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.
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 '44? Train? 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?
I appreciate the global perspective and the list of all the Scandinavian schools that incorporate edu-larps. As someone who shares your interest in edu-larps as well as the Scandinavian style of education that focuses more on play, creativity, problem-solving, and collaboration, and less on testing, homework, and competition, I am excited about the connections you make to so many disciplines and educational learning outcomes, both cognitive and affective.
I'm curious about the distinction between role-playing (which has been researched as a type of experiential learning) and role-playing games. The difference seems to be structure: rules, mechanics, boundaries, planned for contingencies, win-conditions, and a delineation of time and space. I'm interested in exploring the distinction between an edu-larp, and structures such as Model United Nations, Model Congress, students cosplaying literary characters, or teachers re-enacting a scene from the Civil Rights movement with their students.
I'm also interested in how edu-larps align with the Flipped Classroom movement of giving agency to students by using class time for creative, kinesthetic, collaborative problem solving — active learning— and having students prepare for these interactive sessions by reading and mastering ore content ahead of time. Presented as a game, with objectives and with a character to recreate may incite the kind of engagement with course material that allows flipping the classroom, as students must come to class sessions fully prepared for it to work. It seems that considering the teacher as a Game Master (GM) who creates quests for students and arbitrates as they attempt to solve them is a model for a flipped classroom. In addition, edu-larps seem the perfect venue to explore all three educational domains: cognitive, affective, and kinesthetic. Larps, with their embodied nature, possess the potential for the kinesthetic learning that bringing video games or table-top games into the classroom do not.
There has been a lot of recent attention to videogames in learning; I am looking forward to more attention to analog games in learning, and edu-larps in particular.
I enjoyed reading your perspective on House Rules in live action role-playing and how they might translate to the role of the teacher in edu-larps. I'm left wondering how you define house rules, and where they fit into the multi-layered rule systems of role-playing games: endogenous and exogenous, explicit and implicit, diegetic or non-diegetic. I can think of what you might be calling "house rules" in two different ways:
As the implicit rules that are not necessarily codified in the rules set, the ones that Sarah refers to as a "play culture" or what Markus Montola (2009) refers to as the "invisible rules" in level two of the system he outlines in his article, "The Invisible Rules of Role-Playing: The Social Framework of Role-Playing Process." These would be additions to, or tweaks of, codified rule systems in use in the community. They might be written somewhere, or they might just be understood by the players, and new members of the community would learn them through mentorship or by breaking them and being corrected.
As the emergent rules that happen as a result of game play. These would be the rulings by Game Masters (GMs) made dynamically when an interpretation of a rule must be made or when two or more players have varying views regarding a rule and seek arbitration from the GM. Once a GM makes a ruling about the game's existing rule system, it becomes law and other rulings are based on it as precedent. Another group of players or play community may interpret the codified rule differently, thus resulting in different "house rules." These are rules at the level of diegesis, and affect character goals and play, even though they may have been settled at the level of the player using "rules lawyering" to advocate for an advantageous position for him/herself and his/her character.
Without this distinction of your definition of House Rules, I'm not sure how to consider the rest of your assertions.
In addition, I would like to question your distinction that edu-larps have goals beyond entertainment, while leisure-based larps do not. While edu-larps may be engaging with specific educational content, I would offer that all larps engage with specific content that must be mastered (and the more mastery, the more possibilities for play) and that all larps also have goals — both in-game/in-character and out-of-game/out-of-character. Indeed many larps are created with quite specific goals to engage in content that will provoke thoughts, emotions, and learning that can be carried beyond the game. I'm not sure I buy into "just a game" for leisure-based larps.
Lastly, you make this statement: "The clearer the wording, the easier the rules will be to understand, and to enforce." This is quite a positivistic view of language. While I am certainly an advocate of clear writing, I don't subscribe to the idea that a universally understood and enforceable rules-set can be written. I believe this based on more post-modern rhetorical principles as advocated by Hall, Biesecker, Foucault, Barthes, Bakhtin, and others, who state that meaning is made by negotiation between unique, diverse, historically and contextually situated audiences and the speaker/text, not transmitted or conveyed passively from the text to an imagined audience. I also believe one should not strive for a perfect and enforceably consistent rules-set because that is counter to the dynamism and co-creative properties of the role-playing game genre, which seeks to give agency to the players (students in an edu-larp) and less control to the game designer or manager. The rules-system and all the paratexts that codify a game are not the game itself. They are the beginning point for a unique instantiation of what becomes the game, an ephemeral act that is wholly dependent upon the dynamics of the particular players and the interpretations of that place, space and time. No two games are the same, nor indeed, should they be.
In education, "House Rules" (depending on your definition) could refer to classroom culture or teacher philosophy, as no two sections of the same course would be the same, even if they both operated from the same textbook, standards, learning outcomes, or scope and sequence (this is why the educational accountability reforms are so flawed, but that is another discussion). No two games or game communities will be the same, even with the same rules-system, mechanics, materials, etc. This difference, however, is part of the art of teaching, the magic of education, and the appeal of larping. Certainly House Rules (and explicit rules-systems and the enactment of the game itself) are rhetorical acts, as is teaching. There is much to theorize here. But to do so, I believe we need to agree on some basic definitions that will allow us to clarify the conversation.
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.
I was referring to leisure based LARPs. Edu-larps are somewhat of a new phenomenon (for me, that is), and the vast amount of my experience comes from more formalizes leisure RPGs. Having started this sort of gaming in college, it has remained an important part of my life, and so naturally I found myself applying my studies towards it. I have often had ideas for running a larp in a classroom, but was unaware that such things were already so extant.
I need to look more into RPG theory. RPGs have been a part of my life for about 25 years, and knowing that there is an academic community around it is gratifying.
I absolutely agree with you about "rules lawyering." In any situation, be it educational or casual, such activities take away from both the immersive escapism of LARP and the value of such a situation. However, there is a time and place for such things. It seems, with leisure LARPs, there are often two separate but concurrent games: one that is actually about role play, and one that is about rules and mechanics. Both can be enjoyable, though often times people prefer one over the other. Rules Lawyering mid-game is bad, but arguing and debating rules outside of the game can be a very entertaining way to waste several dozen hours.
But you are absolutely right: this sort of debate needs to be done outside of the game setting, and should certainly be done before the edu-larp actually begins.
Thank you for sharing your ideas on house rules as they pertain to edu-larps! In RPG theory, we've taken to calling this discursive act you describe "establishing the play culture." The play culture involves what is and is not expected from players; what is proper behavior in terms of immersion vs. out-of-character behavior; which topics are open and which are sensitive; what the overall goals of the exercise are; how to treat one another; aspects such as workshopping and debriefing, which I find especially important for edu-larps. Knowing what the players want may be part of the process, but it also involves structuring games to meet multiple player types, goals, and styles of play. Ultimately, establishing the play culture, just like in any other social group, requires strong leadership and clear statements of expectations from both facilitators and students.
You specifically mentioned published rule sets. Are you referring to leisure-based RPGs here? Or edu-larps? Can you provide some examples? A lot of the edu-larps I have studied, for example, do not feature mechanics for social interactions, but rather encourage the student to role-play such things out.
Also, I think in any healthy RPG community and especially in a classroom setting, "rules lawyering" should be kept to a minimum. It's a fine line and difficult to determine at times, but facilitators should be clear in what is and is not acceptable in the game world and OOC interactions in terms of negotiation of plots, rules, and player agency. Excessive rules debates can derail a role-playing experience for everyone, which is doubly problematic in terms of edu-larp due to the need for strong leadership in the classroom.
I enjoyed reading your perspective!
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!
Thank you so much for your feedback on my post. The larps range depending on the wishes of the curriculum and program. The edu-larp non-profit for which I serve on Board of Directors, Seekers Unlimited, runs custom larps for requested subject matter, such as science, social studies, history, etc. These larps usually last 1 day to a week during a particular class period depending on the demand of the school. However, schools like Osterskov, which I mentioned above, use larp all year long as their primary method of pedagogy. While some traditional lecturing and studying is worked into the scenarios, they attempt to frame all subject matters and all lessons as edu-larp. Here is a documentary on the school (only 12 minutes) if you are interested. There are also groups that use edu-larp to increase empathy and raise social consciousness. These scenarios are less "game-like" and more of an experience, such as the Norwegian Prisoner For a Day scenario, in which high schoolers live through a day of imprisonment and hard labor modeled after prison camps elsewhere in the world. Subject matter knowledge is not the focus of these exercises, but rather they hope to inspire greater understanding of social issues and political engagement.
Ultimately, I think any subject can be taught through edu-larp given clever design, but clever design takes time to test and perfect. Also, the success depends on the willingness of the teacher and of the class and the competency of the facilitator.
I hope this response answers your questions!
This is a fascinating post. I'd really like to know more about how these larps work. Are they continuous over the course of the semester or limited to one or two class periods? I wonder if it is possible to design an entire course based around a larp, and if that would be pedagogically helpful.
Your suggestion that it is best used in history and social studies seems to make sense, but I wonder if it might also work for psychology or even public speaking. Any thoughts on that?