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Teaching about oppression through Jenga: a game-based learning example for social work educators.

THE INSIDIOUS MECHANISMS of structural oppression have surpassed the potency of one-on-one overt discriminatory acts. Today the most unyielding obstacles to social, economic, and political equality operate more effectively within the institutionalized codes of private and public sector systems perpetuating disparities in health, education, and wealth than in the individual racist denying access to seats on a bus or space at a lunch counter. The pursuit of social justice embedded within the historical roots, as well as the present-day mandate, of the social work profession obligates the discipline to prepare professionals to effectively address such assaults. Therefore, after reviewing the subtle but powerful mechanisms inherent in institutional oppression, we offer an overview of game-based learning exercises and introduce a modified version of the family game Jenga as a tool for instructing on the topic of institutional oppression.

Institutional Oppression

Institutional oppression refers to the way in which society is organized into predictable relationships. It has been defined as "an enclosing structure of forces and barriers that tend to immobilize and reduce a group or category of people" (Frye, 1983, p. 11). Van Voorhis (1998) describes it as that which originates in, and is maintained by, the dominate group through institutional and economic power and control over societal institutions such as schools, banks, legislative bodies, and policing or military forces.

The consequences of institutional oppression are often targeted as the subject of studies on racial or ethnic group disparities in income, assets, health, and so forth. However, the reasons for these disparities are most often ascribed to attributes of the marginalized population, rather than the exploitative actions of the privileged groups. The literature on deficit thinking (Brandon, 2003), modern racism (Leach, 2005), and White racial framing represent examples of how vulnerable groups' subordinate positions are attributed to the groups' values, choices, culture, and/or perceived pathologies. This classic victim-blaming is aided by the ideology of equal opportunity and the myth of American meritocracy (Freeman, 1995), which present powerful obstacles to individuals of privilege reconceptualizing what were historically viewed as personal or family achievements into privileges illegitimately gained at the expense of oppressed groups.

Although flagrant disparities are occasionally acknowledged as the consequence of institutional oppression, seldom are these disparities conceptualized in terms of institutionalized mechanisms generated and maintained by individual members of a privileged social group. When systemic injustice or structural discrimination is linked to grievous disparities, typically the discussion is positioned within a passive tense or the discourse is conducted in abstract language that removes individual agents from view, which serves to incriminate some "vaguely specified institution" (Feagin, 2006, p. 5). Nevertheless, institutions do not act; it is the people in them who act, even though the individuals may be simply following routine rules and regulations (Feagin & Feagin, 1986).

This position of "faultlessness" is regularly upheld by members of privileged groups for acts associated with structural oppression, because individual prejudice and discrimination, or the explicit intention of harm, often are not overtly present in institutional oppression. It is often perpetuated through individuals who may believe they are simply adhering to organizational or institutional protocol. For example, the U.S. courts have found no legal wrongdoing by school districts that distribute their educational resources with such vast disparity that it results in high-poverty neighborhoods attaining lower scholastic performance (Center for American Progress, 2008), by subprime lenders approving harmful loans that have resulted in "the greatest loss of wealth for communities and individuals of color in modern history" (Rivera, Cotto-Escalera, Desai, Huezo, & Muhammad, 2008, p. 1), or by a criminal justice system that incarcerates and executes Black defendants at a flagrantly disproportionate rate (Brewer & Heitzeg, 2008). Critical theorists contend that the U.S. legal system, although masked with the mantle of equality and neutrality, actually serves to create and maintain much race and wealth disparity. Moran and Wildman (2008) illustrate this position through the cynical comments of Anatole France, who mocked the equality of laws that forbid "the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread" (p. 149).

As educators within a profession with a commitment to social justice and a mandate to "prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person" (National Association of Social Workers, 1999, p. 27), it is vital that we combat structural oppression by raising social work students' awareness of its mechanisms. However, in pursuing this endeavor, educators in general, and social work educators in particular, have long encountered multiple and substantial impediments to assisting students to challenge years of socialization and internalized ideologies of superiority that make hierarchies of privilege appear to be the natural order (Abrams & Gibson, 2007; Branscombe, Schmitt, & Schiffhauer, 2007; Cohen, 1995; Garcia & Van Soest, 1997, 2006; Gillespie, Ashbaugh, & DeFiore, 2002). Therefore, in the interests of expanding and strengthening social work educators' repertoire of instructional tools on the topic of institutional oppression, we briefly review the relevant literature on game-based learning and offer readers an original game-based learning exercise adapted from the popular family game Jenga.

Overview of Game-Based Learning

The learning potential generated through games has been examined in university classrooms since the 1950s, particularly by business schools (Gros, 2007; Magney, 1990). Moreover, game-based education has been utilized as an instructional tool across disciplines ranging from international relations (Magney, 1990), engineering (Ebner & Holzinger, 2007) and biology to nursing and social work (Moore & Dettlaff, 2005). It has been utilized in forms ranging from low-tech crossword puzzles (Franklin, Peat, & Lewis, 2003) and Monopolytype undertakings (Coghlan & Huggins, 2004; Magney, 1990) to high-tech digital games (Deubel, 2006; Gros, 2007).

Not only do game-based exercises offer the potential for students to learn more and retain it longer, but like textbooks, games also effectively serve to reinforce or fortify the students' new understandings (Magney, 1990). Furthermore, aside from the cognitive benefits of game-based learning, educators have long noted that games foster higher levels of student interest and promote positive attitudes toward the subject matter (Ebner & Holzinger, 2007; Magney, 1990). Ebner and Holzinger (2007) credit the "joy" or "fun" factor elicited through the use of games as the potent contributor to their efficacy as a teaching tool.

In designing game-based educational endeavors, instructors are cautioned against creating a fragmented and isolated awareness-raising activity, disassociated from specific outcomes (Barber & Norman, 1989; Cruz & Patterson, 2005). To address this common obstacle, it is essential to incorporate opportunities for student reflection around the game (Cruz & Patterson, 2005). This reflection phase has been heralded as the most critical component in game-based learning (Kiili, 2007).

Description of Game-Based Exercise on Institutional Oppression

For more than 6 years, the following game-based learning activity with various modifications has been a standard classroom practice by the author originating the exercise. He has employed it within a small undergraduate social work program at a private, Catholic university with a primarily White, middle-class student body. The class size typically ranges from 12 to 25 students.

In presenting this game-based learning exercise, there are three distinct phases: the Briefing Phase, the Jenga Game, and the Debriefing Phase. Ideally, these phases should be conducted in three consecutive classroom sessions. The general goal of the overall exercise is to increase participant awareness and sensitivity to the fundamental impact of the underlying mechanisms of oppression and privilege. Students encounter the limitations of their own individual skills and efforts as determinants of success, in light of the game's mechanisms of "oppression." The two specific objectives of this exercise are for students to be able to (a) identify mechanisms of oppression and privilege, and (b) articulate how mechanisms of oppression and privilege are sustained or challenged.

Briefing Phase

Prior to the Jenga exercise, the instructor assigns an introductory reading and introduces students to such terms as oppression, institutional oppression, privilege, meritocracy, and complicity. Numerous social work textbooks offer brief introductions to institutional/structural oppression, and the classic McIntosh (1990) article can serve to acquaint students with the concept of privilege. Students prepare a two-page reflection paper and participate in small-group and class discussions facilitated by the instructor. These Briefing Phase assignments will subsequently be compared to the Debriefing Phase's reflection paper and discussion to assess the efficacy of the exercise.

Jenga Game

To conduct this game-based learning activity, the instructor must have any version of the game Jenga, produced by either Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers (2006) or the current parent company, Hasbro (2006). Although consisting of fewer blocks, the game Tumbling Tower by Cardinal Industries (1999) may also be used for this exercise. A stopwatch, a dry board or chalkboard, and play money are the only other tools needed to facilitate the exercise. A slightly modified version of Jenga will be played to its conclusion five or more times throughout a single class period, 1 hour in duration.

Ostensibly, the purpose of this family game is to successfully extend the height of a tower of consecutively stacked wooden blocks. Players strategically slide out one of the tower's blocks that is not a critical support from somewhere within the tower and carefully position it atop the tower to increase the tower's elevation. This task is done with caution so as not to unbalance the structure and send all the blocks tumbling, which terminates the game. One point is awarded for each block successfully added to the tower's top. Through the introduction of game rules that dictate new conditions under which the players must construct the tower, the instructor amplifies the game's dynamics of oppression and privilege. Examples of such rules are a requirement that players use only their left hand, an imposition of a 10-second time limit, and the institution of game qualifiers (e.g., only students wearing athletic shoes can play).

Although only two teams will play against each other during any single Jenga game, students are instructed to create four or five different teams, each consisting of three members. Students are briefed on the game's rules prior to team selection. Teams select a name, which is written on the board for the purpose of score keeping. The classroom instructor will record one point under the name of the corresponding team each time it successfully removes and stacks a block. A student who is not a member of any team performs the role of timekeeper. The timekeeper begins the exercise and monitors the time allotted for team members to complete their turn.

One student will be assigned the role of judge/rule enforcer. This student is responsible for interpreting all the rules of Jenga and rendering final decisions on the assignment of points, as well as the assignment of retribution or penalties for "rule-breaking," such as loss of a turn or a reduction in points. The instructor conspires privately with the judge/ rule enforcer prior to class, instructing the student to exhibit bias in his or her rulings.

With only 12 to 15 students composing the teams, not every student in the class will actually be playing the game. Students who are not a member of a playing team and not assigned the role of judge or timekeeper (therefore not directly engaged in the game) are assigned the role of observer. The observers record all noteworthy occurrences and share their observations with classmates after the game.

The game ends when a player makes the tower fall, which results in a loss for that player's team. The instructor announces each team's "score" at the conclusion of the game. (Students rapidly realize that winning is independent of these "scores.") The winning team receives $10,000 in play money and an opportunity to play again against another team to win additional play money.

Debriefing Phase

Students prepare a postgame reflection paper from a set of instructor-prepared questions. They are asked to critically reflect upon the perceptions of institutional oppression gained from participating in the Jenga exercise. Small-group and class discussions offer opportunities for students to share ideas and consider the implications of this experience for social work practice.

Throughout the Debriefing Phase students are encouraged to consider the real-world institutional mechanisms that ensure things such as a criminal record, a serious health diagnosis, a poor credit report, or other experiences can preclude individuals from future opportunities or a place in the "game."

Student Learning Opportunities From Game-Based Activity

New and different observations and insights continue to emerge with each group participating in this exercise. However, the following observations from the Debriefing Phase focus on the exercise's two specific objectives of student identification of (a) mechanisms of oppression and privilege, and (b) how such mechanisms are sustained or challenged.

Mechanisms of Oppression and Privilege

Most students quickly grasp the "disconnect" between a team's "score" (effort) and a team's designation as winner or loser (outcome). Students are asked to contemplate how each individual player's efforts, skills, motivation, and luck contributed to their success in the game. The debriefing phase consistently elicits student comments similar to the following: "It's difficult to win Jenga without some sort of luck. You can try hard and do everything right, but still lose. That's frustrating--losing--because our points weren't rewarded."

Students have successfully made the real-world connection with different populations depending on the assigned readings. Here is a typical response from a student assigned a reading on poverty from Ehrenreich's (2001) Nickel and Dimed or Shilper's (2005) The Working Poor: "I can appreciate the frustration of people trying to get out of poverty. They may work hard and follow all the rules, but still can't change their economic position." Students have also connected restrictions inherent in both the game's and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families' time limits.

All team members play under the same set of rules, which creates an atmosphere of equality within the game. However, this game-based learning exercise is particularly useful in raising student awareness of the role that "rules and regulations" play in advancing some individuals' interests, while restraining others. One student stated, "The rules kept me out of the game because I wore dress shoes instead of my Nikes." Another student commented, "I never thought about the impact of rules. Rules are supposed to guarantee fairness. It never occurred to me that the rules were creating the oppression and privilege."

The left-hand only rule, although applicable to all players, benefits "lefties" and one-handed dexterity. Students are asked to reflect upon how only a relatively narrow subset of physical abilities and mental abilities is rewarded. Instead of allowing all players to bring their unique, natural strengths and abilities to the game, the Jenga game privileged some skills over others. The time restraints, although applicable to all players, favor the rapid actor over the thoughtful planner. In addition, time pressures advantage spontaneity over premeditation or more deliberate thought. Insightful discussions are generated when students are asked to consider real-world examples of the exaltation of such competencies as mathematical or athletic abilities, along with examples of the devaluation of care giving, community-building, or relational skills.

Sustaining or Challenging Mechanisms of Oppression and Privilege

Student reactions to the subtle and blatant preferential rulings handed down by the judge are surprisingly mixed. Reactions range from the observers' allegations of foul play and the slighted teams' anger and frustration, to the advantaged teams' denial and irritation at complaints. Frequently, the advantaged teams express a conviction in the overall fairness of the judges' rulings, or they may concede only minor and insignificant aberrations that did not impact their win: "Crybabies on the other [losing] team tried to challenge our win, but I think we deserved the win because we really were the better team." This is remarkably consistent and collaborated by outcomes of other simulation exercises on structural inequality (Eells, 1987). It serves as an outstanding classroom illustration of the advantage group's belief in the meritoriousness of their rewards and the invisibility of oppression and privilege.

Did you consider challenging the rules or the judge? What do you think deters noncompliance with the Jenga rules? How could you redesign the game to institutionalize the values and ethics of professional social work? These reflection questions lead students to an understanding that essential to the perpetration of institutional oppression is privileged people's complicity with, if not their conscious protection of, oppressive structures that preserve positions of advantage. We inform our students that throughout the more than 6-year span that this game has been developed and modified within various classroom settings, there has been almost a total lack of student dissent. There is unquestioned acceptance of arbitrary rules, acquiescence with judges' rulings, and silence among would-be protestors. We conclude this discussion with a talk about how this is parallel to real-world experiences.

In the exercise's grand finale, students are asked, "Who was the real winner of this game?" After some guided discussion, the instructor urges students to consider that perhaps the real winner was not even in the classroom. Indeed, "Milton Bradley" was the only one who actually profited from the purchase of the game. The exercise then culminates with students contemplating how a single-minded participation in the game, including class members' focus on maneuvering for individual advantage and debating outcomes, obscured the identity of the game's true beneficiary, thereby concealing everyone's ultimate complicity in enriching the powerful player behind the scene.


The Jenga game-based learning activity has proven to be a powerful tool for facilitating students' understanding of the mechanisms underlying structural oppression. Game-based simulations, used correctly, can be a compelling experience for students. Depending on the students' prior learning and awareness, it often serves as either a central culminating or chief reinforcing education activity.

DOI: 10.5175/JSWE.2010.200800080

Accepted: 06/09


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Sara Lichtenwalter

Gannon University

Parris Baker

Gannon University

Sarah Lichtenwalter is assistant professor at Gannon University. Parris Baker is assistant professor and director of the Social Work Program at Gannon University.

Address correspondence to Sarah Lichtenwalter, Gannon University, Social Work Program, 109 University Square, Erie, PA 16541-0001; e-mail:
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Title Annotation:TEACHING NOTE
Author:Lichtenwalter, Sara; Baker, Parris
Publication:Journal of Social Work Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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