Faculty Spotlight: Toni Bushner

Lecturer in the Digital Studies Institute

Spotlight on DIGITAL 355: Topics in Digital Creative Expression: Sustainable Board Game Design

Analog board games are a classic form of group entertainment, breaking down social barriers and garnering competition and connection. Toni Bushner is fascinated by games – she completed her master’s and PhD at Purdue University, focusing on digital rhetorics, technical writing, and game studies. Particularly interested in how games uncover deeper truths about human behavior, Bushner wrote her master’s thesis about hyper-difficult games, investigating “what design elements helped foster resilience through failure, with an eye towards how we could bring some of those design features into the classroom.” Her PhD centered on board game designers, interviewing over a dozen to learn more about the unique challenge of developing a board game instruction manual, the “animating code” that transforms an inert box of cardboard and plastic into its intended form of entertainment. 

During her PhD, Bushner began teaching a course on board game design at Purdue University, which grew into a multimedia writing course with an emphasis on kickstarting board games. When Bushner started teaching at the Digital Studies Institute at the University of Michigan, she brought this course over in a “revised capacity,” which became a section of DIGITAL 355: Topics in Digital Creative Expression. Initially, the course instructed students to develop their own games and learn about designing Kickstarter campaigns for their creations, with the option of actually kickstarting their games at the end of the semester. Bushner recalls that as the course went on, she “started including some really fascinating conversations that were happening in the board game design space around deluxification and sustainability.” Deluxification refers to the trend of making more complex and visually appealing game components, often without contributing additional functionality over more simple pieces. Since Kickstarter is a “very visual medium,” game designers feel “pressure to make sure that [their] game has a really beautiful table presence,” necessitating bigger boxes, expansion packs, and trays full of plastic pieces. Bushner began to consider how this trend factored into larger conversations about environmental sustainability, and she shifted the focus of DIGITAL 355 to what it is now – sustainable board game design. 

The modifications that game designers can make to improve the sustainability of their games are varied and depend upon the game. Some solutions include domestic manufacturing, simplifying game pieces, instructing users to print game components at home, avoiding UV coatings on cards, and using laser-engraved wood pieces instead of plastic. Students in DIGITAL 355 put many of these ideas into practice: one of their major assignments was to produce a physical prototype, where they printed game components and rule books on recycled paper and utilized the Shapiro Design Lab to engrave pieces from low-impact wood. (Bushner is an emphatic fan of the Design Lab and encourages all students to take advantage of its resources, which are available for both class-related and personal use.) Bushner had students design their games in small groups of approximately four students, following an iterative design process that includes playtesting and gathering feedback. 

Reflecting on previous semesters, she describes two particularly impressive designs. The first, a “narrative role-playing game that mechanically and narratively illustrated the ways that one’s initial starting conditions interact with the course of their life,” consisted of a series of prompt cards representing disruptive life events. Players were assigned different attributes, including socioeconomic status, race, and gender, which enabled different responses to each of the prompt cards. As a vehicle for “creating conversations around inequality and identity,” the game was original and effective. Another impressive game, notable for its mechanical ingenuity, was a cooperative deck-building game. “There’s a lot of games that use very similar mechanics, but they put some really fascinating twists on it,” Bushner commented. Student teams have devised games ranging from “fanciful and fictional” to “commentary on society,” with many students coming into the class with preconceived ideas they want to implement. Bushner enjoys letting students fulfill their visions while incorporating the notions of sustainability and accessibility that are key to the course. 

In addition to designing their prototype, students in DIGITAL 355 spent time completing an accessibility tear-down of an existing game, where they examined all aspects of the game that are potentially inaccessible. Bushner is adamant that the conversation around accessibility needs to accompany discussions around environmental sustainability: “They both make you think about the impact of your game…How do you make it earth-friendly and human-friendly?” To complete the accessibility tear-down, students followed the heuristic toolkit available from Meeple Like Us, where two researchers completed similar tear-downs on many existing games. Considerations range from visual accessibility – high background/foreground contrast and dual-coding colors for people with colorblindness – to cognitive and emotional accessibility, which take into account different levels of cognitive ability and emotional regulation from players. Bushner cites the example of her close friend and frequent board game companion who is blind and whose interactions with different games allow her to consider accessibility barriers directly. She acknowledges that games can’t be 100% accessible because “the game would not have a challenge to it.” However, unintentional accessibility can and should be minimized, and students were able to incorporate the lessons they learned from the tear-downs in devising their prototypes. 

Many students shared that DIGITAL 355 made them reconsider the hidden environmental impacts of many different products they encounter in their lives since they previously hadn’t thought about the “labor, transportation, material issues of producing games overseas and shipping them over” before taking the course. They appreciated learning how to be more considerate producers and consumers in the modern world, tracking the life of a board game from idea, to prototype, to a diverse crowd of end users and its eventual disposal. Bushner is excited that students from design and gaming backgrounds were able to enter these conversations around accessibility and sustainability through this class, and she underscores this as a key strength of interdisciplinary study. “Sustainability is all-encompassing…it affects nearly everything,” so faculty across disciplines can make those connections in the classroom for new groups of students. Bushner reminds her colleagues that they don’t need to be sustainability experts to discuss the environmental repercussions in their field of study: “Your own passion for whatever it is that you’re interested in has a lot of momentum on its own.” 

Toni Bushner is teaching DIGITAL 202: Digital Culture and DIGITAL 258: Themes in Language and Literature: Fan Fiction, Theorycrafting, and Online Communities in the Fall 2024 semester. 

As a part of the Year of Sustainability, we are interested in sharing, uplifting, and highlighting stories about the people who make up LSA and have experience teaching about sustainability. We sat down with a series of LSA faculty to discuss their background and courses and will feature these conversations in our Faculty Spotlight series.

To contact the LSA Year of Sustainability Team, please contact sustainable-lsa@umich.edu

By Lauren May

Lauren is the Year of Sustainability Intern for U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.