What roles do games and game-based learning play in the classroom?
This month I sat down with Dr. Carly Kocurek from the Illinois Institute of Technology to discuss gaming and the classroom.
This interview serves as an introduction to our February survey on Gaming and Pedagogy. Dr. Kocurek discusses using games in the classroom as tools for teaching and how they fit into the classroom experience. She also talks about teaching game design and development and how to give students the chance to understand what game development looks like in a small scale environment.
Dr. Kocurek's book Coin-Operated Americans: Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade is coming out in Fall 2015 from University of Minnesota Press. She is also editing a new book series titled Influential Video Game Designers with Jennifer deWinter coming out from Bloomsbury Publishing. The first book in the series, focusing on Shigeru Miyamoto, will be out in May.
When I presented the idea of founding the Tabletop Wargaming Club here at West Point’s Preparatory School, I didn’t imagine the enthusiasm this endeavor would have with both the staff and the students. Few cadet candidates, as they are called here, had any experience with tabletop gaming besides Candyland and Monopoly. However, throughout the night of our first session, the students kept pouring in, not only to play games, but to watch them and to watch people play them. Games fascinate us as humans, whether we’re trying to understand them as players or spectators.
This engrossing nature of game play is one of the core traits that make tabletop games so useful as educational tools. A good game provokes engagement and enthusiasm, if not always unadulterated enjoyment (losing with grace is a learned skill). Games compel participants to continue to understand them and explore them in ways that we as educators sometimes struggle with using more conventional materials. While students are often very conscious of spending labor in conventional academic disciplines, players feel the labor they put into games is more fluid and self-owned. Students can choose to play or not to play, and if they play, they may play in the way that garners them the result they wanted. Tabletop gaming like all gaming rests on the fact that players have analytical minds that naturally seek to maximize desired events and minimize undesired ones.
However, when pitching the idea of the club, I focused on two aspects of gaming that I felt best taught these students how to become better thinkers, two aspects that are often missing from video game and thus make tabletop gaming set apart. The first is that tabletop gaming forces players to repeatedly grapple with rules. The second is that tabletop gaming relies on constant face-to-face interactions with other players.
Forcing players to learn the rules is often the barrier with which people new to tabletop games (or even a specific game) have to contend. Instead of having smooth tutorials and a gentle “learn as you go” path, tabletop games require the players themselves to enforce rules. However, learning the rules is the first step towards realizing the limits of the rules and how to use rules as weapons of strategy and cunning. My students noticed that in Risk, there’s a breaking point with armies where it becomes less advantageous to attack. However, they also start to see how timing itself can make such a gamble to attack more than worth the risk. Only when they “run the numbers” do they start to see patterns worth exploiting. Instead of blindly accepting the rules as being imposed from on high, players of tabletop games soon recognize the malleability of any shared structure imposed by consensus. House rules are a natural outgrowth of this recognition that go beyond simply being dissatisfied with the current rule system. Instead, they spring from a deep desire to take ownership of the rules apparatus itself. It is no wonder that as students walked away from a night of playing the treachery-ladened war game Diplomacy, they started to ask much more rules-exploitive questions to me: Could they create false orders for the enemies and submit them to me? (No.) Could they intentionally make an invalid order to sabotage a mission without anyone finding out their true intentions? (Yes.)
The second reason to promote tabletop wargaming is the social aspect of playing games in groups. Players see each other directly whether collaborating, conspiring, or conflicting with other players. Tabletop games that are well-crafted put a primacy on this social aspect that requires you to not only manage resources, but other players. Playing Pandemic for example had the players talk strategies and permissions as they raced to cure deadly diseases. Players had to reach plans of action that would work for everyone going forward as players at cross purposes quickly lose the game. Even games that don’t necessarily lend themselves to alliances like the magical quest game Talisman became a system of learning how to approach the goal. When one player was on the verge of winning the game, all the other players banded together to take them down. Imagine my surprise that with their goal accomplished, they all consensually ended the game on a draw with the remaining players. Games increase our social vocabulary, both when we want to work against someone’s purposes and when we want to join them. Just as the play fighting that toddlers perform is instrumental to a dawning social consciousness, tabletop games hone our social intelligence.
In teaching English, we always talk about the critical skills: critical thinking, critical reading, and critical writing. The struggle for us educators is often finding how to create critical thinking scenarios. Tabletop game playing—like all game playing—is one of the best examples of a critical thinking-required activity. Whether by mastering rules or mastering social interactions, games offer powerful methods of engagement and deep analysis. Time will tell if we take full advantage of these instruments.
I teach an environmental risk communication course, and a fundamental challenge of teaching the rhetoric of issues like climate change is that students struggle to approach the debate from multiple, and sometimes contradictory, perspectives. As a result, they have difficulty playing the role of a researcher, city planner, or risk communication expert. Because a number of undergraduates often have very little professional experience, they can have trouble developing a clear sense of audience, purpose, and context. This challenge is well-documented: many scholars in the field of professional writing pedagogy suggest that the divide between writing for the workplace and writing for the classroom is a difficult one for instructors and students to bridge (Freedman and Adam; Miller). Without direct experience, students cannot fully understand the motives of various stakeholders and the positions they hold within civic or environmental debates. The problem, therefore, stems from the relationship between identity, experience, and environment. It’s a role-playing problem.
Professional writing pedagogy scholars have called for an enculturation model as a means of resolving this issue. Within this model, faculty employ various methods, including apprenticeship or internship opportunities, case studies, client-based service learning projects, as well as story-telling, to contextualize workplace communication practices (Bridgeford). By introducing and situating an assignment within a narrative, for example, Tracy Bridgeford argues that students are better able to understand a given community and imagine the roles, relationships, and patterns within it – a fundamental understanding to the study of communication. I felt this thinking aligned with game studies scholar Mark J.P. Wolf in interesting ways. According to Wolf, “in many video games, narrative (…) becomes a way of providing a context for the games’ action” (30); likewise, Bridgeford’s narratives provide a context for actions within the course.
With game studies and professional writing pedagogy theories in mind, I applied Bridgeford’s story-telling approach to an interactive choose-your-adventure dynamic, using the open-source program, Twine. I tested the rough draft of my interactive, nonlinear narrative in the Fall 2014 Honors Crisis Communication and Climate Change course at Old Dominion University, accessible here: http://bit.ly/17albHZ. What you’ll see is the first draft of the first game I ever created, and it shows. It is a rough draft in every respect. I hoped it would succeed in contextualizing the rhetorical design processes for a wide spectrum of professional roles in environmental communication, but I believe it fell short.
This experience encouraged me to consider the theories at work here. According to Game Studies theorist, Brian Sutton-Smith, play is multifaceted, games are complex, and there’s an extraordinary diversity in the scholarship this field. He identifies seven different rhetorics of play; the first and foremost being the rhetoric of play as progress, where players “adapt and develop through their play,” and games are “primarily about development rather than enjoyment” (Sutton-Smith 304). The rhetoric of play as progress underlies much of game-based learning, but too narrow a focus on progress alone ignores the multi-dimensional nature of games and play (Sutton-Smith). That’s why some games designed for the classroom may be educational but not necessarily fun (or vice versa). Educators tend to operate according to the rhetoric of play as progress because they’re educators. According to Sutton-Smith, “all scholars are creatures of their personal disposition, which may become a motivating rhetoric for them” (Sutton-Smith 308). Roles define the way people view things. Educators tend to view objects according to the educational opportunities they afford (researchers, the research opportunities they afford, and so on). The issue, therefore, stems from the relationship between identity, experience, and environment. It’s a role-playing problem.
Sutton-Smith continues, though: scholars “are also, historically, inheritors of larger ideological or cultural patterns that affect their scholarship” (308), and I want to propose that at least some of the ideological patterns affecting this educational impulse to use games in the classroom are the result of Pragmatism and its influence on education. Throughout his influential works on learning, John Dewey emphasizes the importance of creating what he calls a “special environment” where students learn by doing. According to John Dewey, instructors “never educate directly, but indirectly by means of the environment” (Dewey 22). In Democracy and Education, Dewey writes, “it is the business of the school to set up an environment in which play and work shall be conducted with reference to facilitating desirable mental and moral growth. It is not enough to introduce plays and games, hand work and manual exercises. Everything depends upon the way in which they are employed” (Dewey 172). The best way to employ them, according to Dewey, is through the careful ordering of simplified activities that will support the habits instructors wish to develop – in other words, the design of a “special social environment” (Dewey 25). His description of a class environment sounds a lot like a game, and I hoped my game would serve as a “special social environment” for my students, but that would require a fair amount of revision. In regard to game-based learning, whether the instructor is using play or other methods that fit into the enculturation model, these ongoing efforts emphasize the influence of the environment and its role in shaping identities, making these pedagogical theories particularly Pragmatist.
Whether instructors are aware of their Pragmatism or not, game-based pedagogues often wish to extract the “cash value” (a famous phrase from Pragmatism) out of games by exploring their practical effects in the classroom, and I want to see this work continue. I believe it’s beneficial for scholars to critically examine the practical effects of educational games, to study the efficacy of game-based learning and find a way to shape students’ experiences through games; however, in doing so, educators must acknowledge that these theories and ideologies can both expand and limit the power of games.
Bridgeford, Tracy. “Story Time: Teaching Technical Communication as a Narrative Way of Knowing.” Bridgeford, Tracy. et al., Innovative Approaches to Teaching Technical Communication. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2004. 111-134. Print.
Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, 2008.
Freedman, Aviva and Christine Adam. "Learning to Write Professionally: 'Situated Learning' and the Transition from University to Professional Discourse." Dubinsky, James M. Teaching Technical Communication. Boston: Bedford, 2004. 310-336. Print.
Miller, Carolyn. "A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing" Dubinsky, James M. Teaching Technical Communication. Boston: Bedford, 2004. 15-23. Print.
Sutton-Smith, Brian. “Play and Ambiguity.” Salen Tekinbas, Katie and Eric Zimmerman. The Game Design Reader. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2006. 296-313. Print.
Wolf, Mark J.P. Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.
As many contributors to this month’s survey have indicated, games can be productive contributions to the classroom setting. As computational systems themselves, digital games are ideal for simulating and critiquing social and cultural systems, something theorist and game designer Ian Bogost has called “procedural rhetoric,” the ability of digital games to make arguments with their structures and mechanics. Thus, used in the appropriate context, digital games can be powerful analytical tools for students to learn from, both through play and production. Furthermore, the familiarity many students have with the generic structures of digital games can strengthen lessons and help ground sometimes abstract theories or concepts.
As a young media and cultural studies scholar still cutting his teeth on curriculum design, I made it a point to include game production as part of my first original course at UC-Santa Barbara’s Film and Media Studies Department last summer. Inspired by digital humanities courses from Alan Liuand Amanda Phillipsthat emphasize digital production as legitimate scholarly output, I modeled a course with the purpose of bridging game studies theory and the practice of game development. Calling the course “Countergaming: The Video Game Industry and Its Discontents,” I introduced students to a variety of scholarly and popular criticisms of the video game industry and culture (sexism, racism, homophobia, labor abuses, environmental impact, military-industrial-entertainment-complex) and then tasked them with designing original digital game prototypes that communicated one or more of these critiques.
Course objectives like this are now entirely possible for academics that might only consider themselves amateur developers, thanks to free and accessible game-creation tools that are easy to teach and learn. Some of the most popular game creation programs to use for first-time game creators are Twine, Inform 7, and GameMaker. While all of my students had laptops, similar courses can also be taught in dedicated computer labs or, if technology is not available, students can equally be asked to produce board games, card games, or pen and paper-based games where computers are not necessary.
After introducing the majority of critiques and game creation options, I asked students to form small groups, select one or more critiques introduced in class, and build a game that communicated that critique through game design. This assignment forces students to collaborate and think critically about the course material and then translate those critical thoughts into a playable prototype. While engaged with the production-portion of the course, I spend time with each group during the class period and monitor their progress, ask questions to steer the project in more critical directions, and talk students through particular problems in the game development process. Such an approach also provides students a space to teach me new things about these programs and game design, a mutually-instructive combination that excites me as much as them.
Of course, implementing video game play and production into course design is not without some headaches. A few significant issues arose during game production in class. The first is simply the difficulty of game development and the many, many things that can go wrong, despite the best of intentions or efforts. To anybody who has ever attempted it, game development is hard, and students quickly learn to appreciate this, especially when using a more complex creation program like GameMaker.The second concern to keep in mind is that, in their enthusiasm to create a digital game, many students need to be reminded that their goal is to create a critical game, not simply a “fun” one, although the two are certainly not mutually exclusive. Finally, in addition to reading about, discussing, and building games, I also have students play games in class, provided they are available for free online. While one would think students would enjoy this, they actually tended to grow bored during these play sessions, perhaps because the games we played were simpler than they expected or perhaps because they are not used to critically examining the design of games they play. One way around this problem, as colleagues have suggested, is to include students in the game selection process.
In a table top game, the best game masters make sure that the adventure is exciting, challenging, and more than a little dangerous. But the goal is not to defeat the players. In a good table top game, the goal of the game master is to lose, but to make that loss important. The goal is to reward clever solutions, to accept when players go off track, to adapt and prepare, all with the primary goal of making sure everyone has fun.
While having fun playing, gamers end up developing skills of their own and learning a fair amount that has nothing to do with the game itself. True, after years of playing D&D, players will memorize rules and obscure combinations to allow them to have more powerful characters. But there is more to be learned than just the rules of the game. Playing table top games teaches people how to think.
Long ago, it felt like playing table top games taught higher math (THAC0 anyone?), and while the progressive simplification and increased cohesion of rules systems has eliminated much of the mathematics, what has not changed is the logical and lateral thinking that gaming teaches.
Whether playing with miniatures, which adds an element of logistics and strategy to combat, or playing a more deeply political game where actions can have far reaching consequences and secrecy is more important than success (such as a game of Vampire), or planning out an activity and planning for contingencies (such as in Shadowrun), table top games teach people how to think.
Players learn to analyze situations, to understand the audience of NPCs, and creative methods of solving problems. There is an old adage that tells game master that if you think of 22 different ways to solve a plot, the players will invariably find number 23.
These skills aren’t just adapted to education; they are directly mirrored. The students are the players, the teachers the game masters, and each class an adventure. Students who analyze the situation, who understand the assignments and what the teachers are looking for, and who approach problems laterally in new and creative ways tend to do better. Those are the students who perform best, who participate most, and who are most likely to understand the overarching ideas of the course.
This is not to say that all the best students are gamers. But –for the most part – gamers make the best students.
I’m not convinced that electronic games, such as those created by Jumpstart, are practical in the classroom. These games for children have practical applications in the home and older learners may be able to do well with more complex games where developers have math and logic problems more subtly woven into the game. However, I remain unconvinced that electronic games have a place in the classroom. Instead, I would suggest the development into gaming pedagogy focus on the opportunities presented in table top games. For the purpose of this response I will address role playing games as I believe for them to hold the greatest opportunity for learning in the sciences and the humanities.
Gaming pedagogy tends to focus on math and logic in games. There is ample opportunity for this especially in games requiring basic math skills, elements of probability, and developing strategies. Role playing games have an opportunity to return to some of their roots by introducing history to the classroom. Role playing games originated with war strategy games and reenactments of famous battles in history. This would allow students to become more familiar with wartime history and gain an understanding of what would have been required for those battles to occur i.e. political environments, troop deployments, weather, experience of commanders, etc.
More modern role playing games focus on each player controlling one character instead of battalions and armies. Playing such games would allow students to explore and to think within a different perspective. Students would be encouraged to not only develop motivations for their characters, but to explore questions like what socioeconomic environments might help produce their character, what psychological components from family dynamics may have encouraged certain choices that guided characters, and so on.
Many games already exist in fantastical worlds, distant history, and potential future history. These games contain probability elements allowing for students to make decisions based on what goals they want their character to achieve. Students would be able and even encouraged to create their own games where they would work together to develop rules and guides to ensure smooth gameplay and levels of human choice mixed with random occurrence. As they play these games they will practice their math and logic skills along with role playing in cross cultural situations and even potentially ethically ambiguous situations.
The greatest difficulties with the role playing games are initiating interest and appropriate age levels. We still live in a time where games in the classroom are generally discouraged. Because of social stigmas it would be difficult to convince entire classrooms, and administrators, to devote time and energy. It may be more effective to have students participate in after school or other extracurricular programs, but this would be unlikely to interest students who are not already familiar. In order for role playing games to be effective learning instruments, they would have to be carefully guided to remain on task. The games involve a large social element and can easily result in distractions. It would be suggested that a teacher only introduce role playing games in the classroom at secondary educational levels. This would allow students to have a greater grasp of the logic required of playing as well as a necessity for having some seriousness to their play.
Games have the potential to help students understand principles of education that can be introduced subtly, but it is possible that it still remains less effective than more traditional pedagogical strategies. Further scholarship and research would be welcome in a field that is growing so prevalent outside of the classroom.
Educational live action role-playing (edu-larp) is a form of experiential learning that engages students on multiple levels, including cognitive, affective, and behavioral. Similar to drama pedagogy and simulation, edu-larp employs scenarios in the classroom in which students enact roles and engage with class content. Although edu-larp arises from the leisure activity of role-playing games, the practice affords similar benefits as other forms of experiential learning. This short response includes sections from the findings of my recent secondary literature review on edu-larp in the interactive storytelling journal, The Wyrd Con Companion Book 2014.
Just as video games have risen in popularity as leisure activities, so too have role-playing games, including larp. Role-playing games offer many benefits specific to the form, including community building; tactical and social problem solving; and identity exploration. In addition, current literature on role-playing emphasizes its strength in encouraging empathy and self-awareness. For example, the Nordic larp movement has used role-playing in order to raise social consciousness on important issues such as homelessness, immigration, and imprisonment. Even within more traditional forms of role-playing, such asDungeons & Dragons and World of Darkness larps, the form encourages spontaneous, co-creative participation and intrinsically motivated “as if” thinking.
Role-playing offers many potential benefits over traditional education, including increased self-awareness, critical ethical reasoning, and empathy. Educational role-playing research often focuses upon the experiential medium as potentially intrinsically motivating. Our traditional learning method promotes a certain level of passivity, as students are expected to receive and assimilate information from the instructor, whereas the open, participatory nature of games lends to a higher degree of active engagement and participation. The role-playing method may also improve feelings of self-efficacy and perceived competence through goal setting and achieving, as it allows individuals to contribute their personal talents to the success of the group, which may increase the student’s sense of agency and empowerment. Therefore, role-playing is often used as a method of increasing leadership skills and team work.
Although the method is diverse enough for educators to apply to any field, edu-larp is especially suited for social studies, including history, religion, government, and economics. Edu-larp is also exceptionally useful in the study of Language Arts, including public speaking, secondary language acquisition, and the exploration of literature. While Michał Mochocki critiques edu-larp’s effectiveness in science education, other educators find the form helpful to teach science and math. On the professional front, simulations are often applied in military, health care, business, and psychological training. While psychodrama and process drama are not learning styles in the strict sense, practitioners have used these forms of drama in learning contexts. We can consider these forms cousins to edu-larp. Finally, role-playing is useful in pedagogical training itself.
Interest in edu-larp has received significant recent scholarly attention, such as at the Role-playing in Games Seminar (2012) in Finland, the Living Games Conference (2014) in New York, and the Edu-larp Sweden Conference (2014) in Gothenburg. Several examples of edu-larp exist throughout the world, including the ELIN Network; the all-larp Danish boarding school Østerskov Efterskole and the larp-oriented Efterskolen Epos; organizations such as the Swedish LajvVerkstaden; the Norwegian Fantasiforbundet; and the American Seekers Unlimited and Reacting to the Past. Various other outgrowths exist in countries as diverse as Finland, Brazil, Poland, Russia, Belarus, Taiwan, and Korea. As edu-larp researchers, we hope to raise awareness of the pedagogical potential of the form and contextualize larp with other established styles of experiential learning.
If there is one thing that all LARP (Live Action Role Playing) games have in common, that thing is House Rules. Special tweaks or exceptions, changes to the published rules (whatever the system may be) that are created specifically for that game. These rules are often a source of consternation and aggravation, and often times are reworked as the philosophy of the game works.
Every game has its own philosophy, and those making the rules will focus their attention according to it. Maybe the goal is to make rules simple and easily learned. Maybe the philosophy is just to make the rules as fair and balanced as possible. Maybe it’s to encourage PvP (Player versus Player) conflict, or maybe it’s set up specifically to avoid such things. Whatever the philosophy of the game may be, knowing and understanding it leads to more effective house rules and a happier player base.
This makes the creation of house rules an important rhetorical act, one that involves a fair number of somewhat advanced techniques. There must be an effective audience analysis; forcing a philosophy onto a group of players is not a good way to keep them interested in the game. The philosophy can’t just belong to those running the game; it must be part of the game’s culture, and knowing that culture involves an analysis of the audience. Knowing what people want, what aspects they focus on, and what kind of rules they are interested in helps determine that basic philosophy.
Once that step is completed, discourse analysis becomes paramount. Sometimes, rules need to be reconciled across a number of sources, in order to keep the feel of the game (the genre) consistent across several inconsistent sources. This involves understanding the underlying message of the sources, and an analysis of the existing discourse on the subject. Being aware of the audience –the players- and their desires will help guide this analysis as the writers of the house rules decide what to keep and what to ignore in the existing writing on the subject, be that published materials for the system or previous sets of house rules.
Clarity is vital in house rules. Those making them must examine the rules as they exist and must look for potential loopholes and misunderstandings. Sometimes, the simple act of how a sentence is read can change the entire meaning. Does “Plus two traits and a free retest on all friendly social challenges” mean that the person gets two traits all the time and a free retest in that special circumstance? Or does it mean that the traits are only given in the special circumstance? When writing the house rules, this is something that must be clarified. The clearer the wording, the easier the rules will be to understand, and to enforce.
If one were to adapt a LARP setting for classroom use, making an Edu-LARP, house rules would be a must. The audience and philosophy of the game might be easily determined; the focus would be on learning, and the audience would be students, after all. But the intended lesson of the game might change quite a bit. Is the point of the Edu-LARP to teach students social interaction? Strategic thinking? Social psychology? Public speaking? Improvisational acting? Whatever the answer will change the philosophy of the game.
Further, an Edu-LARP has a discourse that a LARP set up just for entertainment won’t have. Namely, the goal of the class. If the idea is to teach ethics, that becomes part of the discourse, not just the published material of the games. While the Edu-LARP will (or should) still be fun for the players, there will be a far deeper discourse analysis involved, whether that be at the front end with the house rules or later in the class with discussion of the game session.
However an Edu-LARP is developed, house rules will play a significant role. And that means that game philosophy, audience analysis, and discourse analysis will also play a significant role. There are far more rhetorical acts in gaming than there might seem to be at first glance.