When I was at University, too many years ago to mention, I played a bit of Dungeons & Dragons, and my exposure to Role Play Games (RPGs) is something which has sat in my baggage for many years now, being used every now and then in the classroom often in conjunction with Matrix Games, which I discussed in an earlier blog.
These days I run a Mind Sports Club at St John’s College in Johannesburg, and most sessions include an hour of Checkers, Morabaraba and other board-games, and then an hour of Role Play and campaign games. I invented an RPG called Space Truckers for the club, and used it to set puzzles and challenges which the players had to solve. I’ve never enjoyed the hack and slash type of RPG. What struck me very clearly yesterday, while watching the boys playing the game, was the rapt engagement, in a non-digital game. Once a month the Mind Sports Club uses the computer room to play eSports, but most of the games we play are boardgames, and role play games.
And yet, the digital engagement is there too. The Mind Sports Club has a website, using socialgo.com, which allows the boys to post messages to forums, write their own blogs, which together form a club magazine, and upload pictures and videos. The boys have made a large number of posts over the months, amounting to a considerable body of writing about the campaign game we played, and the role play. A great deal of what happens in the game, happens on the website between Friday meetings. It happens in written exchanges about the characters and what they are doing in the game, and often about the life of the character beyond the game. One player has written a complete biography of his character’s life before the game. Others enter journal style entries in which they extend the narrative of the previous meeting, explaining what they were doing and thinking.
What pleases me about all this is that it was a totally unplanned consequence of simply opening up a digital space where members of a club could socialize, and where announcements could be made. I can well imagine that for many of the boys, more writing was done on the site than in their regular English classes. They wrote about something they were passionate about, and the replies they got did not mention their spelling mistakes, but addressed what they were saying, prompting further writing. I am an English teacher and I know how precious this kind of feedback is in encouraging students to write. When your words are taken seriously it brings confidence and a belief that you can write to good effect.
Given that the boys are also writing about their thoughts and feelings, albeit in the guise of an imaginary character, I would argue the case that Role Play Games, accompanied by a social space where players can write about what they are doing, should be encouraged in schools. Role Play Games are often, however, seen as something a little dark and perhaps even dangerous. Dungeons & Dragons does not have a very good reputation. This is totally misguided, however. There is nothing satanic or even vaguely evil about what goes on in a role play adventure. The protagonists look after each other, they protect the weak, and bring order and good to the worlds they explore – just like the fantasy genre they draw inspiration from. Orcs get killed, for sure, and that might offend liberal sensibilities, but Orcs are bad, really bad, and no-one should weep for their demise! A good RPG will challenge players to collaborate, be social and exercise all the virtues.
And above all, it appears to encourage students to write!