by Rachel Sims
"You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation,” Dr. Michele Bates King tells me with a smile. “Are they competitive or relaxed? How do they communicate disappointment or success? Are they strategic? How do they connect abstract ideas?” Anyone who knows the Professor of Speech at William & Mary has experienced her contagious excitement for the topic. “No matter who you are, you’ve played games. You did when you were a kid, and you probably still love it as an adult.”
Dr. Bates King has been studying games for a long time. So long, in fact, that she was just a kid when she began her unofficial research. “Growing up I loved board games. During the summers my brother Eric and I would put board games out and play all day. We would play for hours and hours.” She was interested in verbal and nonverbal communication in college, studying Speech Communication and later Corporate and Professional Communication for her graduate degree. Later, when she was thinking about research options for her doctorate, her advisor left her with one piece of advice: whatever you do, you better love it.
“I asked myself: what do I love so much? Board games! But what was I going to do with that? I didn’t really know much about it, but took a class on Entertainment Education and fell in love with it.”
Her research has since taken her around the world and back, connecting her with Board Game Studies experts all over the globe. In 2006 she presented her paper “Visual Rhetoric and the Board Game of Life” to researchers in Brazil, discussing how the visual packaging of the beloved game of Life has changed over decades with its subsequent representation and reflection of society. What did it say about culture, society, and family? Who’s on the front of the box…and who’s on the back? What does that signify?
In 2010, Dr. Bates King presented in France on BP-produced board game Offshore Oil Strike, and presented in Belgium the following year on Konane, an ancient Hawaiian board game. An avid member of the International Society for Board Games, she’s connected and presented with game experts around the world — from Tom Werneck, German board game creator and co-founder of the prestigious Spiel des Jarhes (Game of the Year) award, to David Parlett, author of the Oxford History of Board Games.
Perhaps her excitement and love for games is so contagious because it takes us all back to childhood…back to something that’s inside all of us. From every part of the globe, play is something we’ve all done, something we all do. “It is just embedded in who we are,” Dr. Bates King tells me.
It also disarms us. Dr. Bates King has found it so effective in her public speaking classes that she makes her students play games throughout the semester, breaking down what can be a formidable class for many and creating comfort and connection within her class. When she brings board games into the classroom, she finds that even her reserved students become passionate and animated. So she uses games as a teaching mechanism, telling her students that she wants to see that same passion present in their speeches.
One of her favorite teaching games, Tribond, is a card game where players are given a list of three items and must determine what they have in common. The game is about connecting objects and ideas, teaching speech students to connect their topics with ideas they care about. She uses Code Names to teach audience analysis and how to hone their 3-5 minute speeches to what is most necessary. “It helps them think about organization, content, and delivery — and you do that through play,” she tells me. Jenga, another favorite, is also helpful. “When you’re speaking in front of people, you need to learn to calm your nerves…to learn to control yourself and your breathing. Jenga teaches that.”
Clearly her classes are a success. Dr. Bates King has a board full of thank-you notes in her office from former students who have used their public speaking skills after college. She says she stays in contact with as many as she can. Some have gone on to work at the NFL, and from time to time she’ll get a call from them asking for help on a speech they need to give at a charity event. She simply walks them back through the basics of creating a speech. “I tell my students, even when they’re out of the classroom and finished at William & Mary, I’m here.”
She’s also learned a lot from the international students she’s worked with — about games that vary across cultures and the various favorites from different regions of the world. Last summer Dr. Bates King worked with the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, the flagship program of the Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI) hosted by the Presidential Precinct, during their two weeks at William & Mary. The program “brings African civic, business, and community leaders for academic coursework, leadership training, and networking at U.S. colleges and universities” (yali.state.gov/mwf), and this was the fifth year Presidential Precinct and William & Mary hosted the fellows. Each year the YALI students’ experience culminates in a day of presentations based on their respective areas of interest and expertise. Dr. Bates King worked with them on their speeches, helping them connect ideas and refine their presentation — but not before she made them play games together. “When you teach a particular game — from one culture to another — you are bringing a part of your world into theirs. I learned a lot from YALI fellows about games in their own cultures.”
An expert on nonverbal communication, Dr. Bates King helps her students understand what communication transcends culture — and what does not. She explains that some nonverbal communication — like hand gestures, tone, or stance — are not easily interpretable. In some cultures a smile can signify embarrassment. In some a hand gesture may mean “OK,” whereas in others the same gesture might express profanity. Additionally, tone — how you speak, as opposed to content — is nonverbal and can vary in significance across the globe.
Cross-cultural communication skills are increasingly important in our connected world, and Dr. Bates King helps students learn communication skills they will likely use throughout their lives. Communication in any culture is about giving and receiving information — something Dr. Bates King takes to heart because she also loves learning from her students. “I tell my students on the first day of class, I never work a day in my life. I get to learn so much from them.” She tells me their speeches cover a variety of fascinating topics, from hog wrestling to serial killers.
When asked what she hoped to do in the future, Dr. Bates King’s eyes lit up. She told me she once walked into a café in France, and instead of serving coffee or food, the café served up a menu of board games. “I’d love to do that — to have a board game café in Williamsburg,” she tells me. She also hopes to offer a class on “Gamers and Gamification” (how games are played and negotiated) to William & Mary students in the future.
One thing is certain: Dr. Bates King loves teaching, loves learning — and loves using the power of play to facilitate both. Play is a global language, embedded in who we are. It has the power to connect us — across boundaries, ages, and cultures — even across the world.