Pedagogy and RPG’s

Pedagogy – the monster that is going to teach you a lesson. If this is a word you have not heard before that is OK. It is a word that is bandied about by academic educators to make them feel that the skills that they are teaching are not common sense.  That may be a little harsh but in my experience so far with my Graduate Diploma of Teaching and Learning it is true.  With today’s post I want to investigate how I have found the use of Role Playing Games (RPGs) useful in my own learning and teaching and how that can be used to introduce it in a classroom.  I hope that both educators and gamers find this an interesting topic because, honestly and hopefully, we are all connected to education at some stage in our life and RPGs are damn fun!  First let us start with a definition of pedagogy.

the method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept.

Recently Monte Cook Games put out a little game called Numenera.  You may have heard about it!  Anyhow, they put a call out to educators and said that if you wanted a free copy of the game for your school to apply for it.  I saw the word free and was all in and it started me thinking about how I would use this game in my teaching.  Or in other words, it started me thinking about how it would change my pedagogy.  The thing is at that point in time I actually realised that I had been using RPGs all along in my teaching and not really realised it.

dice in pedagogy of teaching programming
Dice, dice, dice, dice – everyone loves dice

Let us take a trip back in time around twenty nine years ago to the year 1985.  It was about this time of year when the school year was coming to a close and my parents were talking to my Grade 6 teacher, the last year of primary school in Tasmania.  They spoke to the teacher about the weird games that I had started to play and how they had heard that the games were linked to the occult and though they were sure I was not an occultist should they be worried.  My teacher at the time (Mr. Swanston, a skinny man with a long bushy/curly goatee and glasses) told them this.

Mark used to be an average student.  He was getting along OK with his English and Maths skills until he started to play role-playing games.

Since that time Mark has improved off the charts in English, Maths and his ability to communicate in a classroom environment.  Role Playing Games are no more connected to the occult than participating in a Shakespearean play and I feel that if you decide to limit his access to these games that you are doing him a great disservice to his future.

What an awesome teacher.  He looked beyond the rhetoric of sensationalist journalism of the time and looked at the effect that it had on me.  My parents never really understood (for my dearly departed Mother) or to this day understand (for my Father) the role-playing “thing” but they never once attempted to take it away from me and I think that it had a marked effect on my literacy, numeracy and cognitive ability today.

So there you have the testimonial of the benefits of running games from a student perspective.  I do wonder that with the propensity of story gaming on the rise if the numeracy issue still holds true but that is a discussion for another day.  I don’t want to fast forward to today just yet either.  I want to go back a little further to Grade 4 (teacher’s name is lost to me) and the idea that even then we were using role playing to learn at that stage.  I remember a task where each of us were given a sheet of paper (or perhaps it was on the black board) and the teacher asked us if we were going to travel to a different planet, say Mars, what on the list of items would we take with us.  Apparently the test was one that they used on astronauts in NASA at the time to identify aptitude for ingenuity in the role.  I do remember that I picked nearly every item that was NOT considered to be useful but even now I remember that as a role playing exercise.  Equipping myself for a fantastical situation.

So let us travel back to now.  I teach computers and IT.  Half of my role is teaching programming.  In one subject it is a generic programming of Java at a high level (the kids get credited their first unit in programming at the local University if they pass this class) and in the other class it is symbolic programming to create games.  I do not teach how to play games so how are these RPGs useful to me.  Let me start with some of the basic principles of programming.  Programs should be flexible, reusable and scalable and solve a problem.  What this means is that they should do the job that they are needed to do, can be used in other programs that have a similar problem and can be modified to fit large scale programs or perhaps broader circumstances.  This is a foundation of Object Oriented Programming (OOP) where the student or program creates their code to emulate objects.

To create these objects (when I say objects, think programs) the student needs to know syntax (the style and words of the object required by the computer to make it function) and the concepts behind problem solving.  Problem solving here is the skill that is difficult to explain and teach to, but in reality this is what an RPG is all about.  An RPG is all about the GM giving the player(s) a situation that is an issue or a problem and the players overcoming that problem with a set of bounds (character statistics, skills, inventory, environment etc.) so using the RPG in this manner is a perfect way to highlight that problem solving is all about using an incremental process of varying smaller skills to come up with a solution.  I might use this in one of two ways, and I have done in the past.

Consider the first issue that many games rely on a random element.  I teach my kids that if they were to create a board game like snakes and ladders they would need to generate a random number between one and six to emulate (or create the object) of the die in the game.  I teach them the marvels of random numbers (and how they truly do not exist) and then get them to create a die.  Once they have done that and feel proud I then say;

What if we were using a game that needed a die with a different number of sides?

This gets many of them telling me there is no such thing and a few knowing looks from the class before I tip out the contents of my dice bag onto the table and ask them how does the code they have just created allow them to;

  1. model other dice of different sizes;
  2. model rolls that involve more than one die of the same type; and
  3. add modifiers to a roll.

I generally tell them that if they were playing an RPG where a troll is about to eat your companions you would need to have code that allows you to add your attack bonus onto your roll.  Through this method I am introducing the idea of problem solving, scalability, flexibility and reusability in a RPG context and a tangible context using inexpensive props that are generally easily understandable from the perspective of the student.

Yesterday from that class I received my end of year projects.  Amongst them was a game based on a random dungeon generator, an Applet that creates fifth edition D&D characters and two arcade style games coded in Java that have an RPG basis.  A couple of these projects were from students that possibly would have argued that there was no other die type other than a d6 at the start of the year.

So, RPG’s from a mechanical perspective give me the ability to teach a high level programming language in a fun and light-hearted manner that show the methodology of creating OOP principles.  But what of the class where I teach a more symbolic programming technique (it is a lower level class so I avoid syntax and the like) to create a game?  This class looks at the broader perspective of what a game is and the theory behind a game as well as trying to inspire the students to come up with a creative game in and of itself.  This was a new course that I was asked to run a couple of years ago and I have been developing and refining it over this time to a point that I can now use the whole RPG as a point for problem solving, inspiration and programming ability.

pedagogy and RPGs
The educators copy of Numenera I received from Monte Cook Games

I will start with Numenera.  I have never played a game of it unfortunately but that will not stop me from using it.  I liken this to my astronaut experience in Grade 4 as I have decided to start setting little mind teasers for the students at the start of the week and having a fifteen minute section at the end of the week where we go through the solutions the students come up with.  The students will be given a problem and the circumstances at the start of the week.  These problems will come from a variety of RPG’s but they will rely on Numenera a lot initially because it is so juicy in that I can describe something in terms that the students do not immediately recognise a familiar object and see how they utilise it.  This encourages them to develop their problem solving skills by thinking outside the box.  An important skill to learn in problem solving and programming.  For example;

It is a billion years in the future and many civilisations have risen and fallen in that time, including alien civilisations on Earth.  You are surrounded in a wasteland populated by strange technologies whose use has been lost to the mists of time.  You are an individual who is skilled in the use of strange weaponry and your physical presence and have been employed by a person who knows a lot more about these technologies than you.  You have just crossed a river where you encountered some difficulties and your favoured weapon, a blade, was lost in the current.  All you have left is a flat sheet of what appears to be a coppery material wound up tightly with a slight depression in the base which arcs electricity along the length when you place a thumb in the depression, a strange circular device that when placed around the arm seems to make you faster and a length of metallic styled rope around three metres in length.

Before you is a large silver device half buried in a bank.  Outside it a large hulking creature removes rocks piled around the device from one spot to a spot four metres away.  The creature has a floating head that seems attached only by arcs of electricity as it moves.  Your employer turns and tells you that he has to get to the device.  How will you make this happen?

This gives a two fold benefit to the student.  The first is that the student begins thinking about the environment and problem from the perspective of a problem solver.  The second benefit for me is that it may inspire the student into creating a game based on the same concept.  Not to mention that if I repeat this on a weekly basis I expose the students to a myriad of different styles of game environments, styles and idea that should continually challenge them.

Well, I think that is enough learning for the day!  I know some of it has hurt my head so I am not sure how you are all feeling.  I have a few more posts planned around the idea of RPG’s and education that I will do after this year of teaching is done which is not too far off for me as Australia runs their educational year from January to December.  If this has interested you, keep an eye out for them!  Keep rolling 🙂

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