think it’s important not only to play the game but to reflect on the experience and its limitations. I’ll report what they say when the reflections are handed in.

There is nothing new about the idea of using simulation games to teach about complex issues. Other examples include Michael Wesch’s World Simulation, Buckminster Fuller’s World Game, and the University of Virginia’s Bay Game. And there’s nothing specifically innovative about my game or the way I implemented it in this class. But I am interested in other approaches to gaming in the class room. Does anyone else have their students play simulation games? Do you use existing games or do you create your own? What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of simulation games from a pedagogical standpoint? What have your experiences with simulation games been? What lessons have you learned from the experience?

2 thoughts on “Playing Games with Anthropology”

  1. Hello, I am intrigued about your game. It is definitely a RPG, but I would like to understand the goal of the game. It would have a winner at the end of the gameplay? For instance, a powerful military nation could overcome and control all other players, and it would be crowed victorious? I am writing about games and anthropology on my own blog, and writing a paper about it, and would like to mention your game and initiative. I have some insights about your game, that might work for a RPG or a board game.
    Thanks and good work.


    1. Hey Gyorgy, sorry for the delay – been really busy. In my game there was no winner or criteria for success or failure. The goal was just to stay “alive” – to keep your society from collapsing. Some of what you described did occur, and it was difficult to get the students out of the “winning” mindset. My hope was that we would see how things unfold – like a good RPG, it’s more about developing a character than achieving a particular goal (though there are many goals along the way). I’d love to talk more with you about it. I’ll post the rules sometime soon hopefully, along with comments about what worked and what didn’t.

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