Game Rule Books: A Guide for SA Work

I’m a big proponent of gaming and games-based learning for improving the work of educators and student affairs professionals. I use a lot of board games in my practice like Pandemic and Hanabi to build teamwork with my student staff through cooperation and synergy.

Because I use a lot of games, I also read a lot of rule books. Some are great. Some are pretty bad. But what I’ve learned is that writing a GOOD rulebook has a lot in common with communicating well. Communication is one of those unappreciated skills. But it’s especially important in such a high touch field like student affairs where conversation with many different people (students, parents, faculty, administrators) takes place in many different channels (e-mail, discussion, text, social media, etc…)

So much of what we do involves digital communication.  So this post will compare what well written rule books incorporate and how we can apply to our everyday practice.

Read it Out Loud
This is something that I’ve learned from writing, reading, and editing much of my own scholarly work as well as responses from the students in the leadership program I teach. Part of good writing is good editing, and one of the best tools I’ve learned for editing is reading your content out loud. Whether it be a tweet, email, or text; take a few seconds and read that last sentence out loud to yourself. Do you understand it? Will your reader understand it? Can it be understood in context? If not, then go back and revise.

Use Active Voice
Many bad rule books I’ve read in the past include phrases like “should this happen,” and “you may do this.” This talks about eventualities and options that players can take. Rather, it should be written in an active voice “If this happens, then do this” or “At this stage players have the following options: 1)…” This provides an opportunity for players to examine what the game state is and what they can do about it. Likewise, your writing should do the same. Talk actively and purposefully. The best way to start is to stop ending your emails with “Let me know” and instead say “I look forward to hearing your thoughts.” Not only is this an active way of asking for a response, but it’s a call to action that your input is needed. 

Review Key Terms
Game rule books talk about “resolve this” or “power token” that before they talk about what these terms actually mean. This is something that we are often guilty of in higher education. I have to remind myself that NSO means New Student Orientation and that VAWA means the Violence Against Women act.  We live our lives swimming through alphabet soup and sometimes we forget that the people we talk to may not know what these terms mean. Remember to keep your audience in mind when communicating with them. Define those key terms FIRST, then tell me why it’s important to know them.

Don’t Give Instructions Out of Order or Context
“I need to know how what the objective is first” is something I often say when reading a rule book for the first time. This should be at the very top, before you list any flavor text about orcs fighting goblins or an explanation of what three actions you can do on each turn. Same thing with communication in student affairs work; especially if you are looping someone new into an existing conversation.  I was once asked to join a faculty committee on revising the general education curriculum. I appreciated not getting thrown into the deep end. The committee carefully explained what the charge of the committee was and what role I could play in advising them. THAT is excellent communication. 

Credits at the Bottom
It’s great to know who is involved with a program or a game (especially if it’s a famous person) but keep the credits for those people at the bottom of whatever you’re producing. That’s why emails have signature lines, movies have end credits, and your rule book should have a list of play testers and special thanks all the way at the bottom.

Like board game rule books, communication in student affairs practice is critical for conveying your ideas, concerns, and requests in an effective and becoming manner. Realize that your communication is “living” and should be considered influential as well as utilitarian for your intended audience. This means that you should use active voice when communicating with someone (this is no time to be passive about what you need and want).

Review key terms, before you start describing them. Remember! Not everyone knows what NASPA, ACPA, NACA, or ACHUO-I stands for. Don’t give information out of context. If you’re going to invite someone to sit on your committee, first communicate what the committee does and how their expertise would be helpful before asking someone to join.  Lastly, don’t forget to give yourself and your peers credit for what you are communicating. But do that at the end, after you’re done saying everything else.

Happy communicating and happy gaming!


Dave Eng

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