LEGO mockup of the game "board". It has a Mondrian thing going.

Fun & Games

I’ve been on the gamification train for a long time. Still, I haven’t run out of things to learn, so when Mary Kayler announced a gamification workshop this spring, I was eager to sign up. Creating successful gamification classes/assignments is very time intensive, and I’ve had an idea brewing in my head a long time: a visioning exercise for the intro to planning class.

Last fall, I went to the Science Museum in Richmond for what my husband called “Disaster LARPing“. He’s not far off. The participants were assigned roles and given a disaster scenario (a flood). The point of the exercise was to understand the role of community participation in resilience, plus teach people about the importance of environmental sustainability. In many ways, the activity didn’t quite work for me: it assumed too little knowledge of the participants, and therefore felt a little condescending. But it was still pretty enjoyable to play a game with both a bunch of friends and strangers, and feel like it was a constructive experience. The Cuban food afterwards didn’t hurt, either.

Disaster LARPing: Imagine this but even dorkier, inside, without costumes or weapons. But with wine. Source:


The “Disaster LARPing” wasn’t great, but it reminded me that I want a better way to teach my intro to planning class. I’ve been using SimCity 4 the entire time I’ve been at UMW, and while it’s a wonderful game, the assignment has limitations. For one, SC4 is very very old now, so it’s affordable but dated. The software is buggy. For another, while I’ve been playing SC since I was a kid back in the old b&w mac days, not all students are video gamers. Those that aren’t often complain of the learning curve of the game, and I worry that they focus too much on the game mechanics and too little on the concepts I want them to learn. Plus, I’ve been wanting to make the course more speaking intensive. Planning is all about interpersonal work, about negotiation, so learning alone in front of a screen doesn’t sit well with me. Finally, and to be honest, I’m bored with the SC assignment. In all my other classes, assignments are different every year, but the SC assignment hasn’t meaningfully changed in a decade. I’m over it.*

So… at the start of the workshop, I knew most of my parameters:
– Speaking intensive, “real world” game, rather than a digital game.
– Focus on the Rational Comprehensive Plan, same as SC.
– Game needs to fit in one or a maximum of two 75 minute class sessions.
– Game needs to work for teams and accommodate anywhere from 15 to 30 students.

Plus, I had case studies to think about: the disaster LARPing I had done back in the fall, plus other visioning exercises in which I had participated in the past. While most visioning exercises aren’t games, they are well-established and well-regarded in the planning world, so there’s literature available to help.

Brainstorming notes

While my game concept isn’t complicated, I also had lots of questions going in:
Should students prep before the exercise, or just jump right in? Should they have specialized roles, like representing specific community members, or just be “neutral” elected officials? Should they work with others or mostly alone? Should the game be entirely cooperative or have some competitive pieces?

Furthermore, avoiding a steep learning curve is very, very tough. I don’t want students to spend half the class being explained what to do with the game.

Games and supplies to inspire innovative design. Not pictured: pizza to inspire the same.
Games and supplies to inspire innovative design. Not pictured: pizza to inspire the same.

To get there, I’ve used old-fashioned techniques:
– Thinking while I’m walking or showering or whatever. (And taking notes when inspiration hits!)
– Bouncing ideas off other people. That has been THE BEST aspect of the workshop. They have helped me come up with ideas I never would have gotten to on my own. Plus, I’ve had some ideas to share with others, which has made me feel helpful, not to mention been super fun.
– Using pieces and mechanics I know already. I’m not about reinventing the wheel, so I’ve freely stolen from existing stuff. And, needless to say, I’m taking advantage of the LEGO collection.
– Design, test, think, repeat. There’s just no beating this to make a good game.

LEGO mockup of the game "board". It has a Mondrian thing going.
LEGO mockup of the game “board”. It has a Mondrian thing going.

Since the workshop started in February, I’ve gotten from general concept to asking a million questions to developing an idea and making a basic setup. Right now, I’m in the fine-tuning stage. Not quite ready to commit to any design yet. Having designed games before, I know this is a phase that can’t be rushed. Better to figure out all the niggling problems now rather than have to blow up a beautiful finalized design later. So: no pretty finished product to show yet. But I can visualize it, and I’m having fun getting there. I’m hopeful students will enjoy the game and learn from it as much as I have designing it.


* Current HISP209 students Who have read this far, *of course* I don’t mean *your* SimCity Paper. I know yours will be an absolute delight.

Leave a Comment