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Title: Role-playing games: The stigmas and benefits
Source: Research paper written by William J. Walton, December 1995, for a Technical Writing class.
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Role-Playing Games: The Stigmas and Benefits
William J. Walton
Table of Contents
Since 1979, role-playing games such as Dungeons &
Dragons have drawn criticism from those who feel that they promote witchcraft,
Satanism, and the occult, and encourage youths to perfom acts of suicide
and murder; more recently, collectible card games have been criticized
in a less severe manner. The fact is that RPGs and CCGs are simply games,
and they can be used to educate as well as entertain. In considering this
topic, two sources of primary data were consulted; a survey of long-time
players of RPGs and CCGs, and an interview with a grade school teacher
who uses both types of games in the classroom. Secondary sources that were
consulted included an observation of children playing D&D in an after-school
program, a psychological profile of gamers conducted in 1987, and many
others. Despite the attacks they have received, it is clear that RPGs and
CCGs are a harmless, and occasionally beneficial mode of entertainment
that has been misrepresented in the past.
In 1973, a new type of game was released, a game that would change the way many people would look at games as a whole. That game was called Dungeons & Dragons, released by Tactical Studies Rules, or TSR. Dungeons & Dragons, D&D for short, was the first of a genre that would be later referred to as the role-playing game.
In a role-playing game, the players do much more than move a plastic piece around on a board; in fact, there often isn't a piece to move, or a board to move on. Rather, the players act out the roles of characters in a sort of improvisational acting session. It is not unlike the simple games of make-believe that many have played as children; the biggest difference is that a set of rules have been added to settle disputes. Together, the players create a story 'on the fly,' acting as they feel the characters they play would act in the situations that occur during the course of the game.
One of these players acts as the 'game master,' also known as a 'dungeon master' when speaking of the aforementioned D&D. This person is the 'referee' of the game, and is usually in some degree in control of the course that the story is taken. The game master, or GM, has a general outline of the events of a particular story when it is played; this is often referred to as the 'scenario.' The scenario is never written in stone; the players of the game will interact with it in an attempt to make things turn out in their favor, which, for the most part, is the general goal of playing an RPG. The GM knows the secrets of the story before the players discover them, and reveals these secrets to them as they are discovered. He also does his own share of acting, playing the roles that the other player's characters encounter during the scenario.
In order to simulate the actions that the players wish their characters to perform, a series of rules are followed. As an example, when a character performs an action that would not automatically be a success, like walking a tightrope, then the character's skill level and a die roll are consulted. If a character's description states that he can walk a tighrope whenever he rolls a 12 or higher, and the player rolls a 15, then his character succeeds at the task. Many games use different techniques in determining successes and failures, but most of them work on the same general principle.
There are seldom 'winners' or 'losers' as we commonly know them; instead, the players receive enjoyment from a game well-played by both the players and game master. In many games, there are rewards for good role-playing, and these usually come in the form of ways in which the character can be improved, to ensure more success in future games.
Since the early seventies, RPGs have expanded in every possible direction, embracing new genres, levels of complexity, and even other languages. Those not satisfied with the Tolkien-style fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons can find hundreds of options; science fiction, historical, horror, superheroes, swashbucklers, and many more. Those looking for something more realistic can find several rules-laden games to accomidate them. If a less complex game is desired, there are many games that promote storytelling and discourage dice-rolling; some, in fact, use diceless systems that eliminate random number generation entirely.
Most RPGs are translated into many languages not long after their release in the United States; oddly enough, Portugese is usually the first of these languages. This is due mainly to the popularity of these games in Brazil, where, at one time, players learned English just so that they could play D&D (Jackson 53). Other languages that are popular choices for translation include French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish. Many games have been published in other languages and translated to English, as well.
Not long ago, an offspring of the RPG was born; the collectible card game. The concept of the CCG is simple; two or more players face off in a card game in the same way that traditional card players play poker or rummy. The difference, however, is in the cards. Rather than playing with a 52-card deck, CCG players can play with decks that can contain any of several hundred different cards, making no two decks exactly alike. These cards interact with the cards of the player and his opponent in a number of different ways, making for numerous possibilities.
This type of game was born in the fall of 1993, with the release of Magic: The Gathering, by Wizards of the Coast. To get involved in the game, players purchase a starter deck, which contains 60 cards and a rulebook. 'Booster packs' are available that add new cards to the game and increase the possibilities. These packs come with a theme of their own; Arabian Nights was one of the first Magic booster sets, and included cards depicting warriors, monsters, and landscapes straight out of the stories of Scherazade.
Like RPGs, there are now several forms of CCGs on the market. Players can fight vampires, build their own city, or travel the far reaches of space with the turn of a card. There are even card games that depict the Civil War and the stories of the Bible.
Over the course of the last fifteen years, these types of games have attracted a large amount of bad press and general paranoia. Role-playing games, D&D in particular, have been blamed as a possible cause in several murders and suicides, the first reported case of which occurred in 1979. They have also been accused of leading children to witchcraft, Satanism, and the occult, due to their use of magic and 'demonic' monsters.
For example, in "Painted Black," Carl Raschke's book on Satanism in America, he has this to say: "D&D is really an elementary-level home study kit for 'black magic'..." (Raschke 188). In "Dark Dungeons," a Christian pamphlet put out by Chick Publications, a young girl who plays a D&D-style RPG is described as having been through enough "intense occult training" to be able to cast "real" spells (Chick 5). Geraldo Rivera and Pat Robertson have contributed to this media assault, both speaking out on the reported dangers of playing D&D.
More recently, collectible card games have received similar, but not as severe, opposition. Schools that once allowed collectible card games as an afterschool activity have changed their outlook on the game. Many have removed it from their grounds; others, like the Beaver Meadow School in Concord, New Hampshire, allow it if the students' parents approve, and certain 'objectionable' cards are removed from the game (Cardwell 4).
It would be deceptive to claim that these games do not have a down side. Primarily, they are addictive; once a person gets his first taste of role-playing, he is usually hungry for more. They are also very time-consuming, and many a player has forgone his responsibilities to school or work in order to play some more. They can be very expensive, especially in the case of card games, which literally encourage the player to buy more and more cards in an attempt to create the most perfect deck. A select few of them deal with themes that may be too graphic or violent for many people, and some actually use occultic themes or demonology as a backdrop to the game.
It would be equally as deceptive, however, to claim that these elements could be responsible for murder, suicide, and the wholesale corruption of our youth, as the detractors claim. Any hobby has the potential to absorb more time and money than it really should, and there is no reason that RPGs should be any different. The concept of 'violence' is a fuzzy one; most everyone has a different idea of what is violent and what isn't. The issue over whether partaking in violent entertainment can beget violent behavior is one far outside of the scope of this text, but the facts are that RPGs that are graphically violent are uncommon, and the exceptions to this have either been carefully labeled as such, or are currently off of the market due to decreasing popularity.
In fact, when used in the proper manner, role-playing
and collectible card games can be beneficial to both education and the
building of character in an individual, as well as a whole lot of fun,
all at the same time. Role-playing games promote teamwork among the players
to accomplish goals and solve problems. Collectible card games promote
strategy, intuitive thinking, and develop the reasoning process as players
consider their options for each turn of the game. Both of them have the
potential to teach social interaction, as well as providing an easy, low-cost
virtual-reality-style simulation of any experience or time period that
the game master chooses.
The shadow over the role-playing game was first cast in 1979, with a 16-year-old boy named James Dallas Egbert III. Egbert was a talented and intelligent youth who had graduated from high school at age 13, and at 14, began his college education at Michigan State University (Stackpole 24). He was also very troubled; not only was he under pressure from his mother to maintain a perfect grade-point average, he was also heavily involved in drugs, and an untreated eplileptic (Cardwell 158). Egbert also had a deeper secret; he was a homosexual, and the severe homophobia of the time period could have added to his pressures (Cardwell 158).
In mid-August of that year, right before exams, Egbert decided to take his life. He hid in the steam tunnels beneath his dormitory, and took a drug overdose (Stackpole 25). This plan failed, and upon awaking some time later, he decided to run away to Lansing, to stay with a friend. Once his disappearance was noticed, Egbert's uncle hired a private detective named William Dear (Cardwell 158).
Dear pieced together a story that was considerably less than accurate; after finding a strange map in Egbert's room, Dear came to the conclusion that he had ventured into the steam tunnels to play his own version of Dungeons & Dragons (Stackpole 25). The local press picked up the story, and before long, it was nationwide.
Egbert turned up a month later, after having turned himself in. When Dear questioned him about his disappearance, Egbert stated that D&D had nothing to do with it (Stackpole 25). Eleven months later, and nearly a year after his disappearance, Egbert tried once more to take his life, shooting himself in the head with a .25 caliber pistol. He survived the shot, but died six days later in intensive care (Stackpole 25).
Egbert's story was to be the first in a series of game-related incidents that would contribute to the bad name of D&D and RPGs in general. In many versions of this story that are told to this day, the span of time between Egbert's disappearance and death are ignored, usually for the ease in connecting his death with D&D (Stackpole 25).
In 1982, a second incident occurred. Irving "Bink" Pulling II was another 16-year-old with an exceptionally high intelligence and a troubled life. Bink was part of the gifted and talented program at his school, where they often played D&D (Cardwell 160). He was also a fan of Adolf Hitler, and had what his mother described as 'lycathropic' tendencies; that is, he liked to run, barking, around the backyard (Stackpole 27).
On June 9th, 1982, Bink shot himself to death with his mother's handgun a few hours after he was involved in a D&D game. In this game, according to Patricia Pulling, his mother, Bink's character allegedly received a curse that forced him to kill others, and his suicide was his way of preventing this from taking place. When questioned, the other children present at the game denyed that any such event took place (Cardwell 160).
That wasn't enough for Pulling, however, who went on to form B.A.D.D., or Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons, an anti-game campaign. In 1985, B.A.D.D. confronted the Consumer Products Safety Commission, demanding that all RPGs contain a label, warning that they can possibly cause suicide. This was dismissed by the CPSC, who decided that the connection between the two was not close enough to require such labeling (Cardwell 160).
In the years to come, many incidents would follow, but not all of them would involve suicide. Several cases of murder were being linked to D&D, the most recent being the Caleb Fairley case in September of 1995, in which a young mother and her child were strangled to death by Fairley in a children's clothing store. When police searched his place of residence, they found a foot locker filled with pornography and two shelves of books for D&D and Vampire: The Masquerade, a popular RPG that lets players portray modern-day vampires (Metz A6).
Pulling's work with B.A.D.D. includes a list of interviewing
techniques for adolescents, intended to aid police officers in questioning
suspects who are suspected to be involved in Satanism. In this document,
she lists movies, videos, rock music, and RPGs as among the major influences
that can lead a youth to the worship of Satan (Stackpole 5). The irony
of this is that the police themselves use role-playing sessions in training.
In fact, role-playing is used widely in many different occupations as an
educational tool. In retail management, for example, managers are trained
in how to handle rude or problematic customers through role-play; in sales
training, salespeople learn in the same manner how to handle the various
questions a potential client may ask. Why, then, is role-playing considered
so dangerous in the hands of our children?
It is easy to become concerned over something that has received as much media attention as D&D has. It is just as easy to believe the stories as they are read, or viewed on television. Our own personal problem is that we often don't take the time to think for ourselves, and seldom wonder if there is another side to the story.
For every game-related incident that has occurred to date, with the exception of one, there is another side. In most cases, that other side is easy to see; Egbert and Bink Pulling were obviously both very troubled youths who had much deeper problems than the games they were playing. But in other cases, that second side is not as easy to discover.
A group called the Committee for the Advancement of Role-Playing Games, or CAR-PGa, has devoted itself to refuting the anti-game stories since it's inception in 1987. Systematically, they have researched the stories in B.A.D.D.s 'trophy list,' or listing of anti-game cases, and found the hidden details behind each.
In the case of Sean Hughes, for example, B.A.D.D. was quick to attribute the cause of Sean's death as a suicide, and linked it to D&D by editing and reprinting a newspaper article concerning the case to make it appear this way. When investigated carefully, it was discovered that the police had a murder suspect in mind, and that Sean hadn't even played D&D in years (Stackpole 33).
This is only one of many examples. The only case that has not been refuted is one that lists so few details that research is impossible. In fact, the only details that B.A.D.D. reveals are, "name withheld, age 14, suicide, 1979" (Stackpole 33). With details as vague as these, it is doubtful that there is any substance to the story whatsoever.
Vagueness seems to be a popular medium for those who attack RPGs. In "Entertaining Demons Unawares," a radio program that was also transcribed and distributed in pamphlet form, Emil Gaverluk, spokesperson for the Southwest Radio Church, states that "[D&D] leads to necromancy, divination, and other things (Glaverluk 26)." Just what precisely those "other things" are is left to our imagination, and most people will gladly cook up the worst possible thing that their imagination will allow. This style of vagueness also creeps into any alleged research that has been performed; in the same pamphlet, Robert Lindsted claims that "Right in the Master's Manual, it shows you a sample way for making a bargain with the Devil," (Glaverluk 25) with no page cited, or even a clarification as to what book was consulted, to allow one to check the reference.
Not all of the general opinion of RPGs can be attributed to second-hand information, however; many people, especially today, have had first-hand experience with RPGs and CCGs via friends or relatives who play, and have been able to form an opinion based on that experience. These opinions would probably display a little more variety.
For starters, gamers themselves are unique, to say the least, and have developed their own stereotypes as a result. Some compare them to "Trekkies" or "Computer Geeks," while others are happy with the simple moniker of "Gamers." They speak a language of their own, filled with words like "THACO" and "Hit Points." They sit around a table, rolling strange-shaped dice or shuffling decks of cards with unusual pictures on them. These elements can generate unease in those who don't fully understand what the hobby is about, and many may come to the conclusion that a high intellect or a level of just plain weirdness is required in order to participate.
Many others are daunted by the degree of violence in RPGs and CCGs. As mentioned earlier, violence is a 'fuzzy' subject, and one that can be debated for centuries. When Michael Jackson released his video for the song "Thriller," the members of his own faith criticized him for producing such a violent film, yet not a drop of blood was shed throughout the video, nor did a single character meet with their own demise. Obviously, their concept of violence is different than that of most people.
It is a fact that violence, as we commonly perceive it, exists in many degrees in games, as it does in movies, television, and in real life. Hardly a game of D&D transpires without a blade or bowstring being drawn. The whole concept of Magic: The Gathering consists of two or more wizards trying to do each other in by summoning elephants, lightning bolts, minotaurs, and several expansion sets of other hazards to do the job for them. Combat is the most basic form of competition.
The real question here is, just how bad is this type of violence for our youths? An interesting point concerning this issue was made by Jeff Freeman, when he considered Chuck Norris' Karate-based self-esteem program. Many parents allow their children to participate in this program, and ones that are similar, in which their children learn the art of self defense and discipline through the study of the martial arts. Jeff makes an interesting point, when comparing this kind of activity to playing D&D; are we to believe that hitting someone in real life is not nearly as bad as rolling dice to peform an attack in an RPG? (Freeman 2)
An option to the violence issue would be to remove it from the game. Nothing could be more simple; it would be difficult to do so with any other form of entertainment, in fact. Rather than participate in a combat-heavy game, it would be just as easy to run a game in which the players are political figures struggling for control over a country, or the entire world. In Toon, an RPG produced by Steve Jackson, the players act out the roles of cartoon characters, and the deadliest weapon in this genre is a cream pie. In Sim City, one of the more popular collectible card games, players build their own city, rather than attack each other. The alternatives are out there, and can be discovered with a small amount of research.
Another element that concerns onlookers is the occult. This can be considered another 'fuzzy' topic, as many people have varied conceptions of what is and what isn't occultic. These concerns stem mainly from the fact that many RPGs and CCGs (D&D and Magic, in particular) have magic spells in them, and many of the characters, including those controlled by the players, wield these spells.
These spells, however, have no basis in reality. There are no delineations as to how they are cast to the extent that someone could attempt to cast them in the real world. This misconception is often supplied by the anti-game lobby, who are famous for confusing player with character, and fantasy with reality. When a spell is listed in a D&D book, or described on a Magic card, it is represented in game terms; a series of numbers and/or symbols that determine how long it will take to use it, what it will affect, how it will affect it, and what is required to cast it. There is hardly anything of any use to someone who wishes to summon a real fireball from his fingertips.
It has long been the argument that such spellcasting activity, as is found in D&D, can instill an interest in the occult, witchcraft, or Satanism in the player. A survey of 100 gamers conducted in November of 1995 has shown this to be untrue. In the survey, the participants were asked which games they play, how long they have played them, their religious practice (if any), and if they have ever engaged in occultic activity or witchcraft.
Of the 100 gamers surveyed, eighty-five of the entries were male and 14 were female. The age ranges were as follows:
Age total entries and percentage
The religious practices of those surveyed is illustrated below:
The gaming-experience breakdown follows:
It should also be noted that of the four entries received from people who practice witchcraft or paganism, all of them replied that they saw no connection between their practice and the games they play. Eight replies (8% of the total) claimed to have practiced witchcraft in one form or another, and eleven (11% of the total) claimed to have practiced some form of the occult (six of these replies answered yes to both). Of these thirteen, three stated that they began playing RPGs first, but even those three did not feel that there was a connection.
One response was so unique that it bears being singled out. A reply from a practicing Catholic revealed that he had been a member of the First Church of Satan in the 1970's. He dropped this faith in favor of Catholicism, and somewhere around this time began playing RPGs. His comments went on to say that gaming had nothing to do with his decision, but it is certainly an interesting counterpoint to what many of the rumors about RPGs and Satanism dictate.
As with the violence issue, magic and spellcasting
are elements of RPGs that can be avoided. There are many RPGs and CCGs
on the market that do not deal with spellcasting at all; the largest category
of these would have to be science fiction games, in which higher science
replaces magic. Again, a little research is all that is required.
David Millians is a teacher at the Paideia School in Atlanta, Georgia. Every weekday, he meets his class of thirty 10- and 11-year-olds for a full day's worth of education. Currently, he is teaching them about the Civil War; they read, do art projects, watch videos, and conduct research. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, they become the citizens of a northern Georgia village during the Civil War.
David runs a live-action role-playing game, or LARP, entitled "Crossroads," in which his students play their own individual parts. In a LARP, the players interact with each other in a much more freestyle manner, and traditional RPG elements such as dice and rulebooks are rarely consulted. As a result, the game becomes more of an impromptu performance, and, in this case, an educational experience.
RPGs are no stranger to David's classroom; in the past, he has run other games in simulations, and some of his students are permitted to run their own games during breaks. Decks of Magic and Once Upon A Time, a card game in which the players create their own faerie tales, are readily available to his students to play during break times (Millians).
At it's most basic level, an RPG can be used to teach the process of cause-and-effect, as well as the benefits of acting as a group. In a case study written by Luis Zayas and Bradford Lewis, eight boys of ages 8 and 9 were introduced to D&D in an after-school program that took place in a grade school in New York City in the fall of 1985. Each of the boys were identified by school staff members as having displayed hyperactivity or problems with personal interaction. With the help of a worker, the boys created characters for the game, and began to play. During the course of these sessions, the children were exposed to the importance of acting as a group to achieve their goals, and to take advantage of each individual's strengths. In one example, two of the boys who were playing fighters faced a long, dark corridor. When asked what they would like to do, they decided to rush down the corridor. When the boy playing a thief asked if they would like him to check the corridor for traps first, they declined his help. After getting to the end of the hallway, a pit trap opened in the floor, and one of the fighters fell in. When asked about their decision, the boys stated that they had learned their lesson, and that it was important to keep the fighters safe in order to combat any monsters that they would encounter in the future. As a result, they not only learned the consequences of their actions, but were also considering the possibilities if those consequences had been more severe (Zayas 60).
Other teachers have used Magic exclusively to teach a variety of lessons. Jeff Brain, a teacher in the San Francisco school district, uses Magic cards as visual aids, as well as allowing his students to play with them. In a lesson in database management he has prepared, he allows his students to create computer databases of Magic cards that are based on their various elements; the colors, numbers, and symbols found on the cards. Then, he has them access their database to find all cards that contain a certain element. To teach statistics, Jeff gives each student seven mountain cards and one dragon card, then asks the question: What are the odds, if the cards are shuffled and one drawn, that the dragon will come up? He repeats this lesson, changing the selection of cards each time. Jeff also uses the visual elements of the cards to teach mythology: "When you break the colors of Magic down, you can look at how primitive peoples start using color to describe certain elements, such as red for fire and green for growing things and blue for water or air (Mohn 56)."
Susan Mohn, head of the Education and Training team at Wizards of the Coast, the company that brings us Magic: The Gathering, has begun a plan to bring the card game to the classroom to teach a number of skills. These include critical thinking, reasoning, computational, reading comprehension, communication, interactive, and resource management skills, as well as improving attention span (Mohn 3).
The advantages of role-playing and card games are not only tapped in the classroom; these games are, after all, designed to be played at home. Without a teacher or supervisor, a child can learn a variety of lessons just by opening an RPG book. Many games use the metric system for measurements, such as how far a character can run in a set amount of time, or how far they can throw an object. In order to fully understand these concepts, the player will have to be familiar with the metric system. In the same vein, text found in a book or on a card may contain words that are unfamiliar to the player; often, this will result in the player having to do a little bit of research.
The act of playing an RPG involves many brief lessons in mathematics and statistics; for example, if you need a 18 or better to hit that dragon with your sword, and you're rolling a twenty-sided die, should you try running away instead? What if your sword is magical, and adds 2 to the result of that die roll? Or your armor and shield give that dragon the same number to hit you as well? This same lesson is learned in a more concrete sense when a player creates a deck of Magic cards, or cards for any other game; if more cards are added to the deck, it increases the odds that those cards will not be drawn.
These educational benefits are, by no means, universal.
As David Millians said in an interview, "Simulations and storytellings
are not every learner's best avenue to understanding." (Millians) Many
are accustomed to or simply respond better to more traditional methods
of teaching; handing them the responsibility of portraying a character
would probably do more harm than good. An educator using these methods
must be fully aware of their student's needs.
Role-playing games have received a reputation that is highly inaccurate and unwarranted, and collectible card games are well on their way to achieving the same. These reputations are due to rash and unresearched conclusions, made by activists and the media in general and delivered with concern for our welfare as a whole.
As a result, many have been reluctant to let these games into their homes, fearful of the kind of influence that they may bring with them. Schools have removed games like D&D and Magic from their after-school activities, and stores have removed them from their shelves. A hobby that entertains millions has become the subject of scorn; this is something that would be considered unusual in most any other case, with most any other hobby.
Education and research are the two biggest cures for this problem. People have, for the last fifteen years, been led to believe that RPGs and suicide, murder, and/or occultic or Satanic activity go hand in hand; it is up to the devotees to dispel these rumors, and shed more light on the truth. It is the gamer's responsibility to defend the games they play.
Individual research is not difficult for the uninitiated parent or guardian. First and foremost, parents should become involved with their children when they display an interest in these games. The same parents who would cheer for their child at a baseball game wouldn't think twice about leaving them alone with a deck of Magic cards or a D&D manual. Monitoring them will help them steer their children away from any influences that they deem unfit, and choose something that they feel would be a better influence. The wide variety of games on the market accomidates this.
If at all possible, parents should learn how to play with their child, or at the very least, watch the games as they are played. Having your child teach you how to play a game can be a bonding experience for both of you, one that will only improve if you become interested in the game as well. Another avenue of research would be to talk with the owners of the stores that sell games, to get a better idea of the influences the children are receiving. Often, the owners and employees themselves are gamers, and are very familiar with the products that they sell.
As a future project, I have considered assembling a parent's and teacher's guide to games that would have several functions; it would help educate about the nature of RPGs and CCGs, refute the attacks and fallacies, and give a case-by-case analysis of the kinds of games that are available. Rather than rate them, a synopsis of the content would be listed, to give a good idea of the choices that can, and should, be made.
With the proper attitude towards refuting the attacks,
dispelling the rumors, and teaching those who wish to learn, RPGs and CCGs
will become a more accepted and beneficial element of our society.
Interview with David Millians, an Atlanta teacher who uses RPGs and CCGs in the classroom. This interview was conducted through e-mail.
William J.Walton: How are you currently using RPGs and CCGs to educate? Please list the games used and the age groups being taught.
David S. Millians: I teach 30 ten and eleven year olds in a self-contained classroom, that is, I am responsible for all of their subjects and keep them all throughout the day.
This year our big simulation is a LARP called "Crossroads." It simulates life in a north Georgia village during the Civil War, our primary topic of study this year.
I have packs of Once Upon A Time and Magic among the other games kids can pull down to play during free times and breaks.
In the past I have also run shorter simulations using Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Call of Cthulhu, Cybergeneration, Harnmaster, Shadowrun, Ars Magica, and others that I fail to recall at the moment.
Two of my students are currently running their own RPGs during class breaks: one is cyberpunky, and another is more magical.
Why are you grouping RPGs and CCGs? Wargames seem as similar to RPGs as are CCGs.
WJW: Because the focus of my paper is games that have a 'bad reputation,' and how they can be used in a positive manner (specifically, education). To my knowledge, there aren't any wargames that have received the amount of bad press that RPGs have, but if you know of some, by all means, fill me in!
DSM: Ah! I understand. I'm not aware of any major criticisms of wargames, though It's foundation period was probably before I was born. My sense is that in some families they may have been viewed as a waste of time, but I don't have a sense of their acquiring a "diabolical" reputation. Old time wargamers might know otherwise.
WJW: What gaming system are you using for your "Crossroads" LARP (if you are using one at all)?
DSM: I've swiped ideas and techniques from the LARPs I've played or read. The clearest plagiarism is from Chaosium's Nexus. As an ongoing field test I continue to tinker and invent heavily. My teaching partner, who is not a gamer, has lots of ideas.
WJW: How do you go about running a game in a classroom, with 30 students?
DSM: This is probably the most difficult aspect of running interactive games and simulations in classrooms. If kids don't feel that they can participate regularly, they lose interest. Who can blame them? The great thing about LARPs is that they are designed to be self-refereed except in the most tangled situations. That way, I'm able to step back and observe, at least until I get itchy to play more.
I have a teaching partner, so she helps run and observe the games. Some years, when I run more typical RPGs, she'll have drama activities and games with half the class opposite another group playing with me.
I've run RPGs with as many as 20-something. It's important to design the characters into groups so that more people are playing at once and playing a similar, focused direction. Playing in family groups, bands of knights, fellow workers, and so forth are all possible.
WJW: Do each of them play an individual character?
DSM: Yes. In some simulations, they've played the heads of households, which is more like playing a group. They closest I've ever come to having a group share a single character was in a simulation of international politics in which 3 kids were the UK, France, and Germany bound somewhat uncomfortably into the European Union.
WJW: I assume since you say you are swiping ideas from LARPs that all actions are resolved in real time; is this correct?
DSM: Yes, though in this year's game about 3 months passes between each turn. Thus, some events are resolved beyond the scope of a single game session, and game sessions inevitably are somewhat more action packed than is statistically realistic.
WJW: Does the entire lesson consist of roleplay, or do you lecture as well?
DSM: We have out of character development (better known as regular class) too. For the Civil War, they read, do art, write stories, watch the Ken Burns video, do research projects, interview family members, design family trees, and so forth.
WJW: Do you roleplay every day, or only on selected days?
DSM: Well, every day every one of us puts on the mask for that days encounters....
Seriously, we have the Civil War game - "Crossroads" - every Tuesday and Thursday morning first thing. They really want to do more. The inevitable consequence of playing games in classrooms is that the kids want more and more.
WJW: What obstacles and problems have you had in your experiences with teaching in this manner?
DSM: Simulations and storytellings are not every learner's best avenue to understanding. It's important that in my enthusiasm to use them that I maintain a range of approaches to a topic. These games can be very involved. Students' enthusiasm leads the games to expand to fill all available time. As well, they can be work to create, though as I continue to do them, they get easier and easier.
WJW: Are other teachers in your school using your methods, or methods similar to yours?
DSM: Sure. Teachers have been using simulations and storytelling since the dawn of humanity. I've come in with new materials, lots of enthusiasm, and some new understandings and links.
WJW: How have the parents of your students reacted to your method of teaching? Have any of them had religious/ethical problems with the games you are using? If so, how have you handled this?
DSM: They love it! Their kids learn so much and have such fun doing it.
The only challenges I have ever received on gaming was some years ago while working at the school day camp. For a couple of summers I would get a parent a summer expressing some worries. They had "heard things" about these games and wanted to talk with me to find out more. After an hour or two, they rarely had a better sense of the games, but they were comfortable with me and whatever I was doing that their kid liked so much. None of these concerns were ever overtly religious, though I expect the source or medium from which they heard rumors may have been religious in some cases.
It is my rule in general to be open to parents visiting my classroom at any time, and I make this explicit if they ever express any questions about the games.
WJW: What are your feelings towards the use of magic in RPGs? How do your students react when given the opportunity to use magic?
DSM: I'm comfortable with magic in games. I also tell stories in my class, and magic appears in many of these, traditional and otherwise. My students love it when they get a chance to explore magic in a game. They feel powerful and a sense of participating in something mysterious. They eat it up. None of them have ever left a game session trying to really cast spells or anything like that.
When I've told kids of these kinds of concerns about games, they look at me as if to say, "You adults are even dopier than we thought."
WJW: When you used Magic: The Gathering in the classroom, did you exclude any cards from the game? If so, which ones, and why?
DSM: I didn't exclude any. All the cards were from the original basic series.
Some of the teachers of younger kids have had some more concrete concerns about Magic cards. The trading can annoy them. Some parents have had misgivings about some cards (The Dark?): "Pay attention to what your kid is buying. Don't let an 8 year old go to an R-rated movie either. Duh."
WJW: What is your personal history with RPGs and CCGs? Did you play them before you became a teacher? How did they exist for you first, as a hobby, or a teaching tool?
DSM: I've been playing RPGs since I was 10. We used the original little white box of D&D, then kept exploring new games as they came along. I've continued to enjoy them purely recreationally and wouldn't use them in the classroom unless I enjoyed them in doing so.
As a gamemaster, I recognized early on that games
provided insights into the players and provided each of us with a chance
to explore. I led games at summer camps, then at schools just for fun,
gradually realizing their educational potential.
AD&D: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. AD&D differs from D&D in that the rules are more complex and encompassing.
CCG: Acronym for Collectible Card Game; one of several games that are played with decks that can have a wide variety of cards in them, unlike the traditional four-suit deck.
Cyberpunk: A science-fiction setting in the near future that has been popularized by the writings of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and others. Some examples of this genre include the films Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic, and Total Recall. There is also an RPG on the market entitled Cyberpunk that epitomizes this genre.
D&D: Dungeons & Dragons, the first and most popular role-playing game created.
DM: Dungeon Master. A term used to identify the referee of a game of Dungeons & Dragons, or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. DMs of games other than D&D are usually called GMs.
GM: Game Master. A term used to identify the referee of a role-playing game.
LARP: Acronym for Live-Action Role Playing; an RPG in which the players actually dress and act as their characters in an improvisational performace. This is in contrast to traditional RPGs, which are usually played around a table, in a more causal manner.
NPC: Non-player character. This is a character in an RPG that is controlled by the referee; these characters usually are friends, patrons, or rivals of the characters that are being played. The referee adopts the persona of these characters when they are encountered by the players.
PC: Player Character. This is a character in an RPG that is played by one of the players.
Referee: The member of a group of RPG players who is in 'charge' of the game. This person plays the roles of characters that the other players meet, determines the outcome of their actions, and reveals the plotline of the story being created as the game is played. Often, this person has written the scenario that is being played, but books and magazines are available that contain ready-made scenarios.
Real Time/Game Time: Real time is just that; time as it passes in the real world. This is in contrast to game time, which can pass at any speed the GM wishes, to keep the game moving along. This is usually only an issue when a character in an RPG is performing an action that will take a while, like programming a computer or manufacturing a suit of armor, or waiting for something to happen. Rather than wait around for two 'real hours,' a GM can advance the game time ahead two hours, when the action is finished or the event has taken place.
RPG: Acronym for Role-Playing Game; a game in which the players take on the persona of different characters, and interact with each other.
Scenario: A situation or series of situations
that a group of RPG players encounter. The scenario is essentially the
plotline of the story created by the players and referee.
Many games have been mentioned in this work whose titles would tell virtually nothing about their content. What follows is a brief primer on these games. This list only includes the games that have been mentioned here; there are literally hundreds of other games on the market that fall into many other categories.
Dungeons & Dragons/Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: A game of heroic fantasy in the tradition of Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Despite the name, there is much more to this game than subterranean passageways and winged lizards; adventures take place in many parts of any number of fantasy worlds, and there are even adventures in space! Produced by TSR.
Ars Magica: A game set in historical Europe with elements of fantasy and magic added. This game has had many owners, but it is currently being produced by Wizards of the Coast.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: An RPG based on the once-popular comic book of the same name. Players can take the roles of various 'mutated' animals that can walk, talk, and do just about anything else we humans can. Produced by Palladium.
Call of Cthulhu: (kuh-THOOL-hoo) A game based on the works of horror/science fiction author H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1935). Players take the roles of unfortunate souls who meet with horrible monsters from beyond time and space. What makes this game unique is the setting; most games are played in the 1920's-1930's, and the books for this game are full of background material for that era. Other books are available that move the action to Victorian England and the modern day. Produced by Chaosium.
Shadowrun: A very unusual cyberpunk setting (see glossary), in which magical creatures and abilities are mixed with high technology. Produced by FASA.
The Dark: A set of cards for Magic: The Gathering
that depicts 'darker' aspects of the fantasy world. Some of the illustrations
on these cards are more graphic that the usual Magic cards.
The following are names and addresses of people who work towards the common good of games. These people can be contacted for further information.
CAR-PGa - The Committee for the Advancement of Role-Playing Games was founded in 1987, and has been compiling information, both pro- and anti-game, since. For the cost of photocopying and postage, you can have documentation of anything in their library. Membership does not come with dues, but with contribution to the cause. The CAR-PGa newsletter is published monthly, for $8.50/year, and contains stories of game victories and losses, as well as anecdotes from players. Paul Cardwell, Jr. is the current chairperson. Write to: CAR-PGa, 1127 Cedar, Bonham, TX 75418, and include two stamps for a sample newsletter and information packet.
Ann Dupuis/Steffan O'Sullivan - Ann is the president of Grey Ghost Press, publishers of Grey Ghost Games and Adventures In Learning products. Game designer Steffan O'Sullivan is currently working for Grey Ghost on "SHERPA," a role-playing system designed for use by educators in the classroom. Ann can be reached at: Grey Ghost Press, P.O. Box 838, Randolph, MA 02368-0838, (617)961-2050, or through e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can contact Steffan at his e-mail address: email@example.com.
David Millians - On top of teaching a roomfull of ten and eleven year olds about the Civil War through live roleplaying, David also puts together Gaming & Education, a newsletter that outlines his activities, reviews gaming products, and provides a storehouse of ideas for anyone interested in teaching with games. Best of all, it is free. Issues are released in March, June, September, and December. Write to: David Millians c/o Paideia School, 1509 Ponce de Leon Avenue, Atlanta GA 30307, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susan Mohn - Susan works for Wizards of the Coast, the company that brings us Magic: The Gathering, where she heads the Education and Training team. The team works with educators to find educational uses for Magic, as well as other games. Sue can be reached for questions or comments at (206)226-6500, or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Dick Wulf - Dick distributes an RPG called DragonRaid, which features adventures with a Christian theme. Unfortunately, Dick has run into the kind of anti-game discrimination that RPGs have experienced for years, and as a result, sales of his game have suffered. To combat this, Dick has made the game available on the internet, free of charge, so that interested parties can try it before they buy it. To download the game, FTP to earth.usa.net/users/dragonraid/game, and download the dr.zip file. There is also an 'unofficial' home page on the World Wide Web that supports DragonRaid: www.alaska.net/~cass/draid/draid.html. You can order the game or ask for more information by writing to Adventures For Christ, P.O. Box 8240, Colorado Springs, CO 80933.
For those with internet access, further information can be obtained in the newsgroup rec.games.frp.advocacy. This group mainly contains debates over gaming styles, but there are several paths that have been created by gamers to inform people of the way that they play their games, and to dispel some rumors.
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