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April 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

Role Playing Teaching: Dungeons, Dragons and EFL Classes

Monika Bigaj-Kisała has been working as an EFL teacher for 16 years in various schools in Poland, Ireland and England, and works as a Director of Studies for Kids and Teens with ProfiLingua. She writes a blog https://thatisevil.wordpress.com/ and has a FB page (https://www.facebook.com/thatisevil/) mostly on alternative teaching methods and CPD. Email: monikakisala@gmail.com

Introduction

Ever since we are born, we are surrounded by stories – our parents share fables, family tales and all those adorable once upon a time there was a girl as naughty as you… do you want to know what happened to her? Then we start spinning our own childish stories, learning the differences between the truth and lies – and from then on, we never stop creating our own versions of events. Even if we end up believing we have lost all creativity to become the dullest creatures in the world, we still create stories, because that is exactly what makes us human – fantasies we create.

Terry Pratchett wrote once, that humans need fantasy to be human, to be the place where the fallen angel meets the rising ape. Stories help us understand the world we live in, various relationships, social codes and behaviours – and once we understand the theory illustrated by stories, we keep practising by means of games.

In 1964 an American psychiatrist, Eric Berne, wrote a book Games People Play to show various kinds of games and game-like activities we practise in building social relationships (both functional and dysfunctional). This book, albeit somewhat outdated, presents not only the dynamics of social interactions, but also shows the simple fact that we all play games and they are absolutely natural to us.

Children play house (or play grown-up) to study the family roles and models, then they introduce variations by playing with other children and eventually they modify and develop the game to base on another concept (e.g. classroom, party, being a superhero etc.).

 

Why does our brain love games?

Our brain weighs around 1300 grams which makes it seven times heavier than a hamster. It burns around 330 calories a day just being there, and if you want to burn such amount of energy in a traditional manner you have to jog for 30 minutes, or sleep for almost five hours. And just like hamsters our brains keep going and going, and going…

Roy Baumeister says that each day we have limited amount of willpower used by our brains on learning, decision making or resisting temptation. The brain gets weary with constant repetition, lack of challenge, same old things. However, games help alleviate the tiredness of the brain as they keep it entertained. We can take much more if we believe it is fun.

In Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain shows us a perfect example of one task from two perspectives. Tom is supposed to paint a fence and finds this task tiresome, but he manages to present this activity as a responsibility given only to particular, trustworthy and artistic people. As a result, his friends pay him actual money so that they can partake in this challenging quest. Tom relents and for the rest of the day relaxes while observing his friends doing his work for him. And this is exactly how we work. Identifying learning with tiredness and entertainment with relaxation. Games may actually teach us and cheat our brains into believing we are only having fun.

VR and Pain specialists, Hunter Hoffman and David Patterson created a game called Snow World and have been using it at Harborview Burn Center since 1996. They confirmed that playing a VR game alleviates the pain during wound care. They describe the spotlight theory of attention as a perfect way for a brain to escape the boring routine, unpleasant experiences or even excruciating pain. Now, if games can ease the agonising pain, maybe they can also ease the process of education?

 

Why Role-Playing Games (RPG)

I started teaching right after my BA, sixteen years ago, and I got a class of six-graders who were a bit on a naughty side, but a bunch of good kids. At first, I endeavoured to teach them the way I was taught, but after some time I started bringing up games, stories, wild ideas and other things that made my classes fun and my students happy. One day, we decided to translate a funny sketch by Kabaret Potem into English and act it out.

They loved it, especially once they got their costumes. Before we went on with the performance, we created names and background stories for their characters and it turned out my students actually enjoyed acting them out even when we finished our presentation. In fact, they would respond to their fictional names months after that. But apart from the fun, they identified their characters as English-speaking only and were more eager to use English when acting them out.

For example, when I asked Mateusz, how was your weekend? he was all meh... dunno, but when I asked him Rosita Manuela Regina del Bosco, how was your weekend? he would immediately switch to a high-pitched tone with something like Ah, Miss, my weekend was really wonderful, wonderful! The weather was perfect and my little puppy had to go to the vet and it was terrible. Miss, it was a tragedy! But then he was OK, so everything was beautiful again - all spoken with exaggerated body language and a lot of laughter.

My relationship with that class got much better and I think they learnt far more than they thought – at least such was their feedback. I see I learned quite a lot this year – said one of my students at the end of the year – I can speak more, and I feel more confident… but I don’t know when it happened, I didn’t study more, I only had fun. I understood then, that there may be a method in this madness. The Czech proverb says learn a new language and get a new soul - maybe it is easier when you first assume a role and then go with the flow of a new language?

This idea was a milestone that helped me see the Holy Grail of Role-Playing Games as a way to teach English.

 

What are Role-Playing Games (RPG)?

Role-Playing Games (RPGs for short) have become a form of entertainment quite popular in the contemporary mainstream culture due to TV series like Big Bang Theory or Stranger Things, where the protagonists play the most famous RPG system in the U.S., Dungeons and Dragons.

Jerzy Szeja explains that narrative Role-Playing Game in its canonical form requires a person leading the game (GM: Game Master) and at least one player who impersonates a character (PC: Player’s Character). The world in which sequences of events take place and are described by a GM is described in a particular system of an RPG consisting of a main handbook detailing the rules and mechanics of the system and, optionally, supplements with additional information regarding the system. There are many systems and worlds you can choose from – fantasy, sci-fi, alternative reality, historical etc.

RPGs may be compared to children’s games where participants play different roles (e.g. thieves and police officers), but a GM is the person who makes all the difference with outlining the world, events and acting out fully interactive characters (NPC: Non-Player Character). RPGs may be also compared to dramas (since they both include playing a role) – however, the difference is not only in the presence of a GM, but also in the approach. Drama is supposed to show life using simulated situations that may happen on different occasions. RPGs, on the other hand, are a simulation of the adventures with the made-up characters, who have their backgrounds and plans for the future, who face various situations, make decisions and deal with the consequences.

Another comparison presents RPG as similar to literature – where a player can choose a favourite character from a favourite book and impersonate them during adventures outlined by a GM who takes up the role of the narrator.

Narrative RPG is more than declaring OK, I want to play Frodo in the Middle-earth. A character picked by a player must have its representations, physical and mental, usually given in a numeric form, that are placed on character sheets specially designed for individual game-systems. Usually the basic subsections are attributes (in-born characteristics, e.g. strength, wisdom etc.), skills (learnt capabilities e.g. spoken language, horse-riding, computer hacking etc.) and powers (extraordinary abilities if present, e.g. telepathy, flight etc.). To add the true meaning of a game, each RPG has its own set of rules, usually dice-based system, called mechanics.

1 Character sheet, Dungeons and Dragons 5ed, TM & © 2014 Wizards of the Coast LLC

 

Character creation

Warren Buffet said once that we need to learn communication, as this is a vital skill and yet schools tend to underestimate it. Someone who cannot communicate and share ideas simply wastes own potential. RPGs boost communication by emphasizing cooperation and social relations and they help us grow and develop. Jane McGonigal said a very simple thing – it is difficult to ask someone for help, but it is easier to ask someone to join the game, and together face the challenge.

In RPG, you start communication even before you start playing as you create your character. The good thing about the character creation is that it can be done as an individual or a whole group activity (which is a good idea if students decide to play a group of friends straight away).

Naturally, the higher their proficiency level, the more complex questions you may ask them, because this part helps you assess your student-players’ linguistic skills. Starting with basic daily routine questions, moving through tell me about your childhood you may end up with the passive (Have you ever been snatched?) or reported speech (How did your parents react when you moved out?). Something that is essentially a grammar revision and a vocabulary assessment turns out to be a completely new exercise.

During the character creation it is important to create not only a character itself, but also relationships between all players (you may start with everyone creating their own PCs (Player Characters) and then trying to build up a team, but it is easier to start as a bunch of friends). This requires pair work and work in smaller groups to settle the relationships and common areas.

Relationships may vary: some people may want to play siblings, couples, best friends, colleagues, neighbours, old flames etc. The more the merrier, as various levels of friendship will allow students to practise communication using various registers (as one does not talk to one’s brother the same way one chats with a manager).

When your players are done with the character creation, you may suggest practising fresh characters. Do not forget to remind your players that the true personality of their characters does not have to be determined at this stage and it is OK if they decide they want to change some aspects later on.

 

Interaction

Jerzy Szeja provides a simple semiotic model of communication in RPG:

  1. GM describes the setting and NPCs actions.
  2. PCs declare actions (sometimes after discussion to decide the way of behaviour).
  3. GM describes the result of the actions (often based on mechanics).
  4. GM describes the result.
  5. And the whole cycle repeats.

To show three main types of interaction I will use simple examples.

Casual situation between two or three players -The most common type of interaction e.g. small talk. This situation implies all characters exchanging information.

Situation: Characters meet up on Wednesday afternoon and discuss how the day was and what to do next.

Player A: You’ve had a really terrible day at work.

Player B: Your child/pet got ill and you’ll have to take him/her to the doctor.

Player C: You broke your tooth. Ouch!

Problem solving between two or three players – often a problem emerges that needs to be solved by talking it through. This situation implies all characters trying to solve a simple issue.

Situation: Characters meet up on Wednesday afternoon and want to make plans for Friday evening.

Player A: You want to go to a pub and relax.

Player B: You really feel like disco is the best option for Friday!

Player C: There’s a new exhibition in the art gallery and you’d love to see it with your friends.

Conflict resolution between two or three players – when a problem emerges that involves some PCs. This situation implies all characters trying to win against one another.

Situation: You meet up on Wednesday afternoon in your favourite café and enjoy coffee and cakes.

Player A: you realise you’ve forgotten your money… again. Ah well, Player B will probably help you.

Player B: Player A seems to have forgotten money… again. It riles you up because somehow it’s you who usually pays for both of you and A doesn’t usually remember to give it back to you.

Player C: You hate public arguments. Player A seems to be rather forgetful when it comes to money, but there’s no need of Player B to make a scene. You don’t like it, but you don’t want to pay for Player A as well.

Trying to achieve a goal that is contrary to the goals of teammates leads to arguments. In order to avoid such chaos during the game, we need a system, a set of rules, and one or more die, to make sure the element of chance is here, as it is absolutely necessary in the game.

 

Game mechanics

In the above examples of characters’ communication, it was noticeable that even if a simple chat or negotiation was fairly easy to act out, there are problems with finding a fast and easy method to resolve the conflict. In order to make it short and simple we may simply roll a die and determine the success by the higher number rolled.

While this idea may sound good enough, it still seems rather unfair, especially when one character is an Experienced Lawyer (who spent years manipulating people), and the other is an Edgy Teenager (who simply goes with I know better attitude). Now, this exactly is the reason why RPGs use Character Sheet with basic traits and skills listed and graded. Usually all players start with the same number of build points or EXP (short for experience points) to divide among traits, skills and abilities according to their characters’ background, profession etc. Then the roll may be modified by the rank of a particular attribute or an applicable skill. Experienced Lawyer in this case, having higher social skills, will have an advantage over Edgy Teenager in particular social situations involving empathy, manipulation or argumentative discussion.

Let’s refer to the aforementioned conflict situation and assume player A is an Edgy Teenager, and Player B is an Experienced Lawyer. If the discussion takes too much time, a GM simply asks players to test their skills like Charisma or Manipulation (depending on a system). The both roll the same dice, but modify result with the attribute and/or skill scores – Experienced Lawyer having the necessary skills should have much higher chance to win the argument. Still with a really, really bad rolls on the lawyer’s side the Edgy Teenager might get their way.

 

RPGs in the classroom

Why exactly should you take your class into one of the never-never worlds? It is already obvious that people study better when they are relaxed and do not think about grading. Playing games, and RPGs in particular – you may use short scenes to practise specific constructions – practise communication skills. RPGs do not involve grading, but instead you are given XP to further develop the skills and attributes of the character. You can easily introduce short adventures to small groups of students or create your own scenarios and appoint one student to become a GM.

Communication

As mentioned before – with RPGs you start communicating before you even start playing. You create your character, you establish relationships with other players and then you spend hours talking, communicating, arguing, convincing and making people see your point of view. You do not practice communication, you simply communicate and learn on the way, that if you speak to a police officer the way you talk with your best buddy, it may affect the result. Which is a lesson worth learning before you meet an actual police officer and start talking a bit too cheekily…

Friendship

For years I have been attending fantasy fans’ conventions and spent hours talking about RPGs, systems, world, adventures and sessions – it’s a similar experience to attending a teachers’ conference and discussing your issues with a random teacher to see another perspective. RPGs connect people – you start talking about the latest edition of Warhammer, go for a pint, it turns out you have some common interests apart from RPGs, then you meet more people like this, have a great time, you meet them again on another convention and boom! Suddenly you have friends all over the country. Very useful from a tourist’s point of view.

Research

I remember, when we started playing my presently favourite game (Delta Green) we did quite a lot of research on American governmental organisations (as you usually play an FBI agent, or a CDC official, or maybe even an NRA representative). Likewise, when we started playing Call of Cthulhu in 1920s, we wanted to do some research on laws, politics, pop-culture, social code etc. If I am planning to take my teen students on a journey to the USA of the 1920s, that will require them to do some reading and learning things they otherwise would not even bother to think about.

Team building

Team-work is important. Being teachers, we know that collaboration and cooperation are vital. RPGs teach you team building. You have to work as a team, otherwise you fail in completing the quest. Communication, negotiation and the awesome ability of taking the blame sometimes and not blaming others – you learn it all here.

Fun

Some people believe proper learning requires solemn approach, coursebooks and a lot of copies with grammar drills. I agree with this perspective when it comes to introducing grammar constructions – but my primary goal in teaching is fun. And when you can teach, play and have fun at the same time – how could I resist the temptation?

 

Summary

In her absolutely brilliant book Superbetter, Jane McGonigal says that scientific research corroborates the theory that games provide more than just sheer enjoyment – they provide models of better selves. What is more, while we play, we focus on the game, giving it so-called flow of attention, a state of being fully absorbed and engaged, the state of total immersion in the game. It helps people literally feel better, make one’s brain relax and achieve the same results as a training of mindfulness.

Games may also give our students something more than fluency in the language. Games give you the epic win, something that helps you realise your potential as far greater than you originally thought. David and Tom Kelley, design innovators and educators, in their famous book Creative Confidence observe that in games the level of challenge and reward rises proportionately with a gamer’s skills. Again, they refer to McGonigal by describing urgent optimism as the desire to face the challenge immediately, motivated by the belief that you have a reasonable hope for success. Gamers always believe that an „epic win” is possible – they write – that it is worth trying, and trying now, over and over again. In the euphoria of an epic win, gamers are shocked to discover the extent of their capabilities.

We may not be able to change education, lessons in general or even the material we are supposed to teach. But what we are able to do, is to take our students on a journey, where they will find more than the fictional characters. They will find new creativity, confidence and friends, because playing games with others is a powerful team building tool. All in all, a good starting pack for the future.

After all, what is education if not a quest for knowledge?

 

Further reading

Berne, Eric (1996): Games People Play, Ballantine Books

Wołos, Marta (2002): Koncepcja gry językowej Wittgensteina w świetle badań współczesnego językoznawstwa, Kraków: UNIVERSITAS

Szeja, Jerzy (2004): Gry fabularne. Nowe zjawisko kultury współczesnej, Rabid

McGonigal, Jane (2015): SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient, Penguin Canada

Kelley, Tom and David (2013): Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All, Crown

Huizinga, Johan (1938): Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-element in Culture, Penguin Random House LLC

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1953): Philosophical Investigations

Edwards, Ron (2003): Narrativism: Story Now, Adept Press (available here: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/_articles/narr_essay.html)

 

Please check the Methodology and Language for Secondary course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Teaching Advanced Students course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the  Creative Ways to Get Students Speaking More course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

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