Updated: Sep 30, 2022
I was chatting with my partner today about using role-playing games to teach and she asked me a very basic question: "What do you think makes them uniquely effective for teaching kids to write?" I had a lot of answers, of course: student agency, peer celebration, a sense of fun and play (for more on these, you can see this presentation I gave for an educational conference). But none of those were unique to role-playing. There is, however, one element of role-playing that is - something I've not seen in any other activity or approach to story-telling. Learning to shift between being an "avatar" and an author: what I like to call "porpoising."
Let me explain. In an RPG, there's a unique way players collaborate to tell a story. First, they assume the role of characters, speaking in their voices, describing their actions, taking risks and rolling dice in an attempt to influence events in the story.
Here's an example: in a game this past week, a group of "young god" characters are beginning their "Quintillion" - a sort of "coming-out" party for teenaged godlings in which they are "presented" to the pantheons who dwell in Celestial City. My players, ranging from 7 to 12 years old, found their teenaged god characters suddenly in the center of a floating ballroom, surrounded by tables, floating in space, at which the Elder Gods sat, clapping and murmuring in approval or disapproval as each new godling was introduced.
"Next, from the Forest of Knotwood, of the Wilderness pantheon, Thorns, god of sharp plant-life!"
I was narrating the actions of the surrounding gods and describing the scene; the players were narrating their characters' actions. Thorns, who came through a portal to find himself unceremoniously dumped into this high-stakes social situation, was under-dressed, greeted with murmurs and snickers from the other godlings who had arrived ready for the event.
The student playing Thorns hollered: "No way - I don't like this!" This is the first advantage of an RPG - the player was immersed in the story. He wasn't reacting as someone watching a film or an audience member; in his "avatar's" role, he was feeling the story. The student in question has issues with social situations, and this felt immediate and real, as if it were happening to him. For many students who are not readers, immersing in a story can be hard - the words get in the way, they're conscious of the separation between the character's experiences and their own, and they have no agency to affect the story; in effect, they're passive observers, so they don't identify. Being able to immerse yourself in a story, to have empathy for imaginary people in imaginary situations, is key to developing literacy and fluency, and RPGs can create those situations for kids who struggle. But this moment of discomfort, created by immersion, opened up the other unique approach possible in role-playing games: the shift from "avatar" to "author." I use a calibration or "safety-tool" approach with students, including the X Card, which allows anyone involved to remove an element from the game that makes them uncomfortable. Far from being something that promotes unwillingness or inability to deal with difficult topics, calibration tools give students agency and allow them to feel in control of what's happening in the story. They also provide a lovely way to open up conversations about narrative and authorship.
I've written in other blogs about how emotionally uncomfortable situations are usually FAR more challenging for students than violence, which is one reason they may X Card narratively dramatic or interesting scenes - when they're immersed in the story in the role of their characters, they feel powerfully the emotional valence - the positive or negative impact - of what happens to those characters. The X Card and other safety tools help everyone step away from "swimming" in the story as their "avatars" to "porpoise" - leap up and above the story to consider it not as participants, but authors. I held up my hands and checked in with my students. "Okay, let's pause for a second and take a breath! Thorns, it sounds like you might want to X Card this scene. We could make it so that everyone didn't react negatively, we could make it so that there wouldn't be a dance after the intro, or we could even rewind to before this scene and put you all in a different place to meet. Or, we could do something else entirely - let's chat about what might be fun in the story!" I was providing narrative options to the entire group - not singling out the student who struggled, but re-framing what was happening. Instead of being a character at the mercy of a situation outside his control, the student was now an author - part of a working group of writers - considering what might make the story fun. I often add a bit of meta-narrative coaching here, too, to help frame the decision: "I get that the situation is dramatic and awkward - who wants to be judged like that?! We can remove, rewind, or re-imagine this scene if it's too unpleasant - zero worries." "But if you'd like to see it played out, it might be worth thinking about how these character would deal - after all, how characters manage tough moments is always a huge part of what makes a story great! They might rebel against being judged, or figure out which of the other young gods are sympathetic and will help them feel more at home. They might make faces at all the other gods, or strut around all proud and shameless!" The kids then engaged in a thoughtful, respectful, engaged, and deep discussion of whether the scene would be interesting to play out, and what elements might make it easier or more fun for everyone to explore. They "porpoised" out of their avatars - out of the immersive, empathic experience of feeling like another person and experiencing their reality - and into the role of a collaborative team of authors discussing what makes a story work. In the end, Thorns' player decided he'd like to play the scene out - but that his character would be sabotaging this "frou-frou" affair with some judicious pranks. This sort of shift, to my knowledge, does not exist in any other approach to teaching writing.
In my high school ELA classes, I would often see students struggle with the problem of identification. Students assigned a book about someone unlike them complain "I just don't relate to this character" or "what does this have to do with my life?" In fact, it's almost built into most curriculum - teachers are encouraged to find books about people the students "can relate to," and about situations that activate their "prior knowledge." While I passionately believe that representation matters in all arenas of life, one of fiction's great powers is that it helps people feel genuine connection to those who are, in many ways, very different in identity, situation, or experience. In that connection lies the transformative genius of imagined reality: it can help us find common ground in our shared humanity. In an RPG, kids are encouraged to fully indulge in immersing themselves in another self - exploring an alternative identity that can be as strange and creative as a sentient cat, a creepy but kind roach-like researcher, or a person in command of reality-altering powers (and all the responsibilities that come with them!). This has amazing benefits, including letting kids explore their own identity and shape it at formative moments in their development. But RPGs - if designed with collaborative narrative in mind and with careful attention to calibration tools - offer not ONLY the immersion of "swimming" in the emotional "water" of the story and the characters' identity, but the ability to leap UP, out of the story, into the role of authors, to consider craft: characterization, setting, scene, theme. In effect, RPGs encourage both engagement in the passionate immersion IN narrative, and help train players in the delicate and complex art of creating it. This is why I've found RPGs to be an unmatched tool in helping students learn to write - not "personal narratives" (which, if I'm honest, feel like an awfully invasive and aggressive thing to request of anyone, much less a student - being honest about your own experiences requires a high degree of trust!), but the more nuanced and complex business of telling stories that explore someone else's experiences. This is a practice that involves empathy, skill, plot and theme, dialogue, description, collaboration, speaking, listening, improv, and a host of other, connected skills.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Want to sign a student up? Check for open classes, or reach out to find your own time!
If you'd like to check out some of the tools I use with students, take a look at my games.
If you'd like to hear a bit more about my approach, here's a video where I explain a bit more!