On a recent Thursday night, Ding and club president Emery Armentrout, who is completing a joint degree in international trade and public administration, tracked the movement of specific cards and detailed figurines on a modular game board as big as a blanket.
This game, named Scythe, presents what creators call “an engine-building, asymmetric, competitive board game set in … a time of farming and war, broken hearts and rusted gears, innovation and valor.”
Armentrout encounters a lot of real-world challenges while playing.
“You have to think about your own development but you also have to deal diplomatically with the other players,” he said. “Direct conflict is an option but not usually what you want to do. You have to stay flexible with your expectations and how to meet your goals, while juggling a lot of things.”
At several more tables, mahjong is the game of choice. While the Mahjong Club is in its first year, participation has grown quickly.
“It’s very traditional and very popular in China,” said Ding’s wife and club consigliere Kiko Lu. “It’s also one of a kind. There’s nothing else in the world like it.”
“Everyone is pretty excited to be there, and a lot of people there are first-year students like me because it gives them a good platform to know more people at the school,” Ding said. “They come excited to learn how to play and enjoy the night.”
Learning Through Games
Playing “pretend” is more than kid stuff. Two of the Institute’s signature courses are built around role-playing real scenarios: International Economic Negotiation Simulation and Nonproliferation and Terrorism Simulation. The Institute also hosts an annual weekend-long crisis simulation led by Army War College centered around a hypothetical international negotiation.
Many students will also play plenty of games in their advanced language courses. Faculty in the TESOL and Teaching Foreign Language programs teach educators how to leverage games in their own classrooms.
“Students will be asked to come to the negotiation room prepared, present their opening statements, do tit-for-tat bargaining, while trying to apply negotiation skills to persuade their counterparts and seek win-win solutions,” Professor Wei Liang says.
Liang, who teaches the International Economic Negotiation Simulation and Global Economic Governance for Development seminars, drops students into highly interactive, role-playing negotiations. Students represent stakeholders like government heads, NGOs, and banks as they navigate talks over development projects such as climate change and World Bank loans.
Middlebury’s library, meanwhile, serves as a vast resource for different types of play.
Joelle Mellon, who calls herself a boardgame “evangelist,” serves as Middlebury’s research and instruction librarian, overseeing a deep catalog of games available for checkout, in languages ranging from Arabic to Mandarin to Russian. Dominion, Bananagrams, Dixit, Catan, and mahjong are the most popular.
“Games are really a source of community building,” she says. “That’s how folks are figuring out how to connect.”
Middlebury’s Dominion Club has been especially active.
“When they go away for summer and Christmas break, they keep playing because the club has such a thriving online version,” she says. “The Dominion Club doesn’t ever stop.”
“Here they’re more of a source of fun, but there’s a lot of decision-making skills, language processing, money management, and wide-ranging lessons you pick up through games,” she says.
Most powerfully, she’s seen gaming serve as a lifeline, especially during the pandemic.
“I’ve seen students who were in despair, without human connection, find a group of friends,” she says. “I’ve seen gaming literally save people.”
Games aren’t just a way to unwind or connect. Many students in the Institute’s Translation and Localization Management master’s program, the first program of its kind in the country, ultimately hope to work in the gaming industry.
Sarah Blackwell MAT ’24 counts herself among Middlebury’s avid video gaming community—she’s currently into Coral Island, a farming simulation gone tropical—but her specialization in localization management approaches gaming from the back end.
The Games Localization class she’s currently taking equips students to understand various game platforms and genres, and ultimately emerge able to work on adapting video games for new markets and languages as a translator, project manager, novice programmer, and even voice actor. A number of Middlebury alumni have gone on to work for top video game developers like Riot Games.
“We learn how to look at game code and extract what the user is going to see, to find that, take that out, translate it, and put that back in,” she says.
Recent projects have included translating an entire game for a real-world developer and working with various game engines like Unreal, a series of three-dimensional computer graphics game tools developed by another industry leader, Epic Games.
“Since the engines are so different, it’s a totally different experience,” Blackwell says.
The same can be said for the many ways Middlebury Institute students get their game on.
Current students can find weekly announcements and events from the Tabletop Gaming Club 2023 in the Institute’s MIcommunity platform.
Thirty-five Middlebury Institute students were joined by students and faculty from other area institutions for a weekend-long exercise simulating diplomatic negotiations during an international crisis.