July 13, 2023 Students, Professors Design Board Game Depicting Invasive Plant Ecology

A new board game developed by faculty and students from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s School of Design explains the ecology and underground mutualistic interactions of common native understory wildflowers when disrupted by invasive species and deer. 

Cary Staples headshot

“The UNDERstory” is a card-based board game created by the App.Farm. It focuses on the life cycle of the native species, trillium, when the invasive species, garlic mustard, invades the forest understory. Susan Kalisz, a research professor in UT’s ecology and evolutionary biology department, collaborated with Cary Staples, a professor of graphic design, to bring her research to a wider audience with support from a National Science Foundation grant. 

To develop the game, Staples and Tim Arment, a graphic design lecturer, taught students how to leverage Kalisz’s research results through The App.Farm, an innovative and collaborative experience designed to support interdisciplinary student teams in creating games and simulations. Bridging the gap between research and design has been a passion for Staples. Her initial foray into game design began as a way to assess students’ understanding of course content. 

“The concept of building a world to understand the context of the content resonated with me as a means of connecting people with information,” she said. 

The App.Farm provides students with the opportunity to analyze educational materials and design game experiences that engage and excite learners. The goal was to use the game format as a foundation for creating open-ended exploration, allowing diverse audiences to delve into the subject matter on their own terms. 

“The students bonded and found their own roles,” Staples said. “Those who were interested in coding focused on coding, while those who preferred asset development worked on the drawings. No one was responsible for everything, yet everyone had to communicate with their collaborators. They could see the connection between their general education course content through the lens of their major.” 

The end result is a game designed for four or more players, taking them through different elements affecting trillium’s above and below ground ecology including beneficial fungi in trillium roots and in the soil, seed dispersal by ants, players weeding garlic mustard, and deer browse of trillium. To win, players must work collaboratively to secure water, phosphorus, and nitrogen via the fungi to increase the abundance of trillium across the forest floor gameboard and outcompete the garlic mustard. 

“The UNDERstory” has been named a finalist for the 2023 James Paul GEE! Learning Game Awards, which recognizes excellence in educational game design in the analog category. The winners will be announced on Thursday, July 20, at the Play Make Learn conference in Madison, Wisconsin. The game is currently in a prototype phase which will be showcased at the conference.