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A Tabletop Game Approach to Teaching Rhetoric

First, a confession: it’s been over a year since I began toying with the idea of integrating tabletop games in my classroom, but I have yet to use even one.

Recently, I attended my second MNU Games and Learning Conference. So, the pressure is on now. No excuses.

A key part of the conference was time to play games from the Center of Games and Learning’s games collection. One of the games I played was Snake Oil.

How to Play the Game

The goal of Snake Oil is simple: convince a customer to buy a product in 30 seconds. The player who is the customer selects a card that provides a descriptor: anything ranging from “senior citizen” to “beggar.” The other players have six cards in their hands with words like “TV” and “glasses.” Players combine two of the words to create a product the customer would want.

For example, I might pitch “TV glasses” to the “senior citizens”: “Have you ever trouble seeing that TV from across the room? Ever been frustrated by misplacing the remote control? If so, our new TV glasses are for you! This simple device allows you to view and control your TV on your glasses! Simple to set up, easy to use: buy TV glasses today!”

After players pitch their products, the customer selects whose product they were most persuaded to buy before the next player takes on the role of the next customer with a new customer card.

How to Teach the Game

While the history of snake oil is interesting enough to warrant playing this game with students, its application to teaching rhetoric is what really strikes my teacher fancy. I can easily identify several different common core state standards that my students will strengthen as they play the game:
  • Speaking & Listening: 9-10.4
    • Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.
  • Speaking & Listening: 9-10.3
    • Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, identifying any fallacious reasoning or exaggerated or distorted evidence.
  • Writing: 9-10.1.b
    • Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly, supplying evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience's knowledge level and concerns
  • Literacy Learning: 1
    • Engage in literacy learning through a collaborative and community effort and in an integrated fashion, rather than as discreet skills in isolation.
The last literacy learning standard integrates key skills from the Framework from 21st Century Learning, too often ignored in the high school "core" areas.

How to Modify the Game

I have no doubt in my mind that my students would enjoy—and learn from—playing Snake Oil in small groups. I also have no doubt the inherent silliness of some of the cards would distract them from the educational experience.  To combat this distraction without taking away the fun, here are three modifications to the game to maximize learning:
  1.  Have students play in groups of six: four students who would play in each round and two “judges” who would decide the ultimate “winners.” During rounds, judges would take notes of the best “rhetorical moves” by each player to help them select the winner.
  2. Create rhetorical appeals cards to turn up the heat: In addition to drawing a customer card—or in the place of drawing an customer card, players must tailor their pitches to the appeal(s) on the card. This modification will make students sweat as they try to tailor their pitches to specific appeals!
  3.  Create fallacies cards and work together: Turn the game into a cooperative game by selecting one customer card for the entire group. Then, place a hefty stack of fallacies cards face up in the middle. Individual players can use their word cards to create products that the team then pitches to customer together. The goal? The team integrates fallacies into their pitches in the order of the cards until they are all gone.

How to Debrief

One of the most important things I’ve learned about using tabletop games in the classroom is that debriefing after playing the game is the most important step for learning. Mark Hayse and Lauren Hays taught me that debriefing sessions should start with experience and then move to reflection. The Greater Kansas City Writing Project taught me that students must have an opportunity to write about their learning. Therefore, I will use journaling as a tool for debriefing, in addition to discussion. Here are some prompts from them that I will use to maximize learning in my classroom:

  • What did you like/dislike about this game?
  • In ____ (30 seconds or 3 sentences), summarize and describe the game as you would to a friend.
  • What skills did game players need to use to play this game? In what other contexts would these skills be needed?
  • What did you learn about _____ (the rhetorical triangle, appeals, fallacies)?

I won’t lie: writing this blog post was part guilt assuagement. I wanted evidence of what I’ve gained from my professional development in games and learning. But even more importantly, I wanted something to hold myself accountable. Now my plans for integrating games are public, so this fall, I’m doing it! Join me, and don’t be shy about telling me YOUR ideas and reflections!


  1. I was excited to see a link on the Center for Games & Learning website for a blog post on "A Tabletop Game Approach to Teaching Rhetoric," and then even more so to see the game was Snake Oil. I am a librarian and an adjunct professor for public speaking. I use this game to teach audience analysis (pitching to a beggar or a vampire, etc.), methods of persuasion, and in a math education class to demonstrate the educational qualities of games. It has an added benefit that it's card based and you can break up one game so that four small groups are playing at the same time without needing to buy multiple copies of the game. I've given it to a psychology professor who used it to teach stereotypes and it has the potential to demonstrate schema (which overlap with audience analysis). It's a great game.


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