Games in the writing classroom: designing and teaching an RPG creative writing class

Anyone who has taught literature has encountered the poetry face. For the uninitiated, the poetry face is somewhere between a pout and a frown and expresses the students displeasure with being asked to read into a poem after the student has already loudly confessed that s/he either “hates poetry” or is “bad at it” or more likely, s/he hates poetry and is bad at it.  Teachers have all sorts of arguments for why the student should learn to like poetry, and occasionally, those work to change the student’s mind. More often than not, the teacher and student reach a sort of detente, and the student suspends animosity for long enough to give the small concession that at least some poetry is not that bad.

A few summers ago, I had a student who refused to even tolerate poetry. I was teaching a three-week creative writing course for gifted middle school students, and whenever any poem came up, this student brought out her poetry face.

By no means was this a student who was incapable of understanding poetry. On the contrary, this was a student who excelled at nearly everything she dedicated herself to, academically and especially athletically. During activity times, she left the rest of her classmates in her wake, outrunning and outstrategizing all of them. In the midst of games, she thrived, her face glowing with joy.

After that summer, I began to wonder if games might be imported into the creative writing classroom to help those students who are adverse to writing and/or reading poetry. Last summer, I gave it a try, designing and implementing a Role Playing Game (RPG) that presented the ultimate quest of becoming a better writer.

The decision to gamify was made with more benefits in mind than simply motivating my one student to like poetry. I had a hunch that a games superstructure could encourage effort and build engagement in area that the students found less familiar.

I was especially interested in how the game could help this particular group of students. While gifted students do score highly on tests of their aptitude, they’re also likely to be unwilling to try out topics that they have to struggle with. Many of them are heavily invested in the idea that their fundamental purpose on the planet is to be the smart kid in the room. If a student has received praise his or her entire life for their intelligence, any opportunity where that student may appear less intelligent becomes threatening. That attitude minimizes the amount of risks that students are willing to take within their own writing. That’s problematic because my course was designed to present students with new, harder challenges in a room filled with students who are much smarter than other classmates that the student has encountered.  In these scenarios, students will often react negatively, belittling their potential, beating themselves up for answers they don’t know,  asking excessive clarifying questions on assignments instead of trying to figure things out on their own, or refusing to participate. For some of these students, their aptitude has consistently been so far in front of other students that they have rarely needed to really work hard, and they see hard work as a sign that they may be reaching the limits of their abilities.

On top of that, many of my students came to my course hating poetry because they were not practiced at it and thus couldn’t immediately understand the complexity of the poems. Some of them treated poems like riddles, looking for one key metaphor that unlocks the whole thing and then not deviating from that reading no matter the pile of evidence that tries to persuade them to see a more sophisticated reading. Others simply shut down when poetry was introduced. They can’t figure out the whole of the poem, so they are afraid to venture any guess about the parts.

My hope was that introducing a gaming superstructure would provide my students an incentive to take risks and work towards the ultimate goal of the course, becoming a better writer. I suspected games might help me do this because of the work of game theorists like James Paul Gee and Jane McGonigal, who document the ways that games encourage players to persist when they feel they might have failed, to develop alternative identities that enhanced imagination, and to solve increasingly harder problems while still maintaining that the process was fun.

At the same time, having multiple game elements in the course would enable me to solve another problem within the previous course structures, student’s less than constructive use of free time. Because this was a summer camp, students were not allowed to bring any work outside of the classroom. My class met for approximately seven hours a day, five days a week. Finding a balance of time of that time to allow all students to complete their work  and then come together as a class to discuss it was difficult as some students would read slower than other students. Those students who finished early had a lot of free time, during which it became harder and harder to keep them on task. Other students who took longer to complete tasks would then be distracted, noticing that others were fooling around while they still had to work. I wanted to see if game elements within the course would create opportunities for students to engage in individual work while they waited for other students to finish.

Gamification: The RPG Creative Writing Course

As I mentioned earlier, the superstructure for the class was based on the genre of an RPG. For those unfamiliar with RPGs, the basic idea is that everyone in the class is given a role to play. Within that role, players complete increasingly more difficult tasks to bring them closer to some ultimate goal. After they complete each task, they receive experience points, which can provide their character with new skills, new equipment, or new opportunities to do things within the game.

I asked each of my students to play the role of a developing writer. In the first mission, students create an avatar, an alternative character who would represent them throughout their quest. This character creation exercise closely mimicked an exercise that appears in a lot of creative writing classes. Students sketched a background for their character, noting their physical appearance, personality, and other traits. However, students also create character sheets where they drew the basic outline of the avatar, leaving out any interior detail. Students were allowed to add an item to their avatar for every mission they completed, just as they would in an RPG. So for example, after completing one mission, the student could draw a hat on their avatar to represent the treasure they won from that task.

I reasoned that this visual representation of the avatar would help students see the changes in their own writing. As the days of the course added up, students would see their work visually accrue on their avatars’ portraits, which would become more complex as they went along. In the first of my two sessions (I taught two sessions of the course, each three weeks long), I had students trace their entire body on a roll of butcher paper. I liked the metaphor that this represented, the idea that each student was represented just by his/her silhouette, gaining a visual mark of their progress. The size of these cut outs was problematic because students were spending way too much time coloring in giant outlines and less time actually working on their writing. Ultimately, I downsized the outlines to a smaller version for the second session.

To keep students engaged with their avatar, I had students write in the voice of their avatar almost every day, completing mission logs that told about what they did that day. I encouraged students to use these mission logs to develop their characters further and give them new experiences. These mission logs allowed me to check how students were processing each mission and to address particular problems with students individually.

After students had their avatar in place, they received new missions, series of tasks that would help students get a step closer to the overall quest to become a better writer, at the start of each class day. To separate these missions from an ordinary classroom experience, I refrained from giving the mission directly to the students. Instead, each class started with students going through a series of steps to win the opportunity to complete their mission. I created a character known as the mission giver, who was represented by a plastic Tyrannosaurus Rex. Each day students walked into the classroom to find that the mission giver had sealed inside of a treasure chest, which was locked with a combination lock. (To make it so that students could not simply open the box, I chose a lock whose combination I could change daily.)

In order to receive the correct combination, students were forced to solve a riddle, which I’d present to one class leader (class leaders rotated each day). The class leader’s job was to organize a discussion within the class about the riddle. S/he organized who spoke and how the discussion proceeded on the riddle. When every member of the class agreed on one answer to the riddle, the mission leader would then present the answer to me, and if it was correct, I’d present him or her with the combination to the chest so that s/he may unlock it and read the mission to the class. While the students were solving the riddle, I interfered only when it looked like the discussion was going too far afield. That meant that the first week of the class featured several long discussions as students spoke over each other. However, as the class went along, students began to learn how to work as a group and appreciated the value of drawing out diagrams to illustrate the principles of the riddles to students in the class who were having trouble understanding.

Each mission was tied closely into a project-based learning approach, which gives students tasks without a lot of explicit directions so that students can learn to develop their own strategies and approaches. The bulk of our morning sessions were focused on getting students to write a piece that practiced a particular skill within writing. After students had a draft, we then would consult a poem or short story written by a mentor author who could show us new ways to complete the task. While it was necessary to help students through comprehending parts of these texts in our class discussions, I tried to spend part of each discussion of the text asking students what the student could learn from that writer about practicing their craft. I then spent the final session of the day giving students time to work on revising their first piece of writing. For example, one day began with challenging students to stretch their descriptive skills. My teaching assistant prompted students with projected pictures of ugly fish and asked students to write as descriptively as possible. We then read Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” as our mentor text. Then, students took their descriptions of their ugly fish and put them into a story or poem like Bishop’s. Students would finish the day by noting how the mission helped them move their avatar further towards the goal of becoming a better writer.

The mission concept allowed me to stretch students beyond their strengths by presenting a new challenge each day. Some of these challenges were modified forms of traditional creative writing class lessons, but the mission concept also gave me the opportunity to bring in other kinds of missions. One of the very first missions asked students to rebound from a failure. I set this failure up by presenting students with an extremely difficult poem and asking them to read it. By focusing on the idea that the mission required us to read the poem until we reached a point of failure and then figure out a way to rebound from it, I changed the focus of the lesson from learning to read poetry to learning to persevere. I explained to students that the purpose of this lesson was to show them that all writers reach points where they feel like they failed, but successful writers see failure as an opportunity to make themselves better.

At some point in the class, every student in the class received a secret mission, which they needed to find hidden somewhere in the room. When a student found his/her mission, s/he must read it and execute it without anyone else in the room knowing what the mission was. Because these missions were individualized, I was able to develop specific assignments for students that encouraged them to take on challenges in areas where I’d seen them struggle. The secretive nature of the project gave them the excuse to practice that skill without fearing the opinion of others. The individualized nature of these missions also meant that no student would have to compare his/her work to someone else in the class.

Gaming elements were also used to introduce other elements of the course. Creative writing courses don’t have a tremendous amount of content that needs to be delivered. The primary content that I like student to learn are different literary terms. I assess their improvement on these terms by administering pre- and post-tests at the start and end of the class. In the past, I found that my students were very content-oriented after having taken that pre-test. That attitude created a disconnect between the way that writers use these terms and the way that students learned them. They’d recognize when I introduced a new term in discussion and then tried to memorize it so that they could get the points on the final test. I recognize that this was a necessary step, but I also wanted students to experiment with these literary techniques in their own writing.

To encourage this attitude, I worked the literary terms into the narrative of the RPG. Instead of giving students the terms in class discussion, I gave them each a handout called “The Alchemist’s Agenda,” which listed the terms and their definitions.  I emphasized that each term was an element that gained its greatest power when combined with other elements, as in alchemy where different natural elements combine to create something new. On the back of “The Alchemist’s Agenda,” I created a chart with a list of terms on the farthest left column and a number of blank columns. I then gave each student a pile of star stickers. They would award themselves a star in each of these columns whenever they hit one of three milestones. The easiest of these milestones was using the element in their own work. Students could also get a star if they detected an element in another writers work. They could fill the last column when they were able to find an element in a work and then demonstrate it to their classmates. Each of the first two columns were done on the honor system, and I only stepped in when a student had a question about whether a particular example qualified as a use of that element. The stars for the last column came from their classmates. To encourage them to talk to other members of the class, I limited the amount of stars that students could get from anyone classmate.

Three weeks is not a lot of time to effect change in students’ mindsets. No matter how I gamified an activity, I still encountered a range of students who fell back on old habits. A few hours before the final post-test, when students were supposed to be working on pieces to go into our class anthology, several students spent their time cramming in study of the literary terms. Throughout the class, some students could not proceed without asking more and more questions about what it was exactly that I wanted, not picking up on the fact that when I told them I wanted them to just write until they filled up the page, I was telling the truth.

Still, the final results of the class feel promising. Their final essays, which asked the question, “How does one become a good writer?”, presented answers that reflected a degree of sophisticated reflection on their own writing process. Many of them told their own personal stories of struggling with taking a risk and needing to change their attitude to understand that only by taking risks could they improve a writer.

In the section of the test which covered literary terms, almost all of the students got 100 percent of the answers right, which was an improvement from years past. This is of course a small sample size, and none of these results can really be reliable to say whether gamifying the class worked or didn’t work. However, the structure seemed to create a space where more students were willing to engage with hard material without getting frustrated.

On my end of things, the course was more enjoyable, but a lot more work. Planning out each element of the course required a lot of forethought and occasionally the timing of a particular activity would run long, which disrupted the rest of that plan. The work was also exhausting, which made it harder to monitor all of the nuances of the RPG. For example, the original plan had several secret missions and a number of side missions, for which students would get experience points reflected in stars on their avatar’s page. That plan was abandoned when it became apparent that I would have too much to monitor each day to make it work. In another classroom, all these things could be automated on a computer, but my students did not have regular access, and I did not have the technological knowledge to set up a program to automatically track these things.

If I teach the course again, I’m sure I’ll run another version of the game with a few tweaks. I suspect with a few iterations, the game itself would become more sophisticated and easier to run. Until that time, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to try something like this. I feel that it gave my students permission to fail productively. That’s a lesson I feel they don’t hear enough.


3 Responses to “Games in the writing classroom: designing and teaching an RPG creative writing class”

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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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