Jeremy Chan, a junior at Brown, is working with Professor of History Nancy Jacobs (right) to design games for students in her introductory course African Experiences of Empire. All photos: Nick Dentamaro/Brown University

Date July 7, 2021
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Jeremy Chan: Gamifying the scramble for Africa

As a teaching assistant in the history course African Experiences of Empire, Chan is designing board games that deepen students’ knowledge of everyday life in sub-Saharan Africa as European powers were seizing control.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Physically, the students were on Brown University’s College Green. But mentally, they were in French West Africa circa 1885, transported there by the all-consuming game “War Cabinet.”

The small group of Brown undergraduates played three against three. One side’s red pieces represented troops from the Wassoulou Empire, motivated to protect their land and peoples from European colonization. The other side’s white pieces represented the French military, determined to seize control of the area’s human and natural resources. 

Hovering over a board of hexagons designed to resemble a map of French West Africa, the two sides strategized among their groups, negotiated with “Liberia” (a former student calling in from Chicago) and “Sierra Leone” (their professor), and moved their troops overland and upriver, often sparring and destroying villages along the way.

An hour and a half later, when the “war” was over, the students discovered they didn’t much care who had won or lost. They felt devastated upon realizing which silent, powerless players had truly lost the most: the civilians.

“I think that’s the big takeaway,” said Jeremy Chan, a junior at Brown and the designer of the game “War Cabinet,” which is modeled on the history of the French-Mandinka Wars. “We’re not just showing the geographical extent of the conflict or illustrating the military dynamics. We’re showing that regardless of how you fight a war, no matter which empire ends up in control, the civilians lose out.”

Chan, an urban studies and history concentrator, is spending his summer as a game designer and teaching assistant for the introductory course African Experiences of Empire, taught by Professor of History Nancy Jacobs. Thanks to funds from the College, Chan is working with Jacobs to develop games grounded in historical research, beta-testing them with student board game enthusiasts on campus and then leading Jacobs’ class of 20 in games on the College Green.

In the history course, students receive an introduction to the continent through the study of life in sub-Saharan Africa from the mid-19th through the mid-20th century, when Western European powers scrambled to invade, conquer and colonize the land. Jacobs and her students learn about the region’s imperial history by studying African civilians’ accounts from that significant century.

“I want my students to ask how people are seeing their world at that particular moment — not understanding when imperialism and decolonization are about to happen, not having the benefit of hindsight,” Jacobs said. “Studying what average people were saying, thinking and feeling puts them more in the moment. If they can bracket the outcome and concentrate on the moment, they develop a better sense of the past.”

Chan’s games, she said, offer opportunities for her students to get in the heads of the people they study in class.

“You can read the textbook and the primary sources and engage in discussion about them, and both of those things are valuable,” Jacobs said. “But when you’re playing a game that actually puts you in circumstances that echo what people faced, and you have to work your way through strategies and constraints that echo historical circumstances, it’s great learning.”

The value of gamified learning

For years, Jacobs had been “gamifying” some of her class sessions, leading students in role-playing exercises that could help them understand how different constituencies’ beliefs and motivations drove their decisions and steered historical events. She had been following outlines provided by Barnard College’s Reacting to the Past project, but she didn’t feel she had the skills to design an original game from the ground up. So she was thrilled to notice, in Fall 2018, that one of her students had an aptitude for game design. 

Toward the end of the semester, as Chan and a classmate prepared to lead a discussion on the ways in which women supported a 1935 miners’ strike in the Namibian Copperbelt, they decided to engage the class by creating a game that called on students to play-act as miners and women in the community. 

“I noticed he was talking about games in a sophisticated way,” Jacobs said. 

That spring, she and Chan successfully applied to receive an Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award (UTRA), which supported Chan’s work on “War Cabinet.” The work continued the following spring, with funds from another UTRA. This summer, funds from the College supported work on a new game, “Bad Deal,” which helped students understand how exploitative colonial regimes used market forces to set unfair prices in large-scale commercial export agriculture in French West Africa. Student players took on the roles of African farmers trying to make a living exporting crops such as cacao and cotton. The game’s intricate details faithfully hew to perspectives and historical details in Jacobs’ own textbook, “African History Through Sources.”

“The object of the game is for these African farmers to amass wealth within the constraints of the colonial system,” Chan said, “At the end of the game, students were asking, well, what is wealth? They realized that in order to make money, they had to hire more workers. But hiring more workers meant turning blacksmiths and storytellers and seers into laborers, which drained communities of specific skills and knowledge that had done things like help them survive droughts.”

Maru Attwood, a rising sophomore from South Africa and a student in Jacobs’ summer class, said Chan’s games were a compelling way to study the difficult and complicated history of colonial Africa’s past.

“The games that Jeremy designed provide a way to engage with the motivations and perspectives of those who shaped and were shaped by colonial African history that go beyond reading or discussing the content,” Attwood said. “‘Bad Deal,’ for instance, allowed me to consider the pressures on farmers in West Africa and opened up questions about what we can know about how much agency ordinary Africans had under French colonial rule.”

"You can understand historical events intellectually, but then you can deepen your understanding by playing a game that has you thinking like the people who lived through that time. As a player, you make that connection: these were actual people, actual situations that happened."

Jeremy Chan Class of 2022
Jeremy Chan

The making of a game designer

Growing up in Singapore, Chan played plenty of games that attempted to deal with historical events and issues — but few that directly tackled the topic of colonialism. 

“Games don’t really reflect the complex dynamics of colonialism, because game designers don’t really want to go there,” Chan said. “The industry is very profit-driven: A game might not get made if it has the potential to raise controversy, because if it’s controversial, it might not sell. Being able to design games in an academic context, where the goal is learning instead of profit, really opens up the possibilities.”

Intellectual curiosity — and a penchant for questioning the status quo — guided Chan’s first forays into game design in high school. In an attempt to tell a wider range of stories, he tried to adapt the structure of Model United Nations to represent the more unconventional dynamics of environmental conflict, which proved difficult to do within the strictures of the U.N.’s guiding principles.

“The U.N. is generally guided by the ideals of Western-style liberal democracies,” Chan said, “so it was hard to imagine how we could apply their framework to indigenous and local communities in the Global South that might be organized around a different set of societal beliefs, structures and norms. Incorporating methods of game design provided us a way to tell their stories in an engaging but meaningful manner."

Chan said the freedom afforded by Brown’s Open Curriculum helps him hone the skills he needs to excel at historical game design. He established a baseline knowledge of data analysis through statistics courses. He continues to traverse the globe in history courses, exploring the past and present of the Arctic, Japan, Brazil, Europe and East Asia. He sampled political science, social science and policy courses. Several of his courses — including Political Economy of Strategy, taught by two Naval War College faculty members, and Anthropological Archaeology, taught by Assistant Professor of Social Sciences Parker VanValkenburgh — involved some degree of gamification.

“With the Open Curriculum, you really can take charge of your own education,” Chan said. “It’s allowed me to gather together classes across really different subjects in a way that makes sense to me and my trajectory.”

After graduation, Chan will return to Singapore and pursue a career in public service. He hopes to not only tap into techniques of game design to inform policymaking and advocacy work but also continue to design games for fun — a hobby he believes has helped him cultivate more empathy.

“One of my biggest breakthroughs in game designing came when I realized you can not only play strategically but also empathetically,” Chan said. “That’s the kind of thing Professor Jacobs is trying to accomplish with her class, too. You can understand historical events intellectually, but then you can deepen your understanding by playing a game that has you thinking like the people who lived through that time. As a player, you make that connection: these were actual people, actual situations that happened.”

Jeremy Chan's course list

A typical semester for Chan involves courses in history, policy and urban studies, among other subjects. Here are just a few of the Brown courses he has taken and enjoyed.

HIST 1976C

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Environmental Histories of Non-Human Actors

INTL 1555

The Political Economy of Strategy: From the Financial Revolution to the Revolution in Military Affairs

ARCH 0317

Heritage in the Metropolis: Remembering and Preserving the Urban Past

EDUC 1110

Introductory Statistics for Education Research and Policy Analysis