RPGs in school?? Rock!

I recently read Dennis Southwood’s October article, “It's Not Just a Game—It's Skills for Life” from Educators' eZine. I know, I’m a bit behind on my reading, but I have a three-month-old, which I consider an ample excuse.

Southwood begins by posing the following question.

Q: Your students are most likely to be learning the real-world skills that employers demand when they are:

a) In the classroom, following the lessons in the textbook.
b) At home, completing assigned homework.
c) On line, playing World of Warcraft.
d) On a class field trip, visiting the offices of a local corporation.

The answer is, of course, WOW (World of Warcraft). More and more, educators, scientists, and business executives are apparently coming to believe that such games require players to master skills in demand by today's employers, such as critical thinking, team building, problem solving, and collaboration.

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There is one category of mainstream computer games that Southwood believes should be a standard part of the curriculum in every high school is Computer role-playing games or RPGs. These games are unrivaled in their complex structure and emphasis on team building.

My generation came up thinking of an RPG in terms of Dungeons and Dragons. Even with such pencil, paper, and dice based table top RPG’s you were able to work as a team, building a rapport with your group both in and out of the game and relying on each other’s strengths to accomplish epic feats. Admittedly, I am a tabletop role-player, and so I can speak to that scene first-hand. It was always limited, though, to those of us who were geeky or self-confident (take your pick) enough to participate without fear of being shunned by friends and potential mates.whatarerpgs.gif

Today, modern computer RPG’s, like the World of Warcraft, have brought the gaming culture into the mainstream, promoting social interaction among students who might not otherwise interact with each other. You may be online at home slaying orcs, escaping a galactic prison, or circumventing a sniper nest with a Football player from Penn State, an accountant in Chicago, and a 30 year-old grocery clerk in his mom’s basement. Additionally, Southwood points out, RPG’s can bring many of the “benefits of school sports programs to students who are unable to participate in those programs”. If you have the hand-eye coordination of a slug, like myself, how are you going to experience the team-building and collaboration skills that come with being on the soccer or football team?

Grouping, teamwork, and cooperative learning are all buzzwords, but for any of you who work with middle-schoolers and even some that work with high-schoolers know that most students see teamwork or group projects as an opportunity to divide up the work to be done "the way you would cut up a pie". This essentially defeats the whole purpose and benefit of such activities, leaving teachers frustrated and wondering why bother. Most of us really want to give our students the tools to tackle the collaborative projects they may face in the workplace, using each others' strengths to create products far superior to what could have been accomplished individually. Unfortunately, the acronym agenda (NCLB, AYP, etc), among other things, prevents most of us from having the time to build quality collaborative groups through repeated exercises, such as those they put us through in professional development classes on group dynamics. You know the drill. "Many tasks require a combination of different skills, and the best team for those tasks will offer a variety of abilities, with each person doing the part he or she can do best. Most sports teams are set up this way. Once the team is formed, the members must learn to trust each other and each member must show the others that he or she is dependable and worthy of trust" (Southwood 2007).

Personally, I see RPG's as the ultimate constructivist activity.  A player is immersed into a situation where he or she must work with others to solve problems and succeed.  To get by, one must access everything in his or her repitoire of skills, knowledge, and people skills.

Will we ever actually see RPG's in school?  Considering how well they build and reinforce real-world skills valued by business, I highly doubt it.  Anything that good is sure to not fit in at school for some reason.  If anything, educational software companies, like AutoSkill, will crank out some cheesy dumbed-down version that doesn't really encourage any problem-solving or collaboration but does generate very concrete performance data of some kind.  It will no-doubt pupport to increase standardized test-scores, and districts will buy into it.  Ultimately, students will hate it with the same passion with which they hate "Academy of Reading", and it will do nothing to prepare them for the real world.  Students will continue learning more at home and life will go on.

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