Using Games to Situate and Embody Theoretical Writing

1 Introduction

In the Bridging Activities Model (Thorne & Reinhardt, 2012), the Examine stage of the cycle is meant to provide students with an opportunity to critically compare the language they found through exploration of a given social context with either their own previous knowledge, with the exploration of a different student and / or with a different social context. In my own practice with the game One Night Werewolf (ONW) and Coup, I have the students compare the linguistic concept of Turn-taking. Students examine how the slow, one-at-a-time style of Coup contrasts with the free-flowing and time-restricted style of ONW. Then, as a final triangulation, students compare both Coup and ONW with the way turns are taken in our classroom (one at a time, raise hand to speak, teacher can command attention, the time is separated into various smaller pieces with their own turn-taking rules).


This Examine stage is crucial for the transference of linguistic and social knowledge from context to context and allows the students to build up abstract concepts of language (like turn-taking), with their own past experience and in real situations-of-use, in the games.

I have been thinking of a different way of using this comparative method that would work especially well for teachers, students and schools who are wary of using a game-based pedagogy wholesale. This method I will call comparative game-based supplementing. First, a traditional theoretical text that the teacher intends to teach is used as a base of action. Then the teacher finds a game (ideally more than one game) that embodies the theory, can enact parts of the theory or can be used to critically examine the theory. Finally, the pedagogy works through the entwining of the theory, which would be taught through reading, class discussion and other methods, with the game; using critical reflection as a way to examine the theory through the game.

Of course, this can’t work with all classes, topics or games. Some easy possibilities though are:

City-planning  and Sim City / Cities: Skylines
Economics and a huge list of possible games
Fantasy books – Fantasy games (Lord of the rings is a game)
Intra-psychological fiction – The Sims

In the following, I will take one example and sketch a possible method for implementing this pedagogy.

2 An Example


The example I will give is one I have been thinking about for about a year. I would never have an opportunity to do this in a real classroom, but I like the idea anyway. The theory is Selectorate Theory (ST) through the book The Dictator’s Handbook. I don’t think any school teaches this book, and I’m not sure how popular the theory is in Political Science. I found the book very interesting and useful conceptually to understand my own politics and when I first played the Reigns and The Shrouded Isle I was immediately reminded of the book.

Here I will explain a bit about the book and then the game. I will end with a quick look at a possible praxis using both.

2.1 Theory – Selectorate Theory

First, let me say that I am not a political scientist and my understanding of ST comes from a once-through of The Dictator’s Handbook and watching CGP Grey on youtube. So, let me just link that video here first:

ST posits as a basic assumption that leaders, once in power, want to stay in power. From that assumption, the actions of leaders, whether they be good or bad, are explored and examined. For the leader to stay in power, they need to navigate and artfully deploy the resources of their country to three different groups. 1) the Nominal Selectorate 2) The Real Selectorate and 3) The Winning Coalition.

The nominal selectorate make up everyone who has influence over who the leader is. In democracies, this is the group of people who can vote. The Real selectorate are the influential people within the selectorate who decide who can be the leader and have influence over the nominal selectorate. In US elections, this would be the major party leaders (RNC chair and DNC chair) along with other party insiders and corporate lobbyists. But also in many areas, local church leaders, and other popular people who have large followings. Alex Jones would be part of this.

The Winning Coalition, the most important part, is the subset of the real selectorate that is needed in order to win / take leadership. After a leader has their position of power, they must now try to maintain their real selectorate and winning coalition. They do this through the resources their country / corporation / church / family has. In democracies, where the real selectorate is very large, the leader can’t simply give private rewards to their winning coalition, so they must pass public goods to their real selectorate through public policies that might have benefits for the nominal selectorate (things like access to education, healthcare and general increases in standards of living).


Leaders who have small real selectorates don’t have to pass the resources through public goods, but can instead pass them privately (think most autocratic dictatorships). However, even dictators need to maintain their winning coalition. If at any time they lose influence over their real selectorate, a challenger could be in the wings waiting to launch a coup or overthrow them. This balance then, of using the resources of a country to maintain a winning coalition can help explain a wide range of organizations, from government, to business, to even family relationships.

2.2 Game – Reigns


Reigns is a logical deduction role playing game. In Reigns you take the role of a king or queen and must maintain order and power over a determined number of in-game turns. To do so you must balance the needs of four different groups: the Church, the People, the Military and the Financiers. Each turn, you will welcome one representative from the four groups who will present a proposal to you. They may seem good, like increasing access to education, or lowering the amount of work a little for the peasantry, but even kind or good policies can and do have detrimental effects. Increasing education may upset the church and lessening the workload of the peasants will most likely upset the financiers. If you upset a specific group too much, then they will revolt and you lose the game.

To know how your actions will impact the other groups, Reigns indicates the relative impact of any choice on the other groups through varying sizes of circles. The main problem you have however, is that unless you are a wise leader who understands your groups, you don’t know if the choice will be good or bad for those groups, only that it will have a small or large effect on them.

See how the peasants and the financiers react differently to the idea of spending money to build a dam. From Marc Lagace at AndroidCentral

As you go through the turns, you will have to make choices that negatively impact your influence over the other groups. Your real interest as king then, isn’t the individual policies good as they may be, but instead on maintaining control and order over the influential persons in each group. Reigns is multi-generational in that you explore the different leaders of a country even after you hit a fail-state (die). You start again as the new leader and keep playing and progressing. The game gives specific tasks to achieve at each stage of the game and scores to help keep you motivated and directed in your play.

2.3 Praxis – Cross examination

The goals of using games to help teach and explore ST is to give learners opportunity to explore and critically examine the key concepts of ST within a bounded, rule-based world. By making actual decisions in the game, the learners can experiment with basic concepts, like private and public goods and maintaining a winning coalition. A great part of doing this type of pedagogy is that the students can keep playing the game as they read through the theory. In other words, as they learn about new concepts, they can immediately see how the game does or does not implement that concept and what the consequences are for the game.

The first chapter of The Dictator’s Handbook for example, discusses the three groups mentioned above. For the game, students would be asked to explore the game and then examine how the game deals (or does not deal with) the three groups. For example, the student might notice that the game does not deal with the nominal selectorate. Instead, the real selectorate is represented through specific influential people who have access to the king or queen. Conversely, how the game understands the winning coalition is simply that you balance all of the groups in some minimal way. In other words, not all groups need to be equally happy, they only need to not be so angry that they kill you. A simple lesson plan using the BA model might look something like this.

Explore: Read the first chapter of TDH. Using the three groups mentioned in the book, how does the game implement or use those three games? How are they related to the goals and actions you take in the game?

Examine: How is the games implementation of the three selectorate groups similar or dissimilar to TDH’s understanding of those groups? With a partner, how does your understanding of those three groups compare with theirs? What differences are there between you?

Extend: Through personal reflection how well does the game simulate 1) TDH’s conception of politics and 2) the real world of politics as you understand it? What does the game ignore in the reality? (perhaps ignored because the game is better without it). How does that compare with TDH? Is there a gap between a) the game b) TDH and c) reality?

A basic cycle, related to this one, could be repeated until the book is finished. In conjunction, the students could also detail their understanding of the game, its mechanics and share strategies with classmates or in the attendant game communities.

2.3.1 Implications and problems

An immediate problem that is easily predictable of course, is what to do with students who either 1) don’t like playing games and 2) don’t like Reigns in particular.

For the first group (a group I also deal with in my classrooms) I’m not entirely sure what to do with them. What I have done so far, is to suggest they approach the “game” like any other content in school, i.e. some school stuff just isn’t your jam, but you do it anyway. I have also tried to connect the game to real world concepts (like pragmatics) to help them see the more clearly why. Often the students who don’t like to play games in general, are students who excel in traditional classroom situations and so a game-based pedagogy seems like a waste of time to them.

For the second problem, the most clear solution would be to allow students to play a variety of RPG logic deduction type games. While not all games in this genre will be as easily tied to ST, the Reigns-like genre is big enough, I think, to give students enough variation to not get too bored and feel like they have some agency. Additionally, students can be allowed (maybe should) experiment with a variety of games. A short list might include:

My Majesty
Dictator 1 and 2
Dictator: Revolt
Dictator: Emergence
The Shrouded Isle
Political Animals

My Majesty and the Dictator games are most similar to Reigns. In fact, my experience is mostly with My Majesty and Dictator 2I personally preferred My Majesty, but for reasons that actually make it quite different than the concepts explored in TDH. There is some magic involved (merlin is there). But you also get to see your castle and kingdom grow as you maintain order and power, which I found really motivating.


The Shrouded Isle is mechanically similar to Reigns, but is an extreme bump up in terms of quality of presentation. The aesthetic however may be off putting for many players. It also isn’t set in a governmental world, instead in a religious one. I highly recommend it, as it adds more layers of narrative-interest and is simply a more compelling game to play, if you can buy into its context. Here’s a great (spoiler-filled) review from Errant Signal.


Political Animals is much broader in scope than the other games and includes a lot of other mechanics more related to democratic elections, however it does include the same force-choiced mechanics that the other games have that determine how “moral” you are as a candidate and can have impacts on your electability. It’s art design and characters are more similar to My Majesty in that they are colorful, fun and cartoonish.


Learners can be encouraged to play as many or as few of the games and find one that they enjoy in particular. In addition, by having the learners play different games, the students have more to compare and contrast. Learners also need to be able to explain their game to a partner, who may know some of the mechanics, but maybe not the details of the different games. This requires the learner to develop a stronger overall understanding of the game than if everyone just plays the same game, where assumptions about knowledge are more common and a shared meta-language develops more quickly, allowing students to talk more expertly perhaps, but also allowing them to ignore or assume other things.

3 Conclusion

At the end of this process, the hope, or the goal, of the pedagogy is that the students come away conceptually more familiar with ST in a way that makes their literal knowledge embodied through specific situations of action. Beyond asking learners to read and do comprehension checks, by playing a game to acting through a set of specific rules, learners should be able to 1) notice new things about the theory and their understanding and 2) language about those things to themselves and others.

The view sketched here is not one specific to second language teaching and learning (L2TL), but there are implications for L2TL as well. In particular, how literacies can interact and reinforce each other. Reading in specific genres or about specific interests can be reinforced through game literacy, leading to a deeper appreciation and understanding of the content that the learner is, interested. As mentioned above, there are a variety of game-types that can be tied to specific reading genres and some games are really more of interactive novels.

The task for the game-design enhanced L2 teacher in that scenario would be in helping students find games that would fit their reading interest. Then, after finding their interest, the class could operate on the workshop model, where students come with their own projects based on reading / gaming and the teacher provides mini-lessons before letting the students break into groups or working alone towards a specific project.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.