Over the years, a few people have asked me about using RPGs in the TEFL classroom. I’ve done a lot, and have a lot to say about it, but I’ll boil this down to some observations and resources.
With kids, I find it’s pretty easy to do a whole range of things. With a number of the kids I’ve tutored over the years, I’ve basically done a one-player/one-DM game, using a simplified Moldvay Basic (red box) ruleset, but using language tasks as a substitute for a lot of die rolls… or, with the alphabet dice I have, using alphabet dice as prompts for language tasks that get used for resolving actions. This works better if your student is running a magic-user character, which of course isn’t really hard to convince them to do: Harry Potter has made child mages a staple of the 21st century kid’s imagination.
Your student’s character is facing an antagonist—say, a hostile goblin witch—and wants to cast a spell on her to prevent her casting a spell on him. You’ve been studying conditionals, so you tell the player that he needs to make a sentence that uses a conditional correctly, and using a verb beginning with whatever letter he rolls on the alphabet die.
He agrees, rolls a T, and says, “If your hands were tied, you couldn’t hurt me.”
Then you describe a flash of light and the witch screaming in outrage, her hands suddenly bound with roots and vines from the surrounding forest. After that, the dialog unfolds pretty easily: the student is excited at his success, so all you need to do is put some challenging vocabulary into the witch’s mouth and away you go.
D&D-like play isn’t the only possibility, of course. Here are two other possibilities:
- My wife used to play an investigator game with her (older, middle school-aged) students. Basically, the student would play a private investigator, faced with a series of characters implicated in some way or other in a crime—a theft, a murder, a blackmail, a kidnapping. The student ends up having to ask a series of questions, with correct grammar (or the character being interrogated stonewalls till they get the grammar right). The repetition of the serial interrogation is great for drilling structures or verb tense conjugations, and of course whatever vocabulary is unfamiliar to the student on the outset is internalized by the end.
- With larger groups of kids, LARP can be very effective. The summer and winter elementary student camps I taught years ago at a Korean university were practically a three-week long series of one-shot edu-LARPs, with each day being a new concept: one day was hospital day, another was shopping, yet another involved foods. Your teachers need to be on board with the concept, but it only takes a few organizers who are on the ball—and think ahead well—to make it work. Oh, and you need to order everything necessary ahead of time, because it’s very resource-intensive: kids use a lot of markers, scissors, paper, and glue putting together pretend-hospitals and pretend-restaurants and so on.
Working with adult students is a little different, mostly because they’re so much less willing to get into role-playing. (At least, Korean adult students are.) Also, they tend to be really, really reluctant to make solid decisions, preferring to have decisions be made by rote rituals like rock-scissors-paper or by arbitrary factors such as age ranking.
I’ve discussed these challenges to some degree in an essay titled “Thinking Big: RPGs, Teaching in Korea, and the Subversive Idea of Agency,” which was published in the WyrdCon 2012 Companion Book. (See here for more information on that.) In it, I discuss how language teaching and RPGing can work together well, and even provide as an example a well-playtested, versatilecrime RPG I made up myself and used with a lot of Conversational English courses, downloadable here.
In the intervening years, I’ve done some other RPG-type exercises with adult students. With private, one-on-one students, you often have to roleplay real-life situations: job interviews, client meetings, that kind of thing—which means you’re really doing preparatory and practice work, not using the RPG to broaden their vocabulary or deepen their general versatility.
With adult students in a classroom setting, I’ve done other kinds of RPG stuff—some games out of Mark Majcher’s Twenty Four Game Poems, which I discussed as a TEFL resource last year. I used the one with the bird feather and rocks in a couple of my classes (before conversation classes we canceled) to interesting effect.
Some commonalities and differences between adult students and kids when it comes to TEFL RPG come to mind:
- Continuity: Kids love to play the same character repeatedly, with their instructor (gamemaster) playing new and different allies, antagonists, and creatures each session. They really develop motivation quickly from the story and the continuity itself. Adult students, not so much: they tend to be more comfortable with one-shot concepts, and since adult students are less consistent about attending lessons or classes, continuity doesn’t work, and one-shots or short-term runs are the best way to go.
- Mechanics: In all cases, keep them simple and retool as much as you can to focus things on specific language skills. Pin success or failure mechanics on speech acts, and build mechanics and encounters that invite students to drill specific language structures or use specific (challenging) vocabulary.
- Risk: I can’t speak for students everywhere, but Korean students at all ages seem extremely risk-averse. You really have to drive home that they are not their characters, that failure is okay, and that rewards are forthcoming for risk-taking as much as for success.
- Chargen: Automate the generation of new characters as much as you can. For adults, statless and diceless games work best, since stats and dice make it look like a game and they often subscribe to the Buckley’s Cough Syrup theory of education (“if I enjoy it, it must not be good for me”); for them, characters (their own, and others’) work best when they conform to types familiar from media—the tough-as-nails spy, the mean employer, the snarky teenager, etc. On the other hand, kids benefit from stats and dice and stuff—it gives them something to hang their thinking cap on—but they tend not to be familiar with the same sorts of stereotypes as a veteran gamer from the west. Harry Potter’s a whole paradigm for these kids, and sorcerer-kid characters work well. Space traveling kids also work well, in my experience.
- Learning Curve: In both cases, you want to be into the game in the first five minutes or so, and minimizing any sense that they don’t know what they’re doing… but especially with adults, because they’re the most prone to saying, “This is too hard, I can’t learn this,” and once they’ve said that, it’s not likely to work.
Those are the observations I can offer at the moment, and for the near future I may not accumulate more: at work, the focus has moved almost completely to writing courses. I’m too busy to try to launch something in the area of an elective course, though if and when I do, it’ll probably be focused on geek culture, SFF, the status of games in modern English-speaking societies, or something like that. It’ll be a while, as I’m pretty busy for the moment.