Bean Bags, Healthcare Policy, and Simulations (#LearningatPlay)

Learning at Play was a one-day symposium on games for learning and social change held at Vanderbilt University on November 8, 2019. The idea for this event was something I had been considering for a couple of years, and it was incredibly exciting to see so many people from Vanderbilt and beyond show up and talk about serious games! Thanks to my fellow organizers and game players, Helen Shin and Derek Price, for their insight, connections, and hard work pulling together this event, and thanks to our co-sponsors (the Center for Teaching, the Curb Center, the Center for Digital Humanities, and the Comparative Media Analysis and Practice program) for making the event possible. Here on the blog, I’m sharing a few highlights from the day.

RePlay Health: Simulating the US Healthcare System

Derek Bruff, director of the Center for Teaching
Gilbert Gonzales, assistant professor of medicine, health, and society

For the first session of the day, I led a couple of rounds of RePlay Health, a simulation of the US healthcare system developed by Tiltfactor, a game design and research lab at Dartmouth. The simulation involves a bit of role-playing, a lot of beanbag tossing, and some spirited conversations among players about healthcare policy. I had heard about the game from Kimberly Rogers, assistant professor of sociology at Dartmouth, who uses it in her intro classes to help students grapple with the complexity of the US healthcare system. Unlike a classroom game like Jeopardy, which adds a gaming element that is independent of the course content, RePlay Health has been very intentionally designed so that the mechanics of the game reflect the theme. Rogers finds that the experience of playing the game can help students better understand healthcare disparities and develop systems-level thinking.

Since hearing about the simulation, I had been wanting to try it for myself, and Learning at Play was the perfect venue. A room full of faculty, staff, and students all interested in games for learning? They jumped right in and had a lot of fun with the game. I quickly learned that my colleague Elizabeth Meadows was a dead-eye with a bean bag, and I enjoyed how participants got into the roles they were assigned, especially fellow Learning at Play organizer Derek Price as an unhealthy mall Santa.

It was also fascinating to hear the teams working together to make decisions. I overhead one team discussing a tobacco tax during the policy phase of the game because several of the players on that team had taken health hits earlier due to their characters’ smoking habits. That phase of the game, at least in this case, motivated players to pay attention not only to their own experiences in the game but also to those of their teammates. The game isn’t necessarily cooperative, but our teams approach it that way, which made for rich discussions. Of course, each team competed rather vigorously against the other team, which also brought a good energy to the room.

From my conversation with Kimberly Rogers, I knew that debriefing the simulation was an important part of the learning process. I also knew that I didn’t know much about the US healthcare system, so I invited my Vanderbilt colleague Gilbert Gonzales, assistant professor of medicine, health, and society, to help lead the RePlay Health debrief. I appreciated Gilbert’s observation that the players whose roles were more privileged (for instance, those who had access to health insurance) tended to toss their bean bags before players whose roles were less privileged. I know I was surprised when he pointed that out, and the debrief allowed us to discuss (briefly) some of the roles privilege plays in healthcare debates. This is why a well-designed simulation like RePlay Health can be educational: lessons about the subject matter emerge from the learners’ experience playing the game.

At least two of the people tossing beanbags that morning were inspired to work RePlay Health into their own teaching. Dan Morrison, assistant professor of sociology at Abilene Christian University, ran the simulation in his sociology class just five days later. See his tweets for some action shots. And Jessica Howard, associate program manager at the Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health, adapted the RePlay Health materials to talk about the intersection of education and health in an international context, then played the game with a group of international scholars here on campus. I was excited to hear that Learning at Play was so quickly giving participants new ideas and resources for their teaching!

For more about RePlay Health, visit the RePlay Health website, where you can download everything you need to run the simulation, except for bean bags, which you’ll need to supply yourself. And to hear more about to use RePlay Health to create times for telling in your classroom, listen to my interview with Kimberly Rogers for the Leading Lines podcast. (I also share Kimberly Rogers’ story in Chapter 1 of my book, Intentional Tech.)

Photos by Carly Byer / Vanderbilt University, used with permission.

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