Classroom RPGs

As we near the Thanksgiving break, and as my students get increasingly stressed about final papers and exams, I’ve tried to lighten up (mostly Thursday) classes with role playing exercises.  It can be a bit of a gamble, since they rely so much on the students really committing to personifying historical characters, but so far it’s been quite a bit of fun – even if one of my students did call me on the worksheet I gave them as prep being quite close to a D&D character creation sheet!  In the U.S. survey, I used this prompt:

Henry Clay, John Calhoun, Abraham Lincoln, James K. Polk, John Quincy Adams and David Wilmot find themselves snatched out of time and deposited in a bar.  They get to talking about whether it was a good thing to annex Mexico and California.  What do they say?

For 4:00 on a Thursday, my students embraced the roll playing more than I’d expected.  Aspersions were cast against Polk and Wilmot, and Calhoun’s perspective was even delivered in accent.  It’s sometimes hard in larger classes to get group work right – sometimes the groups are too big for everyone to participate fully, and if they’re too small we spend a lot of time at the end letting each one speak – but I’m feeling pretty good about this flavor of activity, even if it does lead to some jokes about dark elves, charisma points and magic missiles.

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NARA does online gaming

I’m a little late to the game with this, but I was really happy to find that in 2012, the US National Archives moved into the online gaming world and into the itunes store, with apps like DocsTeach (online here). DocsTeach is, on the face of it, a fantastic idea.  It centers the idea that a considerable part of historical learning comes through the analysis of primary sources, and seems to try to build activities that would be accessible to students with different learning styles.  Many of the activities are tactile, insofar as you’re asked to move documents around, though some are more well-developed than others. For the activity on suffrage, for example the task is to arrange documents in the order in which they were produced – a fine way to teach reading skills, but not so much specific to women’s suffrage in America.

Lewis and Clark screenshot. This is featured prominently on the itunesU site for the app, and seems to be one of the better-realized activities.

The Lewis & Clark expedition activity, on the other hand, requires a little more critical thinking, as well as some sounder pedagogy.  Given a map of the United States and a bunch of documents, students are told:

“In 1803 the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France.  President Jackson sent co-captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore west of the Mississippi River in 1804.  Their route west is shown in green.  Although this territory was unknown to some, to others it was very familiar.

Examine the documents related to the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  Determine where different groups were involved and use the hints to place the documents on the X’s on the map.”

The documents include Lewis’s speech to the Otto Indians (August, 1804), “List of Indian Presents Purchased by Meriwether Lewis in Preparation for the Expedition to the West” (1803), and the “Proclamation to the People of New Orleans” announcing the Louisiana Purchase.  Having placed the documents on the map, students are asked to make a list of all of the powers at play in the region, and come to class prepared to share with classmates.  Though some of the language in the app, especially in the instructions elides native agency (things happen to, or are given to Indians – there’s no sense that Indians were active players in this at all), and only hints at the extent to which the United States was a young, untried, and anxious nation, it’s not a bad game overall. I’m happy that the National Archives is thinking pedagogically, and that there’s an initiative to digitize documents that students might not otherwise ever be able to see.

 

Games and pedagogy (part n)

A good friend tipped me off to Entry Denied an online game? exercise? demonstration? that contrasts the immigration stories that some of us grew up with, with US immigration policy today.  The overabundance of question marks in the previous sentence is because the interface looks like a game, or a choose your own adventure book, but the overall message – that my great great grandfather, E.M. Waldron (who ended up being the contractor for Newark’s city hall and cathedral, and driver for Eamon DeValera when he visited New Jersey) would be denied entry under today’s immigration guidelines – is a decidedly policy one.  Moreover, it’s a policy lesson designed to teach the user a lesson – that current immigration policies are unfair, or at least wildly limited in light of historical ones.

So, does this count as a game? As pedagogy?  I think it might as both, but I’d be really interested in a broader discussion of games masquerading as teaching tools masquerading as policy tools. 

Quick note on breakfast cereal

I love playing around with the idea of realizing different projects in different genres – exemplified for me, by Douglas Adams’ quip about starting a new project:

People wanted me to do a CD-ROM of Hitchhiker’s, and I thought, “no, no.” I didn’t want to just sort of reverse-engineer yet another thing from a book I’d already written. I think that the digital media are interesting enough in their own right to be worth originating something in. Because, really, the moment you have any idea, the second thought that enters your mind after the original idea is, “What is this? Is it a book, is it a movie, is it a this, is it a that, is it a short story, is it a breakfast cereal?” Really, from that moment, your decision about what kind of thing it is then determines how it develops. So something will be very, very different if it’s developed as a CD-ROM than if it’s developed as a book. (From an interview with the Onion AV club, reprinted in The Salmon of Doubt)

Well, the playwright Lucy Prebble just published a piece on the New York Times‘ ArtsBeat blog about gaming and narrative and form and argument.  It’s quite good.