Graveyard of the Sacrifice is an Edularp1 which was created and first played in France on the 28th of May 2015 (the full text of which can be found in this issue). It was designed for 16 English-speaking students in an 11th grade History course. It was presented as “a game about memory, duty, survivors’ guilt and hope for peace,”2 to explore these themes and our knowledge of World War Two through Larp. More importantly, it was created in a country where Larp is not usually used as a pedagogical tool.
Today students need more and more motivation to engage in learning. Being born and growing in a world of high-resolution entertainment, they can resist the traditional, standardized, low-resolution activities found in a conservative school system3. The motivation behind differentiated teaching practices therefore often lies in the need for teachers to find a broader range of activities and approaches to engage their students, as well as transmitting not only knowledge but also competence and social skills. As such, Edularp holds great potential for education, especially where it has never been used before. In one of the most striking examples, the Danish Østerskov Efterskole4 bases the whole of the teaching process on Larp. Other scholars have endeavored to illustrate the effectiveness of Edularp, such as Sarah Lynn Bowman and Anne Sandiford in their comprehensive 2015 study5: “Out of these five hypothesized dimensions, the quantitative data revealed that students’ overall intrinsic motivation and interest/enjoyment of science significantly increased over the course of the semester. The qualitative and quantitative findings converged to reveal an increase in perceived competence in science. In the ethnographic interviews, students expressed a strong belief that larp aided in the development of all five dimensions and a unanimous interest in learning through edularp in the future.”
However, in a conservative system such as the French one, bringing in an unusual method such as Larp represented an extra challenge, especially in making the process understandable to non-Larpers, to the sudents, their families and the school.
Although a first-of-its-kind experience, Graveyard of the Sacrifice was well received by the students, and may open the way to more creations of the same kind. In this article, I will present the design choices that were made in order to fulfill educational purposes, how the game was implemented, and how it can illustrate some of the advantages of games in education.
Myriam Balzer, in “Learning by playing: Larp as a teaching method,” establishes a number of categories in which the organization of an Edularp falls, some of which appear very specific to this type of endeavor. While Graveyard was not created using this framework, it fits most of its requirement, and therefore will be used for analysis purposes.
Constraints: The main constraint was connected to time. Classes are usually short (55 minutes, resulting in little more than 45 minutes for effective work), and it is considered best that activities not exceed 20 minutes so as to not overtax the students’ attention. The structure of the game would therefore have to be fragmented into small activities, or different scenes, to be effective.
Project planning: Communication was the main issue here. The Larp was first introduced two months prior to running, first to the students, then by preparing a two-page design document to their families, who also had to sign an authorization for outdoor activities, and finally getting the proper administrative authorization. Notably, the activity raised no concern or opposition from either parents or the administration.
Learning content: Focusing on the Second World War, while challenging, was an obvious choice since it is a substantial part of the curriculum, and would help commemorate the 70th^ anniversary of the liberation of Europe. An important qualification for an Edularp is to have a set of knowledge and skills in mind which would be acquired through the game6. These will be addressed in more detail in the second part of this article, but they focused on knowledge of wartime problems and issues, and the development of communication skills.
Storytelling: Setting the game during the war may have been problematic, and ethically questionable in a European setting, as it would necessitate either to gloss over the issue of war crimes and collaboration, or to have students directly portray them, which could be considered too harsh a role for underage participants. Therefore, the game was set in 1951, a choice that had several advantages: presenting the subject of children and civilian populations in the war, and the aftermath of the war and difficulties of reconstruction, which are usually glossed over.
External setup: The game was built around the visit of a memorial, Mont-Valérien, where approximately a thousand resisters and hostages were executed in reprisal by the Germans. The visit was separated from the game, but the students were invited to use information from that visit to inform their characters’ perspectives.
Game design: The design document, context, and playing instructions were given to the students as a short one-page summary, while it was explained in more detail in class, so that questions and concerns might be addressed. The justification for the game and presence of characters was also explained. The students were also asked to research the impact of the war in different European countries. The final game would integrate two hours of workshop and two hours of runtime, including about 30 minutes of debriefing.
Documents: The core of the game materials was the character sheet establishing previously existing relationships between characters. They were created, with authorization, by using the Rollespielsakademiet template designed for the Fairweather Manor game7. This format enables the creation of short characters that can be quickly written, but described in a very effective, practical manner.
Therefore, game design for an educational Larp needs to be very specific to the objectives that one wants to attain. While in a conventional Larp theme or action may drive the design, in EduLarp the learning content and developed skills become the primary focus of game design.
Running a game is always a challenge, even more so with a younger audience and educational objectives in mind. Specific possible difficulties were therefore handled in advance.
Rejection: In Edularp more than in any other type, the phenomenon of rejection can become prejudicial to the activity as a whole. It can be more frequent with students than with adults participants, as the former usually have no prior knowledge of the activity, and can be wary of a practice they don’t know, be afraid of getting things wrong, or consider the “let’s pretend” factor of Larp as child’s play. Rejection here is defined as the situation where a player rejects the assigned character8. To handle this aspect, preparation is key. Students had been prepared over time using shorter roleplaying exercises. The project itself was thoroughly introduced and explained, and finally the workshops helped students prepare for their characters and make them their own. Having a loose template for characters and giving students freedom to alter the material is an effective tool in getting them into the game.
Break from character: Engaging students in a long-term activity can be challenging, especially in a foreign language, and a single teacher may not be able to watch all of them to make sure they don’t break character. However, very little instances of break from character occurred, and needed just a quick, in-game, reminder to keep focus.
Pervasiveness: A part of the game was enacted outside of the school grounds, during a picnic in which their characters took part. While this proved a good strategy to engage students in the game, as any break from routine will create surprise and more attention, it created some tension for the students as they were exposed to strange onlookers. However, as they didn’t have to engage in-character with any of them, the exposure was limited and didn’t constitute a hindrance to the game proper.
The game was flexible in structure, allowing students to interact freely as the teacher’s NPC character, Ms Greene, interacted with each of them. The in-game discussions were animated, touching on a variety of subjects, from ideology to personal drama, the experience of the war, and the upcoming construction of a unified Europe.
The game had been designed for a maximum duration of two hours, but was stopped a bit earlier as fatigue was taking its toll and would have resulted in a probable break from character. A debriefing of about 30 minutes was also run, to assess the students’ impressions and feelings. A week later, a debriefing questionnaire about the whole year was given to assess, among other activities, the game’s performance.
On the day it was run, it appeared that Graveyard had completed most of the objectives it set out to do. From a gamification perspective, by being played outside, using costumes, characters, and narrative, it made the school subject into an engaging activity. As a learning game, it enabled the student to research the subject and develop their skills in an active way.
While some students may express concern when Edularps are proposed, mostly out of shyness or fear of being pushed out of their comfort zones, once the game starts, active engagement and positive feedback occur more often than not, and it was clear to me that the game was a frank success. We can underline some elements which make Edularp an engaging teaching method.
The character’s alibi is the most prominent of these elements. In some students (and even some adults), fear of doing wrong or making mistakes usually prevents them from engaging in activities, hindering their own progress. Through the character, the fear of getting the wrong answer is mostly erased, and make the students generally more daring. As one participant described the process: “it feels strange at first, but once we get into it, we don’t give it a second thought and just go along.” Experienced Larpers refer to the elements that protect the player over the course of the game as the “magic circle” and “psychological frame,”9 and the character’s alibi as the means through which the player can distance his or her actions from those accomplished by said character. In more simple terms, the game process turns difficult subjects (the war experience, in our example) and tasks (sustaining a conversation in English over a lengthy period of time) into an exciting activity, in which they feel less pressure to “succeed.” The fact that all students engage in the activity at the same time also makes it easier for students that can be paralyzed if they have to perform in front of the entire class.
The second advantage would fall under the categorization of motivation and incentive. While those two terms might sound close, they actually perform different functions.
We can understand motivation as the reason why the students would engage in an activity, while incentive is about the tools that we use to engage players in the dramaturgy. In Edularp, those aspects may get confounded to the points that some incentives can be simply described as “motivation for character,” or “motivation for drama.”10 We will, however, consider them as separate entities.
Motivation covers a wide range of factors. The grade, of course, is one, and students were aware that high grades would be awarded as long as they engaged in the activity. The very novelty of the experience in the French educational system was also, clearly, a motivation to perform well in the exercise. However, it would appear that the appeal of the gaming process in itself played the biggest part in the motivation. The effort that a lot of the students put into their own costumes illustrates this fact.
Incentives were mostly character-based. Through a combination of ideological positions, interpersonal relationships (some characters came from the same families or had met before), and workshop calibration,11 students had the means to create a common narrative. They also knew that they would have to write a written summary from their character’s point of view, therefore having an added incentive to create the best narrative possible. This resulted in some vivid in-game conflicts and debates.
A trio of very willful girls, playing as communist characters started to sing the Internationale as a means to establish their sense of belonging, all the while facing the criticism addressed at the Stalinist regime. Another student reflected on the suffering of civilian populations through his character’s narrative arc, which involved his mourning several family members in the wars. Another student, whose character was born in a German family conditioned by propaganda, built a compelling character arc during which his character came to term with the horror of the war and the crimes committed in his own family.
The students were also requested to write a feedback from their character’s point of view to complete the exercise and practice their writing skills. Some did letters, newspaper articles, or truly heartfelt journals about their character’s journey.
This excerpt is taken from Camille’s impressive rendition of her character’s thoughts:
“I cried my eyes out when my father was arrested. […] When the Nazis came to knock at our door, I saw a flash of lightning panic cross the eyes of my father. When he learnt that he was going to be arrested as hostage, he was relieved! I could not believe it. He was satisfied to die like that, knowing that his wife, his children and his resistance network were safe and sound. My dear dad, up to the end he was so brave. I miss him so, so much…”
Romane shares her impressions and reflexions on remembrance duty:
“Before I came, I did not know I was about to go into a such a beautiful adventure. I learnt so many things and met really interesting new people. The Mont Valérien memorial was absolutely breathtaking. (…) I think this memorial, just like all the other memorials, really is important to keep people from forgetting the ones who paid their lives so that the others could live freely and peacefully. The ones who fought until the end for a cause that seemed right to them. I think they deserve remembrance. I want to see myself as brave as they are, just like my parents were.”
To conclude, the result of the first test run of Graveyard of the Sacrifice was satisfactory in regard to its objectives, and works as a good illustration of the potential of Edularp as an educational tool. Out of the 16 students, in response to an open-ended question, twelve quoted the Edularp as one of their favorite activities over the course of the year, and six openly expressed the wish to do more of them. That the game was well received was undeniable.
Therefore, we can conclude that, as teachers face more and more challenge in the course of their work, Edularp can become a great educational tool for teachers to work according to their students’ need for high-resolution activities. For students, the engaging nature of the activity is obvious, the fiction and narrative providing a valued gateway to the learning process while enabling them to construct valid experiences that they will retain out of the fictional frame. As an educator, of course, I see a lot of room for improvement, for example, more work on workshops, tailoring those more precisely to the need of the students, and getting better tools for evaluation. Furthermore, while the students usually show appreciation for this type of activity, we so far have little means to study and measure the comparative advantage of Edularp compared to other forms of lessons. But even with these limitations in mind, there is a lot of inspiration to draw from to integrate Larp in education and, through it, explore more diverse forms of education.
Muriel Algayres is a French Larpwright who has been designing games for more than a decade in the historically-inspired “romanesque” genre, as well as the experimental and educational style. She is a frontperson for the French Association “Role”, was recently a contributing author on the #Feminism anthology, and is currently working on the historical game “Harem Son Saat”.
The term EduLarp stands for “educational live action role-playing game.” Blazer, Myriel and Julia Kurz. “Learning by playing.” Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book. Rollespielsakademiet, Denmark, 2015, p. 45. ↩
Algayres, Muriel. Graveyard of the Sacrifice. 2015. Live action roleplaying game. ↩
McGonigal, J. Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Vintage Books, London. 2012. ↩
Hyltoft, M. “The Role-Players’ School. Østerskov Efterskole.” Ed. M. Montola and J. Stenros. Playground Worlds: Creating and Evaluating Experiences of Role-Playing Games (2008). ↩
Bowman, Sarah Lynne and Anne Standiford. Educational Larp in the Middle School Classroom: A Mixed Method Case Study. International Journal of Roleplaying, Utrecht School of the Arts, Urtrecht, the Netherlands. 2015. http://ijrp.subcultures.nl/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/IJRP5\_BowmanStandiford.pdf ↩
Hyltoft, M. “Four Reasons Why Edularp Works.” Ed. K. Dombrowski. LARP: Einblicke, Aufsatzsam- mlung zum Mittelpunkt (2010). ↩
For a more complete discussion of rejection , see http://www.baltazar.si/blog/knudepunkt-talk-rejection-a-clash-of-personalities ↩
Hook, Nathan. Identities at Play. UK: Open U, 2012. ↩
Hyltoft, M. “Four Reasons Why Edularp Works.” Ibid. ↩
The importance of cultural calibration in players and means to accomplish have been discussed in-depth by Martin Nielsen in http://www.alibier.no/culture-calibration-in-pre-larp-workshops/ ↩