On Doors, Opportunity, Risk, and Initiative

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by Jonathan Truitt

When I start my classes each semester I tell my students that they need to “own” their education. I go on to explain, that this has nothing to do with their purchase of courses, but rather their own active engagement in the material. Without their engagement, they are simply passive receptors who will fail to retain much of what is told to them. I explain that to really own your education is to seize on opportunities that appear in their classes, both unspoken and spoken. It will require them to take risks, to step through unknown doors, and take the initiative when others won’t. To be fair I let them know that I will follow my own recommendations. I will take risks and try new pedagogical techniques. Many of them will work, but others will fall short. Regardless of their success we will examine them to improve them for the next go round, or to dump them. This post then, is the story of one of my pedagogical journeys. It started as an idea that I tried on an unsuspecting class, it failed horribly and was set aside. Emily Lint, a student at the time and now a high school teacher, looked at the idea, picked it up brushed it off and improved it. Emily’s initiative made my idea better and it is why I spent Dallas, TX earlier this semester instead of Michigan.

Four-ish years ago (I don’t actually remember) I kicked off a new course for the history department on designing games for the classroom. The title of the course is “Mind Games.” The idea behind the class is to introduce students to game mechanics that can work in their future classrooms. As a hobby board gamer I get a lot of ideas from around my kitchen table when playing games with friends and family. Before this class started I decided that I wanted to introduce the students to a cooperative game mechanic. This was an element of some of my favorite board games, such as “Pandemic.” I wanted the students to have to work together as a team rather than competitively. I started thinking about the mechanic in the spring with my fall semester course in mind. This idea formed the basis for a game later dubbed “Disease Strain” and now titled “Plague, Poxes, and Pustules: A Game about Communities, Epidemics, and Survival.” When first conceived the idea was that the students would spend about five minutes at the beginning of each class trying to figure out the solution to the game. The game failed. One turn each class period provided too much time between turns and the class quickly lost interest and the pedagogical aim failed alongside it. We spoke about it as a class and set it aside. Emily was in that class, and I do not know when the fix to the game came to her, but it was Emily who fixed the game.

After the game’s failure I kicked it around trying to figure out the problem, but soon set it aside due to other time commitments. A semester later Emily asked if she could use the game in a high school class she was visiting. I thought it strange that she would want to use a game that was so broken. However, she had figured out the fix. The game needed to run in 20 minutes with two minute crises intervals to help propel the game. That fix revived the game and took it to new heights. A year later we were both attending the “Reacting to the Past” Game Development Conference in Athens, GA where she was presenting on her Honors research. We pitched the Disease game as well to see if there would be interest in seeing how a short game could function in a classroom setting. Both presentations were a big success. The disease game went on to be used in a variety of interdisciplinary settings in high schools and universities across the U.S. Fast forward a year and a half and a colleague who had been using the game presented on research surrounding the game’s success in her own classroom setting at another conference, Gen Con Trade Day. At the conference was an Agile Trainer for Walmart, he played the game and adopted it for training employees in Bentonville, AR. Jump forward another six months and the game was used as part of the pitch to start a new game-based learning series with the University of New Mexico Press (initial releases due out in Spring of 2019). This brings us to the present where in the past six months I have presented the game at Brigham Young University and the University of Texas at Dallas. This game has taken a trajectory I never would have predicted. I give full credit to Emily for making it possible, she is (and has been since her critical idea) an author on the game. I applaud her for stepping through the door and taking the risk to tell a professor he was wrong. I thank her for providing us both with opportunities to further support good pedagogy. I don’t know if her students know what they are in for when they walk into her classroom, but I am hoping that one of them opens the kinds of doors for her that she opened for me.