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W&M professor studies, teaches using the importance of play

  • Michele King surrounded by piles of board games
    Game on:  Specializing in game play and how it helps us with communication, William & Mary Senior Lecturer of Speech Michele King makes playing board games part of her students' classroom experience.  Photo by Andrew King
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Students likely come into Michele King’s class with more trepidation than for almost any other they’ll take at William & Mary.

That’s because she teaches public speaking.

But there’s a twist, says King, senior lecturer of speech and oral communication director who has been at W&M for 20 years. She specializes in game play and how it helps us with communication, and she makes playing board games part of her classroom experience.

Currently, all W&M instruction is taking place through remote learning, but King explained that play has a place in society at all times.

“There’s value in gaming,” King said. “And it should not be dismissed as something that’s silly and childish because it can be applied to experiential learning.”

King spoke on the value of esports at W&M’s Feb. 21 TEDx event, and has become an advocate for esports on campus as it has grown in popularity among students. She advises on the importance of gaming and helps integrate it into teaching and learning at the Alan B. Miller Entrepreneurship Center and with the University Teaching & Learning Project.

King is a ludologist and an active member of the International Board Game Studies Association, through which she has presented her research on play and board games worldwide from Brazil, France and Belgium to Denmark and Germany.

Her research delves into what games say about a culture over time. Her presentations have included the visual rhetoric on The Game of Life, which examined how the box evolved over decades and what that said about society, and British Petroleum’s 1970 board game Offshore Oil Strike about responding to an oil spill scenario decades before the company actually had to do so.

 “To me it’s the whole idea of gamification — where you take elements of game play and you use it to enhance student engagement, employee engagement and understanding of information,” King said.

“I’ve always been fascinated with play and gaming. It doesn’t matter if it’s a board game or if it’s esports video games, play is important and play is part of learning.”

So how and why did she decide to tie gaming in with public speaking and speech-related teaching?

King studied communication through all of her degree programs, and decided to do research on games for her Ph.D. because an advisor told her to pick something she loved. She incorporated the communication theory of entertainment education to affect social and behavioral changes.

“So I tie that in, how can I use games and play in the classroom to bolster public speaking?” King said.

She gives an example of a student who came in on the first day of class, speaking in a dry monotone in front of the group. King brought out the games, and saw the student’s eyes light up as he became more animated. She told him that was the type of passion and energy she wanted to see as he delivered his speeches.

“So we play different games to help with content, organization and delivery,” King said. “There are some games that you play where if you’re on a team, you have to give clues; so we identify the need for audience analysis.

“You have to know your audience — what content do you include, how do you explain and describe it? Games put it in a whole different element and takes the focus off of the anxiety of — oh my goodness, I have to give a speech — onto something that’s fun and exciting with play. And oh, I can relate it to this.”

The important takeaway is that play comes naturally to people, King said.

“Once we understand that play is imbedded in human psychology, and inherently a part of our origin, we can then tap into the power of play,” King said. “And like I shared in my TEDx talk, it reflects a culture’s values, beliefs and attitudes.

“So I think to dismiss play and gaming is very detrimental to the culture and society.”

In studying the topic, she has found that the element of play is necessary and present in teaching and helping people grow.

“It really should be valued for what it is worth,” King said. “Game play is not just something you do as a kid. It’s something that you should continue to do throughout your life. I believe in meeting people where they are and tapping into that shared historical framework of game play to guide them into experiential learning.

“In my class, there’s interaction. I talk about play and gaming as a means of social connectivity, and I see my students from different academic majors come together within the world of games. By the end of the semester, students have learned each other’s names and many have even supported their fellow classmates by attending their shows, club activities and sports games.”