Role-Playing (In A Nutshell)

Ok, the titles of these posts were getting a little long… this one could easily have been “Role Playing in Table Top RPGs, MMORPGs, and Education” or something like that, but the role playing is the important part. If you’ve been following along, you’ll know I’m discussing the topic in the context of using video games, particularly massively multiplayer online role-playing games, in education… and I expect this post would be easy to jump into as well.

This particular post has been heavily influenced by Mackay’s writing on tabletop RPGs, and by the wide variety of constructivists, educational technologists, and video game scholars I’ve already mentioned in my other recent posts.

I look forward to posting the more complete version of this section… including your feedback if you’d care to leave any in the comments. The final version will appear as one of the last sections in the lit review of my dissertation.

The educational benefits or role-playing in the classroom are well documented elsewhere and well accepted, at least in constructivist circles.

Similarly, tabletop role playing games (RPGs) have a well-established history and tradition going back more than thirty years. These games have heavily influenced the video games that followed – both single player and massively multiplayer RPGs. However, much of the experience of tabletop RPGs has yet to be captured by a computer-based game, and much of the benefit is not yet available. The questions of how computers can best support meaningful role-playing and how such computer-assisted games can be incorporated into formal education remain as yet unanswered.

Tabletop role-playing games are commonly described as being descended from the increasingly sophisticated war games of the 19th and 20th century. These games included many simulation elements, as do many tabletop RPGs that use dice to resolve uncertainties. In video games, including massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) computers have taken over this role as referee and number-cruncher. A modern tabletop RPG is much more than a wargame, though; it is a system that facilitates game-play with a narrative structure to it. Within this system, players (especially the gamemaster) create their own goals and stories. Though tabletop games have their own limitations, they have accomplished a balance of story and interactivity that has so far eluded computer-driven games.

At it’s best, the sort of role-playing that takes place during a tabletop RPG session can be considered an art form. The creation of everything from characters to plot (and sometimes game rules and systems) is participatory and shared among players. A role-playing session is a sort of theater or performance with a built-in audience (the other players, if no one else) and in which players participate at several different levels; as people in the room, as players in the game, as narrators of the story, and as the character they play. Tabletop RPGs encourage players to engage with their whole selves, including their affective, subjective, and emotional selves – and the games encourage new connections between players as human beings. Such an intensely immersive and emotional experience can be a powerful way for players (of both sexes) to remain in a state of flow for hours.

This sort of role-playing also includes many inherent pedagogical benefits. Players have to deal with their characters’ strengths and weaknesses, which requires active cooperation and teamwork with others. A group of players can work toward shared goals and over time develop a shared culture (and shared mythology) surrounding the game. Also, spontaneous problem solving and decision-making are critical to success in the game. More importantly, players can take on a new persona or identity in an RPG, and can come to identify very closely with their characters. Players can even literally create a new world or reality within the game (or significantly effect the game world – in the role of a hero, which tends to be possible for only a few students in a traditional school setting). Conversely, the experience of playing can be part of the process of educating the player and creating who the player becomes. This can be even more powerful if the game is used to tackle difficult subject mater. At its best, the role-playing experience can offer moments of catharsis and redemption, and allow players to discover and resonate with even emergent and unintended themes.

Tabletop RPGs have influenced (and been influenced by) other media, including books, films, and even video games. Elements of role-playing can be found in adventure games, text based MUDs (multi-user domains), single player RPGs and, of course, MMORGPs. Tabletop RPGs probably share more in common with MMORPGs than any other modern genre of video game. However, whereas the tabletop RPG experience is best with only three to five players, MMORPGs usually accommodate thousands of players at once. The three to five player barrier is primarily a limit of human gamemasters. A computer system can handle a thousand times as many players, but has other limits, such as an inability to respond intelligently to unique situations, including unique dialog between players and non-player characters. Such limits are among the primary reasons why so little actual role-playing occurs in MMORPGs. Perhaps a game that is multiplayer, but not massively so, and that allows a human gamemaster to intercede in the automated systems, would be a better choice for supporting role-playing and thus for educational purposes. This might also mitigate some of the unpredictable nature of the co-created (and emotionally charged) emergent realities in MMORPGs, an issue of potential concern for educators and educational institutions.

In any case, a computer-based role playing game also has the advantage of being highly visible and easily recorded and analyzed for assessment purposes.

Educational game designers need to consider the question of how computers can best support meaningful and emotionally immersive role-playing. The ideal educational game might be part movie, part tabletop RPG, and part video game. Automating the tabletop games’ systems of collaboratively creating a meaningful narrative will be one of the most important technical challenges to realizing this goal.