Tablet-top Role Playing Games in Education?

I received an interesting email yesterday. Here is an abbreviated version:

Mark,The world of serious games – as in serious _video_ games – is fairly new to me. I know that there are a lot of people writing and talking about the use of video games in education. Since I come from a tabletop role-playing (i. e. Dungeons & Dragons and its myriad descendants) background, I was wondering whether you have any thoughts about using tabletop role-playing in an educational context? It would be very interesting to hear what, for me, would be a view from the outside about the pros and cons of this approach.

– Matthijs

This prompted me to write a brief response that I want to share here. It’s a topic I’ve touched on here before, and which I hope to return to in the future:

Matthijis,There are many ways in which I think tabletop role playing games might be better for educational purposes than MMORPGs. More actual role-playing tends to take place in a table-top game, and naturally table-top games are considerably more open ended and can thus be much more nuanced on an many levels – and much easier to differentiate for individual students’ needs.

However, the need for many (quality) gamemasters is a challenge that makes it difficult to give each student the attention they need. Also where a human gamemaster might excel in fllexibility, he or she loses in computation (in comparison to a computer). It makes it difficult to keep up the pace of a game. Also, and this might be the most difficult challenge, while the need to exercise the imagination might be a pedagogical bonus it does severely limit the accessibility of the game for many. It would loose the motivational and engagement factors often associated with video games. The bottom line is FAR fewer people enjoy playing table top role playing games than video games.

Thanks for getting me to think about this. It’s a topic I want to pursue more when I’ve finished my dissertation. I’m most interested, though, in how we can make modern multiplayer videogames (especially role-playing games of all sorts) more like table-top role playing games so that we might capture more of their benefits without taking on all of these drawbacks.


I’d love to read any comments in response to this – or other thoughts on the topic.

5 Responses to “Tablet-top Role Playing Games in Education?”

  1. Matthijs Holter Says:

    It’s very cool to read your view on the matter. As someone who lives and
    breathes tabletop role-playing, I’m always surprised to be reminded that not everybody does – tabletop role-playing is, after all, a fairly marginal
    hobby. The most popular TRPGs used to be those that were most “game-like” – like older versions of D&D; however, with Vampire: The Masquerade, a lot of people started playing just because it seemed cool to be a vampire. Still, games that don’t require too much personal input/stretching of imagination are probably the way to go for entry-level players, such as students and teachers. Simple, structured rules without much need for improvisation are a great introduction – and, for many, are really all that’s wanted or needed.

    The issue you bring up about human gamemasters and computation is interesting. Are you thinking about computations such as effects of combat strikes and similar? In many newer TRPGs, such as Lærelyst (the one my company is developing for educational purposes), the paradigm of “game rules simulate the laws of nature” isn’t used much. Rules are, instead, used to shape the story or affect player behavior. (For example, characters can
    score Reputation points for doing cool, brave, elegant or noble things; they
    score Experience points for their efforts at school).

    The two fields (video and tabletop role-playing) aren’t really about the same thing any more, I think. They’re completely different experiences. However, that doesn’t mean one can’t use ideas and techniques from the other. Lærelyst, for instance, uses the video game method of teaching rules: You learn only what you need to play right now – and the game scales up in complexity when players are ready for it. For instance, in the first four sessions there is no combat, so players won’t need the combat rules – they learn those in session five, when they’re needed.

    The main educational advantage of tabletop role-playing, I think, is the flexibility it affords to teachers who want to tailor the experience to their needs. Once the method is learned, it’s simple and cheap (free) to change a scenario, design a new one, create and integrate new educational tasks. (The second advantage, of course, is that it’s incredibly cheap compared to using computers – but that’s not anything that can be transferred easily to video role-playing).

    I started a related thread on the Educational Role-playing forum a few days ago, a first stab at comparing some forms of play for educational
    purposes – I talk about TRPGs, video games and live-action role-playing. You can see it here:

  2. Rune Says:

    I read your answer with interest. I am the developer of the educational table top game Lærelyst-Veien til motivasjon which transalates to something like: Joy og learning-the road to motivation (not the best transalation but you get the point).
    You mention the two greatest disadvantages to table top games in school. The pace of the game and the difficulties seeing averyone. However after using it over several years I see very clearly that computers and video games can not replace the environment created in a class playing a table top game. Social skills, empathy, akward situations of laughter and sorrow, interpersonal relations etc. Some things can not be transferred to the digital sphere. I am currently working in the field of learning theory and I am hearing all kinds og wonderful stories of cooperation in virtual worlds etc. I believe that you can only replace human interaction to a certain point.
    I would love to see an educational MMORPG of course, but I would never be without the wonderful experience of being togehther physically in a classroom playing a role playing game and feel the learning process manifest itself in the players (students).


  3. Andrew Pass Says:


    This is a really interesting topic. How much role playing does a computer game really provoke within players?

    You comment that requiring creativity might impede the accessibility of table top games for many. My own personal response to this might be that as teachers we have the responsibility to help students overcome these impediments. I wonder if it is easier to overcome these impediments in computer games or in table top games?


  4. Table Top Role Playing Games in Education « Gaming & Learning Says:

    […] March 26, 2008 There were some meaty comments in response to my first post on this topic , and the day after Clark was born Matthijs Holter sent me another thought provoking email, which I’ve finally responded to. […]

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