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The Rebuilding Main Street board game created by the Civic Life Lab.

By Alan Burns


Can a simple board game give us insights into the obstacles to civil discourse that affect our current political and social climate? The new Civic Life Laboratory at the Social Science Research Center believes it can.

The Civic Life Laboratory (CLL), created in the summer of 2018, seeks to facilitate interdisciplinary research to understand the issues that prevent citizens from fully engaging in democratic participation. The lab was established as a partnership between the SSRC, the Department of Communication, and the Department of Political Science and Public Administration. CLL researchers hope to show how investigating these issues helps us to explain how our civic bonds have arrived at their current state and which research-based interventions could create more resilient civic communities.

The CLL was founded by Dr. Melanie Loehwing, assistant professor in the Department of Communication, and Dr. Brian Shoup, associate professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration. They are joined by Dr. Skye Cooley, assistant professor in the School of Media and Strategic Communication at Oklahoma State University, and two undergraduate research assistants: Ms. Krishna Desai, who is completing a double major in Political Science and Economics and a minor in Spanish at MSU, and Ms. Georgiana Swan, a double major in Political Science and Psychology at MSU.

The team’s current project focuses on democratic deliberation, a communication practice that aims to solve problems through group discussion and decision-making. In order to test this, the team has designed a fully-functioning board game called “Rebuilding Main Street: The Civic Mindfulness Game.”

“In the summer of 2017, we came up with the idea, rules, and structure of the game,” said Loehwing. “We were lucky that one of our colleagues, Dr. Cooley, had the resources to help us take our poster board and construction paper version of the game and adapt it to a polished board game.”

“The idea was that you have this actual board game that you can take into a community setting and have people play it, while working on face-to-face deliberation skills. There has been a rise in table top gaming in our culture recently, especially when people started realizing that there is a lot of enjoyment to be had when you’re sitting around with you friends and playing these games,” Shoup explained.

“Rebuilding Main Street” is a 10-player game where the goal is to work together to build five structures in a city using a limited amount of resources. Each player is given a role such as a teacher or city manager and has their own goals to achieve, but they have to figure out how to accomplish these goals without hindering the groups’ completion of the overall game.

In order to win the game, five structures must be built using four different resources each. These resources are controlled by the different player roles, which requires the group to deliberate on how to use their common resources wisely. However, the game doesn’t come without its own twists.

“We’ve added in event cards to mix the game up, think the chance cards from Monopoly,” explained Loehwing. “You get one of these cards and it can change the town conditions, either in a good or bad way. Maybe a tornado hits your town, or maybe you get a windfall of capital resources to use.”

Players can also receive special advantages for convincing their group to help them achieve their character’s personal goals. Completing the character’s goals unlocks a “civic strength” that will help the group finish the game quicker.

“One lesson we hope the game promotes is how to approach rebuilding communities in a broad sense,” Loehwing added. “The game doesn’t function on a basic cost-benefit analysis, and it doesn’t let one person or one group decide for everyone. Instead, it creates a simulation in which the best path forward is one that everyone participates in, where all perspectives are considered and voices are heard.”

Currently, the CLL team imagines the project in two phases. The first phase sees the team working this fall to bring in two groups of students to play the game, then evaluate their conversations from the game sessions to see if deliberation improves over the course of the game. Phase two would see the game being refined and acquiring external funding to help the team expand. They would like to spread it to communities to better understand deliberation and its effects on civic engagement.

“The most powerful and potent thing we can do as citizens is to develop a core of empathy for others, to listen to them, and to construct a community through dialogue,” Shoup concluded. “Sometimes, it feels like we’ve lost that in our current moment, but we think that we can use social science and ask the right questions to learn how people can activate and develop a good citizenship for productive uses.”

Civic Life Laboratory