William and I are in the middle of a game of Napoleon’s Triumph, the hard-to-find board game that models the battle of Austerlitz. The game jumped to the front of our to-play list when William finally acquired a copy in excellent condition two weeks ago, and after a few hours of tense in-game decision-making, we are already much impressed.
William and I had a conversation about game aesthetics on Saturday, in the context of a board game meet-up where he acquired a game he had long yearned for, but which is out of print and difficult to find. The game is called Napoleon’s Triumph, and it models the battle of Austerlitz (with some ingenious mechanics, by the way).
When I introduced Sans-Papiers (the immigration game) to Isaac Joslin at the University of Denver, we had the luxury of playtime. We spent half an hour or so playing the game together, as I explained the rules in context and we navigated the situations that came up in our particular game. Isaac hadn’t played a tabletop role-playing game before, so the mechanics were new to him, although he picked them up quickly and, I felt, came away from the session with an understanding not just of how the rules functioned as we used them in that instance, but how the RPG models what it tries to model and how its rules serve the game. I was pretty confident that he would be ready to teach the game to his students, but the reality is that many students are not experienced in playing a wide variety of tabletop games; even with an experienced teacher, there is a learning curve to games that has to be addressed.
This week, Isaac Joslin of the University of Denver reports on playtesting Sans-Papiers with his students. Isaac is a specialist in African francophone literature and film, and this course dealt specifically with the immigrant experience in France. Check out his bio at DU’s website. Here’s what he has to say about the game:
Sans-Papiers: role-playing and social realism in the language and culture classroom
By Isaac Joslin – University of Denver
UPDATE, JULY 5 2015:
I went looking again for the research paper when I found that the pre-publication draft was no longer available through BrainQuake. A new version of the results is now downloadable through their “Backed by Science” page; after taking a look at it, I must disappointedly confess that I find it to be deliberately misleading regarding the kinds of conclusions that can be drawn from the study. It isn’t simply that language such as “dramatic math learning results that no one had believed were possible” are outlandish overstatements. It is hand-waving over the definition of “comparison group,” and corresponding outright dishonesty about the study’s rigor.
I devoted part of the last session of French current events this semester to collecting feedback about the students’ experience playing games in class. This week, I was able to take a look at the results.
While the survey proved to be more of a lesson, for me, on how not to write surveys, I did glean some interesting comments and overall impressions of what students experienced. Here is a selection of student comments, with my thoughts.
Sans-Papiers is a role-playing game about being an undocumented immigrant in France. French president François Hollande officially inaugurated the Musée de l’histoire de l’immigration last December, and there’s been a mix of stories about immigrants in the French news lately: in March, a young undocumented Albanian man won the prestigious “best apprentice in France” medal; France is taking some serious criticism for its treatment of Roma people; and of course, the far-right nationalist party known as the National Front has gained a surprising, or alarming, amount of political ground over the past year. There have also been a staggering number of deaths at sea of immigrant hopefuls trying to cross the Mediterranean in small, fragile crafts.
As promised, today the students had a last game of EU v. Russia, which one of the them joyously re-baptized “Pride and Presidents.” Two games ran simultaneously (A and B, 6 students and 7 students), and took just about the whole 50-minute period, although I did have to start timing Russia A, who had adopted a stalling tactic.
Both games were close, but Russia squeaked by for the win in each case. That makes Russia undefeated in the eight games we’ve played over four sessions. Although some games have come down to a single victory point’s difference in the final score, Russia’s clear in-game advantage is something I’ve been working to balance out – to an extent – for several weeks.
For the past few weeks, the 15 students in my current events French class have been playing a game designed to model a struggle between Russia and the European Union to gain or retain influence over Europe’s outlying countries. What with Russia’s presence in the Ukraine since early 2014 and fears about Greece abandoning the euro and somehow aligning with Russia, the game provides a way for us to explore how fears and projections of spreading Russian influence might play out.
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