Playing Role Play Games is often seen as a guilty secret, something which places one slightly above train-spotting and the anorak-brigade! I guess it’s time to come out of the closet and admit to playing RPGs, and to assert that I believe they have a definite, and under-explored place in education. I have used RPGs in the English Second Language classroom from time to time alongside more prosaic role play situations to encourage authentic talk.
For those who are uncertain as to what an RPG is, it is a game in which a number of players assume a role within a scenario created by a Games Master (or Dungeon Master). The DM creates a narrative of events in which the players face situations, puzzles, challenges or combat, and, using a set of rules, resolve these situations to conclude the narrative and propel it forward. A set of die are used to help simulate luck and determine the success or otherwise of player actions. Some DMs are fairly proscriptive, others more free-wheeling in approach. In the most famous RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, parties of adventurers seek fame and fortune in dungeons dreamed up by their Dungeon Master.
In the classroom I create a common scenario, and split the class into groups. Each group represents a party of adventurers. I then circulate continually, adjudicating each action the party has decided on. I don’t use any set rules, merely set what roll of a die is required to succeed in an action, based on a quick assessment of how likely it seems that it would succeed. By moving quickly from group to group each game moves at some pace. By using set situations I am able to remember what each group is up to. The aim is to encourage talk, and it certainly does this. I often used it also as a Friday afternoon lesson when any thought of more serious work would have resulted in rebellion!
Recently, however, I have begun to see the enormous benefits of using RPGs to encourage writing. Players become attached to their characters, and are willing to invest an enormous amount of time and energy in fleshing them out. This includes art-work, and writing about their characters on forums and blogs devoted to the game. I run a Mind Sports Club at my sons’ school and one of the activities they engage in is RPGs. Over the weekend, many of the players use the club website to blog about their characters and the game. The volume of work they produce would amaze their English teachers I am sure!
RPGs (such as Runescape) can also be played online, and are very popular. I am not entirely sure how this loyal fan base can be harnessed by a school to encourage writing, but it seems to me that part of the answer is to take it outside the classroom and into the realm of the extra-curricular activity such as a games club. By creating a club blog or using a social website tool such as spruz.com you can begin to create a community of students who share a common passion. This is the key to creating the conditions under which students will write copious quantities of writing. I cannot attest to the quality of the writing, but the quantity and enthusiasm displayed by these reluctant writers would astound their English teachers.
The RPG format also allows you to encourage writing of a particular type. A few weeks ago I asked all the players to use their blog to write a motivation why they should be chosen for a special favour in the game. I would choose the player based on what they had written.
From what I have seen on the Mind Sports website of the club, RPGs and social websites can be a powerful tool for promoting writing. How this can be used by a class teacher is not so certain to me, because I know that the moment writing becomes perceived as a chore, the motivation for doing it is lost, and any work produced will be laboured and meaningless.