Playing Politics: Running a Composition Course as a Role-Playing Game Presented by Joshua Wood PhD Candidate, Clemson University

CCCC Portland Saturday, March 18, 2017

The visual portion of this presentation can be found here.

Back in 2015, I started trying to dream up ways that I could make my freshman comp class more engaging and more interesting. It was both a pedagogical instinct, since i wanted to make it more interesting for students, and a selfish one, since I wanted to make it more interesting for myself. The solution in my mind was to do something I hadn’t heard of anyone doing at the time, and that was to go beyond gamifying the classroom and jump straight into making the class into a game itself. The way I did that was through Role-Playing game. I restructured the entire class, over the one-month winter break, to function as a role-playing game, with students jockeying for poltical power.

It went about as well as you’d expect.

My first version was too abstract--at that point, I had played in exactly two role-playing games in my entire life, and had never GMed. But I was stubborn and I refused to let this idea go. And thankfully, I had a very understanding supervisor who was okay with this kind of experimentation.

After about a year of development, I finally got to a place where the game was more solid, where narratives could unfold, and where the process was actually fun for everyone involved. More than that, the game mechanics were deeply enmeshed with the flow of the class--the class could flow because the narrative of the game flowed, and vice versa. What really made this game flow, though, was attention to detail. It was not the system itself, though it helped to have a reference guide in the students’ hands the same way you would at a tabletop RPG session. What mattered was having something concrete for students to grasp.

Ironically, the school of thought that might inform this the most is GNS theory, a framework for understanding how RPGs flow and function. This isn’t a very scholarly framework, but we can apply it to the classroom when we start gamifying things. The ethos behind my own efforts in “gaming” the classroom, which I would mark as different than traditional gamification--an overlay of gaming-like reward systems on top of existing structures--is an attempt to get beyond just adding gaming elements willy-nilly in order to see what sticks. In my mind, to get really engaging instruction, you need a way of teaching that is holistically different than Freire’s Banking Method. Approaching teaching as an RPG, approaching that from the perspective of a GM, offered that way out.

GNS Theory was created by Ron Edwards, and it’s mostly fallen out of favor with Gamers. To quote one redditor, “It's mostly not discussed anymore, unless you're Ron Edwards.” But it gives us a place to start. Edwards describes GNS as an attempt to figure out why so many gamers are bitter or frustrated, and find out how to correct that. “Talk to someone who participates in role-playing, and focus on the precise and actual acts of role-playing themselves. Ask them, "Why do you role-play?" The most common answer is, "To have fun." … Now ask, "What makes fun?" GNS is an initialism for Edwards’ answers to that question. Gamism, competition between players and a description of gamers’ play styles. Narrativism, or the creation of a story with a recognizable theme, a story in which the players are protagonists. And Simulationism, related to the internal logic and consistency of the world the players are presented with.

Now, Edwards says that where RPGs fail is when Gamemasters attempt to incorporate all three methods of engagement, but I think that’s one of the limitations of GNS theory. GNS theory is helpful to gamemasters in understanding the different motivations that players have for playing a game. And while the GM may focus on one particular element, that’s not to say that players bring something else to the table.

I think the same is true in the classroom. If we’re going to turn the classroom into a gaming experience, then we have to realize that the students are going to come with different motivations, and that it’s not up to them to mitigate their motivations, it’s up to us to navigate them, to make sure that everyone is engaged as much as possible.

In my case, being mindful of motivations allowed maximum player engagement across the board. There were some students, of course, who, over the course of the semester, fell behind, this isn’t a panacea for the traditional problems college poses. But those that were in class playing the game showed improvement over the course of a single semester. What’s more, the way that the game was run helped give them instant feedback. After the game was underway, and students had created characters, I would spring situations on them, a bit like one would traditionally spring pop quizzes, and make them respond in character. For instance, in one case, each group, or Political party, was tasked with making a statement in light of a protest of a pipeline, a fictionalized version of the Dakota Access Pipeline. I gave the players a few details, and they were allowed to use special abilities to find out more if they could--pollsters were able to gather demographic information, or find out how people felt about the pipeline if they were able. Players were asked to write the statement, and then the politician delivered it. If the statement was written with the particular audience in mind, players received a bonus dice. If something went wrong--a player made a pro-corporate statement to an anti-corporate crowd, or anything which violated the values of the audience--then the situation could get more difficult for the player. After making their statement, each player--one representative of the group, typically the player role-playing the group’s political candidate--would make a roll. The more skilled the character, and the better their message, the more die the player rolled. A result above the difficulty rating of the situation meant a positive outcome, and the player’s political party was rewarded in “Polling Points,” which are what was ultimately used to determine which party won the Senatorial election running throughout the campaign. If the result were poor enough, though, the player could lose polling points for his or her party, making future encounters all the more important. The dice and the checks gave the players instant feedback, and, because each encounter was designed to tie into the day’s lesson, drove home the point of that lesson.

This particular situation tied into every aspect of GNS theory: the competition of Gamism was present in players’ vying for political advantage. A fully developed world, even the parts that students couldn’t see, for the events to take place--familiar and unfamiliar at the same time--offered something for those who play games for their narrativity. And because the students weren’t role-playing as themselves, they were free to experiment, to treat the character as an independent entity, whether that entity is a more developed version of themselves, or an identity they wanted to assume just for the game, thus fulfilling the Simulationist angle. As the Gamemaster, I did of course have one particular angle in mind when designing the encounter--and also the campaign as a whole--but I didn’t share that with students. I would rather leave the door open, so that they could experience the game on their own terms, and leave having been more engaged than if I’d told them, “This is how you should engage with this course.” At the end of the day, that engagement, whatever the motivation, is the goal, and the game was just one way of getting to it.