In this St. Olaf course, the first year of college is all a game
There are a lot of moving pieces in any college student’s first year on campus — from learning to live in a residence hall to balancing rigorous classes to making new friends. In one St. Olaf College course, students literally turned those experiences into moving pieces as part of a set of board games they created.
Students in Visiting Assistant Professor of English Jennifer Shaiman’s Games and Community course investigated various types of games, from board games to video games, and considered how they could help new students navigate the college experience. Over the course of four months, students in the class researched and wrote about communities formed around games — and then worked in nine separate groups to create board games intended to improve the success of St. Olaf students.
“Their games about time management revealed the variety of activities and different types of assignments that students see themselves and their friends trying to balance, as well as their concerns about sleeping, eating, doing homework, and still having time for social activities,” Shaiman says. “Other games touched on some of the difficult mental and physical health concerns first-year students have.”
Their games about time management revealed the variety of activities and different types of assignments that students see themselves and their friends trying to balance.Visiting Assistant Professor of English Jennifer Shaiman
Shaiman’s course is part of the new First-Year Experience program at St. Olaf, a set of two courses that support the transition to college. One is a first-year seminar that emphasizes reading, critical thinking, conversation, and academic habits for the liberal arts, and the other is a writing and rhetoric course that engages students in learning to write for multiple purposes and audiences. The program also requires all first-year students to participate in St. Olaf Orientation to Academics and Resources (SOAR), a year-long program that equips first-year students with the knowledge and tools to be successful at St. Olaf.
For students in Shaiman’s writing class, the First-Year Experience was all fun and games. As part of the writing course, the students’ first assignment for the class was writing an analysis of what makes a game engaging. They also also wrote instructions for the game and an extensive formal proposal for their final game project.
One group — which included Joey Richards ’25, Fiona Boskovic ’25, Michael Jensen ’25, and Evan Robertson ’25 — created a board game that takes players through the course registration process. The game introduces players to the different general education requirements and the classes they can take to fulfill those requirements.
“At the beginning, while players are learning the game, the classes they need to take are readily available — and if they don’t get the class they need, it’s likely that they can take another class and get a different requirement,” Richards says. But then things become more challenging. “Towards the end of the game, players might need some of the same classes and some strategy is involved at this point, and that’s when the players get most engaged.”
Another group — which included Michaela Tucci ’25, Peter Wilson ’25, Sophie Kessler ’25, and Madeline Johnson ’25 — developed a game focused on helping incoming first–year students become familiar with what a first semester might look like. Tucci says the game, “Orienting Oles,” was inspired by the layout of “The Game of Life” and “Tokaido.”
“In ‘Orienting Oles,’ the players collect different cards that give them either a better experience or a worse one. Each Ole will have to take two midterms and a final exam over the course of the game. Throughout the semester they would have the opportunity to study to better prepare for each exam. The more they study, the better chance they will succeed on the exam,” Tucci explains. “Oles will move based on the roll of a die. Each space they land on will prompt them to draw a different kind of card. There are three different kinds of cards: ‘Positive’ experiences, ‘Negative’ experiences, and ‘Study’ cards. Each Ole will have to maintain their stress levels and Ole dollars over the course of the game. At the end, the player with the highest amount of experience points after the ‘Stress Meter’ number was subtracted, had the best overall experience.”
Tucci says the logistics of the board game had to be figured out first, followed by the rules and then explanations for the different cards and their actions. Next they crafted the board game and its piece, revising them a number of times along the way to better both the game mechanics and the experience.
The games reflect how much time management is required in the multi-faceted, busy student life at St. Olaf. Caroline Alwin ’25 says this was an inspiration for the game developed by her group, which also included Nikolas Stoufis ’25, Jean-Luc Collette ’25, and Zach Richard ’25. “Many students struggle with time management skills, so we wanted to create a game that focused on helping people develop time management skills,” Alwin says.
Collette notes that the process of creating the game required several planning phases, a prototype, a Kickstarter page, a final version the team was happy with, and a presentation to the class. “It took a lot of time together, but we are very proud of the product,” he says.
Our game also mixed chance with strategy since players don’t know what obstacles they will have to face in their schedule, just as real college students find unexpected time management puzzles in their lives. This provides engagement by offering players an element of surprise, while not putting everything on either luck or strategy as a means of winning the game.Nikolas Stoufis ’25
The real St. Olaf game is not all about academics, and it’s important that students balance their mental health with personal fulfilment. Stoufis says his team’s game stressed the importance of this. “We knew we wanted to have a mechanic where players gain a level of happiness from doing activities not related to academics,” he says. “Our game also mixed chance with strategy since players don’t know what obstacles they will have to face in their schedule, just as real college students find unexpected time management puzzles in their lives. This provides engagement by offering players an element of surprise, while not putting everything on either luck or strategy as a means of winning the game.”
It wasn’t just the students who learned from their experience creating board games.
“I am always learning things from my students,” Shaiman says. “I particularly appreciated the insight into their ideas of what it means to live successfully in their new role as college students.”