Role Playing Games (RPGs) in the Classroom: Fleshspace vs. Digital

We are being increasingly encouraged to “gamify” the classroom. Educators such as Cathy N. Davidson (Now You See It(@cathyndavidson) and Jane McGonigal (Reality is Broken) have suggested that games can help engage students in deeper ways than traditional learning methods.

I’d like to discuss how we can best implement Role Playing Games, or RPGs, in higher education. RPGs are well suited to the classroom because of their structure, which encourages students to identify with their characters and game objectives. Some excellent pedagogical examples include Reacting to the Past at Barnard, a series of elaborate historical games where students roleplay real historical characters with the possibility of changing historical events through mastery of historical and cultural knowledge (for more information, see my blog post here), and the Practomime project, where Latin students have to thoroughly assimilate into the ancient Roman world to save the world.

The following questions may be helpful in guiding discussion: how we can use digital tools to enhance role playing learning efforts (course websites, wikis as “codexes”, social media for team building/knowledge sharing)? Further, how, and should, these role-playing become digital in form? Most successful classroom RPGs have been “fleshspace” based, where gameplayers meet in person. How can we use the digital to enhance the “fleshspace” experience, and to augment or transform it?

Just Playing Around

One of the great things about an unconference is that we can make them what we want them to be. It’s true that the theme of a THATCamp is an emphasis on the combination of The Humanities And Technology, something that is conflated–too often, perhaps, and on occasion incorrectly–with the digital humanities.

Over the last several years, I’ve had the opportunity to hear a lot of origin stories from those working in DH. And one of the things I’ve learned from these tales is that people often get their start down this path through screwing around in their spare time. It’s what Steve Ramsay has called the screwmeneutical imperative. For myself, I more or less stumbled down the rabbit hole when I read Franco Moretti’s Graphs Maps Trees while finishing my dissertation and decided that I should start making maps. It’s not what my dissertation needed at that moment, but it was a doorway into thinking differently about everything I’d done prior to that point. Fast-forward five years, and I’m a full-fledged digital humanities tactician.

DH, as well as other combinatorial excursions into the humanities and technology, in other words, come from just playing around. For this reason, Ethan Watrall and I would like to propose a session dedicated to play. Specifically, we’re thinking games – non-digital games (card, board, miniature, etc). We’re each going to bring one or two with us, but we’d like to invite you to bring one along.

A few ground rules:

  • Given the length of sessions, the games you bring need to be able to be taught and played in less than 60 minutes. Less than 30 minutes is perhaps ideal. So, this means no crazy 8-hour sessions of Twilight Imperium, 3rd edition.
  • We’re primarily interested in designer (ish) games (some info on what a designer board game is). This means no Monopoly, Risk, Clue, etc. We wouldn’t have time anyway.
  • If you bring a game, you’ll need to be prepared to teach it.
  • Bragging rights must be CC-licensed.

What do you think? What will you bring to play? To start things off, here is what we will bring:

Brian: Incan Gold, Carcassonne, Small World Underground (for after parties, only)
Ethan: at least Munchkin (the original card game)

Designing the Ultimate Tool[Kit] for Studying Videogames

Pac-ManScholarly disciplines usually have a consensually recognizable array of tools they use to study the primary materials of that discipline. Most often in the humanities it’s simply books and other documents, along with something to write with, although of course the digital humanities are bringing exciting new computational tools to bear on more traditional material.

In this session I want to sketch out a package of existing tools—and better yet, come up with an original, ultimate tool—that videogame studies scholars can use as they research individual games, specific platforms, entire genres, and various playing contexts. The field of film studies provides an instructive example of the kind of tool(kit) I’m describing. There’s the Cinemetrics database, Stephen Mamber’s use of thumbnail databases and timelines, the Film Study app, and a host of other ways to analyze, study, and make sense of cinema using digital tools.

In a similar fashion, let’s think of tools for studying videogames that go beyond screenshots and video capture. Imagine we’ve been awarded a grant of $50,000. What would we build? What would the ultimate digital tool for studying videogames look like? What would it do? What new modes of knowing might it enable? What new modes of knowing do we want to enable?

UPDATE: The collaborative notes for this session are online.

Pac-Man photograph courtesy of Flickr user joyrex / Creative Commons Licensed