This blog has been written by one of our remote volunteers, Amanda Ciccone.
Epping Forest District Museum is hosting the Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered exhibition, on loan from the V&A Museum of Childhood, from 25 September to 24 December. This is a highly interactive exhibition that not only educates, but entertains.
There is so much that can be said about board games and their lasting value, and the exhibition attempts to cover it all. For instance, board games allow us a snapshot into history: Monopoly comes to mind, created in the early 1900s as a sort of cautionary illustration of what happens when private monopolies have ownership of land. Board games are adored as artwork (i.e. Pachisi), and can be thrilling for their level of strategy (cue in Risk). Sometimes we see board games intersect with other mediums: Legos serving as chess pieces, Cluedo being the basis of a movie, tv shows and books, and Star Wars actually becoming a board game. Playing a board game is a social activity and can be used to see what it says about the player; discover what kind of player you are in the exhibition’s What’s your Gameface? section.
Let us look at one game in particular, Snakes and Ladders, a children’s classic, and with a background story that may be unexpected to some. Originating in India in the 2nd century, called Moksha Patam, it was a morality lesson set against the journey of life, the ladders representing karma, or destiny, and the snakes representing kama, or desire. In England, that morality allegory was preserved, though altered to Christian values and vices, and the name changed to Snakes and Ladders. Later, when Milton Bradley released the game in the 1940s, the snakes were replaced by the tamer image of chutes, or slides, thereby changing the name to Chutes and Ladders in North America. All traces of ethics were stripped from the board itself by then, replaced by a playground, thought to be more appropriate for children.
The object of the game is to land on the finish line by rolling the dice or spinning a spinner. Hope that you land on a ladder, which will allow you to cut ahead on the board, and cross your fingers that you don’t land on a snake…which will take you backwards a few or several spaces. It is a game won and lost purely by luck.
Games exist as an effective vehicle for learning, which has never been more relevant to me than now as being a teacher of English as a second language. I have discovered that a board game is a useful incorporation into a lesson, because the rules are often already familiar to the student, and because the game can be transformed to fit one’s needs. In my version of Battleship, a certain sentence structure will hit your ship, not an “E2” coordinate. In Snakes and Ladders, you must conjugate a verb accordingly, regardless of landing on a snake or a ladder*. [i] In playing a board game, everyone is on the same level, and a common tongue is not particularly essential; a meeple is a word specific to Carcassonne and does not exist outside of the game, for instance.
The moment I realised that these games, which I had known my whole life, were also robust education tools, was an educative moment in itself. When done right, games make you laugh, think, be challenged, and they pass the time with ease. Playing a board game has the potential to create strong bonds and moments, which we all know can be powerfully formative. In sum, learning is effective when having fun, and I am appreciative of the timeless, universal relevance that board games have.
Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered is thought provoking, vibrant, and memorable. It was said in the beginning that this exhibition not only educates, but entertains. But it can even be said in the inverse: that this not only entertains, but educates; this depends on your starting point. A good game is often both, in any case.
During these current times that have often been isolating, this exhibition could not have come at a better moment.
[i] * Snakes and Ladders could be used to reinforce vocabulary, though I do not attempt to teach moral ethics!