The last time I played Dungeons & Dragons was around 1979, maybe 1980, with two old friends from high school, Steve and Steve. The network of friends was broken up by my need to travel around the country, chasing an education and a career, and I never got back into it. It’s just not the same without those face-to-face friends. I have great memories of those years in that small gaming group in the Pacific Northwest, though, and it was my primary outlet for social networking at that time. I should just get on a plane to Seattle and surprise the two Steves some Saturday night.
Anyway, I guess there’s been a bit of a renaissance in D&D’s popularity lately, which, as usual, I’m missing out on. It’s an old-new way to escape some of the faceless anomie we sometimes experience in our digital universe.
In 2017, gathering your friends in a room, setting your devices aside, and taking turns to contrive a story that exists largely in your head gives off a radical whiff for a completely different reason than it did in 1987. And the fear that a role-playing game might wound the psychologically fragile seems to have flipped on its head. Therapists use D. & D. to get troubled kids to talk about experiences that might otherwise embarrass them, and children with autism use the game to improve their social skills. Last year, researchers found that a group of a hundred and twenty-seven role players exhibited above-average levels of empathy, and a Brazilian study from 2013 showed that role-playing classes were an extremely effective way to teach cellular biology to medical undergraduates.
Hey, what? Teaching cell biology with role-playing games? That sounds interesting, and I had to look that one up.
In short, an RPG is a game in which a person (in this case, the teacher) tells a story that is enacted by the players who are given roles as the various pieces of background information. Challenges related to the story are then presented and must be addressed by all participants. Each player represents a character in the story and is attributed (quantitatively-defined) skills. These skills are tested during the game to decide if the character succeeds in his or her attempt to perform a task that solves the problem or overcomes the challenge. The skill is usually tested against some kind of quantifiable decision-making system, such as rolling dice. The dice introduce randomness into the game, create suspense and provoke playfulness among the players. This is the main difference between role-play, which refers to the playing of roles in a theatrical play, and RPG, that introduces clear rules according to which the players must decide how to act.
One of the most interesting and significant aspects of the RPG is that the whole team must win together: there are no losers in this kind of cooperative game, ensuring that nobody is excluded or feels excluded.
Unfortunately, all the details of how the game works are in appendices that I can’t find online! I can believe that adding a narrative to the biochemistry of the cell would help with student engagement, I would just wonder if the investment of student time in a game like this is effective enough.