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December 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

Role-Playing: Game-based Learning

Michael Armstrong is a Canadian that has been teaching English as a foreign language for 15 years and is currently an Assistant Professor at Daegu Catholic University. During those years he has been an assistant professor at 3 universities, taught more than 21, month-long intensive camps and given several academic presentations at both international and Korean teaching conferences. His primary goal of using gamification to incorporate RPG’s into the EFL classroom has met with great success and he continues to research this topic.



Students of English often lack motivation and find it difficult to learn through role playing situations and hypothetical imaginations. This lesson plan addresses those issues by providing students with a learning model that lets them actively take part in the creation of a fictional character, while intrinsically motivating them to acquire new language. Giving student’s ownership over their newly made characters dramatically increases students desire to learn. This ownership is transferred by giving the students creative control over their characters looks, actions and desires. Once the students have an emotional connection, their characters are put into a game setting with an element of chance involved, students become even more motivated to compete and acquire language in order to increase their chances of winning. A carrot and stick effect is created by rewarding second language acquisition with points that further increase the characters chances of success. During the final stages of the lesson, students can begin learning about their characters inner motivations by employing the use of basic literary theories. And by the end of the lesson students will be hooked on the game system, emotionally attached to their characters and able to role play and examine hypothetical’s in any number of ways.


Aims and goals

The main goal of this lesson is to get the students thinking outside the box when it comes to examining characters in literature or film. The aim is to increase the sense of emotional attachment from the point of view of the participants and enable students to understand multiple perspectives and various critical theories. By creating a number of avenues in which characters can be understood, I hope to maintain student interest by using a variety of methods. Role-playing, risk taking, creative writing, discussions, visuals and world building will all come into play (Collie & Slater, 2003). The anticipated outcome is that students will be able to empathize with characters, settings and situations from outside of their own first-person perspective, while participating in a task based learning (TBL) environment. This is a multi-platform lesson creating a strong foundation in basic-intermediate English. The lessons below total at least ten hours of instruction and possibly over forty if all supplementary exercises are taken into account. Ideally the students could ascertain their newly created characters’ moods, motivations and desires through a postmodernist lens. 



I currently teach students from age 18 to 60, yet despite the age gap, I keep running into the same problem. That problem is the student’s lack of ability to experience any sort of deep pathos. While my students can understand surface motivation of protagonists, they are unable to process their inner motivations and put themselves totally in the “shoes” of the characters they study. I think it is important for students to be able to understand critical thinking skills and be able to view what we study in class from a variety of perspectives. As a result, I have created a unique way of leading them step by step to a state where they are capable of not only visualizing a character choice, but also understanding it on an empathetic level. The process I have developed helps them open their collective minds and break out of their neo-Confucian ways of thinking. The process begins by using a stripped-down version of Dungeons & Dragons: Players Handbook 5th edition (D&D) (PHB) for use in designing and imagining hard copies of famous fictional characters. This role-playing game (RPG) system allows for immediate understanding of TBL and gives students motivation to study because of the inherent “game” aspect. Once a character has been created we can subject that character to a multitude of perspectives and critical theories through the use of the D&D RPG system and changing the various settings in a fusion of styles and post-modernist themes (Barry, 2009).


Learning context

For this lesson the teaching environment is irrelevant. This lesson can be taught using information and communication technology (ICT), over online computer-mediated communication (CMC), or in individual or group face to face (FtF) classroom settings. However, the ideal learning environment would be eight students, four male and four female, sitting at four tables in a medium sized room. In any class of English language learners (ELLs) I prefer either using groups consisting of dyads because of the inherent comfortable nature and equality of discussion that takes place among them (Collie & Slater, 2003, p. 8). This can be enhanced by matching one female with one male in each partnership. This gender division has the benefit of improving inter-group participation, communication, self-efficacy and classroom manageability (Hunter, Darryl, Gambell, Trevor & Randhawa, Bikkar, 2005). The only real necessary thing for a functional teaching and learning environment for this class is more than one student. Though it could be done with only one, having a plural number of students creates an environment that is conducive to discussion, comparison and multiple perspectives. There is also the game aspect and its goal orientated and achievement based structure which provides intrinsic motivation through reward and competition, especially among larger groups of students (Brown, 2007, p. 172).


Materials and resources

The materials needed for this lesson are quite minimal and vary depending on the classroom environment. For a CMC class, computers, internet cameras and microphones with internet hook ups would be needed as well as several programs like Skype, maptool-1.3 and scanned .pdf files of the PHB. However, for the ideal version of this class listed above, the only thing necessary would be paper, pencils, some 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, & 20 sided dice, a stripped down version of the D&D PHB for each student pairing and copy of the Dungeon Masters Guide (DMG) for the teacher. That is for the basic class; however, more advanced technology like overhead projectors, PowerPoint screens and miniature maps can only enhance the lesson for the students.



Once all the dyads have been created and everyone is in their seats and at their tables the method of implementation begins. The steps are as follows,

  1. Explain to the students that they will be taking control of a fictional character from any movie, comic, cartoon, video game, book or T.V. show. In the last stage of this lesson, once the groups understand their chosen characters motivations, moods and desires, they will take them out in a four character “party” seeing if they can complete a series of tests and challenges.
  2. Give the students ten minutes to come up with a fictional character from any genre of film or literature. Some examples include: Sponge Bob, Batman, Superman, Protagonist from “Iris”, The Joker, Wolverine, Thor, Sailor Moon, Homer Simpson, Joey from “Friends”, Charlie Brown, Master Chief from “Halo”…etc.
  3. Once the various pairs of students have their character they must understand his/her/its motivations and they can do that by discussing the following list of questions:

1. How old are you? 2. What ethnicity are you? 3. Where were you born?
4. Are you religious? What religion? 5. Who is in your family and where are they?
6. Are you introverted or extroverted? 7. Have you ever committed serious crimes? What? Been caught? 8. Have you ever done violence to/killed another? Many times? Why? 9. What are your vices? 10. What are your virtues? 11. What general goals motivate you? (career, love, ideals, money, fame etc..) 12. What specific goals motivate you? (a new item, put a person in jail, etc..) 13. What do you fear? 14. Do you have any secrets? 15. Do you use your head or gut more? 16. Are you more selfish or selfless? 17. What was your education? 18. What are your favorite foods and drinks? 19. What are your most hated food and drinks? 20. What are your favorite activities? 21. What are your most hated activities? 22. How is your sense of humor? What makes you laugh? 23. Who is your character's role model? 24. How do you feel about marriage? 25. How do you feel about friends? 26. How do you feel about sex? 27. How do you feel about your family? 28. How do you feel about your country? 29. How do you feel about yourself? 30. Are you superstitious? 31. What’s a good catch phrase for your worldview? (life's a bitch, what goes around comes around, live fast die young and leave a beautiful corpse, carpe diem, etc...) 32. What kind of music do you like? 33. Do you have hobbies? 34. Do you believe in capital punishment? 35. What are your attitudes towards monsters? 36. What are your attitudes towards the various races? 37. What are your attitudes towards the afterlife? 38. What would you die for? 39. What is your general political view? 40. What are best three adjectives to describe you? 41. How do you feel about the Monarchies? 42. What is your attitude towards the law? 43. Would you eat people if stranded on an island? 44. Do you believe in an absolute good and evil, or is it all relative?
(Armstrong, 2009, p. 6)

Answering these questions should take up the majority of a two hour class and also provide some homework/group work. The questions may seem mundane, but the students will immensely enjoy answering them, because they will be not only discussing a character that they like, but also gain satisfaction in finding or creating answers that are not immediately obvious. The process of answering all these questions will enrich the students with more personality themed vocabulary, while imprinting each dyad’s chosen character in their minds, creating the beginnings of pathos.

  1. Once the inner workings of the character have been created, the outer looks must be created. Using a list of physical attributes and or fashion items or if you have it, the descriptive vocabulary chart from Jazz English 2, (2006) on pages 102-104 by Gunther Breaux, get the students to describe their character. Starting from the hair and going down, describing physical attributes first and then later fashion items or accessories. They should follow normal grammar rules, but an easy format to remember is quantity, quality, texture/pattern, color and noun. For example, long silky beautiful wavy black hair. As well, the students should do their best to produce a visual image of their character, either through drawing or image download. Get the students to use as many adjectives as possible when describing their character and remind them to include any equipment they may have on them. As a last step, mix the groups up and let them describe their character while the listeners draw it using only the audio cues to create the image.
  2. Now that the characters have been created both physically and mentally, it is time to assign their attributes into the game system and assess their skills. Using the character creation guide in the PHB the students should assign each character 6 ability attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma) with a score of 1-20, with a 1 being the lowest possible and a 20 being just above the normal human maximum of 18. There are several methods of point allocation listed in the PHB, but the easiest one is to get the students to assign a 20, 18, 16, 14, 12 and 10 to a corresponding ability. The students must also decide what skills the character possesses. Here the teacher must be wary, as this can be a tedious lesson, assigning meaningless numbers into empty boxes can steal quite a bit of motivation from the class. A good way to increase the motivation is to give other groups “veto power” over any suspiciously high ability scores. This not only keeps game balance, but it creates open discussion for ELLs. The best way to keep the motivation and momentum going is to end the 2 hour lesson with a series of challenges that each dyad must put their character through. Here, each dyad is given 1d20 which they are to roll and add their characters’ final skill score to, creating the element of chance, which all students love. For example, if Soo Yun and Jin Ha’s character of Spiderman is attempting to jump over an elephant they must roll the 1d20 + 10 (Spiderman’s Jump Skill), they must beat a static number of 15 for difficulty. So, they need to roll 5 or higher on the die 20. Ending the lesson like this serves two purposes. First, it keeps the intrinsic motivation flowing and second it reinforces the game system and action/verb vocabulary in a fun way, using repetition to aid in memorization.
  3. During the next lesson the RPG can begin. Create a setting in which all the pairs of student’s characters meet. Rifts in the time-space-continuum always work for me and select a beginning genre: murder mystery, crime, science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction; spy; romance, etc. Put the characters into that world and using the die 20 system the group of characters, through challenges that require the player-dyads to think how their character, not themselves, would act. Some example challenges might be crossing a ravine using only the materials at hand or freeing a princess from a tower guarded by giant frogs. Other examples to include if the characters are inherently good are to give them moral choices. If they are cowards, give them choices of courage. It is important to remind them again and again that they should play their character and not follow their own choices. The best way to encourage this is to assign points called “experience points” to them at the end of each lesson. Dyads that take actions similar to how their character would have taken those actions, based on their 44 answered questions receive more experience points, while those that misplay their character receive none. I suggest repeating this lesson 2-5 times, each time going for 2 hours.  
  4. Once the students feel comfortable in the skin of their characters you can begin examining them back in their original surroundings. Use script or video from the internet and have your class examine each character’s motivation using the various literary theories: postmodernism, feminist, with psychoanalytical criticism being the obvious choice for this lesson. You will find that the students will have vastly improved senses of pathos and creativity in regards to the characters. Even pairs of students who played different characters will innately understand characters played by other dyads.


Further applications

As a last note, this lesson can spring a whole crop of other assignments. Short stories about the character adventures together, copied dialogues from previous sessions, world-building, genre fusion through a postmodernist lens, visual artwork, conversation hypothetical’s and sequencing.  By including a writing component to these further applications, it inherently applies a reading component as well. Students can review each other’s work and create open discussions of opinion in agreement/disagreement of said characters actions.  Once the students have fully grasped the characters and the system you can take the next step. Have them create their own characters, fully fictional representations of inner desires and fantastic dreams (Sherman, 2003, p. 125).  By assigning your students this task you are freeing them completely from “thinking within their own shoes” and enabling them to think from a truly multi-perspective by adopting a famous character.

One of my favourite secondary applications is to teach the students a set of themed idioms, vocabulary or phrases and give them experience point rewards for using their newly learned English in the correct context within the storyline of the “game.” This form of task based learning resonates with students and increases their SLA. For example, knowing that the characters they have created must masquerade as waiters and cooks to get into a hotel to accomplish some plot goal an educator can teach vocabulary and phrases from this theme ahead of time. Providing the students with a list of these words and awarding them additional experience if they are able to incorporate any of these items into the challenge scene creates an ideal environment for learning.        



Appleman, Deborah (2009). Critical encounters in high school English: Teaching literary to theory to Adolescents (2nd edition). Teachers College Press, New York & London

Armstrong, James (2019). Genefunk 2090 1st  edition, Crisper Monkey Studios

Retrieved on June 7, 2019 from

Barry, Peter (2009). Beginning theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory 3rd edition Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press..

Breaux, Gunther (2006). Jazz English 2: Freestyle conversations using real world English2nd edition, Seoul, South Korea: Compass Publishing

Brown, Douglas, H. (2007). Principles of language learning and teaching 5th edition.White Plains, New York:  Pearson & Longman

Collie, Joanne. & Slater, Stephen. (1987). Literature in the language classroom: A resource      book of ideas and activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dorpond, Trevor (2010). Maptool and Tokentool. Retrieved on June 7, 2011 from  <>

Hunter, Darryl, Gambell, Trevor & Randhawa, Bikkar (2005). Gender gaps in group listening and speaking: issues in social constructivist approaches to teaching and learning. Educational Review (August) 57, (No). 3, p.329

Sherman, Jane (2003). Using authentic video in the language classroom Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wizards RPG Team (2014) Dungeons & dragons: Players handbook: Core rulebook 5-th Edition, Washington: Wizards of the Coast Printing,


Please check the Drama Techniques for the English Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Advanced Drama and Improvisation Techniques for the English Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

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

Please check the How to Motivate Your Students course at Pilgrims website.

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