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  • Writer's pictureSpencer Bennington

March Madness Board Game Bracket!

Hello everyone and welcome back to the Rhetorical Roundhouse blog, a place where I share all my many interrelated teacher things. Today I’m taking a break from the Rap Rhetorics content to share with you a BRAND NEW and very exciting course I’ve been piloting this semester… Research Writing: Rhetorical Game Design!

That’s right, this semester I’ve had my Virginia Tech students designing their own board games as part of my ENGL 1106 courses. What does this have to do with learning composition skills, research methods, and rhetorical awareness? I’m so glad you asked! Here’s the explanation I provided in my syllabus:


This class is designed to expose you to the basics of academic research and how to communicate complex scholarly ideas to a variety of audiences in different rhetorical situations. Traditionally, writing from research in academic contexts means composing essays for conferences or publication in scholarly journals. This kind of writing typically follows a similar general format known as IMRAD (Introduction, Methodology, Results, Analysis of Results, Discussion of results). These five major organizational sections will help us divide our semester into modules focused on the rhetorical skills you’ll need to develop in order to become an effective researcher/writer.

For example, in the Introduction section of the course, we will be learning about what makes a good research question and why people perform research to begin with—looking at some published examples of course.

In the Methodology section of the course, we will begin to explore different quantitative and qualitative approaches to gathering data useful in helping you answer different kinds of research questions.

The Results section of the course teaches you about document design and the importance of presenting clean, well-organized, and visually attractive data.

The Analysis section of the course offers you feedback specifically on writing about various data points that you will collect throughout the semester.

And finally, the Discussion section of the class helps you better understand the written genre of the research report, the visual genre of the poster presentation, and the performative genre of the prototype demonstration.

In this course, you will learn to write a research proposal, collaborate with a design team on an extended research project, and present your research findings to multiple stakeholders in a dynamic way. This section taught by Dr. B explores various research-writing skills through the iterative and collaborative process of designing an original board game…game?

That’s right—games!

In this class, you will research game theory and design principles in addition to a topic/theme specific to your lab group. Board games afford you the wonderful opportunity to learn more about the kinds of research that occur in professional environments and/or technical fields in addition to methods more commonly employed in academic writing. In this section of 1106, you will be exposed to research methods like play-testing, user experience (UX) observations, and other qualitative/quantitative methods useful for iterative design.

The topic of this section of 1106 is “Rhetorical Game Design” and consists of four major projects:

Project 1: Research Summary with Design Proposal (20% of grade)

Project 2: Collaborative Research and Development (R&D) Report (40% of grade)

Project 3: Poster Presentation and Hokie Pitch (20% of grade)

Project 4: Course Portfolio with Reflective Letter (20% of grade)

Research solves a problem. Academic research may deal in problems of art and theory and other squishy subjects…like rhetoric. But, some academic research ventures more into the world of practical problem-solving the way “applied” research does in professional and technical environments. Even still, there’s “market” research aimed at predicting the potential success or failure for a proposed product or idea. All of these different kinds of research solve problems in their own right, for different audiences with different needs.

In this class, your audience is the Rhetorical Roundhouse Network, a charitable organization dedicated to accessible martial arts instruction and anti-violence education. They are looking to produce a new board game that helps address a problem related to their mission. If you submit a well-researched design proposal (Project 1) you may be chosen to lead a design team in prototyping, playtesting, and ultimately pitching your game.

Games can be used to facilitate social interaction, intervene in moments of psychological distress, educate or increase literacy, and/or improve mood. Can a well-researched, well-designed game, one servicing specific audience needs and fulfilling a particular purpose, be said to help solve problems? I think so.

I think games demand a great deal of creative thinking and even more diverse forms of practical research—writing about this semester-long design process then, should be useful for you no matter your major, field, or future career aspirations.

Hopefully it’s also fun.


Today I want to celebrate the many awesome prototype designs my students have put together over the past ten weeks–March Madness style! Shoutout to the inspiring VT Women's Basketball team playing in the Final Four!! That’s right, I’ve got a Sweet 16 Game Design bracket below pitting designs from different sections against each other…who will come out on top and win the grand prize of my eternal admiration? Only time will tell…

Let’s check out the first round matchups!

Below are just a few snippets of some of the game descriptions in their prototype state (from student reports and playtester instructions) as well as some insider commentary from me about how the design is actually shaking out.

Round 1: Tagged! vs. Fear Fracture: Islamophobia Edition

“Tagged” is a 3-5 player cooperative game trying to limit or eliminate the impacts and actions of animal poachers. Conservation is an ongoing issue worldwide, but “Tagged” is focused on heavy poaching areas throughout the continent of Africa. Players will pull a card that is needed to complete a task on a certain area of the map to control the poachers that are present in the area. If a player is “injured” when trying to complete their task, they will go to the “medic” and join back in on their next turn. If players visit the medic more than 5 times, the game is over and the poachers succeed, but if the conservationists protect enough wildlife by gaining control of different areas on the map, they will succeed!

“Fear Fracture: Islamophobia Edition” is a 3-5 player cooperative game inspired by Pandemic, only this time, the threat is hatred. This game features player roles with special abilities that become more powerful in combination with other players skills, thus incentivizing the different roles to collaborate in order to prevent the “terror meter” from reaching its apex, unless you want to be responsible for WWIII…

The truth is, I loved the idea for “Fear Fracture” so much that I had to include it in this blog. Unfortunately, not all of my students were jazzed about what sounded like an overly complicated gameplay experience. It’s a shame, because I think that, with the right team, this could have been an amazing project.

Tagged!, on the other hand, has made it to the prototype testing phase at this point despite a number of setbacks. The team is experiencing some collaboration/communication issues and the design of this poachers vs. conservationists gameplay proved to be a bit confusing for the playtesters. That said, their idea is cool, I want to save the rhinos, and I hope they figure out a way to make the rules more user friendly so people can actually play it at the demo.

Because “Fear Fracture” didn’t make it to the prototype stage, it won’t make it past the first round of this bracket, either. Indeed honorable is its mentrion here–kudos! The great news is many of the most interesting mechanics from Fear Fracture are being put to good use in another game featured a little later on down our list…

Round 2: Can you Survive Inside? Vs. What’s Pup Dawg?

Can You Survive Inside? is similar to the game of Life in the sense that you travel through specific challenges trying to be the first to reach the end of the board. These challenges represent real-life battles that people who serve time in prison may face both inside prison and after release. As the difficulty of the game reveals, the “back to prison” mechanic represents the high recidivism rates in the American prison system. So far this game is hard!

“What’s Pup Dawg” is a 3-5 player game ALSO similar to The Game Life where the player will move across the spaces of the board adopting (and properly caring for!) as many puppies as they can. The winner is the player with the most puppies rescued, the most points, the most money, and the most diverse collection of different dog breeds! The player will have to make calculated choices as to what breeds to adopt because some require special needs and living conditions. The purpose of this game is to help educate players on the many ways animals can be abused and to encourage people to rescue a new friend….DOG!

This is a really tough choice for me! I can say that What’s Pup Dawg? has my heart because of the pet theme and also the pun name, but I really think the issue of mass incarceration is an important one for students to research more deeply. This is a tough call, but because I am so proud of how seriously the prison gang is iterating their design (they are on version 3? of the prototype at this point), I’m going to give them the round! Both games are going to be great so I’m excited to see how they end up.

Round 3: Luck of the Die vs. Fast Fashion!

Luck of the Die will be somewhat like the popular game “chutes and ladders”. The game will simply involve the board, player tokens, and dice. The end goal of the game will be to reach the ending spot, or “prosperity”. The one thing that makes this game different is the idea of privilege—each player rolls the dice before the game begins to determine their socioeconomic class. One of the main drawing points to our game revolves around the fact that it is both enjoyable and educational. The game is designed to involve little skill so that it can be played and enjoyed by all. I feel that this is the best style game to create around social injustice as the main goal of the creation of the game is to create awareness of social injustice.

I thought this game was going to be too easy, but the second version of their prototype featured multiple possible routes so that might add enough variety. I’m still a bit curious to see if playtesters think it’s too simple…

Fast Fashion! is set up with one large board, 5 smaller “Earth boards” and 5 characters for each player. The game includes four different pollution tiles: wastewater, greenhouse gasses, microplastics, and landfill tiles. There is also a die, deck of cards, and fast fashion factory tiles. The majority of the parts and accessories of the game is made out of recyclable materials, as it aligns with the sole purpose of the game. Fast Fashion! possesses an individual motive, as well as a more collaborative goal, similar to what would be required to make change in the real world. In order to win this game, the objective is to finish with the least amount of pollution tiles on your Earth Board. The total number of cumulative tiles on all the Earths also must not surpass 48 tiles for a 3 player game, 60 for a 4 person game, and 72 for a 5 person game, or everyone will lose. The game ends once a player’s character reaches the finish line or if the total amount of pollution overwhelms the Earths.

I think research behind this topic is fascinating—I never knew just how much the fashion industry contributes to ecological issues around the globe. I like the game mechanics so far but I’m excited to see what the next prototype looks like because this team learned a lot from their first day of user observations. I kept trying to insist that this could be an overtly political game by replacing the “earth boards” with real nations…

Anyway, I think this round goes to Fast Fashion! Original idea, important research, pretty interesting combination of game mechanics and I appreciate the cooperative-competitive elements.

Round 4: $treets and Alleys vs. Climate Chaos

In Streets and Alleys, each player will begin the game as a homeless person with no money or property. Players will roll the dice to move around the board, which will consist of squares representing different scenarios, challenges, and opportunities related to homelessness and finding employment. The game will have two types of squares: Opportunity squares and Challenge squares. Opportunity squares will present players with opportunities to earn money or find a job, such as a job fair or a community service program. Challenge squares will present players with challenges and obstacles to overcome, such as hunger, illness, or eviction.

I think this is another fantastic topic for research and I appreciate how the students localized it to their hometown. I’m also really interested in the possibility of a collaborative mechanic here where you can’t win the game unless you help out one of your day-one homies. I’m not sure if that’s the direction the game is headed right now though because I haven’t seen a revised prototype…

The setting of Climate Chaos! is a dystopian future where the Earth might reach global

pollution and populations go extinct if players do not find solutions in time. The game changes

as players make choices on how to progress. Each player will represent a critical role that has

to find a way to help stop pollution: Politician, Engineer, Scientist, Technical writer, and

Environmentalist. To win, a player must make good choices throughout the game, that includes

picking “Pollution solution” cards that help you reach the goal of a safe and

healthy environment. “Pollution” cards, on the other hand, will take you closer to the end of the world, and the end of the game, by adding any type of pollution in the environment which will add to climate change/global warming, and cause health problems to the human population.

I’m particularly interested in the role-playing element of this game, especially because it may be that each role must interact with 1-2 of the others to effectively/efficiently complete in-game tasks related to reducing the overall pollution levels. This is a great example (potentially) how collaborative games can still create tension, despite the fact that players are cooperating. I’m going to have to send this one on to the next round just because of the potential—I haven’t seen an updated prototype of this one yet either, but I’m hopeful.

Round 5: Feed Frenzy vs. Hungry Hokies

Similar to the mental aspects of martial arts, Feed Frenzy is a game that represents the process of fortifying emotional stability. Players compete to construct the tallest “mental tower” and utilize “troll cards” to represent violence in the form of hate on social media to tear down

your tower. The special algorithm cards represent how the algorithm can be used as both a force for good and for evil–will players choose to strengthen their own tower or troll their opponents?

This game is perhaps the most successful prototype at this point in the class. It’s the only game that utilizes some form of a haptic/athletic/construction mechanic and it creates a dynamic, fun, competitive experience. Right now the students are using baby blocks just to experiment with the rules of the game, but I'm hoping they will 3D print their own game pieces for the final project.

Hungry Hokies is a game where players travel along a board, each beginning the game with certain stipends of money. The amount the money you start off with is representative of the different levels of income for families according to data about food insecurity in the New River Valley. There are cards in the center of the table that players must draw when they land on a decision landmark and these cards will pose the player with common everyday decisions that individuals in the NRV face every day. You are posed with choices like either eat at fast food for less money or eat a healthier option for more money. Choosing the cheaper option can result in no harm but also has the risk of drawing a setback of spots on the board game. You also can advance extra places if you fall on a charity such as: - Interfaith Food Pantry (Blacksburg) - St. Mary's Catholic Church (Blacksburg) - Dwelling Place, Blacksburg/Christiansburg) - Giving Tree (Blacksburg/Christiansburg)Team issues.

I love the theme of this game, especially now that the team has refined their issue to food insecurity among college students at VT (compared to surrounding populations in the NRV). Mechanically, it is fairly simple, but effective. If the decision cards relate specific research to players effectively, then I think this is going to be a good design. That said, it’s hard to compete with building blocks… Feed Frenzy advances to the next round!

Round 6: HOA Frenzy vs. Costs of College

The winner of HOA Frenzy (name change in progress) is based on who contributes the most to the community. At the end of the game all players will count the amount of cards they received (representing community improvements) and will calculate how many victory points they received.

I love this idea, and it reminds me of a game I saw recently called City Council, but, unfortunately, it does NOT remind me of what HOA’s actually do. So, the group is working on changing the theme to celebrate research about community-based organizations.

Shooting for Gold Stars, The Costs of College, Fortune’s Path (name change probably in progress) is a game for 3-6 players. The gameplay focuses on the disparities in quality education depending on economic status. Players randomly determine if they are lower, middle, or upper class at the start of the game, and these identities affect various in-game effects, reflecting the additional difficulties faced by people in marginalized groups. The goal is to win by having the highest score, determined by money, intelligence points, and sociability points. In addition, no player can win if the collective “test score” of all players is too low.

This is another game where I’d like to see more connections between the background research and the theme of the design, but I think it’s heading in the right direction. If the game can iron out the cooperative-competitive balance, it should end up being a pretty fun experience. I’m sending it on to the next round because I’m a teacher and education is important danggit!

Round 7: Natural Disasters vs. Dispensary Disparity

The game Natural Disasters will allow for 3-5 players a chance to respond to six

different natural disasters (earthquake, tsunami, flood, avalanche, hurricane, or a volcano

eruption). A large game board is divided into various quadrants with different types of

neighborhoods susceptible to each natural disaster (for instance, a coastal neighborhood

susceptible to hurricanes and tsunamis or a ski town in the mountain valley susceptible to an

avalanche). In each quadrant are also neighborhoods of different economic status with poorer

neighborhoods and richer neighborhoods.

I thought this game sounded like a winner, but when the team tested their original design they found it to be too confusing. It’s a shame really, but I think they scrapped the original idea altogether and are now trying to make a game mechanically similar to Space Team. I always love encouraging radical revision, but I fear they abandoned a strong, original design, for something perhaps a bit too derivative. Time will tell if they can make it their own…

In Dispensary Disparity, 3-5 players compete to grow the dankest dispensary business they can before getting busted by the Feds. There are different characters, such as lawyers (can be used to sue another person’s business), investors (give you money to upgrade your business or to open another one), and cops (will strike down your business depending on the race). That’s right, these students developed Weed Monopoly with the added layer of a systemic racism simulator…is it fun? Maybe. Is it the most elegant way to discuss the issue? Maybe not…I’m hoping this team can find the right balance between fun game play and the serious nature of the topic they selected. Because I’ve seen the prototype successfully tested, I’m advancing Dispensary Disparity to the next round.

Round 8: __ u 4 your service vs. Memory Mansion

In every military member’s career, there comes a time to hang up the uniform, put their

medals in a shadowbox, and rejoin the civilian community. Unfortunately, the transition period

immediately following a servicemember’s discharge can be a confusing and arduous process

full of red tape, hurdles, and roadblocks. “Blank You for your Service” is a board game about players taking on the roles of recently separated veterans in a support group all trying to reacclimate to civilian life. The goal of this game is to finish with the most stability points, but there is a catch; if any player hits zero stability points, the game ends with no winner. So, it is very important that all of the players work together.

This is the best co-op example of a game designed this semester. I love the research-informed character cards, and this topic/issue is well-suited for the game experience as designed.

Memory Mansion is a game that demonstrates the importance of memory. Players will need to finish tasks in each room in order to progress to the next room and receive a code for the door. The code must be memorized during the first 5 seconds in a room and the card will be discarded by the players. The goal of the game will be to make it to the vault in the center of the board before the other players. Memory Mansion will be a game suitable for 3-5 players.

Originally, this game was inspired by research into Alzheimer’s and dementia. I’m happy that students navigated the simulation problem effectively (they made a game that challenges your memory but doesn’t make you simulate the experience of someone with a degenerative brain disease) but they still haven’t fully connected their research to the final design. The game has undergone a number of changes and been made more functional, for sure, but I’m still looking for some more in-game connections to the research about the problem of early-onset Alzheimer’s and what players need to know/can do about it in the real world. Because of this, I think “__ you for Your Service” edges this one out and moves on to the next round!

Of course, I’m very proud of all of these projects and excited to see their final forms. My students just finished up their second week of prototype testing/data collection, so we will be focusing on writing longer Research and Design Reports for the next couple of weeks. I’ll be sure to share their final presentation posters and game demonstrations after the end of the semester. At that point, I’ll share more information about how I’d like to teach this class differently in the future as well as what I learned from trying to take this kind of a Digital Humanities /Critical Maker approach to teaching rhetoric, research, and iterative design.

Until then, thank you for reading OUR work 🙂


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