“Hit the Books!” Wheaton CounterCanon Anthropology Game Makes Theory Fun

“Do you have the Margaret Mead ‘Big Theory!’ Card?” I asked, checking the cards in my hand one more time, before looking across the table at Abby.

After consulting the playing cards in her hand, Abby let out a joyful, “Hit the books!” 

Disappointed, I added a card from the deck in the middle of the table to the ones in my hand. Who has that card? I pondered, looking to my left as the game continued. I was curious to hear what card Dakota might ask for. Perhaps she had the card I wanted? To my surprise, Anthropological Theory is turning out to be much more interesting than I expected…

A New Way to Teach and Learn Theory

This semester, in Dr. Hope Bastian’s Anthropological Theory Class, we developed an educational card game to teach college students about Anthropological Theory. The game focuses on the important contributions of fifteen radical female, and BIPOC theorists to the field. In a fun and interactive way, players “meet” significant thinkers and learn about their theories. Through the game, players explore the connections of these contemporary scholars to larger theoretical debates.

If you ever played Go Fish as a child, you can play this game. The objective is simple: collect all four cards about a theorist. Four cards make “a book”. Together these four cards tell about the life and work of the theorist. Each of the cards has different types of information. The Doing Theory Card includes details about the theorist’s life, positionality, activism, and methodological approaches. The Academic Genealogy Card describes where they studied, and with whom, and where they have worked. The Big Theory Card, defines major concepts they are known for. To complete the set, the Read This! Card provides a brief bibliography with the titles and dates of the scholar’s major works. The person or team with the most books at the end of the game wins.

The game is also designed to stimulate discussion connecting abstract theory with real life. To this end, when a player makes a book, they draw a discussion card with questions designed to help all players connect the scholar’s theories to their own interests. 

“Instead of a typical lecture, this engagement with classmates adds a lot of vigor, and fun into theories and theorists that may usually be a bit dry,” explains game design team member Rosie Iaria.

The Game Design Process

We started our creative process by talking about, and playing, other educational games. Professor Bastian introduced us to The Game of Authors, one of the oldest Go Fish type educational games. The game was invented in the late 1880s by Anne Wales Abbot, a literary critic, editor of children’s magazines and game designer from Beverly, Massachusetts. Talking through the game’s design and mechanics helped us begin to refine our game’s learning objectives.

Initially, all members of the ANTH 301 design team, Taylor Couto, Dakota Monegro, Marley Reedy, Olivia Payne, Rosie Iaria, and Abigail Rogers, researched contemporary theorists for possible inclusion in the game. We each chose a couple of theorists to research and curate content for the game cards. 

As the scope of the project grew, our team began to specialize: splitting up tasks based on skills and interests. Marley Reedy formatted the cards in Illustrator giving them a professional look. Rosie Iaria contributed original artwork for the cards and full color portraits of each theorist. Olivia Payne created a Fact Sheet as a tool to help introduce the game to professors and future players.

Over the summer Iaria and Payne created a website for the game. Site visitors can download supplemental materials with the sources for all the information on the cards and recommendations further reading. Throughout the process we grew as a team. Says Iaria, “…we’ve all had to improve our communication, and teamwork. Problems would come up while researching or producing the cards, and we’d have to quickly and efficiently create solutions.”

Citational Politics in Anthropology

Thorough readings in our Anthropological Theory class, we learned about a movement to reimagine “the hegemonies of the discipline” as expressed in recent articles in the journal Cultural Anthropology by scholars Faye V. Harrison, Angela C. Jenks, Erica Lorraine Williams, Kimberley D. McKinson, Bianca C. Williams, Savannah Shange, Anne-Maria B. Makhulu and Christen A. Smith. In the 2022 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Bianca C. Williams highlights how “anthropology’s neglect and erasure of Black feminist anthropologists relates to disciplinary (un)belonging…[to] explore how citation and “disciplinary belonging” influence hiring practices, doctoral training, intellectual genealogies, and what is valued as anthropological knowledge”.

“We put a lot of intention into choosing which theorists we wanted to feature in this game. Our hope is to showcase some of the new and revolutionary ideas contributing to the anthropological canon by de-centering the famous old white men who have historically dominated it,” explained game design team member Olivia Payne, a sophomore. 

Play Testing: Does it work? What should we change?

When the game was ready to launch, Dr. Bastian reached out to Dr. Ken Bray, Professor of Practice in Wheaton College’s Business and Management Department. A former Vice President of Hasbro, Inc. he was the ideal expert consultant. Although we felt fairly confident going into our meeting, Dr. Bray brought up considerations and potential problems we hadn’t even thought of.

These questions helped focus our group, and inspired us to continuing developing the game for an audience beyond our classroom. As a result, we made changes based on Dr. Bray’s feedback. Soon after, we conducted two playtest sessions. A playtest with Wheaton students and one with faculty helped us understand gameplay from the perspective of our target audiences. After each session we surveyed players about their experience with the game. The surveys showed that students enjoyed the game, and preferred our approach to learning theory traditionally.

What’s Next?

The game we designed as students in ANTH 301 at Wheaton College can be used ‘as is’ by professors anywhere looking for a more engaging approach to teaching theory in the college classroom. The game will be of interest to faculty interested in highlighting the work of contemporary theorists, especially BIPOC scholars, often absent from traditional theory texts and syllabi. This fall we plan to share the game at AnthropologyCon at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) conference in Seattle, Washington.

In addition to our ready-to-play game, materials are also available on our website to support faculty and students through the process of creating their own game. The first version of CounterCanon, developed in our class in the Spring of 2021, focused on expanding the Anthropological Canon. In the future, students can use the materials we created to create extension packs that could focus on theorists in specialized subdisciplines of Anthropology or even different fields like political science. 

Playtest participant Professor Nick Dorzweiler, International Relations and Women and Gender Studies at Wheaton, praised the game, “I think it would be an excellent activity for students to engage in prior to an exam, or as a kind of capstone review project.”