Why I start my freshman seminar with a game called “Category Die”

Image by anncapictures from Pixabay

A few years ago, I took a series of classes at MopCo, a local improv theater company, intended to help educators learn how to use improv as part of their teaching, particularly its focus on thinking on your feet and using mistakes rather than fearing them. I’ve written here and elsewhere about how valuable I found the course and the ways that I’ve applied it in my own classroom, especially in the in-person freshman seminar I teach each fall, which I always begin with an improv game called Category Die.

If you’re not familiar, Category Die is a relatively simple game that’s often used as a warm-up in improv settings. The way it works is this: a line of volunteers (usually 5-7) stands on stage. Someone from the audience suggests a category—for example “things found in a library.” The person running the game then points at random to each of the people on the stage. When he points at you, you name something in that category. If you name something that doesn’t belong in the stated category, the audience shouts “Die!” at you, you take a bow, walk off stage, and then suggest the category for the next round. Same thing if you name something that’s already been named or if you take too long to answer. Or if the audience just feels like shouting “Die!” at you.

Personally, I am TERRIBLE at Category Die. It’s rare for me to survive longer than the first two rounds. This has been just as true when the category was something where I have relatively limited knowledge (like “state capitals”) as it is when the category is something relatively easy (like “letters of the alphabet”). That’s because I have a habit of trying to plan my answer ahead of time rather than being spontaneous so when someone inevitably takes my answer before it’s my turn, I flail and either repeat what they’ve already said or take too long to come up with something new and so must “die.”

The thing is, I don’t mind being bad at Category Die. Being bad at Category Die is almost as fun as being good at it. And I’m not just saying that to make myself feel better. When you “die” as part of this game, you get to take an elaborate, silly bow while everyone laughs with you and applauds. It’s great.

What’s surprising about this for me is that usually I hate being bad at things or making mistakes in front of other people, especially people who are good at the thing I’m failing at.(1) But the whole point of Category Die, as explained to me as part of the improv course I took, is to learn that messing up is inevitable. Everyone in Category Die messes up and “loses” at some point—that’s just the nature of the game. The person who wins the game, meanwhile, messes up by not messing up. It’s also to teach you that an improv setting is a very safe place to mess up—a place where your mistakes are not something to be embarrassed by but instead are part of the fun, something that might even be celebrated.

With this in mind, I started using Category Die as part of my information literacy-focused freshman seminar class each fall.(2) In fact, I use it at the very start of the second class in my course, which happens to be on the topic of “Being Wrong.”

The lesson, which is based heavily on Kathryn Schulz’s 2011 book of the same name, is meant to get students thinking about issues like confirmation bias and other fallibilities in human reasoning that sometimes cause us to believe things that are not supported by evidence. Category Die helps make this point because it’s a game where, as a player, you’re inevitably going to be wrong at some point.

But what I like about this game from a more developmental standpoint, particularly with brand new freshmen, is that it helps set the tone of the course, which is overall very discussion-based. Often, freshmen are loathe to speak up in class because they’re afraid of being wrong and being embarrassed in front of their peers. Category Die is a way for me to show them that my classroom is a safe space to be wrong in.

But do they actually like it? It depends on the personality of the class. The first year I started using Category Die and other improv games in my freshman seminar, the students were relatively shy. In that class, I had trouble getting enough volunteers to be “on stage” and we ended up only doing one round of the game, which was enough to get the point across. The next year, the students were so enthusiastic that we ended up doing several rounds both at the start of class and again when we had some extra time at the end.

The one sticking point for students, whether they are in a more shy or more enthusiastic class, seems to be less about the embarrassment of making mistakes and more about the embarrassment of pointing out someone else’s mistake. I make a point of not stopping the game unless the students in the audience shout “Die,” even if I detect a mistake that would otherwise qualify a person as “out.” It’s up to the students to figure out the rules of the game and whether to enforce them liberally or strictly. Perhaps one of my favorite moments from this game was with the more enthusiastic class where the category in question was “rap artists.” One student named an artist that some of the other students in class didn’t like and even though it wasn’t a mistake, the class shouted “Die” at him and he was out. It sounds traumatic and unfair, but everyone (including the student who was out) laughed about it and it ended up being a good bonding moment for the class.

That said, shouting “Die” at someone probably sounds pretty harsh, especially if you’ve never played the game. In my experience as a player, it doesn’t feel that way but when I introduce students to the game, I always give them the option of either shouting “die,” making a buzzer sound (like in a game show when someone gets an answer wrong) or choosing their own word or sound effect to make as a group when someone is out. They never take the alternative option—they always choose “die” and we always practice it a few times before the game starts. We also practice taking a big, elaborate bow together so they can prepare for that moment when they get something wrong, even if they choose not to go “on stage” as part of this particular activity.

This is just one of the ways that improv has helped me improve my teaching. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately after a recent announcement that my institution will welcome students back into the classrooms as normal in the fall (barring unforeseen complications or disasters) and as theaters in my local area are starting to at least talk about opening their doors again. Going back to “normal” is something I have complicated feelings about but thinking about stuff like this reminds me of the aspects of “normal” life that I’m looking forward to.

*

(1) Which is inevitable in an improv class, where there are always varying levels of talent and experience and where professional members of the group that runs the theater often participate in the games with us amateurs.

(2) Well, each fall when I’ve taught in person. Obviously, this didn’t happen last fall due to the pandemic and my sabbatical.

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