RTTP as Final Exam
The syllabus for my survey class reads, “The game counts as your final exam and final project,” and goes on to say, “Participation and research of the game world and your character are required. You will be graded on 1. your in-class participation, speeches, and debates; 2. writing; 3. teamwork; 4. performance at the Exposition. Students will receive bonus points for accomplishing their objectives, creativity, extra writing and projects.” While some students are excited to play an educational role playing game as part of their course work, Reacting to the Past is usually met with trepidation or disbelief.
Those who are fearful are wary of the unknown requirements associated with an immersive role playing game. They are, after all, trained to successfully regurgitate information for multiple choice exams, and can easily write a research report so long as they are not required to critically think about what they read or make complicated connections. Participating in a Reacting to the Past game is unfamiliar and disconcerting. There are no study guides or roadmaps to success, and this frustrates them.
Other students read that “a game” will take the place of a stressful final exam or time-consuming project, and they are thrilled. They erroneously believe that they won’t need to do any work during game play. How hard can it be? You just skim the students’ game book and role sheet, and show up to class! These students equate playing a game with a mindless exercise that requires neither full attention nor participation. It IS a game after all! They happily believe that the class is an easy A — no final, no work, no problem.
What these students’ reactions show us is how broken and flawed our methods of assessment truly are. Exams and traditional assignments like research papers only prove that students know how to memorize, guess, and do the minimum for their desired grade; and expect to do so. Their goal is to pass the class, get the credit, and maintain their GPA. Your class is just another barrier between them and graduation, whether you want to admit it or not.
But what if there’s another way? What if pedagogy and assessments worked in tandem to teach the subject matter, develop those skills that students will need for academic and work-related success, and accurately assess what our students learned in our class? This is exactly what Reacting to the Past role-playing games do and this is why I’ve adopted Reacting as a viable pedagogical model and assessment tool.
In the fall of 2015 I ran my first Reacting to the Past role-playing game, Gretchen McKay, Nicholas Proctor, and Michael Marlais’s Modernism -vs- Traditionalism, Art in Paris, 1888-89. Like all Reacting games, Art in Paris is an immersive role-playing game that transports students to a historically important moment in time. Students are given historical characters to play and objectives to meet, and they are provided with an overview of the game world and the pivotal issues associated with it. In order to achieve their objectives, students research and write about their characters — artists, gallery owners, or critics — and the Parisian art world; present their research in class and debate with other students; work in groups; develop creative and successful strategies to exhibit their work; and successfully “sell” their work to a group of buyers who are often professors, librarians, or graduate students. This makes game play and the academic work it produces a perfect substitute for a final exam or project.
When I run Reacting games in my classes, I require students to write a two page character introduction paper and a three to five page paper that argues the character’s artistic ideology. Both papers must be well-researched, well-written, and properly cited. I also require my students to submit a bibliography of all the sources they considered throughout the game. While the presentations and debates are loosely organized and are often informal, I require students to be factually accurate, persuasive, and on topic. When presenting and selling their work during the final exhibition, students must correctly answer the buyers’ questions, of which they have no prior knowledge. They are required to present their viewpoints, ideology, and art work with authority and confidence. There are no study guides for this kind of activity, and the only way to be successful is to do thorough research and immediately apply this knowledge. While written papers and speeches can be prepared beforehand, spontaneous debates and random questions require students to know their stuff. There’s no memorizing or faking it in the game world, and students quickly learn that their classmates will happily use a lack of knowledge against them in pursuit of winning the game. Finally, teamwork is factored into the final grade. I require students to use our class’ Slack channel for all game-related communication and documentation. This allows me the ability to track students’ activity in real time and deal with any issue when it arises.
Each component has its own rubrics . For example, the formal written components require students to cite, use correct grammar, make a sound argument, and state examples of art work. Each student is required to give two speeches and participate in the debates. I log the amount of times a student speaks during a class session, rewarding points based on the quality of their argument and the amount of times they participate. Bonus points are given to any student or team that achieves their objectives, does additional work, or creatively approaches their character or the exhibition. Quite often students will create newspapers and pamphlets to showcase their characters’ artistic beliefs or work. Many teams will develop creative solutions to exhibit their work, especially if they aren’t able to exhibit at the official Salon. I’ve even had fine art students paint copies of their artists’ work in order to better understand their working methods.
Approximately 85% of my students receive a B or better on this project. Those who receive less than a B are the students who don’t show up during game play or who don’t complete one or more of the components. Since their grade is comprised of multiple parts, this kind of project rewards students for sustained effort and not just one exam or paper. Furthermore, it allows students to demonstrate their acquired knowledge in multiple ways. For example, while it requires more traditional academic assessments like short, research-based papers, it also fosters creative and informal demonstration of knowledge like debates and working in teams to organize exhibitions. Following discussions on SLACK and meeting with students individually, it becomes quite clear just how much information they’ve learned and how they are using it to solve in-game challenges associated with their characters’ historical objectives.
Sure, students still struggle with grammar, citations, and structure in their writing and they struggle with overcoming shyness in their debates and speeches, but this is insignificant compared to the depth of knowledge they exhibit and the complicated connections they make. They do this amount of work because of the nature of the game: they do what they need to do to win; and for that time when the game is in session, students seem to forget themselves and their grades as they deftly navigate thorny issues, larger-than-life personalities, foreign lands and remote times … all while having fun.