Abhi Ya Kabhi (trans. If not now, then when?): field experiences of play testing a board game for life skills
With the galvanization of Internet based communities of practice and the viral spread of the maker culture, board games creators are getting opportunities they never imagined before. Such growth makes it reasonable to claim this decade as the golden age of board game. The use of games as educational and engagement tool date back centuries. An anecdotal reference to this is a game called Mookshapath (trans. Path to Enlightenment) created by the Indian saint Sant Jnaneswar hailing from the Indian province of Maharashtra back in the 13th century CE.
A variant of this following similar game mechanics was later reinvented in the USA as the popular Chutes and Ladders board game. It is believed that it is games like Chutes and Ladders and Monopoly that kick started the board game revolution. Educationalists and scientists, realizing the potential of play and games, created a plethora of tools for various use cases including games for education and civic engagement. The power of games as tools of learning has led to adoption of popular commercial games such as Minecraft and SimCity in schools for various teaching STEAM topics.
Board games of today are seeing a synthesis of the American style (theme and luck based games) and the Euro style (strategy heavy mechanics). Consequently, one of the challenges in introducing board games as a tool in classrooms or other relevant setting would be the game literacy requirements and availability of time.
Most of my friends in AMMACHILabs have spent good part of our work-time in the rural and tribal villages of India. The villagers are our motivation and the primary users of all the solutions being developed at our lab at Amrita University. The scale and diversity of challenges can only be properly understood with field visits that let us live and work with our primary users.
It was the time that we spent in one such visit to a village in Himachal Pradesh called Indhpur (https://goo.gl/maps/ZDPhvxsbbfr) that led to the beginning of our journey of exploring board games as a tool of social engagement in diverse set of communities we work in.
Ayappan, one of our hardworking automation engineers and I, got an opportunity to visit this village to implement the e-learning and other content that our team had made for training villagers to be Rural Toilet Builder (RTB). Our blended approach of cVET, LEE (Life Enrichment Education) and practical sessions with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) were run as planned. As with any of the groups going to the fields, we faced a host of challenges during the implementation of the training such as the availability of villagers for more than couple of hours for training, low motivation to learn, history of NGOs promising many things but doing very little to help villagers, etc.
One particular challenge that needed to be addressed without any delay was getting people to have the constructive discussions about their life and decision-making. Our assumption is that such discussions and resulting resolutions would help them better their quality of life through improved decision-making. During one of the LEE sessions, we noticed that the villagers were trying to give all the ‘right answers’ and were less interested in having detailed discussions with their friends or us. They were ‘playing to the gallery’. What was also troubling us was the fact that we didn’t understand the colloquial Punjabi mixed Hindi that was being spoken. It started getting increasingly hard for us to bridge the language and other social barriers to have detailed and meaningful conversations. So we decided to try something unusual for the task at hand – Games.
Our assumption was that the target population who has had very less exposure to the sort of games that world has hooked into, had low levels of game literacy compared to their urban counterparts. The board set of games that the communities have seen is of the physical kind and very light or abstract strategy games. Very rarely have anyone seen board games being played in these communities that involves euro-style mechanics such as resource management, commodity speculation or trading. Keeping this in mind, we created a prototype that involved simple deck building mechanic. The content was produced with the help of the villagers who took part in our training. We spent couple of days asking questions about various aspects of their life all the way from daily expenses, schools their children go to, to their aspirations and social problems they face. I suspect that they found this really funny since all the answers we got for were preceded by chuckles of amusement especially from the women.
The idea was to build a game with content being pulled in from the question and answer sessions we had with them, and light strategy mechanics. We decided to use money, smiles (happiness), time and merit as the resources that can work with. The main action in the game was the part where players choose where they want to invest their limited resources including time and money. A simulation of results based on the decisions that the player took, would be embedded into the gameplay.
The trials with the early game prototypes corroborated our assumptions about the game literacy aspect – heavy euro style mechanics brought about too much importance to the play. The participants were completely focused on understanding the rules and not worrying about the operational strategy or decisions they want to take.
For us, this is a distraction given the objective we had. And the heavy strategy mechanics were starting to put off some participants. For the next play test, we modified the card game to board game with roll-and-move and a simple decision-making mechanics. This way, we could stick to our objective of triggering conversations about the content of the game and the decisions being made during the game play. Gradually, majority of the play testing sessions that we conducted started to become a community event where there were between 20-30 onlookers. These onlookers started advising them on their game actions and decisions to make – just like how these communities behave otherwise. We have created an activity guide for the participants so that they can have their own sessions with their friends from the community and also have fun playing the game. This was done in multiple villages in various states such as Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
Current status and future work
We have submitted a physical copy of this game to the Meaningful Play 2016 Conference. A case study paper on the game is also in the works. We are excited about the future where play is the preferred mode of learning for any type of education and skills training. There are more questions to be answered and ideas that need to be tested to make this dream a reality. Our current initiative is a baby step towards that vision.
Written by: Sreeram Kongeseri, Creator of Abhi Ya Kabhi from AMMACHI Labs
References and useful links
4: Level up Learning: A National Survey on Teaching with Digital Games