Friday, December 27, 2013

Schoolwork: Cultures, Experiences, and Human Connections: The Benefits of Analog Tabletop Roleplaying Games to the Teaching of History

When I heard Brian Tyler was replacing Lorne Balfe as Assassin's Creed composer, my heart soared, given that I love his recent work on Fast and Furious 6 and on Now You See Me. He didn't disappoint. This is an awesome soundtrack, though he didn't keep Kyd's "first civilization" sound even for the modern stuff like Balfe did, but that's an okay tradeoff. 
I got the game for Christmas and holy cow, just the sheer volume of content is making me head spin. This is a great game, and seems to have completely sidestepped the issues Assassin's Creed 3 had. That's what I've been doing for the past two days. Yesterday I did nothing by play Black Flag. I'm surprised and overjoyed by it.

This is my biggest and favorite essay of the three I've been posting, mostly because it directly pertains to things I've already shown interest in. Let's give some backstory real quick:
I was not technically in the Vikings class I attended or wrote those other essays for. I was actually in HIST493, which is a History Independent Study course, essentially allowing me to take the Vikings class as an upper-division course if I did some extra work. This essay is the extra work. I have taken multiple other classes with this professor, and something we've talked about a few times is games and their potential within teaching - we've especially talked about Assassin's Creed. As this Viking class had us reading Njal's Saga, I thought it would be good to show him Sagas of the Icelanders (the game), and he thought it was interesting. So we decided I could do my extra paper on RPGs. I was originally also going to talk about video games, but, uh, that's gonna have to wait, because both time constraints and also the fact that the essay is already giant stopped me.

Now, this was written for people with no experience with RPGs or their terminology. I occasionally lapse out of the formal style for writing history papers, and lack footnotes (though I have a brief bibliography containing the three games I discuss). The three games are Sagas of the Icelanders (which I have both played and run once each), Montsegur 12444 (which I have played once), and Dog Eat Dog (which I have not played).

Basically, I'm really interested in discussing this further. I know we have a number of teachers in the RPG community, but most stuff I've seen such as Ruthless Diastema podcast tends to hit at a primary school level which is important but also a very different context from university. I'm also interested in seeing if others agree with what I'm saying about these games.

My professor and I have been talking about taking this further, essentially co-authoring a more complete paper on the subject of games and the instruction of history (probably, he says, through mocking up an imaginary course syllabus for the subject). Ideas?

Anyway, here's the disclaimer and the paper.

As usual, this is my essay, made available so I can potentially receive feedback and to help others learn what I'm learning myself. I'm no expert, so seriously, none of the would-be paper thieves out there should use or even cite this. Still, I think I learned a lot to be able to write the essay, and hopefully you learn something too!
And if you know something about the subject, let me know if I got something right/wrong, or if you have interesting insights or thoughts about it! Same with folks who know things about writing essays! And I do love hearing when just other regular folks get some education out of my work.

Max / Ego                         Vikings Independent Study Individual Essay
Cultures, Experiences, and Human Connections: The Benefits of Analog Tabletop Roleplaying Games to the Teaching of History
            For many, games are an important part of everyday modern life. These games take many forms. Sports, specialized media forms like video games, commonly-hold social board games, games of chance like the Lottery or the myriad card and dice games played at casinos, and even many everyday tasks not conventionally considered games are being game-ified, adopting elements like points and competition. The simple reason behind this is that games are fun! People like playing games, but often like games even more if they can get something out of it. For this reason, game designers are always looking for ways to reward the player.
            The oldest games we have available to us were created completely in the abstract. Tic-tac-toe, Go, and Checkers are all exchanges in simple game terms rather than representations of anything. This tradition of game design is still visible in many board games, and in the lottery and card games. From these, the rewards that can be provided are limited in nature: improved skill and strategic thinking, and money (in the form of betting within card games or the lottery). Little else can be achieved with these basic games. The next level of games is ones that are metaphors for some other activity but still function completely without reference to these activities. Sports are ritualized combat, and Monopoly is a game about being a real estate tycoon, but take those elements away and they remain sturdy, playable games. In these you get the same benefits as from abstract games (skill, betting money) but also gain a greater understanding of the concept being symbolized by the game, albeit only at a conceptual level. The third level of games build on the idea of a game as a represntation of something else and makes it fundamental to playing the game itself, where removing that representation changes the nature of the game itself. The most common form of game in this category is the role-playing game. Both pen-and-paper roleplaying games (henceforth referred to as RPGs) and digital video games rely on the concept of playing a game where one’s character is different from themselves or where the setting is different from our own, or both. These types of game have unique applications in augmenting or enhancing the teaching of history. Games are excellent tools for teaching specific elements of history, though caution must be exercised to understand when liberties are taken to achieve the game’s other agendas. For these purposes I will be looking at several major historical fiction RPGs to analyze their value to history education, predominantly focusing on Sagas of the Icelanders, Montsegur 1244, and Dog Eat Dog.
            First, a quick explanation of how pen-and-paper RPGs (also called tabletop RPGs) function is warranted, given their relatively small imprint in popular culture. Now, explaining these games as a whole is akin to trying to explain all sports with one description – difficult, full of exceptions, and largely unhelpful when going beyond the basics. However, a unified factor of almost all RPGs is that they are social games. To play, you gather together a small group of friends (usually 3 to 5 people), along with the rulebook to the game and whatever else the game requires (oftentimes dice, sometimes six-sided and sometimes a bit more exotic). Players then use the rules to facilitate a conversation between them, exploring the actions of their characters, the consequences of those actons, and ultimately creating an original story. In this way, playing an RPG is a lot like a collaborative storytelling session or improvisational acting, but facilitated by a set of rules adding uncertainty, drama, and surprise to the story. The important thing to know is that the game is an interaction between a group of friends and the designer via the rules, but with the friends taking the active role in the game.
            The first RPG to discuss is called Sagas of the Icelanders, by Sloveian game designer Gregor Vuga. Self-described as a game about “the trials, tribulations, and adventures of the first settlers of Iceland, as described in the Icelandic Sagas,” the game strives to “paint a believable picture of saga-period Iceland,” though the author quickly highlights that he uses “the word ‘believable’ and not ‘realistic’ or ‘accurate,’” with the goal being to “create fiction in the historical cotext, not recreate it.” This is the assumption one must make with this social game, where the group of people playing cannot be expected to be experts in the field (otherwise the game would pertain only to RPG players who are Sagas-period experts, which is a niche audience indeed). In order to allow even completely unknowledgable players to create that “believable picture,” the designer of the game had to build the game’s rules to do the heavy lifting.
            Now, in order to accommodate players who are not all are experts or who lack even one person versed in the historical truth, the game cannot take out a large chunk of time to explain the way things were, and the rules cannot model every single facet of the Sagas. Instead, the game has to distill out what the author considers to be the important elements of the Sagas to model within the game. This is one benefit of using an RPG as an initial learning tool – the elements pulled out of history to create the game can provide a strong picture of what is unique, special, or different about that part of history. In Sagas of the Icelanders, the game singles out one major theme to flavor the entire experience of the game: gender politics. The game goes to extensive lengths to represent the divide in gender roles iconic of the Vikings, especially where those roles are furthest from our own societal understanding of gender roles. That representation of the gender gap will be apparent in many elements of the game, but especially in the Rolebooks, Stats, and Moves.
            In Sagas of the Icelanders, all but one participant play one character, who is theirs to control and make decisions about (the remaining participant is the Master of Ceremonies, who is in charge of playing all the remaining characters and putting obstacles in the players’ paths to make struggles real and rewarding). The first thing a player does is create a character, and “the first thing you do when creating a character should be choosing their gender.” Gender is literally the first step of playing the game, and forms the core around which your character is built. After choosing male or female (other understandings of gender didn’t exist in the Sagas, and thus don’t in the game), you choose a Rolebook. Rolebooks are sort of like lists of options with instructions on how many to choose from each list, determining elements such as a character’s look, abilities, and relationships based upon which rolebook was chosen. There are four female rolebooks, “the matriarch, the sei[th]kona, the shield-maiden and the woman,” four male rolebooks, “the go[th]i, the huscarl, the man and the wanderer,” as well as three which could be of either gender, “the child, the monster and the thrall.”[1] This division alone is one of the first ways in which Sagas of the Icelanders pulls out what the important, or at least significant, social roles were for each gender in the Sagas. Looking more specifically at each of the rolebooks, it teaches what it means to be a man, or a go[th]i, or a matriarch in the Sagas. It’s fitting that almost all characters from Njal’s Saga (referenced in the text as The Saga of Burnt Njall – the text occasionally provides quotes from the Sagas to reinforce how the Sagas were or to help evoke the intended mood for the game) can be thought of in terms like these. Gunnar would be a Man, Bergthora a Woman, Skarphedin a Huscarl, Hoskuld Thrainsson a Go[th]i, old Gunnhild a Sei[th]kona. This division of rolebooks has a couple effects. First, it does a good job of breaking down the categories that characters fall into, even if they don’t have that title in the original Saga. Njal, for example, is best modeled as a Go[th]i, based on his legal mastery and influence and his less-than-manly appearance by the cultural standards. By dividing the rolebooks without hierarchy however, the importance of some may be overstated. While the game calls out that “The Man and The Woman should take precedence before the other rolebooks,” the Shield-maiden is positioned to be just as common in games as the Go[th]i or Huscarl, which isn’t true in my experience of the Sagas (primarily Njal’s Saga) though a cursory glance at the internet informs me that they may have played a larger part in other sagas such as the Saga of the Volsungs, which while it would reinforce the strength of the list of rolebooks doesn’t change the fact that it is otherwise without prioritization of various roles an inaccurate picture of the Sagas may form. Ultimately this is only a small problem, as the Sagas themselves differed greatly in the demographics of featured characters. The list also precludes the idea of crossing the gender line; for example Svan, a magic-wielding man from Njal’s Saga, would be a male Sei[th]kona, which is outside of the scope of the game. This distinction is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it fails to reveal that element of society to new players. On the other hand, through the Sagas those who totally violate those gender barriers are portrayed as villains (Svan for magic, Mord for treachery and dishonorableness, Hallgerd for boldness and refusal to be subservient), and as the players’ characters are protagonists it would be inappropriate for them to be crossing such boundaries.
            If the rolebooks determine what sort of person a character is in a general sense, then the Stats exist to define the character’s personality as an individual. Put simply, Stats are an attribute of a character that range from -1 to +2, with higher values meaning that a character has more of that aspect in their personality. The four personality attributes that Sagas care about are “Young, Versed, Gendered, and Wyrd.” Young means fierce, strong, hot-headed, and the like, Versed implies experience and training, Gendered is about how well a character plays into their gender role (with a negative value not representing crossing over boundaries so much as simple ineptitude at things they are expected to do as a man or woman), and Wyrd marking the lucky, odd, or set apart. These four things have historical context and teaching behind them as well: they’re a simplification of the lines along which people were judged in the sagas: energy and enthusiasm, skill, (wo)manliness, and ordinariness. To take a couple of characters from Njal’s Saga and judge them by this system, Njal could be interpreted as +0 Young, +1 Versed,             +0 Gendered, +1 Wyrd, which, fittingly enough, is a stat line available to the Go[th]i, determined above to be the best rolebook for Njal. Gunnar could be +2 Young, +0 Versed, +1 Gendered,      -1 Wyrd, which is available to the Man rolebook picked for him earlier. The stats show a fairly good picture of the various important elements to characters in the Sagas, but are again limited by the fact that they are definitely a simplification of the truth in order to prevent confusion by the players.
            The third main element by which the game makes clear to its players what it means to be in 10th Century Iceland is the moves. Moves are a game term for the dice rolls in the game. Each move has a ‘trigger,’ indicating when you should roll the dice. When a player, in the course of the conversation of play, says that their character does something and the action aligns with a move’s trigger, you follow the instructions in the rules, rolling dice and then interpreting the results. While what happens as a result of specific moves is revealing, and that will be dealt with soon, the most important part to look at when analyzing the game’s value as a teacher of history is actually in the triggers. This is because the moves and their dice rolls are the heart of the game – they signify what actions are important in the game, and reward players who do them by making the game surprising and unexpected. They are the only time when the rules and the conversation of play and the rules of the game interact for players. Now, the list could theoretically be comprehensive, accounting for any action that might fail, but Sagas of the Icelanders instead opts to only provide moves that reinforce the feeling of playing out your own Saga. Here are some examples of moves that anyone can trigger: “When you endure grave harm,” “When you give someone a gift,” and “When your character survives a winter in Iceland.” These are actions that define scenes in the Sagas, and thus they are the actions chosen to define the game. However, beyond the common moves that can be triggered by any player, there is also a category of moves specific to each gender. The selection of these moves, even moreso than the rolebooks, define the different ways the genders act. Some of those female moves include “When you entice a man,” “When you raise your voice and talk sense,” and “When you goad a man to action,” all things definitely done by characters in the Sagas that are iconic of woman and inappropriate for men to do. On the flipside, some male moves triggers are “When you throw an insult at another man,” “When you honor is in question,” and “When you accept a physical challenge,” which are similarly defining of mens’ actions in the Sagas. The trouble here is the same as with rolebooks and stats, that they are a simplification to make play easy at the cost of historical comprehensiveness and that they deny the ability to violate the gender barrier.
            On the topic of moves, an extra part should be addressed: the additional moves in the back section of the book. Depending on what sort of game of Sagas of the Icelanders you’re playing, groups might bring in special sets of moves that represent elements of Icelandic society that are not necessarily important to all games of Sagas (and thus are relegated to the back to increase the accessibility of the main game). These refer to specific parts of society; for example, there is a section on religion (with extra moves like “When you accept the gospel of the White Christ” and “When you die a pagan”), on warfare and violence (with “When you fight with many against many” and “When you endure great harm during a holmganga duel” as a couple example moves), and on law at the Quarter Courts at the Althing (with move triggers like “When you rule against your Go[th]i or a member of your family” and “When you speak the law before the assembled host”). In this way, games might address topics important to the Sagas in a more rules-mediated (and thus more structured) way, allowing for the game to not only be more suited to what the players are interested in exploring (maybe a group doesn’t care so much about religion but really likes playing out legal stuff), but also allows the game to be focused to provide a better, more accurate feel for certain aspects of Icelandic society in the Sagas period. Even further attention could be payed to moves, such as the implications each specific move has for bringing forth a genre-appropriate tone (such as how the male move “When you accept a physical challenge” always promotes very fast and dangerous combat rather than protracted fights), but for now it is best to shift to a different game to look at.
            For the next two games, discussion will be kept relatively brief, focusing on the ways they differ from Sagas of the Icelanders in style of providing a historical lens, as Sagas of the Icelanders is generally a good model of how games model history, with simplification and categorization to improve accessibility (though Sagas has an exceptional degree of historical implications and significance baked into its rules compared to the majority of games). In Montsegur 1244 by Frederik J. Jensen, there is no Master of Ceremonies or other controlling figure as there is in Sagas of the Icelanders. Montsegur is a game about the last stand of the Cathars at Montsegur during the Albigensian Crusade. This historical event ended in forced conversion or burning at the stake for nearly every soul inside the nigh-impregnable mountain fortress of Montsegur in the south of France. Every player of the game controls two characters, selected from a batch of characters that come from the game with pre-existing roles within the small village inside the fortress’ walls, such as the unbelieving ruler, the leader of the guard, the head Perfect (a role in the Cathar theology similar to a priest) or a harlot in the town. They play these characters, each of which comes with their own batch of personal issues, and their interactions through a number of scenes structured by the game itself, starting with a “practice” scene of the assassination of a Catholic inquisitor that leads to the main scenes, which take place in several acts about the very beginning of the siege through the very end and the fate of the characters in the aftermath of the fall of the fortress. Scenes are played out in a structured way that makes the tension and complicated-ness of the situation and the all-encompassing fear of God all become apparent in the characters. This is the biggest strength of this game: it takes players from modern societies and places them in the shoes of a group of splinter group of Christianity who no longer exist today and practiced some extremely odd beliefes, the bulk of which are explained to the players as they become important according to the act structure. This group, very often poorly understood thanks to being wiped out by a war-like Catholic Church (the same Pope earlier declared the Fourth Crusade) and being branded as heretics, are difficult for many modern people to understand. This game puts people in those times with Cathar beliefs and allows them to explore the chaos of an almost alien theology. It also provides a substantial experience of what it felt like to be alone and crumbling under the furious weight of a crusading Church, a less-explored perspective for most players. In this way, the game is an exceptional tool for taking on the role of an otherwise difficult-to-comprehend culture, adding weight and even an air of personal experience to learning the topics in a more traditional sense.
            The third, and last, game being fully explored here is Dog Eat Dog, by Liam Liwanag Burke, which is self-described as “a game of imperialism and assimilation on the Pacific Islands.” Dog Eat Dog is not a tale of any particular island or assimilation in the way that Montsegur 1244 is the story of the Cathars at Montsegur. Instead, Dog Eat Dog is about theme and process. The players first describe the Natives of this island and their society, putting in a little information to guide the culture; this is not a real culture but a theoretical one. The players then each get to add a piece of detail about the colonizers, the Occupation. The players also will have Rules, which are unspoken assumptions governing the interaction of the players, and at the beginning of the game, there is only one, this one: “The (Native People) are inferior to the (Occupation people).” One player, always the richest player in the real world, plays the Occupation. All the others play a native, and detail themselves a bit. The course of the game involves playing out scenes of the characters’ responses to the Occupation’s arrival, with conflicts causing tokens to be passed around until the Occupation player has no tokens or the Native players are all out. At the end, if the Occupation is out, they describe why they grant the natives local autonomy. If a Native has a lot of tokens, they describe how they assimilated. If a Native has no tokens but is still alive, they must suddenly be shockingly violent and destructive, then die. The game is stilted at every turn against the Natives; even if the Natives won, the Occupation grants them autonomy, rather than the Natives earning it. This experience is a shocking one overall, but what does it have to do with history? In short, it’s representational of the mass colonization of the Pacific during the mid-1800s. The game provides an experience that still causes discomfort to many, opening eyes to the other side and placing gravity on the teaching of history by making it feel human. And even outside of the context of the Pacific, it can apply to any colonized peoples (the game even calls out that the Teutonic Knights’ ‘spreading’ of religion to Eastern Europe as a potential alternate setting).
            These are three very different takes on how an RPG can teach history. In one, Saga of the Icelanders, a culture is built in heavily into the rules. You may not play a story of law or religion or blood feuds, but you most certainly will play Icelanders in the Viking Age. In another, Dog Eat Dog, culture is up to the players, but the way the story will go follows a few very distinct and organized paths. Either the Occupation will stop bothering to oppress the Natives, or the Natives will be assimilated or killed, but the game could take place on any fictional island or theoretical colonization. In the third, Montsegur 1244, both culture and story are hard-coded into the rules, making the end a forgone conclusion (the fortress will fall) and the experience about the human reactions in the process of a doomed scenario. And those are things they teach: a culture, a lesson, and a human experience. All of them have a common benefit of putting the players personally at stake and making them care. An additional bonus is that the games are often fun! And fun things are much easier to convince people to do, even if they don’t usually like history, making them either an excellent gateway into further interest in the subject or a simple way to deliver information to those it wouldn’t reach.
            But before wrapping up, there needs to be a few notes on the problems inherent to RPGs as teaching tools. A major problem is that they all come with a substantial amount of straight material to just deliver and read. Dog Eat Dog doesn’t really require the setting to get the experience, and Sagas of the Icelanders builds it mostly into the rules themselves, but all require a bit of a debrief at the beginning to explain what’s going on. That’s really just a symptom of a much larger problem, and that’s that the game is mostly limited by what the player knows. In my own games of Sagas of the Icelanders, I’ve brought in some extra things that I’ve learned to spice up the experience more, but that most people wouldn’t know (for example, the value placed on naming weapons in Scandinavian culture). People can come up with all sorts of things, but they’re limited by what they know. Often they’ll bring in ideas they’ve read (I had a player bring in himself as a Christian missionary from Norway after looking up Iceland on his phone before the game and seeing Olaf Tryggvason), but the unfortunate truth is that these games can easily reinforce misunderstandings of how things were. This is what the game’s design is there for, to make the truth matter to the way it’s played, but without an expert it is ultimately a fun, collaborative way to share your own knowledge with your friends, rather than gleaning brand new truths. Again, the game’s rules mitigate this: it doesn’t matter if you didn’t know about it before hand, playing Sagas of the Icelanders ensures that you will come away understanding something about the gender divide in Sagas-period Iceland.
            In the specific context of a history class, there are benefits and issues. The presence of an expert is unimaginably helpful, for all the reasons above. Of the learning objectives for the Pacific Lutheran University history department, the final two are present and exceptionally well-achieved by the games, those goals being to “develop the ability to determine…the magnitude and significance of historical changes that take place within a society or culture” (which is most certainly a facet of Dog Eat Dog and Montsegur 1244) and to “develop the capacity to recognize diversity, complexity, and the moral dilemmas inherent in the study of history.” Unfortunately, they are bound by two unconquerable elements: player count and time. Each game has a specific range of players it can accommodate, almost always between three and six, and they also take between three and five hours to play a session, ruling them out of an ordinary class structure. However, they might make an excellent side activity for interested parties looking to gain a deeper understanding of a subject. Overall, RPGs form a complex picture of how games can aid in the instruction of history. They can teach the particular elements they were designed around very well, but break down when taken outside of that very specific intention or if interest goes much deeper than a surface understanding of what is being taught, and are bound by inherent structural limitations on participation and time. They differ significantly from video games in many ways, primarily the designer’s role in teaching, the singular experience (as opposed to a social experience), and the audiovisual component not present in the predominantly oral RPGs. Despite their complications, games are a growing part of our culture and the scholastic applications of these games to the teaching of history cannot be ignored, and this examination of Sagas of the Icelanders, Montsegur 1244, and Dog Eat Dog only scratches the surface of the realm of games with relevance to history.

A Brief Bibliography:
·       * Sagas of the Icelanders was written by Gregor Vuga. A PDF of the game is available for 6 Euros here:
·       * Montsegur 1244 was written by Frederik J. Jensen. A PDF of the game is available for $12.00 here:
*       * Dog Eat Dog was written by Liam Liwanag Burke. A PDF of the game is available here for $10.00, or a physical copy of the game for $15.00:

[1] Where the character Eth was present it was replaced with [th] because I don’t know how to type the original character, which is used in the original text. This replacement will persist throughout the essay.

End Recording,

No comments :

Post a Comment