Do the Thing: Philosophy Teaching with Practical Workshops (guest post)

“There is such an enormous and useful energy in bouncing back and forth between the theoretical and the practical.”

In the following guest post, Cat Saint-Croix (University of Minnesota) and C. Thi Nguyen (University of Utah) discuss why and how they’ve brought “practical workshops” into their philosophy teaching.

This is the eighth in a series of weekly guest posts by different authors at Daily Nous this summer.

[Posts in the summer guest series will remain pinned to the top of the page for the week in which they’re published.]


Do the Thing: Philosophy Teaching with Practical Workshops
Cat Saint-Croix & C. Thi Nguyen

Thi: A few years ago I had this weirdly incredible opportunity. I’d just finished up an entire book about the philosophy of games—about game aesthetics, and about what the special medium of games was. And I had just taken a job at University of Utah, which happens to have one of the world’s very biggest and very best game-design departments. I’d already been collaborating with one of the game design faculty, Jose Zagal, and we thought it would be very awesome to co-teach something for game design students.

At first we were going to do just a straightforward info-dump class where we taught a bunch of theory about games and play. But the game design program is very practical, very technical, very programming and animation oriented program, and we were unsure how many of its students would actually voluntarily take a humanities-type theory class. Then Jose had an idea. There was a curriculum requirement for game design majors, for a “design theory” class, and the department needed more of those. But the catch was that it had to be practice-heavy. Up to half the teaching could be theory, and half the work could be written assignments. But the students also had to make things. Half the assignments had to be design assignments. Jose didn’t know if I’d be into it, but my first thought was: “Hell yeah!” (My second thought was: “Oh my crap, what in God’s name have I gotten myself into?”)

The only reason I thought it was even possible was because of Meg Wallace, who had written a while back, on Aesthetics for Birds, this incredible piece about her “Introduction to Philosophy Through Circus Arts” class. She’s a metaphysician, but her passion-hobby is circus arts. She’d tried this wild experiment: she’d taught an introduction to philosophy class, done by alternating traditional lectures with practical workshops on the circus arts. Like: she’d give a lecture on Aristotle on skills, and then the next class, a visiting instructor would teach them to juggle. And then they’d discuss what this illuminated about Aristotle on skills. It worked incredibly well, she said, far beyond her wildest dreams, that the energy between the lecture half and the practical half just seemed to work—that it was far from a gimmick, but actually an incredible way to teach philosophy.

So we tried it: a philosophy of play class with integrated game-design practical workshops. We’ve taught it twice now. Here’s how it goes: Tuesday is lecture day; Jose and I take turns giving lectures; Thursday is workshop day, with some activity directly related to the lecture. Sometimes we have them play some interesting game we’ve picked out—usually something experimental and moody, like The Quiet Year, where you all take turns narrating the twists and turns of one small village surviving after the apocalypse, and drawing every new event on a collective map. Sometimes we have them modify games, trying to change their mood and feel, to hit some specific target. In one class, we give them a completely broken game, and ask them to make it better only by removing rules. And then they start making their own games and workshopping them in class.

The lecture always feeds directly into the workshop activity and the assignments. Like the first year we taught the class, we taught them the philosophy of horror and debates about the paradox of why we like painful art. Then we played a difficult role-playing game about unfair power imbalances. And then we gave them the following assignment: design a game that captured the emotional experience of being a student during the pandemic.

I have been utterly shocked by how well the whole package works. There is such an enormous and useful energy in bouncing back and forth between the theoretical and the practical. The game design students have reported that the class is transformative for their careers; lots of them have told us that it’s totally widened their sense of what their games could be and changed their artistic goals. But the thing I really didn’t expect is how great it’s been for the non-game-designers. The class is crosslisted with philosophy, and the philosophy majors love it, too. Not just as a fun lark; they keep telling me how much the workshops deepened their engagement with the core theoretical issues. There is something incredibly valuable about bouncing back and forth between theories, and rich, grounded, specific practice.

Cat: It’s striking to me how trepidatious both of us were about these classes despite the pedagogy being dead-on! I think I first started seriously mulling over the idea for my Tabletop Philosophy class after chatting with Rima Basu about her class on the problem of evil, in which she’d done the syllabus and assignments up with a Dungeons & Dragons-inspired motif in order to bring a little levity and distance into a pretty heavy class. But actually playing the games, I thought, had so much potential!

Role-playing games have been a part of my life since before I could even play them—I remember sitting under the table in my parents’ basement while my brothers and their friends fought hydras, dragons, and swarms of rats above. Over the last five or so years, though, I’ve played in a weekly game. During that time, I kept finding myself asking and discussing philosophical questions about it:

  • Is Dungeons & Dragons actually a game? (No one wins, after all…)
  • A form of art? (It’s improv theater with more steps, right?)
  • What’s true in these co-created worlds? (If I believe my character has blue hair, but my Dungeon Master (a.k.a. DM, the player who controls monsters and non-player characters and takes on the roles of referee and storyteller) and fellow players don’t know that, what’s true about my character’s hair? Who decides? What happens when the DM believes my character’s hair is black instead?)
  • What’s the relationship between players and their characters? Can we wrong one another in the game? (Without cheating?)
  • Can we learn to be better people through playing these kinds of games?

These questions coalesced into Tabletop Philosophy, a class which combined philosophy and tabletop role-playing games. The basic idea was simple: students would play the games, and we would study these questions using their experience as a shared touchstone. I won a small Teaching Innovation Grant back in 2019 to develop the course and truly felt like I was getting away with something. Playing the games was essential, though: In building the course, I worried that students’ vastly differing experiences would hold them back. How do you ask a student who’s never done any role-playing to opine on whether role-playing can be a tool for moral learning? All the worse when they’re sitting across from another student whose entire social life has been organized around a Call of Cthulu role-playing campaign for the last four years. The students needed common ground, and this is how Tabletop Philosophy became a practice class.

Here’s how the class was structured. Most meetings were pretty normal: a bit of chalk & talk, some individual reflection, and a good amount of discussion. But, every other week or so, our Wednesday meetings became Game Nights. Class began at 4pm, as it did every meeting, but students stayed late—sometimes until 7:30 or so—to play. Each evening’s game was chosen to draw out a particular experience that would be the topic of discussion for subsequent meetings. At these subsequent meetings, students were brimming with arguments, positions, and enthusiasm. They staked out intellectual territory and wanted to defend it. They had fun, and so did I.

These gaming sessions also provided fodder for a range of assessments. In the short term, students used their Game Night experiences as the basis for (Meta-)Stories, which were short pieces of creative writing. Students could take on the perspective of their character, writing a journal entry or a letter home to their family, or they could engage in more philosophical reflection. In the medium-term, students could use their Game Night experiences as part of their arguments in Five-Sentence Papers, which are short writing assignments directed toward teaching students the bare bones of written philosophical argumentation. Similarly, students were encouraged to use their experiences in their longer essays. And they did. Students used their experiences to rebut, expand, precisify, concur with, and upend the course readings. They did so with confidence and vigor.

In our experience, this is a common result for Practice Classes. The rest of this article is about why that might be and how you can try it out. If you do, please let us know how it goes!

Why It Works

Thi: I think, in a way, I lucked into an incredibly neat topic combination. A great thing about games is that they can happen in the classroom; they’re the right size. You don’t have to imagine doing the thing, and you don’t have to rely on the varying experiences of the students. You can just all play the same game right there. And making games is entirely possible in the classroom setting, too.

Cat: Right! This set-up gives the students an opportunity not only to have the experience, but to have it with the knowledge that they’ll be discussing it and applying the readings to it later on. My students commented on this directly, in fact, talking about how they felt like they were sometimes watching themselves playing the game!

Thi: I had a professor in grad school who taught a philosophy of mind seminar on pain, and at the beginning of each class he made us rap our hands on the table until it hurt, just to have the phenomena there, and not distant. The funny thing about ethics is so often, you can’t really do it in class. You don’t really want to bring into the classroom the possibility of real harm. But with games, circus arts, and the like you can actually do it. You can talk about the theory of the thing, and then just get completely absorbed in doing the thing, and maybe you forget about the theory for a while. Then right afterwards when we go to discussion, you can have this very theoretical, philosophical discussion while the phenomenon is so fresh in your mind. It’s such a different way of teaching, where you constantly walk back and forth between the theoretical and the real, actual phenomenon. And it just worked so well—to actually have some full real experience freshly in everybody’s mind, and then taking that back to a more theoretical discussion. Or having the theory in mind and then actually trying to execute it—to actually try and make a game in the image of some aesthetic account of the joy of investigation, or some philosophical account claiming, like, that play was the experience of pure freedom.

I remember one particular class, where we had talked about different specific aesthetic effects possible through game mechanics. I was really concerned with this presumption that a lot of people have that games are just for fun, or that the best thing a game can be is addictive, and I wanted to get across a sense of the potential broadness of aesthetic effects. We read some stuff about the wide space of potential aesthetic qualities—about how art can be beautiful and clever, but also horrifying, cathartic, sorrowful, comic, eerie. And then we played The Mind—a game where a group of people have to cooperate to play their randomly numbered cards in order, but without talking or communicating or signaling in any way. And in the breakdown discussion after the game, Jose asked the students: what was that game about? And the students were just full of specific aesthetic commentary. One said the game was about intimacy, about getting inside each other’s head. And another said it was about making the experience of time palapable, about getting everybody to develop and tune into a shared collective sense of timing.

Cat: This is such an excellent example, because it’s not at all the kind of response that would arise from asking students to imagine what playing The Mind would be like. In fact, whenever I’ve described this game to friends and family, the main response is befuddlement. But, actually playing the game brings about this completely different understanding—it feels like playing in a silent quartet. But that’s not the kind of experience most people have, much less can imagine without playing the game. The deck of cards and the rules of the game are tools for creating the experience we wanted to study.

I think this is similar to what we’re trying to do with thought experiments—we’re trying to get students to imagine what we want to study. In explaining her inspiration for The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (1973), Ursula Le Guin gives credit to William James’ “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”. There, James posits a familiar consequentialist knot: Is it, in fact, right to keep one person in misery if doing so brings about the happiness of many others? Omelas’ sacrificial summer festival breathes life into the consequentialist calculus. The question feels urgent and vivid.

During the unit on moral learning, I have students play a Dungeons & Dragons module—a storytelling template including characters, maps, points of interest and so on—that embodied this same question. Students’ characters had to decide whether to free the sacrificial innocent, despite knowing that the sacrifice was making good, happy lives possible for the people they’d met. They struggled with the question, seriously considering both options, trying to find a way out, and trying to separate their own views from the views of their characters.

Where thought experiments can feel desiccated and unmoving, causing students to latch on to strange details or fill in the blank faces of trolley victims with portraits of anything from friends and grandmothers to bullies and dictators, living the experience through D&D seemed to forestall this freewheeling. And, because their characters—to whom the students had given families, histories, and moral viewpoints—made the decisions, they felt them as more than just compliance or violation with the dictates of one moral theory or another. Rather than resisting imagining themselves in a situation they found absurd (“Who is going around tying all of these people to random train tracks??” “No one would allow this innocent person to be tormented like this!”), they gave themselves over to the story they were co-creating. And then, they talked about it in class. They used those feelings as the basis of their responses to ideas about the nature of moral learning and simulation as a tool for moral learning. Because they had a shared, first-personal experience to discuss, they were able to relate to one another’s experience and appreciate the fine details of fellow students’ experiences.

Thi: Yeah, exactly. In other philosophy classes, students often run off and apply the theories to their own lives. Well, they do it sometimes, when you’re lucky. But those applications are often haphazard, and it’s really only happening with the more engaged students. In our practice classes, we all go through precisely the same activity. We can pick over the details. And as a teacher, I can finely select the activity to match. The first time we did it, some of our activity ideas worked, and some were just ok, and some crashed and burned. So we could fine tune and tweak, to find the right resonant pairings between reading and workshop.

The games thing is also just so nicely portable and enclosed. One summer I got to teach a study abroad summer class for travel abroad students, and I did an aesthetics class in London. We could, for example, read the theory of street art and then go for a walking tour of street art. But that was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. The games, by contrast, don’t require a specific setting, but can be played anywhere.

I suspect that this is a rich vein to mine—that there are plenty of theory/practice pairings that would be just as fruitful. But which ones will be unique to the teacher. Meg took the circus arts, which she loved, and just made it work. I keep imagining other possibilities—I don’t know, like an environmental philosophy class with gardening, or a class on the philosophy of well-being and meaning, combined with, like meditation exercises or something. Or one could pursue avenues unique to particular environments (like, again, if you’re teaching in London, you can just do walking tours of street art on the regular).

Cat: Yeah, the constraints of normal University education—50-75 minutes in a campus classroom—really shape what we can do. And, while games are an excellent tool for expanding the range of what we can do within those constraints, curating the right selection is a huge challenge (a challenge that will, we think, show up in any practice-based class). We had to choose games that could fit into the right amount of time (Twilight Imperium’s advertised 4-8 hour play time, for example, is a drastic underestimation), were simple (or forgiving) enough to learn quickly, and that would reliably produce the right kind of experience. Though that last one is, perhaps, a fool’s errand. In my own class, for example, we ended up having an entirely different discussion than I’d planned when we played Ten Candles, a “tragic horror” role-playing game. Ten Candles is a bleak game. No character survives the game, and every player knows this going in. Here’s how the game describes itself:

This is a game about telling a story. The story that you will tell is not a kind one, and far from a happy one. It is the sort of story that has sharp edges. The kind that lingers long after it’s gone, nesting in nightmares and drifting on every shadow. The kind that no one wants to tell. The kind that needs to be told.

This is a story is about what happens in the dark. This is a story about survivors trying to light up their little corner of the world and do something meaningful within it in the few hours they have left. This is a story about desperation. It is a story about people like you and I fighting back against the darkness, only to inevitably and inescapably be consumed by it.

During the setup, players progressively light candles and darken the room. As candles go out, their characters die and they narrate their deaths. (This, of course, was the only class all semester in which someone unwittingly walked into the wrong room. They quickly exited, realizing that what appeared, I’m sure, to be some sort of séance or summoning ritual was not their class.)

I’d chosen Ten Candles for the unit on whether role-playing games are art, showcasing a game that would give them an undeniably aesthetically meaningful experience. But, instead of telling somber stories of survival and dying hope, there were Muppet transformation plagues on Muppet Island! Almost every group shifted toward comedic horror. So, the conversation shifted, too: we talked about how timing, context, and intimacy (playing the game with classmates rather than old friends) changed the aesthetic experience they created together. Eventually we got to the topics I’d planned, but letting the discussion follow the experience was incredibly fruitful. I think the lesson from Ten Candles is that these classes also require one to embrace spontaneity and flexibility in the classroom. Because you’re curating experiences and using them as the basis of class discussion, the conversation that follows is much less predictable than, say, another trolley problem breakdown.

Thi: I strongly suspect this kind of class is not one where you can just steal somebody else’s syllabus whole. It has to come from you, the person you are, your life outside of philosophy. The circus arts work for Meg, because she’s lived them for years. Cat and I are intensely into games, and we know a ton about them. The practical class works because of this tight relationship between the abstraction of the theory, and the very grounded particulars of the practical stuff. So I doubt somebody who wasn’t into games could just teach our syllabi, just like there is no way in hell I could teach Meg’s circus arts class. But Cat and I thought maybe if we talked about what we did and why, and what worked, then other people might have something else, from their full human life, that they could use to build their own practical philosophy class.

Cat: This is especially true because of the students these classes attract! Tabletop Philosophy filled up on the first day of undergraduate registration—these were, with exactly one exception, students who love role-playing games. They knew all of the new games, they were immersed in the culture, and they used that knowledge in class every day. So, if nothing else, it’s important to choose topics that are part of your life so that you don’t get caught out!

Thi: And I think a thing that really worked well for all the examples we have so far is that they’re very low-stakes activities. At least on some of the service-learning type classes, you have students out in the community doing morally important things. And you really don’t want to let to let them have that much freedom when they’re doing it. If they’re actually running a soup kitchen for actual hungry people, you don’t want them to fuck it up. So you often end up being really regimented. Cat and I felt like the thing we were doing was a bit different, in part because it was relatively low-stakes. Meg says that it’s crucial that, like, juggling didn’t matter. If the students screwed up learning it, that was OK. Students could really experiment, could really try out weird stuff and put themselves into it. They could try really bold experiments, and some of them could crash and burn—and whatever, it was fine! And it seems really respectful of the students too—of their creative powers and their intellectual autonomy—to take the rails off and let them run free.

Cat: Right. Rather than testing the theories they’ve learned under their own direction, service learning activities generally give students fairly strict guidelines about what to do and how. And that makes sense: If a student decides that the best way to contribute to their community’s park system is to mow the wildflower patch and plant easy-to-manage lawn grass, next year’s crop of service-learning students won’t be welcomed back!

Thi: I should also say: my tendency is to over-pack classes. I just want students to read so much, be exposed to so much. I was pretty anxious about this class, that we just couldn’t cover as much reading or terrain. And I just think, in my experience, that the students learned more, and understood it more deeply, than pure theory classes. I mean, I’ve taught philosophy of play and games classes in a more traditional manner, and this was just better. I don’t think you can do this for every topic, and I don’t think every student would prefer this method, and I certainly don’t think all our philosophy classes should be like this. But it was just wild to me how well it worked as a way of understanding the philosophy material for pure philosophy students, and not just as a way to connect to practitioners.

Some Specifics About Our Classes

Cat: So, let’s get into the details. As I mentioned above, the topics for Tabletop Philosophy were built around the questions I’d been mulling over: In what sense are role-playing games games? Are they a form of art? How does the co-creation of worlds affect what’s true in them? And so on. But, choosing readings for this course was a bit challenging for two reasons. First, there really isn’t much philosophical work on role-playing games. There’s a good body of literature on games in general, but role-playing games don’t fit neatly into a lot of the existing theory. Second, because Tabletop Philosophy is an Honors course, the student body is academically diverse. Honors classes at the University of Minnesota are capped at 19 students, so the course was small, but everyone from engineering to english and beyond was enrolled. This meant that, while many of them were interested in philosophy, few had much substantive background. For both of these reasons, I decided it would be helpful for students to follow the development of a central perspective—Thi’s views from Games: Agency as Art—and to see whether they agreed with those views (often with other readings as a foil) and how they applied to role-playing games. I’ll tweak this some in the years to come, but I think this was a good approach; students got to know the central view well and could apply it nimbly to new contexts.

As for the “practice” part of the practice class, choosing role-playing games that both fit the timeframe and felt relevant to the class was not easy, even with the extended Game Night sessions. Nevertheless, I think we settled on an excellent selection: students played Sign, which is a game that recalls the development of Nicaraguan Sign Language. Students cannot speak throughout the game, and must develop a sign language together in order to build relationships and get to know one another’s characters. I chose Sign for our discussions of games as a means of communicating agencies, which is the idea that the rules and goals of a game can be used as a way to package, share, and practice different forms of agency. I’ve already discussed Ten Candles and Dungeons & Dragons, though it’s worth mentioning that D&D had two sessions: one devoted to character creation and setup, and a second for play. The bookends of the course were Honey Heist and Microscope. Honey Heist is a cute one-page RPG meant to warm students up to the silliness, spontaneity, and vulnerability they’d need to be comfortable with in class. Here’s the summary of the game:

It’s Honeycon 2017. You are going to undertake the greatest heist the world has ever seen. Two Things –
One: You have a complex plan that requires precise timing.
Two: You are a GODDAMN BEAR.

Microscope, on the other hand, is a world-building game in which players create vast histories by zooming in and out of particular moments. I chose this game to drive the discussion of truth in fiction, because the game allows players to add scenes anywhere they want in the timeline at any point in the game. This means they can change the meanings, causes, outcomes, etc of already established parts of the fiction!

Perhaps out of fear that it would look like students weren’t doing much if a wandering dean happened to pop by the classroom during one of these game nights, I developed a lot of assignments for this class (but also built in a good amount of flexibility). Students were required to produce four Meta-Stories (creative writing about their gaming sessions), five Five-Sentence Papers (bare-bones arguments designed to teach the structure of philosophical writing), two short papers, and a final project. The Meta-Stories and Five-Sentence papers were graded on a simple ✔-, ✔, ✔+ system, while the papers and final projects were traditionally graded. For the final projects, students could either write a paper on a topic of their choosing, revise and extend one of their short papers, or design their own role-playing game. Unsurprisingly, the majority chose to design their own games. I was absolutely floored by the quality of their work. During the final meeting of the course, students presented their games. I have never before heard students absolutely gush over their classmates projects! One student, a fashion design major, created a game all about infiltrating New York Fashion Week (fashion crime? lose 500 followers), another made a one-page RPG called Ruffians about kids putting together a heist, and another made a game about inter-species bird flocks surviving the cycle of seasons together. There were so many beautiful little games that came out of their work!

As it turns out, by the way, fear of wandering deans was unnecessary—the University is wonderfully supportive of the class.

Thi: Jose and I arranged our class into five units. Each unit has a theme: we did an opening unit on general aesthetics theories and different theories of games; a unit on ideas of creativity in play; a unit on “negative games”—frustrating, traumatic, and painful games; and a unit on competition and sportsmanship. Each unit was linked to one writing assignment and one game design assignment.

We’ve done the class twice, with about 30 students each time. The game design assignments are tailored to the length of the class. Every game was an analog game—board game, card game, physical game. It had to be playable in 15 or so minutes, so that we could do in-class workshops where groups of 3 or 4 students could play all of each others’ games, and comment on them within a single class period.

We got so many delightful games in the class—and so many brilliant ones, and so many moving ones. There were games of tabletop golf played with plastic forks and knives. There was a game where people took turns exploring childhood memories of physical spaces while drawing them into a map—and then tearing up the map while talking how they could never go back to their childhoods. There was a Pictionary variant where every guess had to be put in the form of an insulting comment from a snotty art critic. (“Wait, is that an elephant? My god, that’s the worst elephant I’ve ever seen. You call that a trunk?”) There was a game where different players secretly received completely different fictional interpretations of what the pieces meant, so they were playing in different fictional worlds without realizing it.

We mainly ungraded the class. We figured that the class was so weird, and grading creative acts like game design so artificial, that we cooked up a weird mix of specs grading and ungrading. We gave them tons of written evaluations, but it just seemed natural to avoid traditional grading in the class. There were ten assignments over the course of the class, graded pass/fail, and they had to pass 8 of them. If they did 8, they got a minimum of a B in the class. (And if they did 7, they got a B-, etc. etc.) No extra credit for passing more than 8. Then they had an opportunity at the end of the class to explain what grade they thought they actually deserved and why. Basically, we had no problems. Students were pretty honest and pretty much asked for the grade we would have given them. (There were a couple cases were a student dramatically underestimated their performance and we had to say, like, “Stop being so modest, you deserve an A.”) Honestly, buy-in and interest in the class was so high that most students pretty much gave it their best, and the few that didn’t knew it. The 8-out-of-10 structure also let students do more of what they wanted to do—they could do an even split, but they could also do 5 writing assignments and 3 game design assignments or vice versa. For me, it was a lesson in how productive it can be, to stop worrying about the test-and-evaluate mentality, and just try to see how far you can go as a teacher, when you stop worrying about being an evaluator. The core atmosphere of the class—of a creative, collaborative, deeply curious venture—would have been pretty spoiled if Jose and I had to give grades to their game designs. And the students wouldn’t have felt as free to take risks.

Jose had the brilliant idea of staging a public game festival as their final assignment, as a group project. (By the way, I was so lucky to have a collaborator who was an experienced practical design teacher. Jose knows so much about how to conduct design workshops.) We had the class self-nominate games they’d made in the class, and then the class read all their nominations and did some collective curation, selecting twelve games which would represent what we’d done in the class. (This was another subtly excellent navigation from Jose—he thought that if we told them to select the twelve “best” games people’s feelings would be hurt, but trying to find a representative spread was a much more pleasant communal aim.) Then the students whose games had been chosen refined and improved those games as their final project, and the rest of the students became the “curators” and wrote critical commentaries on the chosen games. We published these as a booklet, which also was a sweet little keepsake.

And then the grand finale of the class: we got a space and staged a four hour public festival. The students invited their friends, fellow-students, and family members, and people wandered around the room playing different student games. And let me tell you: going to your students’ festival and playing their games with them and laughing with them and fighting complex thumb war games with them and then sharing traumatic childhood memories in a drawing game with them, is a pretty satisfying cap to a class. There was even a game where all the players played game designers, who were building a game-within-a-game, and had to debate the aesthetic merits of randomly generated possible new rules—and then they had to play the game-within-a-game they’d made.

Cat: As you might guess, we don’t think there’s an easy recipe for creating these classes, but they’re worth the trouble. And, there are some topics that might lend themselves to the practice-based format. For example, a class on Wellbeing and Happiness might incorporate meditation or might use gardening as a tool for thinking about nurturing and observation. More elaborately, one might include a meal-planning project that uses different theories of wellbeing (hedonism, desire-satisfaction, value-fulfillment, objective list, etc) to build out meal plans. There’s a lot of room to play with these ideas! The best place to start, as Thi said above, is what you love outside of philosophy. What piques your interest? What do you know inside and out? What is it your non-philosophy friends wish you would stop trying to turn into philosophy? What, when you take a break from philosophy, do you do?

Additional Links:

[image: a modification of “Dice” by Peter Downsbrough]


Philosophy Teaching Games
What Video Games to Play in a Philosophy Classroom
Which Video Games for Which Philosophical Lessons?
New: Journal of the Philosophy of Games
Philosophy Game Jam

Horizons Sustainable Financial Services
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Reginald King
9 months ago

I hate to be a spoilsport here, and I’m glad to see these professors are trying to make class fun, but I really feel a philosophy class should involve rigourous, sober and serious study of the relevant texts. When I was studying Philosophy in the UK many years ago, we most certainly didn’t play games – we were instructed to read the texts of Michael Dummett, and of Frege, and we were expected to sit quietly and read and focus. There is of course time for conversation after class (discussing the text with classmates), but the air of seriousness of these interactions helped install a lasting respect for the weight of the ideas we were engaging with. I am not suggesting philosophy cannot be fun, but the enjoyment I feel is best felt through the understanding of a difficult text, not through lighthearted board games.

Tom Ashford
Tom Ashford
Reply to  Reginald King
9 months ago

This is ludicrous, what on earth does the *atmosphere* have to do with understanding of the text? And why waste teaching time reading in silence? In particularly with such a famously hard to read author like Dummett, for whom I doubt many students understand very well on first reading – that’s precisely the kind of author you *should* be discussing!

Reply to  Reginald King
9 months ago

I for one think reading philosophy went downhill with the electric light. Only kerosene, beeswax, or (best) tallow match the seriousness of philosophy.

Daniel Weltman
Reply to  Reginald King
9 months ago

Oh no! I was out late last night drinking copiously at one of the many excellent local pubs and I have completely neglected to prepare for the course I am teaching on Dummett this morning. What’s worse, I have a horrific hangover such that I can’t tolerate even the slightest amount of noise! What am I to do?

Ah, I’ve got just the thing! I’ll tell the students they must sit silently and read Dummett so as to instill respect for the weight of his ideas. Then they’ll go off and talk about the ideas themselves while I recover in my office. What a smart solution. I’m such an excellent teacher!

9 months ago

These courses look fantastic!
Thanks for posting the syllabi and for thoughts about how the courses went. Lots to think about.

Zach Thornton
9 months ago

I agree with Chris, these courses look excellent! Thank you Cat and Thi for sharing!

I have recently started incorporating more games into my courses too. One of the best assignments I’ve made so far is a midterm for my critical thinking class that has students play through a round of the social deduction game “Among Us.” Not only was this assignment way more fun than a traditional midterm, but it simulated ways students might use the material they’ve learned and thereby became a learning opportunity in itself.

Also, I’ve recently begun compiling a list of games to use in philosophy courses. I noticed that there are many lists of films for teaching philosophy, but so far no list of games. I just started last week, so this is still a short list. I hope to include many more games and game-paper pairing recommendations. I would love to hear others’ suggestions about what I should add!

Matt King
9 months ago

Thanks to Cat and Thi for sharing. I love this approach, and want to think more about how I could do this more in my own classes.

One small thing I do is teach (a version of) Rawls’ original position in a game. The students get short descriptions of their character (age, job, family situation, health, etc.) and then the goal of Round 1 is for the group to select a rule for distributing a good (usually money or a bag of cookies). And, of course, each player is trying to get the most for their character. Then we play Round 2, where the cards are shuffled and each player gets a new character that they aren’t allowed to look at. The goal remains the same, but with the veil of ignorance drawn, the group discussions look a lot different.

Russell Marcus
9 months ago

Jonas Faria Costa has a YouTube channel called Game for Thought, with some interviews with folks who use games in their philosophy classes.

Jessey Wright has an essay, “Playing Games and Learning from Shared Experience,” in AAPT Studies In Pedagogy volume 4.

The Hamilton College Summer program in Philosophy (HCSPiP) welcomes proposals for creative pedagogical innovations in philosophy for next summer. This past year, Rebeccah Leiby taught a spectacular and highly edifying course on Hobbes’s political theory using Minecraft.

8 months ago

I really want this to work as a pedagogy, because I love playing table-top games. But I have my reservations.

D&D is a terrible game for teaching critical thinking or moral philosophy. A huge proportion of the game design is focused on combat, which encourages solving problems through murder. The reason there are so many jokes online about players becoming parties of “murder-hobos” is because the game pushes you in that direction, absent a really clever DM. Also, from a teaching perspective, any time spent in combat is wasted time since the students would just be sitting around waiting to swing their sword once every ten minutes. And combat takes hours in D&D.
The mechanics for non-violent conflict resolution are minimal to the point of farce. All non-violent conflict resolution usually boils down to three skills (Persaude, Deception, Intimidation), and, I suppose, mind control.

The linked Rebecca Scott article is interesting. Take the part where she mentions a player charcater based on Kant annoucing that the players are entering a goblin cave, because it is dishonest not to. This is neat, but D&D has such an anaemic set of mechanics for navigating a situation like this without violence that it seems silly. I find it weird that there is so little discussion of game mechanics shaping play here since that is both philosophically interesting (e.g., Wittgenstein) and relevant to the pedagogocal aims.

And that’s setting aside that fact that half the fun of a *role playing* game is playing a character. When we consider a thought-experiment and ask “what is the right thing to do here?” that is a radically different question from: “My asimar sorcerer Tadriel covets the throne, how can he manipulate this faction into supporting his quest for power?” There might be ways around this, but the desire for a compelling story and to teach philosophically interesting things will sometimes work at cross purposes.

Maybe other games would be better suited to teaching certain things. The teaching of philosophy of art here through play I think makes perfact sense (in the same way you might go to the gallery). And, frankly, I just get tired of D&D because it’s one of the least interesting table-top games for something like this (as compared to Apocalypse World, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulu, or dozens of lesser known titles) but D&D dominates the public conversation.