It’s all fun and games until someone learns something

As a Senior Lecturer in Science Communication, my research is primarily concerned with helping to develop dialogue between experts and non-experts. One of the ways that I do this is through games, specifically through tabletop games1.

I play (a lot of) both tabletop games and videogames. The videogames that I like to play are normally large, fantasy-themed, open-world, solo experiences (Persona, Final Fantasy, The Witcher, Zelda, etc.). However, with tabletop games, whilst I still prefer a fantasy setting the games that I really love are the co-operative ones, with T.I.M.E. Stories, Betrayal at House on the Hill, and Gloom of Kilforth being some of my current favourites. It is something about the visceral experience of playing a tabletop game which causes me to actively seek social interaction rather than avoid to it, as I tend to do with videogames, and I believe that it is this social interaction that make tabletop games an ideal vehicle through which to discuss science.

As a co-director of the Games Research Network at Manchester Metropolitan University I am bound to be of the opinion that ‘games have value,’ but they really do, with tabletop games in particular offering an ideal media through which to engage non-scientists with science. In my opinion, games that involve science can be split into three broad categories:

  1. Games that use science
  2. Games that are about science
  3. Games that teach science

The Games that use science category includes games such as Terraforming Mars and Pandemic. These are games whose mechanics are underpinned by accurate science, which players are exposed to, and which they can utilise during the game. In the case of Terraforming Mars this involves employing astrobiology to create a habitable environment on the Red Planet, whilst Pandemic involves working as an interdisciplinary team of researchers, operations experts, and other specialists to contain a global outbreak of deadly viruses.

Games about science are games whose central narrative is centred around what it is like to be a scientist, or to conduct scientific research. Games in this category include Lab Wars and Women in Science. Both of these games seek to humanise scientists, whilst providing diverse characters to help dispel the mythos that you have to be a white cis male in order to be a successful scientific researcher.

Games that teach science are those games which are focussed on teaching science. Many ‘educational games’ fall into this category, and many of these tend to be a variant of either Monopoly or Ludo, designed by enthusiastic researchers who are not themselves gamers. Whilst there are exceptions to this (Gut Check is a great example of a game that was designed by researchers who managed to create a game that communicates how microbes can be both bad and good for the body, and which is also fun to play), many educational games focus on the educational experience, neglecting the gaming one, and thus making it unlikely that people would choose to play the game outside of a learning environment and of their own volition.

For these reasons, I think that it is actually the games that use science which offer the greatest potential for developing meaningful engagement. As well as being (for the large part) extremely well-designed games, they also offer the opportunity for further discussion and debate. Questions such as ‘how effective have previous efforts been at virus containment?’ or ‘should we be investing time and money on creating a liveable planet on Mars, or instead focus on trying to make the one that we live on now more habitable?’ are interesting and important questions that have arisen when playing these games with both scientists and non-scientists. In an ideal world, these two communities would play tabletop games together, interacting via a shared social experience and discussing any topics of interest that arose during the process.

Other games which could be used to generate further discussion around a variety of scientific topics include: Evolution: Climate, Chemistry Fluxx, Photosynthesis, and Bios:Genesis. As well as being fun to play, these games are all relatively straightforward to pick up, and offer an opportunity to contextualise your research whilst engaging a varied audience. If you are interested in using games in this way, but are unsure where to start, boardgamegeek has a database (including reviews) for almost every commercially available tabletop game ever created, and most cities (and several towns) in the UK now have a board games café where you can try out a variety of games for the price of a cup of coffee. There are also several excellent YouTube channels dedicated to tabletop games and how to play them, my particular favourite being Will Wheaton’s Tabletop.

For more information about games and gaming in academia please feel free to visit the Games Research Network’s website and if you have any other recommendations for tabletop games that use science please let me know in the comments section below, as I am always looking for an excuse to expand my games library!


1The Oxford English Dictionary defines tabletop games as: ‘A game played on a flat surface, such as a board game or card game.’ Using this definition, chess and mah-jong would be classified as tabletop games, whereas charades or blind man’s bluff would not.

Sam Illingworth

Sam Illingworth

Dr Sam Illingworth is a Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University, where as well as being the co-director of the Games Research Network he also uses poetry to explore the potential for interdisciplinarity to solve ‘wicked’ problems. You can find out more about his research, and even read some of his poetry, by visiting his website, or following him on Twitter (@samillingworth).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *