The Place of RPGs in Education

scttmcdnld88's picture

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.


Sarah Lynne Bowman's picture

Tabletop RPGs and Education


Thanks for the excellent post! As you may have seen from my entry, we have similar interests. I agree that tabletop holds a huge potential to help students grow along several dimensions of learning, as does larp. 

You mentioned that secondary education might be better suited for role-playing than scenarios designed for younger students. I'm not entirely sure I agree. We've seen edu-larp used at all education levels, including young children and adult education. Children pretend play by nature and may actually be better at role-taking than young adults. However, I do agree that older students are better at learning and adapting to complex rules systems. May I ask the sorts of tabletop games you think would be most instructive in the classroom? With what tabletop games are you most familiar?

Thanks for the post!


Scott McDonald's picture

Sarah, Your post is also


Your post is also excellent. I'd be interested in the research you've found in primary, secondary, and maybe even post-secondary edu-larps.

I can agree that children are more willing to pretend and engage in social role-playing. Part of the problem with adult learners is all of the reticence built up with pejorative connections with gaming and the "others." I would hope that young adults would be without some of the inhibitions that would discourage adult learners. I also think that if role-playing gaming pedagogy is to advance it needs to move past the infantile association with games. We may have to start smaller with lower social stakes games in the classroom.

Despite all of the above, I think the primary obstacle to edu-larps and other kinds of gaming pedagogy in the classroom stems from perceived inadequacies or the fear of a non-normative pedagogy, especially from more traditional communities who may still worry that D&D leads children to commune with the Devil.

I've played a few d20 games like D&D and Pathfinder as well as Shadowrun, a d6 game. I feel like I don't get to play enough and I would love to do a LARP, but it's very difficult to find any group in my area, especially since I've only been here for a few months.

Sarah Lynne Bowman's picture

Hi Scott, If you're

Hi Scott,

If you're interested in reading more about edu-larp, check out my lit review in the Wyrd Con Companion Book 2014. I am also in the final stages of completing a peer reviewed paper on a case study we conducted on edu-larp in a middle school science classroom, which hopefully will become available through the International Journal of Role-playing in the next couple of months. 

Where do you live? I may know some people in your area with whom you can connect. Also, I suggest checking out Larp Haven on Facebook if you have an account there. You can usually post a general question about larps in your area and people will offer suggestions.

I agree that gaming — and specifically role-playing — has pejorative connotations in the U.S., not just from religious groups, but also from society at large. I believe that part of the socialization process is to "quit" playing pretend and instead to frantically search for your niche in society, which is of course a role-playing process in its own right under another name. This societal pressure is also used to funnel creativity into money-making or "societally valuable" products. One of the goals of our research is to demonstrate that role-playing games do have societal value and are, in fact, a unique art form with pedagogical potential.


Scott McDonald's picture

Thanks for the links. I'm

Thanks for the links. I'm still amazed that so many people are willing to look at these interactions through academic lenses.

I'm in the a small area of California a little south of Modesto. I've found some groups in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento, but as of yet no one nearby.

As for the pejoration of RPGs in the U.S. I hope that we'll see a significant bettering to this in our lifetime. I'm sometimes amazed at how well events like ComiCon and other "nerd" conventions are doing in the public domain. We still don't see a lot of positive coverage, but it's not as forgotten and shunned as it used to be.

Maury Elizabeth Brown's picture

Broadening the definition of gamer, gaming, and games

Hi, Scott:

Thanks for your perspective on barriers and benefits to gaming in education. I'm curious about what age groups you are referring to in your initial post. I'm assuming it may be elementary-aged students, based on the cross-disciplinary focus you bring up: learn history and learn about probability and logic. It seems to me that some of the issues you bring up vary with the age of the students who would be playing the games, as well as the curricular content being presented or the educational objectives in play.

I agree with you that it is high-time that we broaden our focus of games in the classroom beyond digital games and re/consider the benefits of analog games such as tabletop games, role-playing games, and larps. I also believe that educators, scholars, and game-players themselves (particularly RPG'ers and larpers) need to do a better job articulating these benefits and to push back against some of the latent stigma still associated with RPGs in the United States. Games based in history and in educational objectives, rather than the fantastical worlds of D&D, Pathfinder, or Vampire: the Masquerade, would go a long way in making  such a distinction.

History, in particular, can become a lived experience through a game. History is not, as we so often study it, a series of facts and dates that unfolded in a neat narrative. Historians know this. Students do not experience this, though. They experience memorization of timelines and the names and biographies of certain people who have been deemed as important to the particular narrative being told, usually one of hegemonic economic power and military might. History is, however, a series of contingencies, decisions made based on incomplete information and dealing with the often unpredictable effects of those decisions. Games reeanact the dynamism of these contingencies and offer structures to control the dissemination of information (and misinformation). Mechanics can both replicate historical advantages and disadvantages such as economic power, size of army, leadership, and even terrain and weather constraints. But the fun of playing a game is playing against history — counter-factually. Seeing the "what if?" possibility. Games put students in the role of actor/agent, making the decisions and dealing with the fall-out, not as a passive observer to a planned-out and inevitable conclusion. In terms of learning objectives for how history (or science, for that matter) is made, games afford a way to experience "being there"  and "controlling the action" in ways that other types of learning do not. THAT is powerful pedagogy.

Have you seen Memoir '44Train? There are two tabletop games that engage with history in powerful ways. Memoir '44 is also easily moddable — an interesting assignment for students.

I completely agree with you that the process of character building as one goes through with an RPG is an exercise that can be adapted well for educational purposes in a variety of contexts. What did you have in mind?

Also, the idea of a party (in RPG) and a guild (in MMORPGs) is another interesting model for collaborative learning. Any thoughts there?

Scott McDonald's picture

Love these discussions

Thanks Maury,

I love that people are as willing to talk about this as has been shown through their comments and posts. It's fantastic. In regards to age groups for RPGs in the classroom, I know that I wasn't able to get it into my original post very well, but I was thinking that you would start around the fourth grade mark. These would be the games where you might focus very much on the role-playing aspect of discussions with very little dice-rolling and some of the other elements of gameplay. As students progress into more complicated forms of math and enter into secondary education, I would suspect that this might be the "sweet spot" for these games. This is all theory at this point, and it is mostly based on my childhood memories and experiences as a substitute in a Middle School that contained 5th-8th grade students. I agree that this would be a much more effective method of teaching history than has been previously in vogue. Instead of names, locations, and dates, the kind of edu-larp and table-top RPG that focuses on history would really be able to find a willing audience. For high school students, I would think that constructing their own games would be sufficiently challenging for them, as well as allow them to experiment with culture, math and logic, and other elements of gameplay. Perhaps, I would start off with it being a suggestion for a semester long project?

After seeing the documentary on edu-larps in Europe, I think role-playing social issues might be one of the most important opportunities teachers of the Humanities could have. English and History teachers seem to often double as instructors in social justice and current events, something RPGs could instruct in a more realistic and complete experience. Still, I think that gathering the resources, especially time, would be difficult unless you can convince parents, administrators, and other instructors of the viability of this form of instruction. These strategies would definitely create students of whom Quintillion might be proud, but perhaps not do as well in testing.

Creating guilds and parties who would work together on multiple assignments or on a semester long series of games would be interesting to say the least. Especially in cases where students would reenact history. Cooperation and constructed knowledge could determine the success of their projects. I hope this answers some of your main points.