What follows is a guest post from Rebecca Scott, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Harper College.
As a philosopher who thinks a lot about teaching and learning, I have a tendency to experiment wildly in my teaching methods. I’m always searching for ways to make my classes more joyful, meaningful, relevant, and fun. Sometimes, my pedagogical experiments fail miserably, and other times they lead to unexpected and delightful encounters that transform my students and me in unexpected ways. A few semesters ago, I embarked on my favorite teaching experiment yet—I played Dungeons and Dragons with my Ethics classes. And what I discovered is that role-playing games have a lot to teach us about the importance of community and playfulness in the classroom.
Although Dungeons and Dragons has been around since the 1970s, my first time playing was in 2015. My first character was a swamp druid named Altheia, a foul-smelling hippy with low charisma, who often wandered off from the group to talk with forest animals and make rave-like light shows with her druidcraft spell. Our first encounter in the game was with some goblins robbing unsuspecting travelers on the road. We decided to set a trap and sent my friend Doug’s character, a scholarly gnome wizard named Jorsten, in as bait. Jorsten stood in the middle of the road humming to himself and flipping a gold coin in the air, while the rest of us hid in the trees, waiting to ambush the goblins (whom we ended up charming instead of fighting so that they could lead us back to their lair). This first encounter revealed to me the radical openness of the game. We didn’t have to fight the goblins if we didn’t want to; we could do whatever we wanted. It was hilarious and exhilarating and fascinating and fun.
What I love most about D&D is that it is both open and restricted in a way that allows for an immersion in communal play, story-telling, and imagination. Like almost no other game, D&D is truly co-constructed by the players. It’s not just that the outcome of the game is affected by the players’ choices, but on a deeper level, the players – together with the Dungeon Master (DM) – determine what the game is. The players decide its purpose, its pace, its themes, and its dynamics. Is the goal to have the best strategy? To create the most complex characters? To explore an elaborate world? To live out a fantasy of another identity? A D&D campaign can be all of these things and more.
As I’ve reflected on it further, I’ve come to realize that this sense of playful co-creation is exactly what I love most about teaching and what I’m always chasing in the classroom. When it comes to teaching philosophy, I want nothing more than for my students and me to be swept away by joyous and playful thinking together. I want my classes to be full of laughter, excitement, delight, adventure, and exploration, and also challenges, discomfort, bewilderment, disappointment, and even, at times, anger. In other words, I want my classes to feel like a D&D campaign.
And so, that’s what I did. In the spring of 2019 and the fall of 2020, I dedicated the last several weeks of my Ethics classes to playing D&D. Students worked in groups to create characters based on different philosophers that we read, taking into account not only the goals, flaws, and beliefs of each thinker, but also the particular backstories that might lead the character to have that particular ethical framework. They then made decisions within the game based on the philosophers’ frameworks.
When most people hear about this activity, they think of it as an example of a Bloomian “application” of concepts. That is, students take what they’ve learned about a particular ethical theory and then ask how that theory applies in a given scenario. But if the application of theoretical concepts were all that playing D&D accomplished in my classes, it would be far from the most efficient way of achieving this goal. If all you want is for students to practice applying concepts, you can simply offer up scenarios and ask students what different ethical theories would recommend—no need to spend class time creating characters, building a narrative, describing battles with monsters, and so on.
But while playing D&D certainly functions as a means of applying ethical theories, I have found that it has a deeper transformational power. In particular, the structure of the game allows for students to play a more active role as co-constructors of the learning experience. A fundamental element of D&D is that the players’ decisions shape the game. The DM can never completely foresee in advance what the players will do; they must respond to the decisions that the players make. It is this playful responsiveness between the players and the DM that makes D&D what it is and what makes it so fun. Playing D&D in the classroom introduces this kind of spontaneity into the class and creates a sense of unexpected playfulness that is sometimes lost in traditional lesson planning.
Typically when instructors plan courses, they are taught to use what’s called “backwards design.” You start with the learning outcomes (what you want students to know or be able to do by the end of the class) and then work backwards to design the activities and pick the readings that are most likely to help students achieve those outcomes. And while backwards design is an important element of good course design, if it becomes too all-encompassing as a pedagogical frame, it can close off generative possibilities in the classroom. Backwards design puts the instructor in the position of determining from the outset what the goals of the class are as well as how students will get there. Of course, backwards design does not preclude spontaneity or changing course along the way, but it doesn’t necessarily build those features in and can, in some instances, serve to exclude them.
Playing D&D in my classes, however, built spontaneity right into the course design. Of course instructors often leave room for discussions in their classes in which students may take the conversation in an unexpected direction. But with my D&D campaign, I didn’t just expect students might take the class in an unexpected direction, I knew that they would. The structure of D&D is such that it is necessarily a co-created experience and I was always surprised (and delighted) by where students ended up taking things.
For example, in one session, the players were entering a goblin cave, and the character based on Kant decided that, unlike the other players, he could not try to be stealthy, because doing so would be dishonest. So instead of sneaking in, he loudly announced himself and the rest of the party to the goblins. This led to a conversation: is sneaking the same as lying? Does it violate the categorical imperative? And if Kant’s philosophy requires you to announce yourself to goblins, is it an ethical theory that we ever could or would want to adopt? And once the Kant character has made this decision, the other players have to respond accordingly. What would Beauvoir do if one of her compatriots announced their arrival to the enemy? While I could anticipate some of the questions and themes that arose, the depth, openness, and co-constructed nature of D&D as an ethics simulation and not just an ethics discussion made each class surprising and introduced questions and ideas that I never could have thought of in advance.
Finally, playing D&D also transforms the class by centering fun and play as part of what it is to learn and to do philosophy. One of the most damaging elements of our social imaginary when it comes to education is the idea that learning and fun are inherently at odds. While we recognize that learning through play is essential for young children, it is seen as a mark of growing up for learning to become serious, and we often think that play is the opposite of seriousness. We are supposed to leave behind the games that tricked us, in our naivety, into learning. On this view, games are seen as clever vehicles of learning, not essential to learning itself. This is especially true for post-secondary education. Courses or teachers that are too “fun” are eyed with suspicion. Fun is good, sure, to get “buy-in” from students, but an explicit injection of fun into the learning environment is typically viewed as a break from the real learning.
But I want my classes to be fun not as a mere means to achieving a particular learning outcome, but as an inherent element of meaningful learning itself. Learning and doing philosophy are fun and they are fun because they involve playful spontaneity and responsivity. And these are things that D&D provides that merely “applying” concepts never could.
Notes on the Contributor
Rebecca Scott is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Harper College. She loves all things pedagogy and tabletop gaming. Her research interests lie at the intersections between philosophy, teaching, and creativity.