Carly Sahr, a MA student in U-M’s Transcultural Studies Program, doesn’t like bugs. But she does like Mariposas—Elizabeth Hargrave’s board game.

As an undergraduate at U-M, Sahr began her anthropology major with an interest in biological anthropology, but quickly switched to cultural anthropology and museum studies. “It’s a little superficial, but I don’t like bugs and a lot of the fieldwork [for biological anthropology] is in the jungle,” Sahr explained, laughing. Today, the only bugs Sahr’s thinking about are bugs in game development.

Mariposas, which is a board game about Monarch Butterfly migration across North America, is educational in nature—a quality Sahr looks for in board games. “I also like [Mariposas] because it’s so pretty,” says Sahr. While your average board game player might stop at thinking, “Wow, this game is pretty,” Sahr explains that there’s more to game art than aesthetics—board game art is actually crucial for player accessibility. “When I’m designing [my own games], I have to make sure that the art is contrasting enough so that even if you are colorblind, you’re still able to read the cards and play.”

As Sahr explains, user-friendly design doesn’t just have to do with aesthetics. “I’m always thinking about why something did or didn’t make sense to the player. Was there an action that I assumed they would’ve taken, but they didn’t take, therefore voiding the mechanic?” These are the sorts of questions—or bugs—about game mechanics and game art that Sahr encounters these days, as she develops Archive, a board game about museum curation and repatriation for her MA capstone project.

The game, a project advised by DSI’s Tony Bushner, is what game designers call a set-making game. “In set-making games, you play cards with shared attributes down to make points,” explains Bushner. Think something like Ticket to Ride or Azul. Sahr’s game requires players to collect cards (each which have an artifact and facts about that artifact), which players must arrange—or curate—card sets into exhibits. Exhibits can be arranged by region of artifact, time period, characteristics, style, or by a uniting theme. Depending on what artifacts are displayed and the combinations which are displayed, players accumulate points.

In thinking about curation, Sahr herself prefers exhibits organized around themes: “It could be evolution, it could be war, it could be invention—anything, just something that ties everything together.” Sahr thinks that curatorial practices revolving around themes helps museum goers better understand exhibits and make connections between exhibits and the world they themselves live in.

If you are a “museum person,” Sahr thinks you’ll definitely like the game. But the game might be even more important if you’re not a museum person. In designing Archive, Sahr hopes to invite and encourage people who have never been to a museum or don’t know much about museums to feel comfortable going to one: “I want [going to a museum] to be less daunting; I want people to go to museums and not feel out of place.”

Growing up in DC with the Smithsonian at her disposal, Sahr took museum accessibility as a given. “As a kid, I loved going to the Air and Space Museum and getting the freeze-dried ice cream. It kind of tasted like chalk, now that I think about it,” she reminisced. With her background, Sahr came to U-M understanding museums as public-serving institutions. But upon meeting her peers, she realized the tremendous barriers many people have in terms of museum access. “Having conversations with my peers about museums, I’ve really been able to think critically about my own perspective on museums as well as bigger structural issues with museums.”

As it relates to accessibility, Sahr sees a few problems with museums: first, cost—some museums have high ticket prices; second, exposure—some people simply might not live in communities served by a museum; and third, elitism. “There’s an idea that museums are too upper-class, too posh, and don’t want to engage with normal people,” laments Sahr. With Archive, Sahr aims to un-do the perceived (and sometimes cultivated) elitism of museums.

But Archive isn’t just about curation and access. It also explores questions Sahr has encountered in Transcultural Studies about colonialism and museum ethics—particularly issues of repatriation. Just like any other cultural artifact, games can make observations about our world and the ideologies that govern it. Scholar and video game designer Ian Bogost writes that through “procedural rhetoric” (or “rules”) games themselves make arguments about “how social or cultural systems work in the world—or how they could work, or don’t work” (136). And rules, explains Bogost, aren’t antithetical to creativity. Rather, it is in navigating the rules and procedural rhetoric of games that players can make creative discoveries and enter “possibility spaces” (122). In other words, while an essay might make an argument by explaining a process, games make arguments by asking players to experience the argument through play (Bogost 128). With Archive, Sahr hopes to make such ethical questions about repatriation and museum collections more accessible to people who haven’t necessarily had the opportunity or the desire to think about them.

From a game design perspective, making a procedural rhetoric argument about repatriation was a big challenge. How could Sahr’s game incentivize players to repatriate artifacts without immediately revealing it to be the correct logic to win at the start of the game? Throughout the game, players can repatriate artifacts. However, in returning an artifact to its home nation, the player loses immediate points, as those artifacts are valuable for the curation sets. However, with each repatriated artifact, players receive a token representing goodwill and positive press for repatriation. These tokens are only counted at the end of the game, which might mean that a player who repatriates a lot of artifacts wins at the end, as the tokens can potentially surpass the points other players can build from curating different sets of cards. Because of this element of the game, if one player takes a repatriation strategy, it might encourage other players to also repatriate in order to try and secure a win. In game design parlance, this quality is called an “emergent property”: one that reveals itself during gameplay.

“It’s a game where the emergent properties of the rules play out differently each time,” explains Bushner. “It happens organically during gameplay, which makes [Archive] very sophisticated.” To put this property in conversation with Bogost, Sahr’s game ultimately makes an argument in favor of repatriation and ethical museum practices and it is through gameplay that players understand Sahr’s argument. Archive not only demonstrates to players how museums currently work, it also shows how museums could work more ethically.

Sahr hasn’t always thought about games—let alone game design—in a professional context. In Fall 2021, she took Bushner’s “Modern Board Game Design and Crowdfunding” course (now “Sustainable Board Game Design”). Though at the time, Sahr just needed an elective to fill her schedule, Bushner’s class ended up being extremely influential to Sahr’s intellectual development. “Tony introduced me to board games as a profession,” recalls Sahr. “As something more than a hobby, and that I could take very seriously.”

“I’ve playtested a lot by myself, but I’ve also bribed my roommates with dinner—that’s worked like a charm.” Playtesting—which is trying out different versions of the game as it’s developed—is an important part of the game design process, as it helps designers work out bugs in the game. “It’s an important way to get a different perspective on your work,” says Sahr. One of the most important aspects of playtesting, Sahr explains, is simply watching people’s faces as they play. “[In watching facial expressions] I can highlight areas where they look a little confused and ask about how to improve those parts of the game.”

Bushner’s course requires that students work in teams to design a game. In Bushner’s class, Sahr worked on developing a game called Bumper Crops. The game, which is about growing produce and selling it at a farmer’s market, is, in Bushner’s words, “incredibly cute.” The game, with its individual wooden pieces and 3D printed woven baskets, was not only impressive in terms of its physical components—it was also extremely fun to play, recalls Bushner. That year, Sahr and her teammates submitted Bumper Crops to the DSI Student Showcase, winning in the “Outstanding Mixed Media” category.

“Carly’s work in my class was really impressive,” Bushner said, smiling, “so I was over the moon excited when she asked if I wanted to work with her on an independent study project!”

Though she is not formally housed in the DSI, the community and support Sahr has found in the DSI have been consequential to her time at U-M. Winning the showcase gave Sahr the confidence to apply for funding from Rackham Graduate School to research curatorial practices at the House of Austrian History in Vienna for her capstone project. “I feel very connected to the DSI,” Sahr says of her experience. “I’ve been very lucky.”

Sahr finishes her MA this year. In terms of her post-grad plans, Sahr isn’t sure if she’d like to go into museums or game development. “I think it’s pretty open for me right now,” she says, calmly. “I’m happy in the present and looking towards the future.” As for the future of Archive, Sahr takes inspiration from Bushner, opting to look into sustainable distribution options such as making the files available for digital download such that people can print materials at home or at a local print shop. “[Digital download] saves significant resources by avoiding bulk manufacturing and shipping,” explains Sahr.

This year’s DSI showcase was on April 18. You can read a little bit about this year’s winner (Tess Eschebach) here. And, for those interested in learning more about and designing their own game, Bushner is teaching “Sustainable Board Game Design” in the upcoming Spring 2023 and Winter 2024 semesters.