The Benefits of Role-Playing Games in Class

Crusades role playing class

March 30, 2018

by Alex Boissonnas, communication (‘18)

As 2:00 approached, the War Council of Acre gathered in its usual meeting spot in the lower level of Converse Hall. Crowns were donned as representatives from across Europe eyed each other and whispered about secret alliances.

The council was in fact a class of Westminster history students, playing a game called The Second Crusade: The War Council of Acre, 1148.

In the game, students played characters from medieval times and replicated the War Council of Acre that started the second Crusade. They formed alliances, balanced hidden agendas and debated to select a leader for the Crusade.

Westminster associate professor of history Mary Jane Chase teaches the game – which is part of the Reacting to the Past role-playing game series sponsored by Barnard College.

Chase said she had been looking for ways to get her students to interact more with history. Previously, she had a class conduct a debate on whether or not Louis XVI should be killed.

"The debate wasn't as strong a piece as I wanted it to be," Chase said. "When I heard that others had put a lot of time and energy into designing these role-playing games, I wanted to try it and see what happened."

The game was offered as part of a larger history course, but students could sign up for a three-week one-credit course and only participate in the game itself.

"I thought it sounded like a lot of fun," said Stephanie Held, a communication major and history minor who participated in the three-week game portion of the class. "Mary Jane taught the class last semester and it sounded like the students who were involved had a great time."

The War Council of Acre was by no means an easy credit. Students dove deep into out-of-class research to keep up with the demands of the game.

"I didn't realize it, but most of this game is out of class," Held said. "It's texting your faction mates and meeting with them to try and get people to ally with you, all while researching people in medieval times and figuring out who your character was as a person. The stuff that's not in the game book is what makes it."

Held also said she thinks the game allowed her and other students the opportunity to better understand the material they were learning.

"I think the most valuable part of having these games in a course is allowing students to step into the past for a bit and understand the thought process and the reasoning and emotions of the people we're studying," said Held.

Blaine Whitford, a first-year student leaning towards declaring a history major, said he thought the game made his learning more meaningful.

"I think the problem with a lot of courses is they're taught right out of a textbook and it's really stale," Whitford said. "You don't really get to put yourself into these perspectives. Medieval history is full of crazy stuff, people doing outrageous things for personal reasons. If you're reading that in a textbook, it's just another fact you need to know for the test. But if you when you live it and play it, it's a whole new perspective."

Chase said the course was very effective in motivating students to take learning into their own hands. In order to play the game well and try to get their faction to win, students needed to be well-informed on the issues that people in the War Council of Acre cared about.

"From an instructor point of view, the course is fantastic," Chase said. "Students are not only researching stuff on their own but they're interacting and learning from each other, and suddenly you have a giant Crusades study group."

Chase said that seeing the directions that students went with the game was one of her favorite parts of the experience as a professor. She made sure that students did the work necessary outside the game to accomplish their in-game goals, whatever they may have been.

"I loved the surprises and what people ran with," Chase said. "For example, they wanted to have a marriage. So I said, okay, you can have a marriage. But it'll have to be a medieval marriage. In the middle ages, a marriage contract was almost as important as the ceremony, so they had to write their own marriage contract before I would let them get married."

Chase said she was most impressed with how much the game format encouraged students to go out and learn. The more information they knew, the more of a potential advantage they had, and her students hit the ground running.

"What really fascinates me is the amount of energy that students put into the research for the game," Chase said. "Students were talking about all kinds of things that weren't even in the game book. They went and found stuff that I had no idea about, and in some cases they found stuff that I knew about but never expected them to find."

Moving forward, Chase said including a role-playing game into a class is something she would happily do again. For her class, it was a unique way of learning that she felt was incredibly effective.

"I've always done things in my classes that were a little wacky," Chase laughed. "This is definitely out there on the wackiness scale, but it's been a phenomenal experience."