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IU instructors use role-playing games to engage students in the classroom

Feb 22, 2019

Young children are accustomed to playing games like bingo, charades and hangman at school to learn new concepts and information, but for college students, gaming may be more common as a stress reliever after class or a way to put off homework.

Some Indiana University Bloomington faculty members are trying to change that. Carl Weinberg, senior lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Political and Civic Engagement program, and some of his colleagues are incorporating role-playing games into their classrooms. Commonly known as RPGs, role-playing games are being used to teach students about history, rhetoric, politics and even evolutionary biology and physics.

Specifically, these faculty members are using games from Reacting to the Past, a concept created in the late 1990s by Mark C. Carnes, professor of history at Barnard College, and implemented by faculty at hundreds of colleges and universities in the U.S. and abroad.

Reacting to the Past games attempt to re-create scenarios like the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the Indian independence movement by assigning students roles and letting students run class sessions. The format requires that every student receive a detailed description of the character they’ll play, along with a game handbook filled with primary historical documents, classic texts and other historical information to provide context.

Every character is part of a faction, and both characters and factions have victory objectives for the game. Some objectives are known, and some are secret, forcing students to lobby, compromise and make quid pro quo deals. Instructors, who become gamemasters, have access to an instructor’s handbook provided by Reacting to the Past that lays out protocol for playing the game, the order of business and advice for adapting the game based on the number of students and amount of time.

While the process of administering a game in the classroom can be in intense, Weinberg said the impressive results make the effort worthwhile. Preliminary research suggests the teaching method has positive effects on comprehension and retention and fosters compassion, public speaking skills and the ability to work in teams. But Weinberg has also borne witness to the increased investment students have in the material when participating in a Reacting to the Past game.

For example, a senior in one of Weinberg’s courses had to miss class for a job interview. Even though he had completed all of his required assignments for the class, the student prepared a speech for his character and asked another student in his faction to read it in his absence.

“This student felt that his presence was essential to what would happen in the class and the learning process,” Weinberg said. “Wouldn’t it be great if for every class we teach, students felt that their presence or absence would make a material difference on class content and process?”

Still, Weinberg recognizes the leap of faith required of faculty to incorporate role-playing games into their courses. He said results can depend on the particular group of students playing and how well a faculty member manages the whole process.

Luckily, Reacting to the Past provides support for adapting games and will even help instructors develop their own games. Though the method is most commonly used in history classes, new games are being created for different disciplines. Microgames, which require less time and can be completed in one of two class sessions, are also available.

“Some people have the impression that we are letting students off the hook by letting them play in class,” Weinberg said. “In fact, the way the games are designed requires students to do more purposeful work and understand better why they are doing it. They are not just memorizing information but mastering something so they can deploy that information in a very active way.”

Faculty interested in learning more about using role-playing games in their classroom can attend a training workshop sponsored by the Political and Civic Engagement program’s Institute for Role-Immersive Teaching and Learning and IU’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. The training is from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 29 in State Room West at the Indiana Memorial Union. Any IU faculty or graduate student hoping to attend should register by March 18. Space is limited.

“Almost all of us were skeptical when we started using this pedagogy,” Weinberg said. “Then once we actually had the experience of playing the games, we started to understand the great potential they had.”


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Marah Yankey

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