Making a sociological board game

Pat Thomson is writing and publishing this post in real time. The post will report first and then reflect. 

Alke and Katy share an interest in creative academic practice. Their workshop is on the use of a board game concept to visualise stages in a research project – or another academic practice. A board game can be used in three ways: (1) to design a research process, (2) monitor that process and (3) communicate results at the end. The goal of the workshop is to come up with a prototype game. The academic practice being developed in the workshop is the use of visualisation.

IMG_1286.JPGParticipants have brought with them a list of ten to twenty things involved in a research project. It is important to use an actual project, Alke says, rather than invent one, as this way you include the range of items that ma

Stage One. These ‘process’ points have to be turned into a flow-chart. People have to think about the order of their points, as well as consider the overall number that they have. Points are transferred to numbered post-its.

An example is pinned on the wall for people to look at – see left. It is a chart about an essay writing process. The steps are in purple.

One participant notes that some things don’t actually end – in both action research and ethnography for example, the research process is iterative and understanding grows over time. While these can be put on post-its they may have to be repeated.

Stage Two. The next stage involves game mechanics. People have to think about their favourite board game and note elements. Examples include:

  • random events e.g. landing on an unlucky square where they might get go to gaol cards or land on a ladder you fall down. Random events can be built in.
  • progression rules – you can’t move on a stage until you’ve completed the previous one. This might involve collecting, trading, accumulating points or money.

DgDrRmGW0AAqVOCPeople have to think about benefits and obstacles – random events, penalties, rewards, shortcuts. They are asked to put these ideas onto coloured post-its that are different from their process steps.. They can also use chance cards, if these fit with their game format; cards used to deliver random events. (Take a life crisis now. Your ethics committee asks for more information. There is some cathartic conversation going on.)

Stage Three: The “Visualise Impact” stage. Participants must now think about how their game is to be laid out. They are asked to think about what visuals might be used. Alke gives people permission to draw badly, but they are also urged to commit by using a big black marker. People have to think about the content or the process of their project – or both. The idea of a visual metaphor is offered – Alke used the metaphor of an iceberg for her essay writing game, and also the notion of a circus, drafting and redrafting.

DgDy76BW0AEqi3X.jpgPeople are directed to the posters around the room, actual examples of what other people have produced. Alke suggests that people think about the ways in which shape and colour might enhance their game.

The mechanics of the game are also discussed as they are being visualised. How do cards work? Where and how is chance to be built in?

And then – people are offered a fresh and large piece of card to use as the base for the game prototype, as well as the option of various coloured pens, cards, dice, counters and play money. “Put it all together” is the instruction.

And while the workshop has been going on, Alke has been documenting the various steps people are taking as a board game. Meta-game-boarding!

The workshop ends with volunteers presenting their game to the group. Applause. Applause.


(1) Live blogging. As I was writing this post in real time, I noticed that it is quite hard to reflect and record at the same time. It’s an issue that ethnographers are pretty familiar with. However the ethnographic research challenge is to stop too much reflection going on and obstructing the recording process. Here, the issue is about doing some reflection, and not simply record. The tension between the two writing/thinking processes goes to the question of liveness.

(2) Board game as a multi-use “tool”.  I am musing about whether it is more interesting to make a board game than to play it. Are both of these equally instructive?

(3) I am also thinking about the pleasures of making and how very rarely in academic conferences there are opportunities for people to use their imaginations and just “make stuff”.

2 thoughts on “Making a sociological board game

  1. Thank you, Pat, for this write-up.
    When it comes to your reflections I would say that it is a very different experience to make a game than to play a game, and both are useful in different contexts. To make the game you really need to know the process, which can make it an interesting assignment for students, while playing it can be an introduction to a subject matter, maybe?
    As to the pleasures of making, YES we need to make more stuff at conferences. It is so much fun! (but then maybe I am biased).
    We have posted our view of the workshop and slightly longer response to your reflections here:
    Cheers, Alke

    Liked by 1 person

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