Why you should be using tabletop RPGs in your classroom (and beyond).
This blog post represents all that I had the opportunity to speak about at the Damage Camp 2017 gaming conference alongside my good friend and frequent collaborator in gaming, Rachel Kahn. I have not included her material in this post, but have instead greatly expanded upon what I discussed at the conference.
So for those who missed our talk, here’s a little but about me. My name is Daniel Kwan, and I’m an archaeologist, educator, and professional gamer. When I say that I’m an archaeologist, I mean that I’m actively working on archaeological research funded by the Canadian government and a major university. I’ve worked in Jordan, Greece, and most recently in China. It’s given me a unique perspective and set of skills that I’ve been able to successfully apply to my two biggest passions: gaming and education. I say professional gamer, because I make a living playing games. Now, this isn’t in the most conventional sense – not that professional gaming is a conventional career path. I make a living playing tabletop role playing games with teenagers and adults as a form of alternative education. This is where I identify as educator.
Since 2011, I have been teaching at the Royal Ontario Museum; Canada’s largest cultural and natural history museum. From clay classes with 6-7 year olds to multimedia journalism classes for teens between the ages of 11 and 14, I teach a variety of programs for a wide range of age groups. My primary claim to fame as an educator at the museum however, is my Dungeons & Dragons program. Though founded in the 90s, I have since transformed the class into more than just a gaming club inside the museum. Using a variety of tabletop role playing games, I use a combination of academic lectures, structured discussions, and game play to teach creative writing, social skills development, history, and science to participants between the ages of 10 and 14. Through my experience using tabletop role playing games in atypical classroom contexts such as the Royal Ontario Museum, I have come to appreciate how tabletop RPGs are fundamentally fun and effective creators of affinity spaces – places where informal learning takes place. There is a staggering variety of tabletop role playing games of different themes and mechanical complexity – many of which have been designed with children and families in mind. Combined with the growing accessibility of inexpensive or free games, they present educators with powerful educational opportunities for their students. As a means of experiential learning, role playing games can serve as a powerful collaborative educational tool for fostering the development of the skills required to more broadly navigate the world outside of the gaming table and interact with curriculum material. These include, but are not restricted to: mathematics, history, science, art, literacy, inter-personal communication, self-reflection, critical thinking, and resiliency.
D&D at the Royal Ontario Museum.
The Dungeons & Dragons program at the Royal Ontario Museum has been around much longer than I’ve been teaching it. I was actually a participant in the late 90s and first learned how to play Dungeons & Dragons there. In fact, it’s the reason why I even became an archaeologist in the first place. For the past 7 years, I have been using tabletop role playing to make the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto to create a creative nexus that effectively links tabletop gaming to the lived realities of cultural and natural history within the museum. I have the creative freedom to teach a diverse array of subjects to an equally diverse group of students. It goes without saying that a large part of the success of this program is my incredible teaching team made up of volunteers and paid staff; the majority of whom are former students of mine. But more about that later. Tabletop games played within the physical space of the museum are used by my teaching team and me to add new level of understanding to the materiality of the museum. By connecting game content and world building process with the lived realities of the Royal Ontario Museum’s collections, the museum is made even more interactive and accessible through the experiential opportunities created by role playing and collaborative story telling.
Each day of the program is carefully structured around four periods – a discussion-based lecture, gaming, informal discussion, and more gaming! Lesson plans and outlines are written by me prior to the start of each program, but the content changes on the fly if students come interested in specific topics or if I find myself inspired by a new exhibition or current event. I run 7 programs throughout the year – three 8-week Saturday morning, afternoon, or full day programs, a single March Break program, and two 2-week and one 1-week (9:00 AM to 4:30 PM) programs in the summer. While the program itself is called Dungeons & Dragons, my staff and I employ a wide variety of games to meet the needs and interests of my students. Our most commonly used tabletop RPGs are D20 system games such as Dungeons & Dragons (3rd, 3.5, and 5th edition) and Pathfinder. However, in the past year, I began to integrate Powered by the Apocalypse titles such as Dungeon World (which we use as a scaffolding tool into more complex games like D&D and Pathfinder), Masks: A New Generation, Night Witches, The Veil, The Warren, and Urban Shadows into my program to provide a number of new teaching opportunities related to history and social skills. Others, such as Lady Blackbird, and Wildlings: Into the Ruin, have been used for fun one shot games to break up the routine of our usual titles. I’m excited to integrate Starfinder, Coriolis, My Little Pony: Tails of Equestria, Tales from the Loop, Dread, and The Watch into my inventory of games for the 2017 -2018 school year!
Experience and play in the classroom can provide students with an alternative means of becoming an active voice in the trajectory of their education outside of traditional classrooms. While the popular tabletop gaming industry is trending away from “crunchy” mathematically driven games towards more narrative, story driven gameplay, I continue to offer games such as Pathfinder and Starfinder to my students. From the basic geometry and shape recognition involved when using polyhedral dice to integers and the four basic operations of arithmetic, the ease at which my program engages participants with mathematics is staggering. The heavy reliance on dice rolling and simple formulas to mediate the outcomes of narrative actions results in opportunities for math to be used in a way that feels real and beneficial to them. Players roll the dice, do the math, and own the outcome. From imposed penalties such as rapid shot in the games Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons 3rd/3.5 edition, to the simple addition and subtraction involved in calculating weapon damage or character skills, participants take direct ownership of their mathematical processing. The gaming table thus becomes a safe and informal place where students can develop their skills in mathematics – with or without the aid of an educator or peer.
History & Science.
Archaeology has given me a unique perspective on crafting engaging and educational gaming experiences. Actively travelling around the world and engaging with world cultures as another aspect of my career not only augments my ability to craft worlds and stories, but also a respectful, culturally relative worldview from which to present educational content and meet student questions and constructive criticism. In an unpublished dissertation written at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), a graduate institute of the University of Toronto, Alice Pitt (1995) noted that “learning about content is not the same thing as learning from it. In other words…learning is something more than a series of encounters with knowledge; learning entails, rather, the messier and less predictable process of becoming implicated in knowledge” (p.298). Everything in-game is generally informed by the collective experiences of humanity. From the fantastical creatures players encounter, to the weapons and equipment they use, all of this content is influenced by the world around us. While the mythos, creatures, and equipment of D&D and Pathfinder are clearly derived from world cultures, Night Witches by Jason Morningstar and The Warren by Marshall Miller are two incredible examples of how indie tabletop RPGs can be used to great effect to teach history and science – respectively. Night Witches is an easy to learn RPG where the players collectively tell a tale that honours women during the Second World War. Players create fictional members of the very real 588th Night Bomber Regiment – known to the Germans as Nachthexen or Night Witches – who flew outdated biplanes for their Motherland against the invading German forces. In The Warren, players assume the role of intelligent rabbits attempting to navigate the hazards of the natural world around them. As small creatures at the bottom of the food chain, The Warren presents an excellent example of how science can come to life on the gaming table. Through play and structured fiction, students develop a deep understanding of one aspect of the natural world. Games like these make for a stronger, more meaningful and engaging, connection to the subject material. They also provide an incentive to investigate the source material in order to better develop the in-game narrative!
At the heart of it all is the development of social skills through Collaboration and leadership.
The notion of “play” in the classroom is incredibly important to the development of academic and social skills. Helpful behaviours are commonplace in collaborative storytelling games. Every session at the gaming table involves structured problem solving. While gaming, participants are tasked with recognizing and defining problems, exploring options, considering strategies, put their plan into action, and reflect on the process and outcome. Due to the highly collaborative nature of role playing games, their use in a classroom setting creates a highly democratic learning environment. Not only can pro-social behaviour be encouraged in-game by fellow players and positive outcomes provided by the GM, but they are also developed out of game as they are further reinforced by the workplace culture that the participants regularly witness. Perhaps one of the most powerful educational tools that I possess, aside from the extensive museum collection, is my amazing team of volunteers and paid staff. The majority of my staff and volunteer team is comprised of former students – teens who have grown up attending my D&D program for a number of years, have taken the ROM’s Leadership summer program, and spent at least a year volunteering for the program before being hired in a paid position. The purposeful scaffolding of responsibility that has occurred in my program has resulted in a highly positive environment for the development of leadership skills. As a form of pseudo apprenticeship, the relationship between the GM and players is a natural venue for leadership skills development – particularly with regards to distress management, reflexivity, self-confidence, and creativity.
Growing up on the autism spectrum can be very tough, and those with autism work incredibly hard to act in neurotypical ways, even when the “unwritten rules of social behaviour” that are quite intuitive to us are foreign and unexplained to them. At the ROM, many participants with autism spectrum disorders develop highly focused interest in table top RPGs. Tabletop role playing games set within a structured environment that stresses inclusion and empathy are a good, low risk way of providing social opportunities, means of starting conversations, and learning how to read other people’s social cues. Even the visual support provided by character sheets/playbooks are good ways of helping participants understand and predict the consequences of actions! The emphasis on narrative has demonstrated that these games, when played within a familiar, safe environment, can help students identify abstract concepts such as emotions, build skills in communicating needs, support socializing, and promote self-esteem.
Now let's get to the conclusion.
Experience and play are at the heart of using tabletop games in educational contexts. The seemingly insignificant practice of gathering around a gaming table can have huge impacts on learning outcomes – where participants are provided with a safe and reflexive space to explore their identities, their strengths and weaknesses, and to take risks. It also highlights an incredibly valuable means in which the cultural and natural history contained within the museum can be utilized. Role-playing games within an institution that values the sharing of knowledge creates a barrier free, structured way that supports all youths, including those with exceptionalities. D&D empowers kids with and through learning, to explore their own sense of morality and provide an alternative way of discovering, contextualizing, and solving problems encountered in the lived realities outside of the museum.
In August 2016, building upon my experiences at the ROM working with students with autism spectrum disorders and other disabilities, Ico-founded Level Up Gaming - a Toronto-based organization that provides individuals on the autism spectrum and with other disabilities the opportunity to develop and explore their real-world social skills through goal-directed group gaming experiences. Alongside my colleagues Christian Blake and Kelsey McIver, we help our clients develop a variety of real-world skills, from fundamentals such as turn taking, to more complex skills such as initiating and maintaining social interactions. Learn more about Level Up Gaming at www.levelupgaming.ca.
I also host a neat little podcast called Curiosity in Focus. I'm a curious person, and I love to learn about everything the world has to offer. As a creative and educator, I find learning personally empowering, so I created Curiosity in Focus to share this passion in others and to use their stories as a lens into culture and science. I’ve talked about my experiences working in gaming and using it at the museum on a number of episodes - #32, #31, From the Archives #1 & #2, and #16! Curiosity in Focus is available on iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play Music! Learn more about the series at www.curiosityinfocus.com.
If you have any questions about my work, hit that contact button to send me an email or start a conversation with me on Twitter (@danielhkwan)!
Pitt, A. (1995) “Subjects in tension: engaged resistance in the feminist classroom’, Unpublished Dissertation, OISE/UofT, Toronto, ON.