Playing @/& Making Games at the Futures Initiative 

By: Will Arguelles

Every Tuesday here at the Futures Initiative, our fellows and staff gather, update one another on our work, and brainstorm solutions to complex problems.  A key component of our work is professionalization and helping our cozy community of scholars blossom into the best versions of themselves. The content of this blog post originated in two meetings of the FI Team, both of which coincidentally focused on games.  First, in our 2/20 weekly meeting, Digital Strategy Director, Chris McGuinness, asked us to imagine creating a game based on our work at FI – a challenge I took rather literally, when I set up a round of Futures Initiative Jeopardy for our subsequent 2/27 meeting. Together, we’ve got a wonderful mix of game theory and praxis as we design and imagine a brighter future for us all. The text of this activity has been edited and reformatted to fit a wider, public audience.

  Let’s play a game. I want you to imagine a giant game board, filled with various paths to travel down, tokens, meeples, and resources scattered along the way, with your only guide to making sense of it all a thick packet of arcane rules. The players around you begin to move, flicking out cards from their hands and exchanging tokens to propel them towards victory, and you towards subsequent ruin. The die are passed to you, and you hold your singular chance in your hands – and then the dread question comes: what do you do? It’s your turn. How will you use it?

  If you’re not a fan of intricate board games that can span days to play, the image of such a board filled with representations of the intrigue and power play of chance and skill probably evokes some amount of terror and anxiety. To play such a game well, to truly master it, means giving yourself over to chance and adaptability, and that is, at its core, a terrifying idea. Because you can’t know how it will go, or what others will do, or what you might draw or roll, until the game is over. Games are, at their core, hopeful – you have to believe that things can improve from your position, that there still is a chance for you, or there’s no point to it all. To take that chance requires the creativity to see victory and the determination to get there, no matter the setbacks.

  I’ve started with this metaphor because of how often we denigrate or undervalue games and play. To play a game is, on its surface, childish, lacking the seriousness we purport governs our adult working world. But gameplay often tells us something about ourselves and our worlds that no “serious” evaluation can- play is the realm of possibility, and a creative desire to remake our sense of what is and what could be. The problems that plague our world are myriad and complex, and our experience of them are not uniformed – so why would we expect our solutions to be? Creativity has many houses, but perhaps the most universal is the game – and we’re going to need to nurture our creativity to find innovation and solutions.

  So in that spirit, we at the Futures Initiative have spent two of our weekly meetings on games- first considering our work together as if it were a game, and then turning our work into a game for us to play. Dovetailed together like such, we managed the impossible: to approach reforming and changing academia sincerely, and to make that work fun. 

  Our first foray into games began with a simple premise. Digital Director, Chris McGuiness posed a hypothetical to the group: The Futures Initiative has been allocated funds to create a game that will advance one or more of the organization’s interests. You have been selected to design this game. It can be a video game, a board game, a sport, a conceptual game, or any way you wish to think about the word “play.” And thus, as we do in most of these meetings, we worked together and each of us took the space and time to imagine our game. 

  It would be remiss to not shout-out Faculty Co-Chair and Founding Director, Cathy Davidson, which among her near endless accolades, has actually done work on ed-tech gaming. Cathy was involved with the Digital Learning Initiative at the MacArthur Foundation, worked on a little big planet (one of my all time favorite co-op games) and helped support the development of  Quest to Learn, a way of gamifying learning to better engage students. In fact, Quest to Learn has become part of the founding of a K-12 Public School, also called Quest to Learn, located near-ish the GC on 18th Street.

  But on the more theoretical side, My fellow Research Assistant, Jasmeene went immediately to the cozy game genre, your Stardew Valleys and Harvest Moons, where you tend to animals, farm your garden, and build a life for your digital self. As she stated, “We support students going through their degree – so having those student tend to a virtual garden, where they have to read a book for fertilizer, or write a blog to plant seeds.” Shelly, Faculty Co-Chair, followed up on this in her idea, adding that in action to farming and tending a garden, the game should “have to do with building a meal, learning what the food is and how that connects to someone’s life story.” She further noted that this would be DEI work itself, as food is integral to our experiences of our own culture and histories. Our Outreach Manager, Beiyi concurred, though shifting from the agricultural to a different cozy management game, TwoPoint Hospital, and suggested a TwoPoint University where “you manage to balance diversity, equity, and inclusion; as opposed to just making money, all while attracting students”  – and also add a practical question: “What would the game look like, how we could make it in the virtual world?”  

  Luckily enough, some of our fellows had an idea on tackling it. Fellow-in-Residence, Tysean thought of the game as ,“Some kind of Role-Playing game,where you would play through the success stories of higher education. These stories would be based on real-life journeys, with the goal for the players to “emulate their success, creating a successful model for the players from disenfranchised backgrounds.” Executive Director Adashima also had a very similar concept, noting that she would like to see an observational game, looking at “how other schools handle having limited budgets, and what happens when we flip the power structure – swap GC for Columbia, and what creativity would emerge with the expanded resources.” Still in the same framework as Tysean and Adashima, Rod, Assistant Director, had a slightly different idea of play, seeing the game as “the opportunity to think abstractly and outside the box of seriousness” He suggested a VR roleplay game – where the player would, “get to live as an entirely new person – new ethnicity, new gender, getting to live in an different positionality”

  Chris’s game (within his game) focused on teaching as a game – When he’s in the classroom, Chris “always start with an activity, and make some amount of comparison” as well as noting that “there’s always a way to integrate what they’re learning into their own narrative.” To literalize it, he wants to make a “game about weaving, where you weave your narrative like you were at a loom, designing a cool woven textile of your story.” Co-Director of the HASTAC Scholars program, Parisa similarly was taken in by the idea of storytelling, as she cited the example of the wonderfully creative Dixit, where you are given vague, dreamlike art pieces on cards, and need to collectively weave a narrative with your other players. In Parisa’s version “each person has some cards and narrative tokens they can spend as people weave a collective story together” – be it about academia, their personal lives, or their imaginative inner worlds.

  Senior Researcher Christina’s idea seemed to interlock well with Chris’s and Parisa’s, where the players would begin in a vast open world, where you can control things down to the very micro-level, and have to “work together to build a building from scratch” She too had questions, asking “what would the school we built together look like? How would it be student centered, and how would it engage with the community? Would it be democratic or socialist? How would you incorporate the local community?” and further adding that this need not just be an ideal, but could become a reality in the world, as Cathy’s success with founding Quest to Learn demonstrates. 

  Like many, Kelsey, the CPL Facilitator, went immediately to the games of her childhood. She relayed that when she was growing up, her family had limited resources, so Kelsey would often have to use her imagination, and turn a box into all sorts of fantasy worlds and spaces. As she put it, her game would be to  “see what you can do with what’s already around you” leading her to propose  “an escape room, where you’re in this scenario together, and must solve problems as they emerge, and work to team up and escape the box.” Communications Director Megan joyously agreed with the idea of an escape room, noting how escape rooms are a, “really great way to get to know each other, and learn how to collaborate.” 

  My own version of the game was almost certainly the weakest – I suggested a typing race game, where you try to keep up with a meeting where you have to type out every word said… as I was the week’s notetaker, and I was simply overwhelmed trying to capture all the creativity and joy encapsulated above. In particular, I found that I was inspired by one of the last members to speak, HASTAC Co-Director Coline, who suggested a sort of “trivia night” where the players come up with various situations and scenarios to work together. Some ideas she suggested were to have to “draw your dissertation or host a potluck dinner, all while sharing ideas and learning how to navigate the system.” With her words rattling around my head, at that very moment, I had a spark of inspiration, and decided that since I was next to run the professional development portion of our weekly meeting, I would redeem my poor performance with a real actualized game. I present to you now my creation: Futures Initiative Jeopardy.

  If you’ve never watched the show, here’s a few links to some highlights, and some other links to some digital rulesets I consulted. Basically though, there’s sets of categories, and each category comes with a pre-filled answer. Your job is to figure out who the question refers to, and answer in the form of a question. For example, you might get an answer like: “This fellow has been running a game of Dungeons & Dragons (almost) every Sunday for the past decade” and you would need to write: “Who is Will?” As our meetings are accessible & hybrid, I joined our weekly zoom link, and shared my screen to the game board, so that it was both projected to people in the room and equally visible to those on the screen itself. I had collected answers from the team via a quick poll, and used that knowledge to make the game. I did make slight tweaks to hopefully misdirect or better anonymize the answers – though not without some controversy (we’ll get to that in a minute),

Here are the 6 categories of our game, with a short description of what each one is:

  • This is What We Do – short blurb description of what your current research project is
  • I’m Talking Here –  Recent talk, publication, or conference presentation title
  • A History of Us – tell us something about your life story that’s unexpected or unique
  • Futures of Our Work – what either is or was your “dream job,” besides being at FI
  • Hobbies – What is your favorite non-academic thing to do?
  • For the Love of Teaching – what is your favorite thing to teach?

  To accommodate for time and the hybrid set-up, I had originally planned not to have a buzzer, but was fairly quickly, unanimously, and correctly overruled. Instead, each team shouted “buzz!” had about 10 or so seconds to converse with one another, and then asked their question. We played with three teams – people seated to my left hand side, people seated to my right hand side, and everyone on Zoom, which worked out to be mostly even. With teams decided, and the low low stakes of simply being “the winners,” our relaxing icebreaker-like gate was set.

  Reader, I had underestimated how driven and competitive a room of academics could be; the game was madness, in that most exquisitely wondrous way of friends sharing a mutual refuse to let a bit end. The left side, captained by all of our leader, Adashima, immediately took a dominating lead – as they effortlessly created impromptu sign language and shared looks, wordlessly colluding to divine an answer. The right side responded in kind, buzzing in quicker and faster each round, often jumping in as soon as I revealed the question. Responding to this insanity entirely differently – the Zoom contingent was tactical, waiting for answers with questions of their own design, or pounced upon pauses in the warfare between the in-person teams, taking this to 

  I think the brightest memory for me was when I revealed this question:

 The answer was exceedingly obvious to the entire room – Who is Coline Chevrin?! And yet, this was the 500 point question for “This is What We Do” – a costly mistake. You see, I had forgotten to change the name of the city, and literally the entire room erupted with the answer simultaneously. This holy moment led to a contested finale, where the team I had determined to answer first – left table – had their lead questioned by the remaining players. Luckily, it ended up not mattering too much, as Adashima, Jasmeene, Megan, Beiyi and Parisa were our champions with a commanding 1000 (or 500!) point lead. The cheer that went up roared through the third floor of the GC, as the room hailed its first victors of the (hopefully) recurring Futures Initiative Jeopardy, and we began to wrap up a joyous afternoon meeting.

  In the introduction to his game, Chris made a few remarks that are resonating with me now, as I compose this record of the event. He noted that etymologically the idea of “the serious” is connected to earnestness, serius in Latin meaning both our modern sense of the word, and “to be earnest.” Chris connected this to Kant, and his conception of the serious and truth, but then pivoted to comment on how “unserious” we assume games are. But these imaginings and activities remind us that they do not have to be; the game is central to another great philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, after all. Wittgenstein noted that when you consider all types of games, and explore the possibilities, “you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that” (Philosophical Investigations, para 66) Wittgenstein goes on to term this as a family resemblance, “for the various resemblances between members of a family – a build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, and so on and so forth – overlap and criss-cross in the same way as a game does” (ibid. Para 67) Which I think quite accurately connects the themes of the above – playing a game together “seriously” is a way of building a common language between one another, bridging gaps and forging connections like those of a family playing monopoly on a rainy beach day.

Our games may not all look the same, but in the end, they share a common feature – a goal. To return, Wittgenstein is “inclined to distinguish between the essential and the inessential in a game too. The game, one would like to say, has not only rules but also a point”. (Philosophical Investigations, Para 564, emphasis mine) Games are not meaningless or shallow, but in truth always are designed towards a point, a direction in the future we hope to head towards. So to is our work here at the Futures Initiative, where we try to find a path for the university beyond its darkest days, by training and educating its future leaders into a new, more equitable and compassionate Academy, ready to meet the challenges ahead.

 But how do we actualize this future? Wittgenstein’s advice: “don’t think, but look!”  Games are learned via experience and play, not from strict memorization of a grammar – and by learning, we come to better understand the affinities and structures that best nourish our lives. In the same way, Or to quote a recent obsession of mine, “the only way to learn is by playing, the only way to win is by learning, and the only way to win is by winning.” So, let’s start playing.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
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