Playing Beyond the Classroom: Using Games to Create Brave Spaces

CCCC 2018: Kansas City
Thursday, March 15, 2018

It’s midday, and the bar’s fire suppression system has gone off. The defector that you’ve been tasked with retrieving for your boss has disappeared through the back door with another team, competition for your promotion. You’re covered in foam, and the Resistance stands between you and the front exit. The bar’s patrons have fled. You hold a bag in your hand, and you hope it contains enough information to save your job and what’s left of your sanity. Your boss is not very forgiving of failure. What do you do now?

Well, if you’re my current Writing class, which recently faced this problem, you choose the most convoluted path possible, and stretch the encounter so much it takes two weeks to complete the adventure. That was originally planned to span two classes.

No, none of this really happened. They were playing a Role-playing game, one I created just for the purposes of teaching this class. It included a new way to deliver content, and a new way to engage with each other and the material. So the choice t keep pushing forward this adventure was all them.

They stayed in the trouble. At the end, one of them came up to me and said, “So all we got out of that was extra points?”

She was disappointed because all that happened was her grade had gone up.

When I’ve presented this game to people before, this has been the selling point, by and large. It gets students interested in something other than a grade.

What I mean to suggest here is that the classroom RPG is good for something more than just delivering content in a more engaging way, or keeping students’ eyes off their grades long enough that the lessons of the class sink in. Those are all good things. What I want to suggest is that the RPG is good for something else: staying with the trouble.

Arao and Clemens term this a brave space in contrast to a safe space. Safe spaces are marked by a “conflation of safety with comfort” (135). But that’s not really conducive to conversations that need to happen about life in the 21st century. We live in a networked world, and we have to be more aware of context than perhaps we ever were before. We have to learn to pay attention to the world around us. Comfort blinds us to that context. It’s too easy to just say we’ll “agree to disagree,” without either really understanding another’s point of view, or without really trying to respond to it.

So the question becomes how we transition from that safe space to a brave space where students feel empowered to stay in conflict and learn from it, use it constructively. I mean to say that games help us do that.

Let’s start with Freire’s banking model. The banking model centers the classroom around the teacher, treats the students as containers waiting to be filled. It dehumanized. Students are allowed to be collectors of cataloguers of knowledge, but “in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity….For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human” (53).

So we can safely say that one reason to bring games like this into the classroom is to engage students’ creativity. It can come across the wrong way. To cite from James Gee: the traditional line of thinking “is this: Important knowledge (now usually gained in school) is content in the sense of information related to intellectual domains or academic disciplines….Activities that are entertaining, but that themselves do not involve such learning, are just ‘meaningless play’” (22). But what if that dimension of play is just what we need to get students using their critical faculties to bear on the world in which they live?

The truth is that when we treach, we’re not just teaching content, but “a lived and historically changing set of distinctive social practices. It is in these social practices that ‘content’ is generated” (22). Thus, the alternative perspective rears its head: “[w]e always learn something. And that something is always connected, in some way, to some semiotic domain or other” (23).

The classroom RPG lets us do just that. We can disconnect the lessons to be learned from teh world around us, transplant them into a fictional environment, and let students be “forced” to deal with them in a productive manner. Playing the game taps into most students’ tendency to play, and in order to advance, students have to confront the things that they may not have wanted to confront before.

Let me share this example. This is a sample assignment.

I would even go farther than what I have listed here, and assign some type of racial, social, or economic status to each of these encounters. The factory workers present us with the ability to look at the “working-class whites” that pundits were so keen on in the last election cycle. Perhaps we can say that this disgruntled Hansa employee has seen the way that the company has treated people of his race. But the key takeaway is that students should be encouraged to talk to these people, to listen to them and understand their points of view.

And the RPG gives us a way to steer those conversations without getting heavy handed. LIstening, showing your understanding, makes the dice roll easier. Not understanding, ignoring the real issues—those things make the roll harder. The conversations flow, but the game sets guardrails. It encourages everyone in a small group to get involved, and it gives the teacher a clear place to intervene when necessary. What’s more, students get nearly instantaneous feedback in the form of a difficulty for their dice roll.

In case you’re wondering, the dice rolls work this way: students decide what they want to do, how they’re going to respond. I ask them to go into detail, and I assess how good their answer. I tell them what skill they should look at. They add this skill to the characteristic noted beside it. We roll two ten-sided dice, compare it to our number. If it’s under the number, you succeed. Above, and you fail. Answers that expand the conversation see the target number bumped up. Answers that shut down the harder conversations see this number lowered.

To return to the initial story of a writing class where an encounter had horrendously overflowed its original boundaries, the question is why. I feel the need to add here that in each class but one, every single student was present. Why do they keep coming back? While on one one level, we can say that it’s the story, I think there’s something else to it that just saying, “They’re playing a game” ignores. And that is their ability to control things in the game.

And this gets at something else I feel that brave spaces require from us when we bring them into the classroom. Student input. Freire talks about a pedagogy of and with the oppressed, not for them. Tabletop RPGs put a lot of power in players hands. Yes, the game master runs the game, decides what the story is. But it’s the players who make that work. It’s the players who drive things. The same is true in the classes where I implement this strategy. Students can take all the time they need, within reason, and the course schedule is built to accommodate that. There’s give and take, and what emerges is less freeform than the students might wish. I offer them “Destiny points” to help them shape the class. These can do anything from making dice rolls easier, to changing narrative events, to even changing the due date for an assignment. Their feeling like they have power over the class they’re taking is important to creating an atmosphere where they feel they can bring anything to the floor.

That’s key. THe give and take that characterizes a relationship between game master and player is the same one I want to encourage between myself and my students. I want to bring them lessons and conversations about their world, the context that their decisions and their writing takes place in, but I want to avoid the silence that typically comes when such controversial topics come up in class. It’s not an easy job—class prep takes a lot more time, and it’s surprisingly more laborious to GM a class than to lecture—but it works. The game lets me defamiliarize issues, get around their defenses. We get to talk about things in abstract and then bring it back in. They don’t just get to play the game, they have to apply the lessons we learned and the conversations we had through the game to themselves, their world, and their own communication. And I think that is a worthy thing to strive for.