Exploring Culture through Games

Games are a universal part of human experience and present in all cultures dating as far back as 3000BC. (Although many Archaeologists claim that they have found evidence of board games dating as far back as 9000BC)

From an education perspective, games and game design can teach students system thinking, logical reasoning, spatial awareness, strategy, game theory, the difference between zero-sum and positive/negative-sum games, design thinking, games with complete as opposed to games with incomplete information and how this changes the dynamic of the game etc. – and these are just traditional games. If we start talking about digital games and game design we can also talk about computer science and a host of other important skills and key 21st century competencies that students will need to be successful in a multi-disciplinary, high-tech world.

Games provide meaningful situations for the application of thinking skills that could be dependent or independent of specific skills eg. mathematics. But there is also a big chance to explore cultural and historical perspectives of games.

At the start of each class have students play a unique game that has been used by a particular culture at a period in time – one such game could be Nim.

“Play is the highest form of research.” – Albert Einstein

Allow students sufficient time to play the game. What strategies are they employing? How long does it take to come up with an optimal strategy? Is there a blocking strategy? Is there an advantage for the player going first/second? Does it matter? Then try variations of the game (there are over 70 variations to the game of Nim). Explore the mechanics of the game – does altering the game change students strategies? Have students ‘hack’ the game – how can we change the game to make it easier, more difficult, more interesting? Can we add bias to the game?

Once the game as been explored, have students research the historical and cultural aspects of the game. Have students pick a particular era/culture or moment in history that interests or intrigues them, and then have students design a game that would fit with what we know about that point in time.

Students when presented with this approach have a context for learning and are required to use a range of problem-solving strategies and processes such as:

  • searching for patterns
  • applying mathematical thinking
  • manipulating variables
  • being systemic
  • transforming information
  • backwards design
  • hypothesising and testing
  • generalising

Some examples of games to use could be found on the Games in Education wiki or from this list of research papers about games used in different cultures. The most recent addition to the Games in Education wiki is the Ancient Egyptian game, Senet.

I came across Senet today whilst wandering the Ancient Egypt exhibition at the British Museum (British Museum description). The oldest known representation of Senet is in a painting from the tomb of Hesy (Third Dynasty circa 2686-2613 BC).

The Senet game board is a grid of thirty squares, arranged in three rows of ten. A Senet board has two sets of pawns, and the actual rules of the game are a topic of debate (perfect for the classroom – read Gaming with the Gods). Senet historians Timothy Kendell (rules) and R.C. Bell (rules) have each proposed their own sets of rules to play the game.

Why not have students form teams to debate the rules that Kendell and Bell have proposed? And then have them come up with some alternative rules, that they have collaboratively constructed using the evidence they have collected from their analysis of culture and history?

This is authentic learning at its best.

Interested in your thoughts.

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