Fair game: Course challenges students to think outside the board

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Some people, when looking at popular games like chess, Monopoly or Scrabble, might see a decorative board, a few colored pieces and a set of rules. With a little strategy and often a lot of luck, a winner emerges.

Christopher Chabris views games differently. The associate professor of psychology and co-director of the neuroscience program, Chabris considers games cultural artifacts worthy of intellectual study equal to music, art and literature.

Besides their perch atop the world consumer’s leisure time, pushing past books, magazines and other forms of entertainment, games have also inspired or served as metaphors for discoveries about strategic interaction in a variety of fields, including mathematics, social relations and political science.

And while games have always been played for diversion, many now involve professional competition, with huge amounts of money (World Series of Poker) or national pride on the line (World Chess Championship).

“Games take up more and more of our time,” said Chabris. “But we don’t really think about them deeply. What are the components? What are the different types of games? Why are some games popular, while others are not? What makes games enjoyable? There is so much more to games beyond what you see on the surface.”

Chabris was the lead instructor for a course this spring simply titled, “Games.” Each year the College offers an interdisciplinary course open to all students that focuses on a single topic and is taught by a variety of professors. Known as the Minerva Course, it has featured topics such as presidential elections, oil, food, technology and society, and globalization.

A chess master who writes a monthly column for the Wall Street Journal on games, Chabris was ideally suited to teach the 10-week elective course.

To get started, the 50 students in the course spent three evenings playing three distinct games: Settlers of Catan (the most popular contemporary European-style game), Hive (an abstract strategy game) and Citadels (a modern card game).

Students were also treated to a series of guest lectures from Union faculty and outside experts. For example, John Rieffel, assistant professor of computer science, gave talks on artificial intelligence and computer game playing, as well as 3D printing and game prototyping. George Gmelch, professor of anthropology, presented an overview of baseball culture. Stephen Schmidt, professor of economics, spoke on game theory, while Cay Anderson-Hanley, associate professor of psychology, discussed games and the brain. Others who gave talks were John Cox, lecturer in choral and orchestral music; Maggie Tongue, direct of the scholars program; and James de Seve, filmmaker-in-residence.

Outside experts included a three-time World Series of Poker champion (Matt Matros); a board game designer (Hassan Lopez of Skidmore College) and a video game developer (Morgan McGuire of Williams College).

The highlight of the course was the group project, in which three-person teams were required to design their own game.

Angelica Rivera ’18, an English major from Queens, took the course because “growing up with three brothers, we were always playing different games. I thought it would fun to learn more about them.”

A fan of card games, Rivera and her teammates created a game called .50 Cal, a multiplayer card game with several twists, in which players race to accumulate 50 points while playing their hands face-up and making strategic decisions to thwart other players.

“We wanted a game where you needed some skill, but it would be more based on the luck of the draw,” Rivera said.

One of the more intriguing games devised is National Security, a game with both competitive and cooperative elements. Each player has the role of a U.S. intelligence agency (e.g., CIA, FBI, NSA, etc.) and must cooperate with the others to accomplish some goal (e.g., stopping a terrorist attack) while also competing for limited resources, and for the recognition and credit for the government's overall success.

One of the game’s creators was Caleb Novins’ 15. A double major in political science and physics, Novins wasn’t quite sure what to expect when he signed up for “Games.”

“It turned out to be a much deeper topic than I thought,” said Novins, from Stamford, Conn. “It’s more than just board games.”

Other student-designed games include Pirate Purge, a strategy board game; Mudslingers, a simulation of the U.S. presidential election; and Conquer the Road, a driving-themed collectible card game.

All 18 games designed by the class will be on display this Friday, June 5, from noon to 3 p.m. as part of Games Fair in Wold Atrium. The campus community is invited to come and try them out.

So how did Chabris think the course played out?

“I hope the students learned that games are just as much worthy of analysis and intellectual scholarship and study as any other kind of human activity,” he said. “I’d like to offer the course again sometime.”