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October 2nd, 2007

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09:39 pm - Serious RPGs?
I'd like to talk about serious role-playing games a bit. There are several groups talking about serious games, notably the Serious Games Initiative which has regular panels at the Game Developers Conferences. As they describe themselves,
The Serious Games Initiative is focused on uses for games in exploring management and leadership challenges facing the public sector. Part of its overall charter is to help forge productive links between the electronic game industry and projects involving the use of games in education, training, health, and public policy.

However, that is all about non-RPG games. There isn't a real parallel within RPGs -- at least published tabletop RPGs. There have been a few projects using RPGs in education, like the Church of Sweden's games for youth groups or The Role-play Workshop in Oakland. But that's about the limit thus far.

Existing Role-playing Projects

My thoughts on this were originally kicked off by Matthijs Holter's project "We All Had Names" -- which is a RPG-like educational project about the Nazi holocaust in WWII. It has three historical interaction pieces where participants verbally portray characters and events. After each piece, participants discuss the characters and events, relating them to their own experiences, the greater historical picture, and current affairs.

There was a discussion some months ago about the game on theRPGsite -- Holocaust/Shoah RPG: "We All Had Names". In it, several people suggested that he contact with various Jewish groups and institutions focusing on Holocaust education -- which he followed. Matthijs also posted to Vincent Baker's "Knife Fight" forum, in a thread called "Am I doing a fucked up thing?" (need to sign in to view).

Interestingly, in the RPGsite thread, Koltar mentioned an improvised experiment in 1967 by a schoolteacher called The Third Wave, where he set up an immersive game with his students that incorporated emulated the Hitler Youth without specifically referencing it. The experiment grew out of his control in that the students flocked to it, and were later shocked when he eventually confronted the class with the basis for the experiment. It was adapted into a fictionalized book "The Wave" and a TV Movie, The Wave (1981). It certainly shows potential for role-playing to have powerful impact on people.

There are a number of Scandanavian larps that have been noted for their serious content. Mellan Himmel och hav was by all accounts quite powerful in questions gender and relationships, by immersively casting people into an alternate system of gender and marriage. System Danmarc was explicitly about class conflict, casting people as the rejected second-class citizens in a dystopic future Denmark.

There are also tabletop games in addition, though some are not serious in the same way. Steal Away Jordan is a game where the PCs are slaves in the 19th-century U.S., released at GenCon Indy this year. In Eric Finley's 2005 Game Chef entry, The Last Supper, you play Christ and the Apostles on the tense eve of the crucifixion. Their discussions form the basis of what will become the doctrine of Christianity. Also, kynn had his game, Bone White, Blood Red (1.3M PDF download), which is about the Pueblo revolt of 1680 against the encroaching Europeans. (He had a discussion thread on it, "Is Bone White, Blood Red racially offensive?".) Vincent Baker's pirate game game Poison'd recently came under fire for the extent to which it encourages rape as an in-game event. I have not played it, but there is a mechanical stat with potential benefits (as well as drawbacks) for committing sins from a list including rape, murder, blasphemy, sodomy, robbery, idolatry, and adultery. (This was discussed in an RPGnet thread, then later in theRPGsite thread 1 and theRPGsite thread 2. There are Actual Play threads on Poison'd on the Forge, here and here.)


To me, important questions that come to mind are:
  • Should games about serious subjects be designed to encourage serious reflection? How should they do so and to what extent?
  • Could more RPGs find a useful place in education, training, health, and public policy? How should we approach design of such games?

Encouraging Reflection

There are plenty of fictional works about serious events like war, mass killings, and rape, along with serious topics like religion and history. While there are many black comedies, the comedic value doesn't contradict imposing reflection. Works like M.A.S.H. or Dr. Strangelove are comedic, but still arguably make for serious reflection. However, for many people, there are works that cross a line. They are about serious subjects like war or rape, but make light of them. This is almost certainly in bad taste, and possibly irresponsible in what it encourages. I feel this way about some works.

For an novel author or film director, avoiding this can be subtle but definitely within their control. In a tabletop RPG or LARP, though, the game designer is not supplying the fiction but rather only a piece of it. The players can most certainly introduce content that crosses that line -- see Lydai Laurensen's "Rape in RPGs" essay, for example. Now, I don't think the designers of D&D have any responsibility in games where this occurs. However, if you design your game to deliberately focus on serious material, then I think there is a responsibility.

Obviously, this is not the sole responsibility of the designer. However, introducing the content as something to focus on is taking on some responsibility. It seems like a tricky line. I will be able to comment more, I think, after trying some of the games mentioned. (I am considering a game of Steal Away Jordan.)

Design Useful RPGs

One of the goals of the Serious Games Initiative is the use of games in education, training, health, and public policy. This is pretty much invisible to most players. However, it's not as crazy as it might sound. In 1988, a psychiatrist, a journalist, and a psychologist created Therapy: The Game. In 2005, TriKing Games released the collectible card game Anachronism that was promoted by the History Channel. People don't think of board games or card games as serious either, but there is the potential to release such games.

I have a collection of links on education topics: Educational Uses of Role-Playing Games. This includes an essay of my own, entitled "RPG Realism & Education".

We're all familiar that "role-playing" techniques are often used in psychology. There was a 1988 article by therapist John Hughes entitled "Therapy is Fantasy: Roleplaying, Healing and the Construction of Symbolic Order". He documented his work with "Malori", a 27-year-old college-educated Australian woman who role-played and particularly played a young Englishman called John "Jack" Hargreaves. His summary is: "I have explored in detail one case in which the conscious manipulation of personal symbols has led to a reorganisation of frames of meaning with a resulting personal empowerment and an eventual return to health. The case is unusual in that it has not dealt with an established healing system but one synthesised in extremis by an exceptional individual utilising symbolic frameworks available to her. As such it stands as one further example of the pervasive power of symbols in our daily lives."

I think that an RPG that deliberately encouraged such uses would have to be written by an experienced psychologist or psychiatrist. However, I think it is interesting to note documented power of not just role-playing techniques, but specifically tabletop role-playing games.

In general, I think design of RPGs for serious uses should involve at least consultation with experienced professionals. Still, it's not rocket science. I've played Anachronism, for example, and its historical information isn't intimidating. I wouldn't want to discourage educational material in RPGs by setting an unrealistically high bar.

(10 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:October 3rd, 2007 05:13 am (UTC)
There are two different kinds of education we're talking about here. There's educating in terms of knowledge, which is sometimes patronising but never in any way harmful, and then there's educating a person's character - in the "spirit" or "inner nature" sense, rather than the rpg sense.

Exercises which attempt to educate people's characters are controversial, as they often cause suffering, and can be cruelly manipulative, with consequences unplanned for and negative. Considering for example The Third Wave, to my knowledge no-one has thought to enquire after the subsequent fates of the students involved.
[User Picture]
Date:October 4th, 2007 10:59 pm (UTC)
Hm. The Third Wave seems hardly typical of character-building exercises. I had cited it as an extreme case rather than a typical one.

Among both kids and adults, what I would consider typical character-building exercises would be teamwork and trust building exercises -- falling and catching, pairing, and so forth. These are quite common and considered uncontroversial as far as I know. The other common example that springs to mind is Model U.N., which is generally considered to be educating in civics and awareness rather than facts about the world.
[User Picture]
Date:October 5th, 2007 12:45 am (UTC)
I was also thinking of the "blue eyes / brown eyes" experiment on elementary school kids - there is a Frontline episode about it online.
Date:October 3rd, 2007 03:24 pm (UTC)
Role-playing type exercises are also routinely used in professional training/development contexts, not just in therapy. As a lawyer and a rpg fan, I've often been struck by the degree to which a trial advocacy training exercise resembles a mechanics-light roleplaying game. The real question is whether there's anything deeper or more interesting to be said about those exercises. Are there ways in which they could benefit from more game-like elements? Could serious games be developed off of them for a non-professional audience, where they would still have some unique value? I'm not sure.

There are also some educational programs, including one that my wife has used to teach a college course, that are essentially LARPs as tools for teaching history. I'll try to get her to comment about that separately.

[User Picture]
Date:October 3rd, 2007 04:02 pm (UTC)
Reacting to the Past, www.barnard.edu/reacting, is essentially a set of 6-week historical LARPs set at certain crucial historical moments (the end of Athenian democracy, the French Revolution, the Trial of Anne Hutchinson.) I found it largely worked very well both in making students understand the larger historical and thematic issues and problems and in getting them deeply involved in the class. It's fairly rules-lite, but definitely RPG-based. It's taught now at about 40 different colleges and universities around the nation in a variety of contexts. The games are generally co-written between someone more experienced with game development and a historian expert in the subject matter.
Date:October 3rd, 2007 04:47 pm (UTC)
I saw a review of Steal Away Jordan on Grek Costikyan's Play This Thing! site.

Intriguing, but it sounds like an RPG I'd enjoy reading more than playing.
[User Picture]
Date:October 5th, 2007 12:46 am (UTC)
Maybe not enjoying it is part of the point!
[User Picture]
Date:October 3rd, 2007 04:55 pm (UTC)
I'm a firm believer in using serious content and issues for rpgs for two reasons. One, it's one way of experimenting with the medium, and also finding out how it differs from other similar forms of expression (such as "living history). Two, it has the potential to bring the elements it discusses to a level of immediateness unlike any other excluding personal experience of the real thing. When used right, the medium is very powerful.

I think "Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah" was one of the finest rpg books ever, precisely because of the way it dealt with serious content. My own most successful larp designs have all dealt with abuse of power, cult mentality, etc. in a very serious manner. Yet I think that whenever we speak of such games, it is important to keep in mind that without the non-serious rpgs, these probably would not stand out.

And whenever someone mentions educational rpgs, it's always good to keep in mind the Danish school that teaches grades 9 and 10 via roleplaying.
Date:October 4th, 2007 02:57 pm (UTC)

school in denmark

The statesupported school teaching 9th and 10th graders using a variety of roleplaying techniques in denmark is called Oesterskov and its webpage is http://www.osterskov.dk/
Also a subdivision of the university in Aarhus called Learning Lab is doing projects which could be called roleplaying or at least heavily inspired by roleplaying. http://www.dpu.dk/site.aspx?p=7931

Date:March 5th, 2009 06:23 pm (UTC)

RPGs are powerful

RPGs are powerful. I use them in my trainings, to aid participants to explore otherwise unexplored territory of emotional responses to value conflicts and reflect on the desire to choose the easy way out.

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