Tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, Monster of the Week, and Dungeon World, have become more popular than ever thanks to podcasts and shows like The Adventure Zone and Critical Role. For many, the appeal of tabletop games is about returning to a local, communal style of play that’s also cooperative, a stark contrast to online competitive games.
One area where gaming has seen a significant increase in attention is academia, where games are found inside the classroom as objects of inquiry and pedagogical tools, as well as outside the classroom, where they serve social and psychological functions for students.
Inside the Classroom
Games have been used as a pedagogical tool inside classrooms for ages. The fact that we teach using these tools is nothing new; what is new, however, is the types of games we’re using. Things have come a long way since the classic Jeopardy style quiz-games, with students increasingly playing complex tabletop games in class. It turns out, there’s lots of reasons to do this. Christian Miller, owner of Silver Spook Games and robotics teacher, mentions the intrinsic motivation games provide, as well as how they lead to self-directed and continued learning beyond the classroom walls.
Moreover, gaming provides motivation for learning that is frequently absent in modern classrooms with expanding class sizes and fewer resources available for students. Playing games in class also increases student engagement in a noticeable way. Rosemary Moore, Lecturer at the University of Iowa, told me about the radical difference in engagement her students have shown with game-based learning methods rather than solely traditional lectures and reading. Bringing games into the classroom even created a stronger bond between students. Similarly, Sarah C. Murray, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, says that since she’s introduced games to her class, she’s seen not only increased engagement and excitement from her students but a much more collaborative classroom.
At its heart, tabletop gaming is just that—collaborative. Even games that pit player against player foster an environment of collaboration simply in bringing players together to create a fantasy world. Gaming makes explicit the unspoken social contracts of interaction—we take turns, we listen, we share. And this is what makes them perfect tools for social learning.
In addition to working as pedagogical tools, games can also serve as their own object of inquiry. Game studies is a rapidly expanding discipline with researchers examining topics ranging from narrative to deep-level mechanical theory. And this research isn’t solely dedicated to building better games—it tells us about expertise, social life, and problem-solving. For example, John K. Lindstedt, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Rice University and lifelong gamer, studies the acquisition of expertise by looking at people play Tetris. So we’re not just using games to help teach or simply studying them to improve the craft of design—we’re using games to provide insight into the human mind.
Outside the Classroom
More so than quizzes, navigating the campus, and assigned reading, finding a social circle is one of the most daunting challenges facing new college students. Moving beyond the established environment of high school can leave students feeling lost, forced to figure out a new identity in a strange place. Gaming provides a tool to overcome that by meeting other people.
But more than just meeting people, gaming is a tool to get to know them. And it goes beyond seeing if you share interests or are planning a similar major—it helps players figure out how to relate to others within the comforting structure of a ruleset rather than the often chaotic, embarrassing freshman events put on by schools. Gaming provides a common activity that engages a room, allowing participants to skip traditional small talk. It helps players break down barriers by involving them in a common experience that is new to all parties, levelling—if you’ll pardon the pun—the playing field. United by gaming, players start to forge new communities.
Beyond serving as ways of establishing or strengthening social bonds, gaming also works as a personal outlet for relief from academic stress. One student at the University of Louisville and NASA intern told me that collaborating in tabletop games provided a creative outlet untapped by his classes, helping him build skills that weren’t a focus of his program. Providing students with alternative ways of processing and expressing their daily lives, gaming offers a respite from some of the traditional pressures of academia.
Moving Forward With Games in Academia
Of course, there are stumbling blocks in bringing together games and study. Most games aren’t designed for education, and attempts to shoehorn games into lessons or vice versa are often clunky at best. And despite the general increase in the use of games in academia, there’s still a tendency on the part of educators to view games as frivolous, leading to a mistrust of pedagogical techniques that make use of them.
There are some problems with social gaming on the part of students, as well. Perhaps the most frequently cited issue is the time commitment, with many traditional RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons built around the idea of an ongoing campaign with players meeting on a regular basis. That said, Spencer Watza, a graduate student at University of Colorado Boulder, told me that solitary games can lead to procrastination but that this doesn’t hold for social games. The very nature of requiring the participation of others means that time devoted to these games is seen as qualitatively different from that spent on solo videogames. Sure, prepwork may take time, but unlike a class discussion that keeps you on your toes, forever seeking a place to insert your voice and ensure your participation points, the game makes the prepwork worthwhile.
So despite these difficulties, the academic community has found gaming to be a beneficial activity. And while it’s worth discussing the unique ways that tabletop gaming intersects with academia, predominantly it appears in this community for one very simple reason: we love playing games. “And why we love doing that so much,” Lindstedt says, “is because it’s what makes us, homo sapiens, human.”