How Schools Spark Excitement for Learning with Role Playing and Games

 (Flickr/Flickr/Michel Dangmann )

Michael Matera’s students don’t merely learn about medieval Europe, they live it. Albeit, with a few monsters and enchanted items thrown in the mix.

The Milwaukee teacher’s Grade 6 history class is an ongoing role-playing game called Realm of Nobles, where students join guilds, earn achievements, make trades and wage the occasional epic battle in an imaginary medieval kingdom. Matera has played the game for years, and maintains that the fusion of history, fantasy, narrative and role-play is an effective formula to engage students in learning.

“The excitement and the pride in their accomplishments are all through the roof. I love seeing kids gaining real-world skills, taking risks and learning from defeat in this gamified class,” said Matera, who wrote Explore Like a Pirate: Gamification and Game-Inspired Course Design to Engage, Enrich and Elevate Your Learners, a manual for teachers who aspire to design their classes as games.

A growing number of educators like Matera are remodeling their classes by fusing game elements to their instructional environments. But, does switching grades for experience points and homework for quests amount only to cosmetic surgery? Is school merely being “reskinned” with a new paint job without fundamentally altering the age-old classroom rituals?

The Rise of the EduLARP

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The use of simulations and role-play in education is not a recent development. Model United Nations, historical re-enactments, mock trials and other types of dramatic simulations have been in the teacher toolbox for decades. What is new, however, is that the simulation is packaged as a game and sustained for an extended period, often spanning the entire school year.

This particular union of role-play, narrative, and game owes no small debt to Dungeons & Dragons, the classic role-playing game (RPG) that is enjoying a recent resurgence. D&D pioneered and popularized an array of RPG conventions that are now video game and tabletop staples, like experience points (XP), levels, loot, character classes and boss fights.

In the mid-'70s some eager D&D fans donned armor, weapons, gowns and cloaks, and transplanted RPG elements to the real world in the form of live-action role-play, or LARPs. Players stay in character as they interact and battle in elaborate adventures set in real-life forests and fields that evoke medieval fantasy. The popularity of LARPs in Scandinavia inspired a pair of Danish educators to open the Østerskov School that teaches with edularps. Today, edularps are found in schools in Sweden, Finland and Denmark, and even some U.S. schools have jumped into the fray.

Sanne Harder, a game designer and educator who worked at the Østerskov School, thinks that edularps are not only a fun way to learn, but also a better way to learn.

“When I choose to use role-play as a means of teaching, it is because it is an excellent way of organizing teaching, not because the hobby appeals to its fans,” wrote Harder. “In the 21st century, being a teacher is not about teaching pupils facts, it is about helping them internalize knowledge, skills, and competencies.”

Sarah Lynne Bowman and Anne Standiford conducted a 2016 mixed methods study of edularps at an L.A. charter school and found that they encouraged “greater motivation, engagement, interaction with peers, collaboration, and comprehension of material,” which is promising, but the area is new and the research nascent.

Choosing a Road to Victory

Edularps, and other class-as-game variants like alternate reality games (ARGs), pervasive games and gamified class, are popping up in schools, universities and even camps across North America. While the sword-and-sorcery motif remains prevalent, some educators have diversified into themes and settings that better fit their learning goals.

While still a high school science teacher, University of Connecticut assistant professor Stephen Slota designed a unit-length game to teach human reproduction and sexually transmitted diseases. “The students worked in teams of three to control a character avatar in a fictitious village, and their goal was to engage in an epidemiological study of the area by investigating locales and speaking to non-player characters as enacted by the instructor,” said Slota, who edited Exploding the Castle: Rethinking How Video Games & Game Mechanics Can Shape The Future Of Education, a collection of game-based learning essays.

Slota has since developed half a dozen class-as-games for subjects as far-flung as education technology, Latin, psychology and biology. Matera also sets one of his games during the Cold War, and the edularps at the Østerskov School involve a wide range of themes and settings.

The games tend to be flexible and students are able to alter the unfolding experience through the choices they make. This freedom to shape their circumstances and the accompanying sense of agency is a big part of what engages them in learning.

“I’ve found — both anecdotally and in my research — that freedom to push and pull at the game’s narrative and ruleset provides students with a sense of greater personal ownership, and therefore greater depth of knowledge about content than usually accompanies schoolwork,” said Slota.

Matera also stresses the importance of student agency, and feels that it marks a significant departure from typical classroom dynamics.

“Games have clear objects, but no one set path to that victory. This is where strategy comes into play. An RPG, as with many well-designed games, allows for the players to create their own path to victory,” said Matera. “This level of customization and personalization feels different than traditional school because it is different. Students have an opportunity to create their own experience within the game. They earn badges, items and power-ups that allow them to have a unique game characters. This leads to endless strategies, trades and allegiances to help successfully make it through the Realm.”

Houston-area teacher Kade Wells also personalizes his class by using a D&D-style character class system. He gives his students a basic personality test and, based on the results, assigns them one of four roles designed to support classroom management.

Protectors keep the peace and manage group outbursts; Initiators get things ready and help to get materials, sharpen pencils and put things away; Diplomats help group members and facilitate all processes and are ultimately responsible for the group’s behavior; Sages keep the records, help with attendance, make sure that things are orderly and accounted for,” said Wells, who has found the class system empowers his students to self-regulate and take greater ownership of their environment.

There’s an App for That

Matera, Slota and Wells design their games from scratch, cannibalizing a pastiche of web applications, pen-and-paper elements, learning management systems, Google apps, spreadsheets and any other available tools that they can bend to their playful purposes. But teachers who don’t have the time, confidence or knowledge to dive into the DIY approach can turn to commercial software designed to help educators run their classes as games.

Rezzly’s 3D GameLab, the University of Michigan’s GradeCraft, NEXED’s Answerables and Classcraft are gameful learning management systems that have tapped into the class-as-game zeitgeist to help educators keep track of quests, levels, experience points, badges and other game features.

“They will do anything for XP [experience points] and GP [gold pieces] to level up their avatar,” said Carrie Casey, a Wisconsin middle-school science teacher who uses Classcraft. “I have seen some of my students who will not hand in work — work hard to get their work in for me so they get XP and do not disappoint their team.”

It has also helped Casey reach some challenging students: “I have connected to them through gaming where no other teacher has connected to them that year.”

Canadian teacher Justin Matheson says that his Grade 6 students loved the sword-and-sorcery motif, and he credits Classcraft’s video game qualities for fostering perseverance. “With video games, people get to a point where things become increasingly difficult and they experience repeated failure. Then, you are encouraged to try again and again, and to seek help through outside resources to find success. This is the most notable benefit that I have seen in my class. My students see difficulties as speed bumps instead of roadblocks.”

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Grafting Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG elements to classrooms can have an effect that delves much deeper than mere optics. Games and classes are both systems that operate with rules. When the rules that typically govern the class are hacked by the rules of the game, a fundamental shift can take place. Games offer a valuable palette of functions and features that can be creatively repurposed to rewrite some of education’s more problematic operations. Educators who are not satisfied with business as usual can tap into the power of play and design the change they want to see.

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