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October 17, 2022

Humanities at Play – Experiential Learning through Role-Playing

This article is a translation of a text first published in Eductive’s French edition.

For our Contemporary ethical and political issues course, one of the Humanities courses offered at LaSalle College, we have adapted Shock, a role-playing game, for our students to play. It’s a great way to make learning fun and, most importantly, engaging!

We share with you the material we used for the game (manual, cards needed during a game). You can adapt it to your needs and try the experience yourself!

Pedagogical use of role-playing games

The literature (Carnes, 2018; Andersen et al., 2021) suggests several pedagogical benefits associated with the use of role-playing in the classroom. Among other things, this allows students to:

  • develop their sense of empathy and compassion
  • overcome their shyness
  • increase their motivation and involvement
  • develop their critical thinking skills

On our end, we also see this as a way to limit plagiarism during evaluations. There is really no plagiarism possible, since each team will build a different fiction.

The Shock game

Shock is a “social science fiction” game.

In teams of 3 or 4, players must decide on a “shock” that has occurred in the world. For example, they may decide that, overnight, some people discover that they have superpowers.

As a team, players create a list of ethical, social or political issues to be addressed during the game. Each player will be in charge of one of these issues during the game.

Each player plays a “protagonist“: a character affected by one of the targeted issues. Each protagonist is opposed to another character: an “antagonist.” The antagonist is played by the player in charge of the main issue affecting the protagonist.

Thus, the game is made up of 3 or 4 parallel stories that take place in the same world.

Each player plays 2 different characters (a protagonist for one issue and an antagonist for a different issue).

The player(s) who are neither protagonists nor antagonists during a given story play the role of the “audience“: they can add context to a story or play secondary characters if necessary. They also evaluate the strategies used by the characters. After the dice have been rolled, the audience’s verdict may tip the balance in favour of one or other of the characters.

The documentation needed to play

To play with our students, we have completely redesigned the original Shock rules, with the consent of the game’s creator, Joshua A.C. Newman.

We have posted all the necessary documentation to play on EDUQ.info:

  • the issue identification grid
  • character description sheets (protagonists and antagonists)
  • our simplified game manual (again with the author’s consent)

It’s all there for you to play with your students too!

We have produced a video tutorial for our students and have posted it on YouTube.

Tutorial to introduce our students to the way in which we play Shock in class. We explain the rules through a demonstration game.

How the games are played

Around the 6th week of the semester, we give the students a brief introduction to the Shock game. We ask them to watch the tutorial we have prepared and to read the rules of the game outside of class.

Then, around the 9th week of the semester, they start playing. We set aside 4 3-hour classes for the game. Since the students have taken ownership of the rules a few weeks earlier, 4 3-hour periods allow for the game to take place almost entirely during class periods. At the end of the semester, when the students have several projects to manage in their other classes, this makes life easier for them and allows them to enjoy the experience more.

The 1st of the 4 classes is used to form teams and familiarize students with the tools used. Students work in teams on a contract to mark out themes they are comfortable with and ensure they play in a safe and respectful environment.

In the following 3 classes, students are given sufficient time to:

  • create the universe of their game:
    • imagine a shock
    • identify the issues
    • create characters
  • play all the scenes
  • produce an analytical assignment on their game:
    • Dominic asks his students to write a paper
    • Richard asks his students to record a team video

Some students need a little time outside of class to complete their analysis, but the work involved is light.

A 1st remote experience during the pandemic

The 1st times we played Shock with students was at the beginning of the pandemic in a remote format.

To allow our students to play remotely, we used a Discord server (at no cost). We provided students with virtual dice. (Dominic found a robot that interprets the dice rolls. Richard simply directed his students to the Google dice).

At LaSalle College, we teach many international students. During the pandemic, many were very isolated. In general education (as in our courses), students did not know each other.

The role-playing games allowed to:

  • break the isolation
  • bring students out of anonymity
  • initiate social contacts

This facilitated class discussions afterwards and allowed for a better discussion of ethical issues during the rest of the course.

As a team, the students bonded. Some even formed study groups afterwards.

And in person…

With the return to in-person teaching, we have continued to play with the same success. We still use Discord and virtual dice.

Discord allows us to have a small idea of how the games are going and the virtual dice are very practical, if only because they are silent and never fall on the ground! Moreover, with the robot Dominic uses for the dice, he can see the dice rolls on Discord. So, when he notices that a team is online, but hasn’t rolled in a while, he can go to them to help them “troubleshoot” their game (their story), if needed.

3 ways to use Shock in our course

When Dominic has his students play Shock, he asks them to get into groups of 3 or 4 and play a game. Then, students answer analytical and introspective questions that focus on the fictional world they created and the characters that evolved in it. Students individually complete a written analysis. This is much like doing an analysis of an “ordinary” work of fiction (a novel or short story), except that the students have actually “lived” in the world in question and have had a very direct relationship with the characters.

When Richard has his students play, he proceeds in a similar way. However, rather than asking them to produce an individual written assignment, he asks them to make a video as a team. In this video, the students must:

  • explain the “shock” and the issues they have chosen for the game
  • take turns introducing their characters and explaining what each one did.
    • Students have to identify a choice that was obvious to their protagonist and a choice that was more difficult. They evaluate this difficult choice from the perspective of one of the famous thinkers studied in the course.
  • answer some questions like, “Is the world a better place after the shock? Is it more just or more unjust?”

Our colleague (also a Humanities teacher) Brad Koldyk also uses Shock with his students. He uses the parameters of Shock (stakes, protagonists, antagonists, etc.) to have students work as a team to generate a world and characters that will be part of a story. Individually, students write a story that takes place in the world imagined by their team. The goal is to have students apply worldviews and ethics in the development of their story.

In short, there are plenty of ways to use Shock in the classroom!

Ensure that the game is run in a way that suits everyone

Before the game, each team draws up a contract regarding the roles and responsibilities of the players and also regarding subjects to be avoided. For example, the team may decide that there will be no romance during the game or no violence against children or animals, etc.

We have had teams come to us, after they have created their world and characters, and say that the idea of having to play for real (embodying the characters, improvising, etc.) was very stressful to them. We offered them to write a story (much like what our colleague Brad Koldyk does with his students) rather than perform orally, which worked very well for them.

Students’ reactions

The feedback we receive from students about the game is overwhelmingly positive. The students obviously appreciate the fun aspect of the activity. During the game, they are 100% “on board” with the game and do not think about the analytical assignment they will have to do. This makes the analysis more interesting afterwards, because the decisions of the characters were “authentic” and the parallels that the students discover between the actions of the characters and the ideas of famous thinkers surprise them!

In general, students like the innovative aspect of the activity, the fact that it is not “just another assignment.” Of course, it is not uncommon for students to be a little anxious at the beginning of the session when they learn that the session project will be to play a role-playing game. It takes many students out of their comfort zone. However, they are quickly reassured when they understand that it is not their ability to play a character that will be evaluated, but rather the analysis they make of the decisions of the various characters. The most reluctant students at the beginning are often the most enthusiastic at the end of the session!

We’ve given several students the role-playing bug! One student asked Richard for “permission” to play Shock with his friends over a beer one night… We passed on some student feedback to the creator of the Shock game and he is thrilled!

Why Shock? Tips for choosing a role-playing game to use in the classroom

In Shock, there is no game master. All players are both game masters and players.

If you are looking for a role-playing game to play with your students, we recommend choosing one like Shock, without a game master, or one in which the role of the game master is very simple (no scenario to prepare). This makes it easier for students who are new to role-playing.

Also, choose a game that is fairly short, with a story that has a beginning, middle and end (not like Dungeons and Dragons games that can go on for 30 years!)

A game of Shock consists of a succession of scenes structured around different pairs of characters. Thus, no one risks monopolizing the conversation. The spotlight moves from character to character. The more talkative people can make suggestions to the others, but each must make their own decisions in the game. It’s perfect for our educational needs!

Other interesting role-playing games

Misspent Youth

Dominic has experimented with another game in the course: Misspent Youth.

In this game, too, the players create a fictional world together. One of the players is the “authority”: the person, thing or idea that has turned the future into a dystopia. The other players are teenagers who form a rebel group.

The structure of the game is clear and episodic. The characters are mostly described in a qualitative way.

Before playing Misspent Youth again with his students, Dominic is waiting for the new edition of the game to be released. Besides, he likes to alternate games from one session to the next for a little variety!

The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze

In another Humanities course, World Views, Dominic uses the game The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze.

In this game, players take on the role of a hero or heroine from the Bronze Age. The flow of the game leads to the creation of stories that are similar to biblical-style myths.

In his course, Dominic asks students to adapt the game to express another “world view.” In this way, they are doing more than just playing a game; they are designing a game! The students’ response is even better in this class than in the one where we play Shock!

We have posted tutorials on The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze (Bronze, for those who are familiar with it) on our YouTube channel.

Other contexts of game use for learning

Our colleague Sébastien Patry, who teaches Philosophy at our college, has also implemented Shock in the 3rd Philosophy course, Ethics and Politics.

In the coming weeks, we will be conducting workshops with Philosophy teachers at another college to introduce them to Shock and our process.

Role-playing games can be interesting in courses other than Humanities or Philosophy! They could very well fit, for example:

  • second language courses (especially immersion courses)
  • some Social Science or business courses
  • etc.

The key (and the difficulty) is to find games that are related to the subject you are teaching. We are fortunate enough to know a very large number of games. Feel free to contact us and tell us about your teaching need. We will do our best to recommend a game that meets your needs! There is no lack of games…

Plans for the future

We would love to expand the use of role-playing to other college courses. And not just our own! We are delighted with our work with Philosophy teachers. We hope that many of you will contact us to tell us about your teaching context and to discuss the integration of role-playing.

At our college, we conducted 2 workshops during a pedagogical day in the spring of 2022. In the morning, we presented our pedagogical approach, much like we did here in this story. Then, in the afternoon, we played Misspent Youth with 4 volunteers (the other workshop participants formed the audience). Everyone really “got on board.”

You have to experience a role-playing game (as a player or spectator) to understand how useful it can be in teaching! And, beyond that, playing a role-playing game with fellow teachers is also an excellent team-building activity. There are only positives to trying it!

So what are you waiting for? Check out the Shock material as we’ve adapted it for classroom play (in French and English), watch our tutorial and, most importantly, don’t hesitate to write to us if you’re interested in the pedagogical integration of a role-playing game!

About the authors

Dominic Claveau

Dominic Claveau graduated from Laval University in Philosophy in 2006. He has been teaching Philosophy and Humanities at LaSalle College since 2010. His main fields of interest are political philosophy, epistemology, as well as the convergence of the 2 within the philosophy of education. Passionate about role-playing games, he discovered this hobby almost 30 years ago. After having tried more than a hundred of them, he is now designing role-playing games for entertainment as well as in a teaching context.

Richard Fortier

Richard Fortier has been teaching at LaSalle College since 2010. He teaches Humanities in General Education and Social Psychology in Social Science.

He holds a degree in Organizational Behaviour from McGill University. He has also done independant study in History and Journalism. He has a graduate degree in College Teaching from Laval University.

He is interested in political philosophy, moral psychology, social influence and the media.

Richard Fortier has been passionate about role-playing games since his childhood.

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