Wednesday, August 07, 2013

In Which The Warlock Interviews: Seekers Unlimited Educational LARPs


Here's a special for you, my fellow gamers! The folks at Seekers Unlimited--Sarah Lynne Bowman and Aaron Vanek--sat down with me for a digital go-round about their current Kickstarter, which hopes to bring LARPing into the classroom.

Be sure to check out the Seekers Unlimited Kickstarter and help bring some games into America's classrooms! Their Kickstarter runs for just over 3 more weeks, so get in while you can!

(Andy) Tell us all a little about yourselves:  What’s your background; what got you into gaming and LARPing?

(Aaron) I started playing Dungeons and Dragons at a young age, but after a few years grew restless sitting around a table with other adolescent boys; there's only so many times you can throw dice at a target instead of rolling them to hit. We instead played some simple homemade fantasy larps in a tree-lined area near my apartment. I recall participating in a few organized larps when I attended a gaming convention in the Bay Area, but my larping really took off when I started my freshman year at UCLA. That's when I joined Enigma, UCLA's science-fiction, fantasy, horror and gaming club. They created their own larps called "live games," the summer before I arrived. I was hooked, and in 1990 I co-designed and produced my first larp for Enigma, a Call of Cthulhu scenario.

I've been playing and designing relatively consistently since then, with a four year famine in the mid 90s while I attended graduate school in Chicago--althought I did attempt to play remotely in another Enigma live game once. Too bad we didn't have Skype or video chat back then.

(Sarah) I began role-playing through online MUDs, MOOs, and MUSHes at 16, later transitioning to Vampire larping at 19, then tabletop at 20. I primarily played Dungeons & Dragons and World of Darkness games through my 20s. I wrote my dissertation on role-playing games, studying the ways participants discussed the basic functions of community building, problem solving, and identity exploration. After the publication of my book in 2010, I learned about all the various other style of role-playing games out there, attending conventions like Fastaval, Knudepunkt, WyrdCon, PAX, and Intercon. Lately, I try to experience as many different types of games as possible in order to have both academic and experiential familiarity with the various styles.

You’re currently Kickstarting Creating Educational Live Action Role Playing Games.  How did this project get started?  Why did you decide to Kickstart?

We had finished the run that created the six science edu-larps, but they were still in a beta version that used California Science Standards (8th grade); not something we could easily get to other schools in other states. We knew most states were switching to the Common Core Standards, so if these games were to go anywhere we needed to make some changes.

The biggest impetus was the absence of our 501(c)(3) status. We’ve been waiting for nearly a year, but then, there has been some issues with this IRS department. We didn’t want to wait an unknown amount of time to be able to apply for grants and recoup our expenses--we incurred all costs for development and production of these games. Plus, we felt that a Kickstarter campaign would be a good method of introducing Seekers Unlimited to the world. It was fortunate that we received 501(c)(3) non-profit status in the middle of the campaign.

Sarah, you’re a published academic author:  tell us a bit about your book and how it ties into this project.

As I mentioned above, my dissertation explored the ways participants described role-playing games, focusing upon community building, problem solving, and identity exploration. McFarland published this dissertation as a book in 2010 under the title The Functions of Role-playing Games. I’ve also written articles on Jungian theory, social conflict, and the phenomenon of “bleed” with regard to role-playing games. Aaron and I currently co-edit the annual Wyrd Con Companion Book, which highlights academic and journalistic essays on interactive storytelling including larp.

My book features a chapter that describes the various professional contexts in which role-playing is used in order to train knowledges and skills, including military simulations, nursing, psychotherapy, business, and education. Therefore, I knew that role-playing in education was not only a viable concept, but also a surprisingly widespread one. The main difference between edu-larp and these more traditional formats is that we’re using methods and genres developed in the leisurely “fun” context and applying them to education, as opposed to starting from a didactic, disciplinary perspective.

When Aaron approached me to join the Board of Directors for Seekers, I was happy to contribute my knowledge and energy to the project. I believe in the power of role-playing as a transformational tool and would love to see more children experiencing that process.

Can you tell us a bit more about the origins of educational role-playing?

As mentioned above, role-playing in education is not a new phenomenon. Theatre in Education and Drama in Education programs have employed enactment techniques for decades and improvisation is a common part of traditional theatrical practice. Both military and nursing programs use simulations in order to train people how to operate machinery, deal with crisis situations, and practice social interactions. Businesses often employ actors to run teamwork and leadership scenarios; they also use role-playing to help employees learn “soft skills” like interacting with customers. The idea that active, experiential learning is potentially  more potent than traditional lecture and book-based learning is not new.

Seekers Unlimited is inspired by groups like LajvVerkstaden in Sweden, Fantasiforbundet in Norway, and the all-larp boarding school Osterskov Efterskole in Denmark. These groups originated in part from the Nordic Knutpunkt tradition, which encourages avant-garde, high immersion, innovative approaches to larping. While some of these game designers may have experienced more traditional simulations in the past, my understanding is that edu-larpers transfer their expertise from designing and running games for leisure or artistic purposes into classroom practice. In other words, edu-larpers have had transformative experiences in games and want to bring these sorts of “learning moments” to the classroom, including performing the role of leaders, historical figures, and other new identities. Also, the experience of failure in a relatively consequence-free space helps students feel more comfortable taking risks.

We also know that role-playing games motivate some players to do extensive research on the time period or memorize copious amounts of rules in order to perform well in the game. Larping can also teach multiple subjects at once, both implicitly and explicitly; a scenario may involve scientific principles, for example, but the students also learn history, leadership, problem solving, and public speaking.  We’re hoping that the game format will stimulate excitement, investment, and emotional connection to the curriculum.

We know educational games are fun, but how can we determine how well the students are learning?

Assessment of the efficacy of edu-larp poses particular problems. We know, for example, that students participating in the all-larp Østerskov Efterskole show average and sometimes above-average scores on national tests, so the edu-larp curriculum is certainly not hurting their knowledge retention. However, we're not certain how well those methods will work for the diverse needs presented in American classrooms, such as the inner-city Los Angeles charter schools for which we've run programs. Also, assessing whether a larp scenario or some other factor helped a student learn are difficult aspects to untangle.

In collaboration with Anne Standiford, Ph.D., R.N., I recently conducted research on middle school students engaging in a semester-long Seekers program in Los Angels. We measured the students both quantitative and qualitatively--in other words, through surveys and personal interviews--in order to determine changes before and after the Seekers program. We looked at their intrinsic motivation, perceived competency in school, teamwork, and leadership. Overall, the students showed only slight increases on the surveys regarding these areas, but the itnerview data revealed a huge amount of excitement around larping as a pedagogical method. The most striking finding, perhaps, was that 100% of the 21 participants said they would like to learn through edu-larp in the future. If we can inspire students to enjoy learning through active involvement and play, perhaps we can keep students engaged throughout high school and college, should they pursue higher education.

Aaron, do you carry a specific educational philosophy into your games/LARPs?  If so, could you give our readers some insight into those:

The prime directive for us is to make sure the larps are educational, not just fun. We can make entertaining events, but we strive to not only activate the desire for knowledge in a student, but also to give them the means to acquire it and reward them--narratively and emotionally--for their efforts.

I also believe that knowledge coupled with emotional “baggage,” as I call it, lasts much longer. Studies have shown time and again that intrinsic motivation trumps extrinsic every time.

I also believe that the best person to teach students is their teacher--not clever writers (or programmers) who never set foot in that particular classroom. We work with teachers to customize our edu-larps to their requests, and, once we “box” them into a package for others, the aim is to give teachers a lot of leeway to control the lesson. I’m a game designer, not a teacher--though I worked as a private tutor for five years. My analogy is Seekers Unlimited makes the game scenario, the teacher is the GM, and the students are the players. Like any other game scenario, it is the job of the GM to tailor the game to their particular group. We are not taking over the class, we’re providing curriculum guidelines for teachers to motivate students to enjoy schooling. And teachers, too--they often have roles in the edu-larps so they can share the experience of make believe with their students instead of flinging lecture after lecture at them and hoping something sticks in their heads.

I have some experience in tying role-playing into education, myself--I actually ran Paranoia for a set of autistic/ADHD students to demonstrate 50s era “groupthink.” What unique experiences have you had, adapting LARPS to the classroom?

That sounds awesome! The use of commercial off the shelf games (COTS) is also growing rapidly. Almost everything I know about the early 20th century came from years of playing and running Chaooium’s Call of Cthulhu.

Only our first project, Star Seekers, was a classroom adaptation of an existing larp: Christian Brown’s Starship Valkyrie campaign. Everything else was created specifically for a class to meet state guidelines. The experiences we had are the same that any dedicated larper would have. Wouldn’t a nobleman in a medieval campaign know something about feudalism? If we made a larp like that for class, we’d only need to ensure that the feudal system was based on historical research instead of a fictional one.

One of the best experiences I witnessed in a larp was emergent gameplay. In our Ancient Mesopotamia larp for the Playmaker School, where 6th graders took on the roles of priests, governors, astrologers, and merchants in the early Babylonian Empire, one of the students stole some trade items during a market bazaar mod. A courtroom mod for the governors was scheduled for the next day, so I suggested to the teachers that they hold the accused thief on trial. His classmates were the judges, the accuser, etc. And the judges had to use the Code of Hammurabi to decide the case. That was a very intense, special time: it really mattered to everyone in the room what the outcome was, because that was someone they knew, experiencing consequences for an incident that happened the day before. I don’t think pre-programmed games or pre-programmed textbooks can adjust as well or as fast to accommodate the actions of students like that. But of course GMs do that all the time in any role-playing game.

How has gaming in the classroom changed how you game at home?  

I do much less of it, unfortunately. I always enjoyed swimming deep in research for the scenarios I make, and that still applies to the edu-larps.

Aaron, what adaptations do you find yourself making when LARPing with school-age students, as opposed to more traditional gamers?  What do you do on the design end to make LARPing accessible for a non-gamer student?

Something I always do before running an edu-larp is explain what live action role playing is and provide a simple sample scenario for the students to understand what is going on. Most of them get it right away, as they probably still play cops and robbers or other play pretend games. But I want them to understand that this edu-larp will be more structured and not as freeform. I also impress on the students that success or failure in the game does not necessarily mean success or failure as a student. I want them to have the freedom to try and fail in a fictional setting without worrying about grades on their permanent record. It’s entirely possible to fail in the game but still learn the material.

What scenarios could gamers look forward to, if they back your Kickstarter?  Stretch goals?

Balloon Race - Students learn about forces and gravity by racing balloons across the classroom.
Be Your Own Planet! - Students create and name their own stars, planets, and other stellar bodies in a fun game that teaches forces, gravity, mass, density, and concepts about our own solar system. Can their star systems survive interstellar dangers?
Monster Maker - Students role-play Dr. Frankenstein by creating their own clay creatures that duel one another by asking science questions developed by the students and approved by the teacher. This edu-larp introduces students to the basic concepts of chemistry in living systems.
Element Hero – With super powers based on the elements, students must stop villains attacking their city. An adventure that introduces students to the atom and the periodic table.
Noir - Can you solve a mysterious death? Students role-play detectives, forensic scientists, and suspects in a series of possible crimes. Using science and the scientific method, they gather evidence and form a hypothesis about the death. On the final day a trial is held to determine the outcome of each case.
The Great Phlogiston Debate - Students role-play actual scientists active at the end of the Age of the Enlightenment. One of the biggest scientific principles under scrutiny at that time was the theory of “phlogiston,” a substance that supposedly existed in elements that burned and was released when set afire.
Stretch goals:
$10,000 - Hit Seekers (stretch goal #1) – If we make this amount, we will be able to release Hit Seekers as a bonus edu-larp. This will be available in addition to the edu-larps listed above, both print and PDF.
Designed for remedial high school math, students take on the roles of music company executives trying to make money by signing fictional artists and producers and getting them into the recording studio to make an album. It was made to run for at least two weeks, but can be extended for an entire semester as an additional pervasive activity.
$12,500 - Language Seekers (stretch goal #2) - If we raise this amount, we will design a booklet of short scenarios for language teachers. These scenarios will ask students to role-play simple scenes in the chosen language. Teachers can adjust the level of difficulty, the vocabulary and grammar used, as well as play a character that interacts with students. If we make this amount in donations, Language Seekers will be playtested in a high school French class taught by Aaron Vanek's sister-in-law, who requested it (fall-winter 2013-14).
$15,000 - Stretch goal #3 - A secret! (for now)
A hint: we’ll adapt a published YA novel for an edu-larp

How can gamers (not necessarily involved in education) benefit from your research and work?  What can a GM learn from your efforts?

I like to think that we’re training the next generation of larpers; we have the farm league. The students understand what a larp is and they always want more. I suspect a good percentage of them will be looking for larps to play in the near future.

I hope that GMs will learn the power of larping and start to really harness it. I saw that power while running a larp for WorldCon called Space Cadets: Guardians of the High Frontier. A young boy was part of a team that was knocked unconscious by an alien monster. He was lying belly down in a tunnel maze we made in a hotel room, with the giant bug on stilts stomping around outside the tunnel exit. It took a long time, but he finally mustered up the courage to reach out of the tunnel and apply a healing pack to one of his teammates. Together they regrouped and defeated the alien. At the end of the larp I gave the lad a ribbon for bravery--it was a strip of gold cloth with a black Sharpie line on it. It was just a little something I thought would be neat to hand over; I didn’t really think anything of it.

Weeks later his mother emailed me and said he was still thrilled about that ribbon; he kept showing it to his dad. I don’t know for sure, but I like to think that that boy can sleep without a nightlight, or doesn’t worry about the monster under his bed. He was able to be the hero instead of reading about one or watching one on a screen. I may be quixotic, but I truly believe in the power of live action role playing to profoundly affect the participants. Why not use that power to make the world a better place?

I hope other GMs (and players) will appreciate, respect, and endeavor to understand that power. And use it for good.

Who else is on the Seekers Unlimited team?  Tell us a little about your group.

Not listed on the Board of Directors: Graydon Schlichter, a former attorney who works for Evertide Games.

I knew or know everyone on the board and staff, and know most of our advisory council. We are always looking for more help if someone wants to join. Check out our “Get Involved” page here.

(If you want more info, just let me know.)

What’s the next step, pending a successful Kickstart?  

Take a nap.

Then get back to work fulfilling rewards, getting the six science games to market and working on the next set. We have leads to do more games in different schools, which is great.

Once that process is rolling, I want to work on a professional development program for teachers. I’d like to help them learn to run or improve their skill in running edu-larps and, especially, encourage their ability to design their own.

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

Thank you for reading and stay tuned to future developments with Seekers Unlimited! We appreciate your support.

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