One of the most vivid memories I have of actual lessons in high school was a series of history classes about the society and economics of pre-industrial England. Not the most inspiring of topics, you might have thought, especially for someone that ended up graduating in life science. But what made it memorable wasn’t the subject matter but the manner of delivery. After a couple of desultory standard lectures, the teacher handed us all a sheet of paper detailing another person from another time and place that we were going to be over the next few weeks. Suddenly, history class got transformed into a role-playing game.
But, significantly, this wasn’t just an unstructured activity but something with narrative and eventual goal. We were all villagers, and someone in the village had just been murdered. It was our job to talk to one another, relate the intricate details of our lives, and try and discover who the murderer was. In the event most people managed to work out who the guilty party was but on the journey we discovered an immense amount about what people in that day and age did and thought and felt in their day-to-day lives and how the structure and economics of their society impacted on the choices available to them and the decisions they made. Looking back, putting this game together must have been an incredibly demanding task - each role had to be carefully tailored and described to ensure that it represented a particular circumstance of the social mix of the time, and that the pupil playing that role would be encouraged to unwittingly feed out educational details in the course of answering questions regarding the murder. But it was brilliant - not only did it manage to absorb an entire class for several sessions with virtually no in-lesson work by the teacher but we all learned a hell of a lot of history, much of which I can still recall now, over 20 years later.
Fast forward to the digital age, and twitter. I’m sure I’ve mentioned in the past that one of the things I love about twitter is the ease with which you can fleetingly connect, in real time, with people and groups whom you might otherwise never have heard of. Amongst the people I choose to follow, some are professionals in “serious” games: games for learning, in other words. One of them, @campbellhowes asked for suggestions regarding UK-based companies in the area and as I watched the responses coming in, I was surprised by an apparent assumption that these sorts of games were going to be digital. I queried this, and @helenroutledge joined in the conversation to say that digital wasn’t the only format, but the dominant one and that it helped to immerse participants in the game and to push boundaries. Both of which are obviously true, but I didn’t, and still don’t, see what makes a digital game necessarily more immersive and more creative than a non-digital one.
Why do I care? Obviously I enjoy non-digital games but I like video games too. The reason I care is because it seems to me that a non-digital format has a much wider potential application than a computer one. It goes back to that game I played in history class at school. At the moment, and for the foreseeable future, having a class full of pupils all participating in a digital learning experience at the same time isn’t something that’s going to happen simply because schools don’t currently have the resources to set that kind of thing up on a regular basis. Digital learning games impose time and cost constraints on the experience that a role-playing or paper-based exercise does not. That makes them good for business training courses, but far less suitable for schools. And that’s a great shame because if there’s any sector where games are almost guaranteed to work well as a learning aid, it’s amongst high-school and college age students, many of whom will be regularly playing games for fun and for whom the medium is familiar and intrinsically exciting.
For example, look at the games of Brenda Braithwaite, which we’ve discussed on this site before. Her child comes home from school, having been learning about the horrors of slavery, and recites what she’s learned in a deadpan style appropriate to an examination but wholly inappropriate to the subject matter. So Brenda makes a game that involves splitting families and drowning people to make it all come home and it works: both parent and child end up in tears. Not the usual outcome you’d want from a game, of course, but in serious games, serious subjects demand serious treatment. Brenda followed that up with the now infamous Train about the Holocaust, which is more a piece of performance art than it is a game, but the point stands: games bring the player in to the scenario, make them feel a part of the subject they’re trying to learn and are capable of bringing home not only the factual but the emotional impact of the lesson as well, something that eludes all but the most skilled teachers and which is guaranteed to help embed the information being learned.
Of course card and paper based games come with their own constraints. One of the most impressive, if unwitting game learning experiences I’ve ever had was playing Here I Stand. The first time I’d ever played a card-driven wargame, where historical events are inserted directly into the unfolding game through cards in each players’ hand, I was struck by the potential of the mechanic to teach the players some history but it took Here I Stand to see the full flowering of that concept, a game in which you don’t just learn history from the cards but from the complex interactions of the players in both negotiation and moves on the board. But there’s no way Here I Stand or indeed anything similar could be used as an educational game outside anything other than a small, very specialised university-level course: it’s way too complex, too long and caps at a maximum of six players. The majority of historical games are going to suffer from similar problems: there’s no way you could simply pick one up and introduce it into a classroom.
When I asked on twitter myself about people’s experience of non-digital games in the classroom, everyone that responded described an experience not hugely dissimilar to the one I introduced this article with, albeit rather less intricate. Role-playing and negotiation were the order of the day. And it’s not hard to see how this would be a good approach to designing a game for the humanities or social sciences. But games of this nature tend to lack a clear goal, and that’s important. Without a goal - often introduced into a game through a measure of competition - the players are just going through some loosely structured activities and the game is less immersive, and thus I would assume, less likely to embed the learning in its participants (research in learning from games is thin on the ground, so it’s hard for me to back this assertion up with evidence, but it seems like common sense). It’s also worth noting that a role-playing approach isn’t much help with more technical courses either, where the learning outcomes are more fixed, more testable and less approachable by the use of open-ended play.
So what’s the solution? Is it possible for paper-based learning games to work in a large classroom? I think it is, and I think the answer is two faceted. Firstly you need to combine the more aesthetic aspects of play discussed above with something more concrete - a simple board or card style games with very simple, approachable rules. This is hardly revelatory in design terms: that description could be applied to Diplomacy. And indeed it’s been used before in a poorly-known Avalon Hill game from 1971 that simulates the negotiating positions of the European powers and the US in the lead up to the first and second world war: The Origins of World War II. Whilst this was originally meant has a game for historical gamers, it’s possible application as a teaching aid was quickly realised, tested for validity and guidelines for use in the classroom were published in AH’s in-house magazine. The game also spawned similar teaching variants covering the build up to World War 2 in the Pacific and also the First World War. But I find it surprising that the concept doesn’t seemed to have gained wider purchase. The second facet is perhaps obvious: that the easiest way to get a game with a limited number of “players” to work in a classroom is to have each position represented by a team. And if negotiation and role-play are very much a part of the set-up, team play should by extension be easy to incorporate. If we were being ambitious it could even become part of the learning exercises: in the examples given above about the origins of the world wars, why not have players on each team arguing from particular standpoints akin to the political positions of the time?
I have no doubt that games could play a very important role in the classroom. In addition to the anecdotal experiences of myself and others, some digital companies have researched exactly how effective their products are with impressive results. And yet when, in the past, I’ve canvassed teachers via educational forums on whether they think it’s a useful approach or not, the response has varied from negative to cautious. I don’t doubt that this is partly down to the same prejudice that game hobbyists frequently encounter, the perception that games are something frivolous for little children and that have no place in the hands of grown-ups or in sober instructional establishments such as schools. I imagine this prejudice is something that people in the digital wing of serious gaming struggle with a lot, but they’ve got not only evidence but the increasing mainstream acceptance of video gaming as a “proper” pass-time on their side. Those of us extolling the virtues of an old-fashioned but more inclusive and broad-based approach need to make sure that we don't get left behind.