Roleplaying and Education


'Education is an admirable thing. But it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.'
Oscar Wilde

Ivan Illich (author of 'Deschooling Society) said that the saddest thing he had ever seen was a small child lining her collection of dolls and teddy bears up into neat rows in order to 'play schools' with them. It is easy enough to see what saddened him. The over-regulated world of formalised education was the only one that the child could imagine; even her imaginary, play-world was one that re-enacted the rituals of her school.

But if, as we argued last issue, children's play is about exploration; about discovering what their bodies and minds are capable of, and about experimenting with roles that they may one day take on for real then no antithesis between 'play' and 'education' ought to exist. They are, in the final analysis, the same thing.

That children learn through playing is no great discovery. We see it in the counting and spelling games of Sesame Street. We see it in an extreme form in the Steiner schools, where children under 7 are actively discouraged from doing anything other than playing. And of course, the English have traditionally regarded 'games' as the cornerstone of their educational system. The Victorian poet Henry Newbolt ('Play up! Play up! And play the game!') saw an absolute continuity between school sports and the Crimea, as if war were a form of cricket and cricket a form of war; Wellington, famously, thought that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. It would be easier to laugh at this if the present Prime Minster had not received roars applause from his party conference when he announced that games - meaning, of course, competitive ball-games - were fun, and were therefore to be made compulsory for all school children. Am I alone in thinking that compulsory play, let alone cumpulsory fun, is a contradiction in terms?

It is not likely that any Tory Party Conference in the near future will be baying for the compulsory teaching of Dungeons & Dragons; nor have I ever heard it argued that role-playing builds character or is a cornerstone of the British way of life. Nevertheless, I am very pleased to be able to dedicate this issues Analysis section to some discussions of the very positive educational uses that role-playing games are being put to by a minority of school-teachers. Gaming, as Greg Costikyan argues elsewhere this issue, is a rather democratic form of entertainment, placing the audience and the creator on a more or less equal footing. I had feared that 'classroom' role-playing might overturn this principal; but not a bit of it. Each of our four essays show, in different ways, how role-playing games can become a means by which pupils can more fully participate in and direct their own education. This seems to me to me to represent both 'play' and 'education' in their truest forms: we explore; we experience; we learn; we develop. Those of us educated in more autocratic systems, and who spent much of our childhood being told to put those silly games away and do something useful instead can only look on with envy and admiration.

Children play in order to grow-up. Grown-ups, on the other hand, very often play because it gives them a licence to behave childishly. While this is not in itself a bad thing, an adult hobby that is substantially motivated by a nostalgia for an imperfectly remembered childhood seems, if nothing else, rather sterile. So, while we may recognise the child-like impulses that make us want to play we also, very properly, seek to make our hobby more mature.

For this reason I was pleased to receive a press release from White Wolf games (publishers of Vampire, Werewolf, Mage and Wraith) announcing the creation of the Black Dog Gaming Factory, a new imprint dedicated to 'producing artistic role-playing games and supplements for an older, more mature reader.' The press release says, correctly, that 'role-playing games are not just for kids', and that Black Dog intends to 'artistically pursue themes and issue that gaming has never been allowed to address.' Andrew Greenberg, the supervisor of the Vampire line says that he wants to transform gaming 'from an embarrassing hobby to something approaching art'.

The attitude to the rest of the gaming industry may be a touch patronising - I certainly don't regard Pendragon and Amber as immature embarrassments, let alone as a 'spastic cousins you're afraid to let at the Thanksgiving table'. Nevertheless, the aims that Black Dog are espousing are very close to those which Interactive Fantasy was set up to propagate, so I was fascinated to see what this new, mature, artistic line was to consist of.

The first mature and artistic release for Werewolf is to be entitled Freak Legion. This game is said to:

'deal in an explicit way with. . .those mortals who have been possessed by bane spirits and turned into something evil and gross. This is a book about violation and damnation. It is about those who not only sell their souls for power, but their bodies, also. '

The first supplement for Wraith is entitled Dark Reflections. Like Freak Legion, it deals with 'mature themes'.

'These may include profanity, sexual situations, scenes of extreme violence, and material which is just plain disturbing.'

Just what is going on here? White Wolf may be right in their belief that the under-10s are likely to be harmed by images of the unclothed human body, the sexual act, vernacular English and fictitious violence. I remain resolutely agnostic on this question. But is it really possible to imagine a parent who would regard Dark Reflections as unsuitable for their eight-year-old, but would be happy for them to see Wraith or Vampire? If not, then for whose benefit is Black Dog games being created? Even granted that White Wolf's sudden concern for the moral well-being of the younger generation is sincere, is it not somewhat hypocritical to pretend that these new, more gory, more sexually explicit games that they themselves describe as 'splatterpunk' are 'adult . . .mature . . . artistic'

Some of the Werewolf supplements depict an imaginary company called Black Dog Games. The fictitious Black Dog is run by minions of the Wyrm with the objective of corrupting young people by inuring them to violence. This is a small, and reasonably funny joke at the expense of the games industry. I wish I could say the same thing for the real Black Dog press release.

In our education section, Nathan Gribble tells us how role-playing helped, in a small way, with the problems of bullying and 'age-ism'. David Millians describes a game in which a potentially dull history lesson was made exciting and became the catalyst for a lot of spontaneous creativity - as well as immersing its players in an imaginary world in ways that most adult gaming groups can only dream of. Andrew Malcolm tells us how role-playing helped him cope with a disability, and Nicole Frien shows us how whole communities came together to learn about and participate in their country's history. Against this is set the world of Black Dog Games Factory:

'This is not just a book about gross gore (although gooey stuff will be shown throughout the book) . . . '

We leave it to the reader to decide which approach to role-playing is more mature.