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Persona grata: Role-playing games in language and civilization instruction

Sarah Landis, Maxwell Teitel Paule, and T. H. M. Gellar-Goad

You and a handful of classmates represent Gens Cornelia: throughout your Latin Literature course you will compete against other gentes for the auctoritas that will allow you steer the course of the Roman Republic. Maybe you are hero modeled on Greek mythology: you and your team will travel the Mediterranean, hunt for clues, solve puzzles, and vanquish monsters. Or perhaps you are time travelers, sent back to great cities at critical moments: you and your Ancient Cities classmates must learn from past eras how to reconstruct civilization in a dystopian future.  In each of these scenarios, a Classics course or a unit of such a course is run as a role-playing game, with students’ academic activities not only informed by but also influential upon a story told collaboratively by instructor and class.

Teaching through role-playing games is a challenging and rewarding method of gamification that can be customized to fit the needs, abilities, and available class (and preparation) time of students and instructors.  It can be as simple as having students identify themselves by Latin names and “earn points” instead of “receive grades,” or it can be as elaborate as a semester-long ancient-world narrative driven by student-generated heroes whose success or failure rests on mastery of course content.  This presentation surveys the components of a roleplaying-game or RPG course (the essential as well as the negotiable), shares insights and reflections from the authors’ experiences, offers tips and cautions for incorporating a role-playing game into a course, and includes a brief simulation activity demonstrating one possible implementation.

The defining feature of an RPG (or role-playing game) is the role. Whether it’s called a persona, an avatar, or a PC (player character), this is the element that invites players — in our case, students — to immerse themselves in the world of the game or course. Crafting and acting out a role offers opportunities for self-expression beyond those available in more traditional courses. At the same time, the alter ego of the role gives the student the psychological distance to take risks she might find unacceptable in propria persona. Ideally, the game is structured to allow students choice, based not only on their own preferences and learning profiles but also on their role, its interactions with other students’ roles, and the ongoing game narrative.  Having a role or character that interacts with others helps build a sense of the classroom community, as students shape not only their own characters’ stories but also the story as a whole: the game becomes an instrumental shared experience for the class.

This narrative is the second key feature of the RPG. Students’ choices and achievements shape this narrative throughout the course. Their impact not only enhances students’ sense of efficacy within the class, but also creates a shared experience. The narrative also serves as the unifying framework into which every element of the course can be integrated. The significance of class participation or homework is never in question. Students’ goals — as individual players, as teams, and as a class — make their efforts about more than just the material, the course, or their grade. They’re trying to rescue the survivors of Mt. Vesuvius. Or build a colony on Mars. Or restore history to its rightful course.

Many types of gamification alter the way students perceive grading, failure, and their own agency. The RPG format additionally provides increased opportunities for socialization (collaborative and competitive), for differentiated instruction of students with varying skill levels, for creativity (by both students and instructor), and for immersion in the historical or literary world of the topic. It is also highly adaptable, making it of interest to a wide range of instructors. The authors of this paper have successfully employed it at both the secondary and college level, in language and in history courses, centered on themes of Roman history and culture, Greco-Roman mythology, and urban civilization.

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Homo Ludens: Teaching the Ancient World via Games

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