Game making and the American literary canon

General Proposal:

I propose a final project that involves game design as a method of interpreting texts (many of which we have covered in this course so far) that comprise the backbone of the American literary canon. The game that I design will require interaction with different authors, protagonists, and themes in American Literature through brief role-playing and performance elements. In short, the game will bring six to eight players together and create an environment in which they learn about one another’s perceptions of common threads in American Literature over the course of three rounds. Importantly, the game will ask players to share their own interpretations of works and to perform versions of those interpretations for the other players around them.


Game design strikes me as a particularly promising final project for a number of reasons. First, I must admit that I initially thought of this project because games are a big part of my existence. In my experience, games create community, provide relief from the monotony (or turmoil) of everyday life, and inspire those that play them to think creatively and cooperatively. And so my desire to design a game for this project originates partially in my own fascination with this form of social interaction.

More importantly, games function as a reflection of cultures in which they are situated. Such a statement may seem mistaken; most games do not make their way into art museums or concert halls. And yet, as renowned game designers Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman argue, the “interactive, representational, social, and cultural aspects” of games make them “as complex as any other form of designed culture.”[i] While I am not quite ready to concede that all games are as complex as any form of intentionally created culture, I do agree wholeheartedly with Salen and Zimmerman’s placement of games among other important cultural phenomena. Research suggests that humans have been playing games for more than four thousand years; clearly games play a role in basic human culture. Given the widespread popularity of games in past cultures and in the modern world, a project focused on game design is a project grounded in firm cultural theory.

The third reason that I have decided to design a game for this project is that games require action and, in the case of the one I am envisioning, interaction between players. This element of gameplay is key for the performance theme of this course. It is far too easy to read a text, consider it from one’s own perspective, and shelve it in the mind’s library of once read works. This mode of consuming literature misses the synthesis and conversation that arises when multiple people work over the same text in community. While some games can be played alone—solitaire is the most common—the vast majority of games require two people to enter the (often) metaphorical “gaming room” simultaneously. Coupled with themes concerning American Literature, I see this interactive element of games as a critical part of my project’s purpose. Designing a game will enable me to push various—and sometimes clashing—perspectives on key texts into spots around the same table and force them to understand one another for the sake of scoring points in the game.

Finally, making a game for this project will enable our group’s discussions and ideas to flow beyond our classroom. I am a strong believer in the importance of classroom communities existing outside of Yale’s hallowed academic halls; creating a group game that people truly enjoy playing will bring many of the ideas that we have touched upon in seminar into the common rooms and living spaces of our friends. In this way, and if my design proves fun to play, the ideas that have resonated with me (and with many others in our class) will form the foundations of conversations about American literature that I hope will occur between participants of this game as they play it.

Game Structure:

Designing an entirely new game is a process that takes the world’s best game designers months and months. With the timeframe before me, I must rely on existing game structures to provide the foundation for my project. And so before settling on the game model that will provide the basic structure for the game I am going to design, I weighed three specific types of game models that all offer different fundamental gameplay elements.

Games of Strategy

Strategic deck building games like Dominion, Magic, or Ascension require players to make long term calculations about specific moves each turn in an effort to maximize their absolute strength and their strength relative to other players. These games are Machiavellian in nature; what hinders one player normally helps another. Furthermore, because strategic multiplayer board games (almost) always involve complex directions and intricate interplay between focused players, they are not the best party games. Those who play them play them seriously. I have decided against using the strategic multiplayer deck building game structure for this project because I am envisioning a game that can be played by a group of friends at a social gathering in which gaming is not the main attraction, by a family that’s ready for a change of pace after a long reunion, or by a random group of college students at a break-the-ice event during orientation week. A long form board game based on strategy and intense competition does not fit well with those scenarios.

Fantasy Role Playing Games (FRPs)

Unlike strategic board games, I have little experience with FRP games. Because I know so little about FRPs, I turned to sociologist Gary Fine’s book on FRPs to gain a better understanding of whether or not they fit my criteria for my game structure. According to Fine, FRPs are “a hybrid of war games, educational simulation games, and folie a deux.”[ii] The middle element of this description struck me as particularly interesting when I was considering early versions of a game that I might create. After all, I intend for my game to be educational in purpose, and for it to simulate the type of performances that occur with theatrical interpretations of texts every day. However, as I looked more into FRP game structure, I came to understand that creating such a game for this project would leave too much to chance. FRPs are meant to be played by serious gamers who “collectively construct a fantasy world” by mutually investing in an imagined reality (Fine). This type of world building takes a great deal of time, which, as I mentioned before, would make an FRP based on American literature a bit too intense for the type of game that I am envisioning.

Cooperative Group Games

The model that I intend to use as the basic scaffolding around which I design the themes and rules of the game I will design—is a cooperative group game. Cooperative group games can be loosely defined as games in which “opportunities exist for players to be able to work together to achieve a win-win condition.” It is important to note that such games do “not always guarantee that cooperating players will benefit equally or even benefit at all,” which means that cooperative games can also be competitive games in which players win and lose.[iii] In this case, good examples of cooperative group games are games like Lord of the Rings, Charades, Cards Against Humanity, and Avalon. In these games, players cooperate on teams to accomplish goals, and the goal of the individual is often indistinguishable from the goal of the team. I have decided to design a game using the structure of cooperative group games because they can be played with larger groups of people, often involve less complex strategy, and provide players with the opportunity to learn about the game from others playing it with them.

To conclude this section: I will be designing a game whose structure resembles that of a cooperative group game like Apples to Apples or Pictionary. These games are good for group gatherings in which winning is not the point, per se. Instead, these games focus on group engagement and laughter. I believe that a game that inspires conversation and laughter is a game whose structure is conducive to the types of discussions that I am hoping to inspire with my game.

General Game Elements:

The game that I am envisioning will be based on players’ interpretation of important authors and protagonists in the American literary canon. It will be called First Lines (or something like that) and it will involve three rounds.

In the first round, eight people will begin with notepads and pens in front of them. One person, let’s say Player A, will begin by drawing a card from a deck in the middle of the table. That card will show the name of an American author or the name of a protagonist from a notable American text. It will also include a statement following the name, which will indicate a particular state of mind that the players will be asked to imagine that author or protagonist feeling. Player A will read the card aloud, and then the other seven players will have two minutes (marked by an hour glass) to imagine and write a fictitious first line to a novel that could have been written by the author or protagonist that was noted on the card and was in the imagined state of mind. For example, cards might read…

  • Melville, if he loved the circus instead of whaling…
  • Nick Carraway, if he had never met Gatsby…
  • Cather, if she grew up in New York City…
  • Oscar Wao, if he read romance instead of sci fi…

After Player A reads the card aloud, all seven players write down the first line of an imaginary novel that is prompted by a statement like the ones above. After all players have written their first lines, Player A collects them and reads them aloud before choosing the first line she likes best. The person who wrote that first line gets a point and the paper with the winning first line is set-aside for Round Two. Then Player B picks a card from the middle of the table to read aloud and the process begins again. The turns continue like this for two rounds if the game involves eight players, and for three rounds if the game involves six players.

After each person has read two prompt cards aloud and selected winners for each, there will be sixteen First Line papers in a pile on the table. Players will then split up into two teams of four and play charades with the sixteen First Lines that were deemed winners in the first round. Each time a team gets a charade clue correct, each member of that team gets a point. This round will be fun because all players will have a general sense (or recollection) of the first lines that are potentially being acted out in the charades game.

The performance element of this round will inspire people to embody the characters that are created in the imaginary first lines from the first round. Interestingly, the characters that are embodied in charades will be twice removed from the original texts, first in the creative first round activity, and second in the performance of that imagined scene. I hope that this type of separation will spark conversation about the varying distance (in all senses of the word) between text and performance. After all, it’s quite possible that the performance that arises from someone’s First Line that was inspired by “Melville, if he loved the circus instead of whaling…” will be so far removed from our conceptions of Moby Dick that the two would never be connected by an outside observer. Alternatively, the performance may bear striking resemblance to the original text that provides the inspiration for the initial “if” card.

I am still thinking about the third round to this game. I would like to make it simple and straightforward, but I have yet to think of how such a value might manifest in gameplay. More to come on this final step of the game design.

Potential Challenges:

There are three main challenges that this project faces. First, it will be up to me to create more than fifty First Line scenarios that are funny, witty, engaging, and creative. This in itself will be no small task. I have envisioned some of these prompts in my mind, but there is a good chance that they will prove less inspiring in actuality than they are in theory. Perhaps I will ask for input from peers if my own creativity proves to be a fault in the process.

Second, this type of game falls flat if it is not played with enthusiasm and gusto. I have confidence that our class will approach it with eagerness if prompted, but I wonder about the long term impacts of such a game if it requires one person to be very invested in the process. If it’s the type of game that requires one person to lead the charge, perhaps it will not be the type of party game that I am envisioning.

And finally, the game risks being too niche. I plan on making a small pamphlet with a brief description of each author or protagonist that is featured on the prompt cards in order to familiarize players with all of the names that will be thrown around during gameplay, but the fact of the matter is that it will only be fully understood by players with a somewhat more than rudimentary grasp on key elements and works in American literature. However, this challenge does not render the project null, in my opinion, because I can well imagine extensions of this game that would include different literary canons or well know cultural phenomena.

Concluding Thoughts:

I am fascinated by the conversations that occur when six or seven people are seated around a table playing a game. Gameplay, especially cooperative group gameplay, draws people into an imaginary space where creativity and collaboration generate laughter and good conversation. With these elements of games in mind, I plan on designing a game for this final project that will inspire its players to reimagine parts of the American literary canon in new and exciting ways, and to perform those imagined interpretations for others.

The rough game structure I have attempted to outline in this proposal needs a great deal more thinking, but I believe in its potential. With collaboration from other classmates, perhaps I might even film the playing of this game during our class mini-festival and make a short five-minute documentary about it.

Such collaboration is a prospect that excites me. Game on!


[i] Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of play: game design fundamentals. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2010. Web.

[ii] Fine, Gary Alan. Shared fantasy: role-playing games as social worlds. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 2002. Print.

[iii] Zagal, J. P. “Collaborative games: Lessons learned from board games.” Simulation & Gaming 37.1 (2006): 24-40. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.

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