Roleplaying games as a teaching tool

Dragon teacherHi, my name is Michael Wolf, author of Stargazer’s World.

Some time ago, Barb, a homeschooling mom from California contacted me. She had read about my background in physics and asked me if I ever had ever thought about combining D&D and science.

For some time she has paid DMs with backgrounds in different scientific fields to run D&D adventures for her son. These adventures were always designed in such a way that they were not only fun to play but also taught the players something about disciplines like biology or computer technology.

She asked me if I would be interested in running a game that would combine D&D with physics. I have to admit that I never thought about the possibility of using roleplaying games as a teaching tool, probably because I am no teacher and I don’t have any kids of my own either. But the idea intrigued me, so I asked her if I could ask her a few questions about her concept.

When I talked with Phil the Chatty DM about this, he immediately offered me to write this post as a guest post for his blog. And I believe that there’s probably no better place on the RPG blogosphere for talking about RPGs for kids than Chatty’s blog.

As a father of two he already introduced both his kids to roleplaying games and his reports about his sessions with Nico are enjoyed by RPG fans all over the world (including even by people without kids).

So without further ado, let’s have a look at what Barb had to say.

Stargazer: Please tell my readers a bit about yourself and what your interest in fantasy roleplaying is.

Barb: I’m a California mom who has homeschooled her son since he was 6. He’s now 13. (I had no intention of homeschooling—I loved school myself and was quite nostalgic for him to start—but teachers, including those in our own family, said homeschooling might be our only real option due to my son’s extreme precocity.) For example, he was reading at age 3, and had quiet an interest in science by age 5. So homeschooling allowed him to pursue his passions at his own pace.

I’m a writer, so of course reading was always a big deal in our house. My son read The Hobbit at age 5, and was reaching for The Lord of the Rings immediately after! I actually put LOTR on a high shelf at that point because I thought the themes were a bit dark for a 5 year old! I also wanted to wait until he was more emotionally mature, so we read it out loud as a family last year, then listened to all the audio versions (unabridged and dramatized) and just finished watching the films–the extended editions. We’re now on about our 30th hour of watching the amazing back stories behind the filming of LOTR and once that’s done we’ll probably watch the films again!

The funny thing is, I loved The Hobbit as a young teen, but like a lot of girls I know, I never got through the Lord of the Rings. I think I stopped part-way through The Two Towers–too many battles for me at that point. But reading it now, with my fantasy-loving son, makes it so much more special and I’ve gained a deep appreciation for Tolkien and his work. But prior to this, I was not a fantasy fan by any stretch–I didn’t even know what D&D or RPGs were until my son discovered them a few years ago. In fact, the first time I saw The Fellowship of the Ring on the screen, I’m embarrassed to say I nearly fell asleep! To me, it just seemed like too many hours of special effects. Funny how much my perspective has changed since then!

Stargazer: As a home-schooling mom you have hired several DMs before to run roleplaying games for your kids that not only were fun but contained certain elements that were supposed to teach them about topics like biology or computer programming, can you tell us a bit more about how you got that idea?

Barb: Through the years, I’ve definitely developed a “whatever works” philosophy in regard to homeschooling, and in our family we’ve found that giving our son the freedom to follow his interests seems to lead to the most positive results. There’s a lot to it (you can check out the work of John Holt if you’re interested) but basically it comes down to the belief that we are all born curious and hungry to learn, and being respectful of what a child wants to learn and how he wants to learn it can go a long way in helping a child’s overall education. I’ve found that letting my son follow his passions often leads to the deepest learning.

Stargazer: How did your kid react when you told him, that you wanted to use D&D as a teaching tool. Did he fear that would ruin the game or was he thrilled to learn while playing?

Barb: Never told him! :-)

Stargazer: Did your son play D&D before or was he introduced to the game by you?

Barb: He discovered it at a friend’s house. I’d barely heard of it! And like so many parents, I was initially concerned by the gruesome images, etc. and the oft-told stories of negative influences. But I could also tell my son was hooked, big time, and so I invested some time in research to find out what it was really all about. Once I talked to a number of adult D&D players, many of whom said it was D&D that got them through their teenage years, I felt good about throwing my support behind my son’s interest in it. From that point, I just did what I could to help him find D&D groups. That, of course, and providing the books!

Stargazer: Do you play or have you played any roleplaying games in the past? And if so, what is your favorite game?

Barb: Nope. I’ve never played RPGs and I’m very ho hum about games in general, though I enjoy Scrabble from time to time. I much prefer to ride my skateboard! :-) I did attempt to get into D&D when my son fell in love with it. My husband, too. Unfortunately it turned out to be more frustrating than not for our son, since no matter what we tried, we could not find an enthusiasm for it. But we loved that he loved it, and support it for that reason.

Stargazer: You currently use roleplaying games as a teaching tool for in an homeschooling enviroment? Do you think something like that could be used in public schools, too?

Barb: I have heard that there is a school in Denmark (or is it Sweden? sorry!) that uses RPG as a large part of its curriculum. We’ve also gotten to know Becky Thomas at The Roleplaying Workshop in Oakland, Calif. Becky was a teacher who used RPGs to boost science instruction. She ended up leaving teaching and set up her own business (www.roleplayingworkshop.com)

I also recruited a Stanford doctoral student who is studying educational gaming. Unfortunately, he lives 400 miles from us, but I helped set him up with other families I know in that area, and now they are doing a D&D group based on number theory. Very cool.

Stargazer: When we first talked, you told me that some DMs you contacted were opposed to the idea of using their hobby to teach science etc. to kids, why do you think they reacted that way? Did you expect something like that?

Barb: Well, I can understand any purist’s point of view. I mean, there were Tolkien enthusiasts who never wanted The Lord of the Rings to be turned into a movie. Apparently they couldn’t bear to have anyone visually interpret Tolkien’s work. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion!

So it didn’t surprise me all that much to have D&D fanatics react negatively to the idea of me want to (gasp) pay people to DM for my kid and his friends. They saw it as a corruption kind of thing. That’s fine. But the way I see it, I treat it like a tutoring job. I pay people to be professional, to show up on time, to take the situation seriously. Just as I would a music teacher or a sports coach or a math tutor. Plus, frankly there aren’t a lot of adults who want to volunteer 4-5 hours each week to work with kids. So, while our DMs don’t make a fortune, they walk away from each session with enough pocket money for a nice meal out for two.

Stargazer: Thanks for answering a few questions for us.

So Barb’s concept not only allows kids to learn something while playing their favorite roleplaying game, it also provides an income opportunity for GM with a background in science and/or teaching. When I first heard about this, I thought it was a great idea. But I have to admit I have no idea how I would for example pull of something like a D&D game that teaches physics (Chatty DM: Make puzzles and traps based on the laws of Mechanics and Optics for starters).

But I believe teaching history for example would work great in the roleplaying enviroment. You could easily set your game into ancient Greece or Rome for example. When you try to get all the historical details right you automatically teach your players about that time period without forcing something on them.

In a modern or SF game, scientific topics or computer science could play a major role of your adventure. Barb mentioned that in one Star Wars game someone ran for her son, the players had to use a simple programming language to give orders to some droids to perform certain tasks.

The possibilities are endless and as long as the teaching part is not distracting from the fun, this could be a perfect combination if you run games for kids.

So, what are your thoughts on that matter? Have you ever tried to combine teaching kids with roleplaying games? Would you consider running a game for Barb’s son or are you opposed to using your favorite hobby for anything else than having fun? As always I am very interested in your thoughts, so please let your voices be heard in the comments section.

By the way, Barb is still interested in getting in touch with DMs that are willing to run educational roleplaying games for her son. If you are interested, let me know, I will try to get you in touch.

Comments

  1. Mike Lemmer says:

    I think a Greek or Egyptian game would do wonders for teaching the sciences as well. You’re depositing the players in the time period where the principles they learn in grade school now were being used to construct the pyramids, the Great Lighthouse, the Colossus, and the Hanging Gardens. Traps would also be made with simple principles like that, and I could see Daedalus creating a thinker’s dungeon to hide his greatest inventions in (reasoning that whoever was smart enough to pass the dungeon would be smart enough to use them wisely).

    I think D&D would teach complex problem solving the best, though. Take this simple scenario: Your home kingdom is poor and declining. How do your heroes try to restore it to its former glory? Who do they make allies with? How do they use the treasure they obtain? If the king is doing a lackluster job, will they aid him or rebel against him? Will they declare war on a neighboring kingdom to capture a vital resource on the border? That could either be enlightening or traumatizing to a simple worldview.

  2. Gameplaywright Will blogs about and links to the site of a university Classics professor who appears to be using an extended roleplaying game as his teaching and assessment method for a college class here: http://gameplaywright.net/?p=854

    Obviously it’s at a different education stage, and designed for a large group which makes the context different, but the melding of game and education is the same, I think.

  3. Flying Dutchman says:

    While not very relevant for the california-based, D&D helps us continental Europeans get a much better grasp of the English language as well. Additionally, most RPGs feature a very logical set-up of rules and a balanced system. Simply learning this and analyzing it through play could enhance one’s capabilities in logical reasoning, or, at the very least, analyzing information.

    I believe that I have have learned a lot of ‘basic knowledge’ on different topics over the years from D&D as a GM and a player. Varying from topics of cartography, geology, sociology and theology (world-building) to psychology, dispute resolution, history, and debating in general (dealing with players and being a player). All this while having fun? Hell yeah.

    As such, I think this lady has a great idea. If it were me who had to, as a GM, teach several disciplines to children, I would have a hard time trying to integrate it all in a fun game depending on how many games I have to run to teach something. Because you are in the danger-zone of “awww, not this again!” when your paladin has to solve the puzzles of Pythagoras, cleric of the uncaring God of Math, and his evil equation goblins… But aside from that, sounds like a great concept.

  4. A whole new roleplaying niche industry! And people thought RPGs were dying, silly people :)
    .-= Viriatha´s last blog ..Just Say No? =-.

  5. Just want to chime in to say that this is an awesome idea!

    I’ve had a few years into the eLearning industry, trying to promote simulation as a teaching tool (a “professional” way to express the idea of “game”).

    Using D&D is an awesome idea for a number of topics.

    I hope you’ll keep us informed of your progress :)
    .-= Eric Maziade´s last blog ..On the road to Spellgu- postmortem =-.

  6. Thasmodious says:

    I homeschool my daughter and, at age 7, games are a huge part of our curriculum. Games serve as an incentive to think, reason, do math, apply your (limited( knowledge towards an understood goal, with the benefit of an instant return. We use board games, classic kids games, family games like Monopoly and Scrabble, dice and card games, RPGs, pretty much anything. We make up our own games, too (RPG dice are great for this). My daughter is creative and often likes to define her own parameters, so she gets behind making up games or setting the scene. She is interested in filmmaking, directing, writing, being the one in charge and putting things together. We are about to start a project very similar to what Barb did with her son. We are going to watch the LotR films, and then watch all the behind the scenes material as a way for her to explore her interest in film behind the camera.

    I’ve used D&D Minis game for basic math and logic skills and we’ve made some characters and talked about how to play RPGs. And we’ve played a few RPG video games together. Soon, we will start our first D&D game. I’ll let her tell me the basics of the story, then I’ll run it for her character. Hopefully, she takes to it well, and I’ll have her DMing by the time she’s 9. :)

  7. I’d be fascinated to hear how this turns out – looking at the gameplaywright site has got me thinking about how you could incorporate game elements into training and induction – and that’s not my normal cup of joe.

    And to be completely meta about it – would it be possible to create a game with educational elements on how to play a game?

    @Viriatha – It’s like someone shouting “Hey! Look at all these niches that we can expand roleplaying into?” Someone could make serious money here.

    @Flying Dutchman – LOL@Pythagoras The Uncaring. Like Boccob but using geometry almost exclusively. Too good a Greyhawk gag to pass up.
    .-= satyre´s last blog ..toolkit: conflict theory =-.

  8. Gary S Watkins says:

    I think it is a wonderful idea. If she wants an historical roleplaying game, I would suggest Time Master by 54 40 Orphyte games. It uses actual historic events for its adventure backdrops and is extremely well written. I’ve used D&D to spur my own children’s interest in mythology and classical histories (greek, egyptian, and norse). Likewise, science fiction RPGs can be wonderfully demonstrative of hard science principles such as astronomy, relativity and cosmology, and principles of physics and thermodynamics. The possibilities are endless. You can even use a generic roleplaying system like FUDGE or FATE to create your own RPG and explore anything from molecular biology (remember the movie “Fantastic Planet”) to engineering.

    I applaud this mother’s open mindedness toward the educational value of roleplaying games. I’m sure her son will learn a lot from the experience!

  9. This makes a lot of sense to me. Just thinking about how many times I’ve heard nature documentaries say lion cubs or wolf pups or whatever play with each other to learn skills vital to their adult lives. An RPG is just a structure we use to give a more solid form to games of “let’s pretend” so we can play them longer.

    I had a couple ideas that might be useful. Sorry if these are on other sites, I haven’t read up on this much yet. Wanted to write down what I was thinking before I lost it.

    Some games recommend asking players what they’ve learned after a gaming session. It’s a way to sum up what they got out of the adventure in most games. For a historical learning game you could tell the players what differences, if any, there were between what happened in the game and what happened in the real world. Then ask them later if they can repeat those differences. (as a side note, I often wish movies, books, and other forms of entertainment included notes to this effect)

    Math is kind of tricky. Most RPGs use basic algebra as a matter of course. Some rough ideas about probability help too. To teach anything other than this, perhaps a historical or semi-historical setting would work best. What if the PCs are apprentices to an architect who’s building something on a scale unknown before? Possibly one of the ancient wonders would work well for this. The challenges could be structured in such a way that the problems become slowly more specific. First, get the materials to the site. Start building, then realize it’s not fitting together well enough for the structure to be stable when completed. Start adding math and refining it. A magic spell or two could be used to avoid taking it all apart and starting again from scratch, but only if the math up to that point is correct for what you want them to learn. In essence it becomes a bunch of word problems chained together. I think the hardest part about this (for me at least) would be trying to nest problems inside each other so they go from simple and general to complex and specific. And one last note, be sure to have a couple late night raids from rivals to spice things up occasionally with combat and you’re good to go.

    Music might seem like a hard thing to integrate in a structured way at first. It’s easy enough to add background music to entertainment for children. Tom & Jerry and Bugs Bunny used to do this a lot in the older cartoons. But to get children to learn and recognize music might be a bit harder. I keep thinking to tie music into spellcasting and everyone at the table has to play a clip of whatever music you’re studying to get a spell off. Maybe just ask them to justify why the tune fits? The Pastoral Symphony might be good for a light spell or for causing plants to grow. A Night on Bald Mountain most certainly wouldn’t. I guess the real question here is whether to assign possible magic effects to the tunes or try to fit existing magical effects to them. It’d be easy enough to add a bonus or penalty based on whether they remember whatever details of the song you deem important (composer, name, etc). You’ll probably need your NPCs to follow the same rules if you want to keep the interest of your players though.

    Psychology might be easiest as a murder mystery style of game. Just make sure you throw a few red herrings out or you’ll be teaching them more about aberant psychology than anything else.

    Sociology… Maybe managing a group of people through rough terrain? Running a village for awhile?

    Literature is both too easy and too hard. You can imitate and migrate ideas easily enough. But that isn’t the same as reading the original. From what Barb said I don’t think this subject would be a problem. It might help some of these ideas if you were to place them in a well known and loved setting though. What if for the sociology game Frodo & friends don’t return to the Shire and the PCs end up having to solve the Wormtongue/Saruman problem?

    For many of these you might need an NPC who’s an expert and can give hints but just doesn’t know enough to quite do it themselves.

    This style of learning is great but it’s only useful if it’s engaging. If the players aren’t quite into it, don’t be afraid to bail on an idea and try something different.

  10. Like many, I think that learning through play is paramount to childhood and can probably help alleviate many of the shortcomings of modern schools.

    There is a niche that can be filled, but I don’t actually believe that there’s that much money in it. Unless you set up a private school and make educational RPGs part of what makes the school different, the common man puts a depressingly low value on education and the people working it that feel.

    Still, I know the model can work! Heck, we’ve all learned countless lessons from RPGs.

  11. I GM D&D for my own son and his friends (pretty much all the smarter kids in his class) once a month. I find that many educational aspects turn up naturally (http://tim.noyce.eu/2009/05/09/seven-1d61-reasons-to-play-dd-with-smart-children/) and I can certainly see that you could place physics puzzles into the game (leverage, sum of forces etc), logic puzzles with multiple propositions (I have one lined up for the next session) and indeed optics: (you have to press a green symbol in an area flooded with red light….) electromagnetism would be tricky in a medieval setting. Steampunk would be a good background for most of kinetics, gases etc.
    .-= Tim Noyce´s last blog ..GTD Unplugged =-.

  12. Thanks for all the great comments, people! By the way, would anyone interested to run a game for Barb’s son? If so, I can get you in touch.
    .-= Stargazer´s last blog ..Just Say Yes =-.

  13. I don’t think I could run a game right now but if any of the ideas I posted earlier look good feel free to use them (kind of a no-brainer after I’ve plastered them all over a popular internet site but it doesn’t hurt to be specific). I think the last D&D game I ran predated 2nd edition.

  14. @Lanir: Teaching kids could be done with all RPGs from 1974 D&D to Mouseguard. But your tips will be well cared for here. :)

  15. Patrick Crowley says:

    I am a grad student in Classical archaeology with a BA in Classical Languages, a degree which required that I learn Latin and Ancient Greek. As I reach graduation, I am looking to apply to private schools as a teacher of Latin, and I have been thinking very carefully about how one could integrate RP as a method of hooking students into a subject which has a fairly strong stigma attached to it as being useless, dry, and unapproachable.

    As somebody already noted using Ancient Greece or Rome as a campaign setting would not only be possible, but also extremely vivid and entertaining. The topographical, cultural, and historical material is there, as well as a population of historical and fictional (i.e. pulled out of Plautus or Terrance) characters.

    It seems to me that a RPG, when used in moderation, could be exactly the kind of hook which could encourage students to approach the rote memorization of forms with a more enjoyable goal in mind than merely being tested on them.

    A translation assignment that is assigned as the vital clue to progressing the story would mean more than merely an arbitrarily handed out block of text. And in the meantime, one would be directly instructing on the material culture, society and history of ancient Rome.

    I am still thinking about the real logistics of this, but assuming a school with two years of Latin, one could drop this kind of RP in once every other week or once a month to spice things up and have a continuous story.

    I really don’t know if such a pedagogy would find any sympathy in an official school setting, but I think that it would be a way to energize student and challenge their preformed notions of Latin Class as a boring rubbish class.

  16. Hi all,

    I’m Barb the Homeschool Mom. :-)

    Thanks for all the positive comments. I really appreciate all the input.

    A couple things I forgot to mention: although my son seems to be pretty interested in physics at the moment (at least the non-mathematical variety) I am also looking for folks who can creatively and subtly weave in a wide variety of other subjects as well. History of any period, foreign languages, the arts…

    The ideal situation is to find GMs who have a passion for a certain academic topic (be it Ancient Rome, nanotechnology, Swahili, or whatever) and have them weave in bits and pieces of that topic into the game however they’d like. Perhaps they’d have odd or funny NPCs who quote Shakespeare, or have the characters enter an inn that time warps them into a future of nanotechnology. Obviously it takes a good deal of creativity and thought!

    I want it to be a win-win situation. I believe the best teachers aren’t those who go to teaching school–they are those who have a passion for something and figure out how to share their enthusiasm with their students. Also, most of these kids are deep thinkers who can handle a lot of complex information, so I wouldn’t worry too much about going over their heads. But overall the keyword is FUN. If it gets to be too much like a school lesson, forget it. You’ll lose them in a heartbeat!

    Right now, we have a bright young man starting a new text-based game for us. He is big on literature and language and will be counting on the parents to guide him as to how far and deep he’d like us to go with those subjects. He and the players are scattered all over the U.S. and they’ll be using the Obsidian Portal site for game play. We also use Skype, email, MapTools, etc.

    I’m sure there are many folks wondering how much they might earn from this. My in-person DMs tend to average $20-$25/hour (we ask each player to chip in $5/hour). For online groups, we work it out depending on the individual situation (size of group, number of sessions per week, etc.) but overall I aim to work out a fair deal for both sides.

    Thanks again for all the great input!

  17. Beat me to it Tim Noyce – Steam Punk is a great setting for adding physics puzzles.

    Heck – make a lab class out of if, and and have them build the solution to a puzzle and see if it would work. (adult supervision of course)

    For history lessons, check out the Treasure Hunter series for ideas. It’s d20 modern, and I think the writer is a teacher too.

  18. David Close says:

    He mentioned a mother who started a business, but the listed URL is incorrect:
    http://www.roleplayingworkshop.com

    Perhaps it is this one:
    http://www.roleplay-workshop.com

  19. David, yes, you are right and that was my bad, not the columnist.

    Becky Thomas’ business is here:

    http://www.roleplay-workshop.com/

  20. As so inarguably demonstrated by Dr. Seuss and Jim Henson, people learn best when they’re having fun; and role-playing is basic learning behavior for young mammals; so mixing RPGs with education is sort of like mixing swimming with water. You can use RPGs as a platform for teaching pretty much anything, and it’s nearly impossible to play them without learning skills you can take back to the real world with you.

  21. This subject reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age. A Nanotech book that thought school through a constantly evolving Role Playing game.

    Hmmmm…. this starts dangerous thoughts in my mind.

    @Barb: I’ve a Master’s degree in Applied Microbiology, teaching experience and over 25 years of DMing behind me. If my new career path plans work out as I want it to, I could free up enough time to take you up on this Offer… I’d love to mix so many of my life’s passions in one experience.

    Plus I could teach French :)

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