Patrick Matthews, acclaimed author and game designer, interviews the talented Mike Bonet. Enjoy!
In addition to teaching 12th grade ELA in the Bronx, is a game designer, and the host of the Who Why Why podcast about game design. He’s been podcasting for over ten years and has interviewed guests about a surprisingly wide range of game design topics, from socially conscious game design to inclusivity to education and a whole lot more.
Today, we’re turning the tables on him, and asking him the questions!
Mike, listening to your podcast, I was struck by how varied your guests’ interests are. It really drives home the wide reach of games. Why do you think this? What is it about the experience of playing a game that reaches everyone from rocket scientists to elementary school teachers to rock musicians?
Play is integral to human beings. We are born to play. Children use play, especially unstructured play, as a way to learn social norms, to develop their problem solving skills, and more, which is why so many parents today want their children's early school years to be play centered. If you force a child to skip those formative years in favor of quantified academic skills, your child loses something that can never be regained.
I think because of how integral play is to human beings, especially a young age, people are always drawn to games no matter their background or job. Games offer us a place to be clever, to be imaginative, to compete, and to socialize. For adults, we might focus more on structured play like a board game or role playing game because those constraints give us a chance to take a break from the responsibilities in our lives or because we have limited leisure time and know we can have a fulfilling experience through this structure.
And honestly, if you, dear reader, like hearing from a diverse array of voices, I've been much more cognizant over the last 18+ months of reaching out to more and more diverse voices to give them space to share their game design or games related journey on my show.
How about for you? You design games, podcast about games, and play games? What draws you to play, and do you have a favorite style or genre of game?
I'm mostly drawn to games to socialize. I love spending time with friends and playing games gives us something fun to do together whether that's trying to survive in 7th Continent or trying to make it to the top in Can't Stop. Games give me something more to do than simply sitting around talking, which is also something I love (hence being a podcaster).
One of my favorite genres is push your luck. I love those high risk, high reward moments largely because in life I am not a huge risk taker. In life, I want more sure bets because there are no real do-overs in real life. But in a game, it doesn't matter. Winning or losing is simply the outcome of an artificial experience. Another reason I love this style so much is because of the feelings it engenders at the table. In no other style of game does one's hands sweat, heart race, and breath halt. I think the term is called fuego, that fire moment where people are compelled to stand and cheer. Desperately needing that one last symbol in Elder Sign to avoid succumbing to Azathoth's wrath or finding yourself 1 runner away from winning in Can't Stop and hoping those dice don't bust are feelings that no fancy Euro can elicit. And don't get me wrong, I also love dry Euros.
As an educator, can you talk about what role, if any, games have in the classroom?
I think games can play a role in the learning process as supplementary texts to enhance lessons and as vehicles for social emotional learning. One strength of games based in history is that they can provide students an opportunity to explore counterfactuals and draw comparisons with how the history itself played out. Another great example of games in the classroom is in the sciences and maths where games can support understanding of key concepts like the work Catlilli Games does with Cycle (a game about life cycles on Earth). There are some limitations to games in the classroom because most games are created to be fun products and so may not contain as much of an educational focus. These games can still support students in the classroom, especially with regards to social emotional learning where students can learn to work together to solve problems and interact in non-educational ways. This past year I used the online implementation of Codenames to give students a break from our routine. Codenames itself still supports students making connections between ideas and inferring what another person is thinking through that clue, which is something that teachers ask students to do all the time but usually with bigger texts and more worksheets.
Do you incorporate play into your teaching? If so, can you give us any examples that other teachers might be able to use?
I don't usually incorporate games into my classroom, but I do incorporate some methods of play. I've used meme creation in my Shakespeare units in order to get students to better understand key lines from Hamlet. I've used a trivia night format from a trivia night I used to attend back in graduate school that gamifies the trivia format more so than say your class standard Jeopardy. I found the students weren't as interested in the Jeopardy format because once a team is a clear winner, there is little incentive to keep playing. This other format that I've used allows students to wager different point values on the questions, which allows students to balance the questions they are sure of with those they are unsure of.
I’ve been carefully avoiding mentioning the pandemic or how it’s affected teaching, but let’s take a moment to talk about that. Over the past couple years, teachers and parents have been facing extraordinary challenges keeping kids engaged. Do you think games, or play in general, can help us face those challenges? How so?
I've found there is no avoiding talking about the pandemic in the classroom and in meetings. The students are as cognizant of it as are the staff, especially in high school.
Games can help re-energize students who feel stressed out from this pandemic. Heck, games can re-energize staff who feel burned out from Zoom school. My own school had a morning meeting one day on Zoom where my principal put everyone in breakout rooms where we had to come up with as many words that we can make from the word
'collaboration'. We came together as a staff then to share all the words we found. It was the only meeting all year that we just played together instead of discussing projects or students or anything job related. I remember another time before I was a teacher at a scenic shop I worked in. We had worked a lot on getting ready for some activations at Coachella, building scenery, teching it together, etc. My friend went out to buy small soccer balls, and when she returned, all 4 or 5 of us raced these pedal carts we had in the shop and warehouse throwing soccer balls at each other pretending we were playing real life Mario Kart. It was a moment to break the stress, and that's what I find games can do very well in the classroom. I know there are teachers who incorporate games into their units, and some can be teaching tools, but there are limitations there.
Getting back to game design for a moment, could you speak about what draws you to it?
I like exploring themes that are less popular and personal in some way. A lot of my ideas come from my life and my past. I've got designs for a ski resort game because I've been a skier my whole life and one about beat 'em up games because I spent so much of my childhood playing beat 'em up games. I even have a design about Christmas dinner in my Italian-American family. Design gives me another opportunity to be creative and to flex those different creative muscles. I'd like to say I work at design as often as I podcast and teach, but teaching takes up a lot of time and with 2 kids at home, I don't always get as much design work in as I'd like.
Something that I always find interesting in people is the intersection of their passions. You’re a teacher, a game designer, and a podcaster. Do you find that there’s overlap between the skills needed to do those three things? Have lessons learned as a game designer or podcaster helped you in the classroom?
Being a podcaster has taught me to ask better questions, which I find immensely useful in discussing student work with them. I used to write out all of my questions in case I stammered or lost my train of thought during my recordings. I no longer do that and haven't done that for many years. I find being in the moment and having worked those mental muscles has helped improve the questions I ask. This works in the classroom, especially with seniors, in trying to get them to further elaborate in their writing whether it be their college essay or a research essay.
I'd like to think that being a designer has helped my teaching, but I'm not sure. I have done a lot of work over the last year in hopefully crafting better individual lessons with clearer stated goals, which is in some ways connected with game design. If players are unsure what they are supposed to accomplish, then the game misses the mark. The same goes for students. Making those goals clear and setting them early helps keep the lesson from faltering. Not to say that doesn't happen sometimes. I sort of joke that lesson planning is a bit like creating mini games with potentially dispassionate play testers and forcing them to play test that mini game for a grade. Ha.
Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview! For everyone reading this interview, please take a moment to listen to Mike’s podcast at https://ninjavspirates.libsyn.com/. You’ll be glad you did. It’s filled with truly interesting conversation and fascinating insights into the world of game design.