This is expanded from a Twitter thread I wrote a while back. See the original (link)
Even though I don’t play much Magic: the Gathering, I was excited by the release of their Strixhaven setting and its a D&D crossover book. Between graduate school and my work in instructional design, I’ve never strayed far from academics in my life. Even my favorite TV show was set in a community college! #SixSeasonsAndAMovie So, an official educational setting for my ttrpg hobby was a natural fit. I immediately knew I would set my next big project there.
The idea for a pub crawl came up early in my brainstorming. Once I’d settled on that, it was obvious I would need at least five pubs to correspond to the five Strixhaven colleges, which are tied to the subjects of classes you’d take in the real world. Between working in education, being a parent, and playing a lot of ttrpgs, I spend a lot of time thinking about the educational value of roleplaying games. Somewhere along the line I thought, why not look at how rpgs interact with each subject area, and use that as the basis for the pubs and their puzzles?
RPGs’ relation to some subjects is fairly obvious: for instance, handling all of the stat bonuses, adding dice rolls, and judging probability on the fly is good practice for math skills. RPGs also seem to be beneficial for developing language skills based on the number of nerds who got their first introduction to words like alacrity, expeditious, and simulacrum, Baudrillard notwithstanding.
History and the social sciences are a bit less straightforward, but this is the area closest to my heart, since I majored in history. D&D developed from historical wargames, and it’s true that there is a learning there, like the difference between a glaive and a halberd. The quasi-medieval flavor of the game can definitely foster an interest in the past, but a lot of the facts you could pick up from the game are superficial at best and inaccurate at worst (look up banded mail for a benign example). To better understand how RPGs might relate to social science education, I want to discuss the question: what *is* the purpose of studying history and the social sciences? This has no easy answer, and there is no single consensus by scholars, but I’ve developed my own ideas that I think are often reflected by a good number of them.
The adage that “those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it” implies that history is useful for its predictive power, but I know of few historians who would actually make this argument. Knowledge of the past certainly gives us insight into why things are happening today, and it can give us good ideas on some possible futures, but it is a fallacy to think that a historian is therefore better equipped to predict the future than anyone else. We can’t be like Maxwell’s demon, able to tell the state of future objects because we know their trajectories in the past. Too much of history is contingent on factors beyond what we could model. The most compelling argument we can make about the analytical value of history is that it can help foster critical thinking, a valuable tool for navigating the present, but still limited in knowing the future.
At its best, I think that history, and the social sciences writ large, give us an appreciation of the diversity of human experience. Just, seeing that people think differently in different times, different places, and different contexts, and that’s okay! This can help us learn how to interact with people who are not like us; incredibly important in an ever more global society. My favorite quote along these lines comes from Robert Darnton, that “nothing is easier than to slip into the comfortable assumption that Europeans thought and felt two centuries ago just as we do today – allowing for the wigs and wooden shoes. We constantly need to be shaken out of a false sense of familiarity with the past, to be administered doses of culture shock.”
I think there is a benefit to studying the past for its own sake, just because it is interesting, but if I were to justify the place of history and social sciences as a curriculum requirement, I would defer to the appreciation of otherness. In an RPG, we can go further than observing or even immersing in otherness, we can embody it! Now, there is a danger here in thinking that because we read about otherness we understand what it is like to be other, but keeping this in mind I believe the benefits to empathy outweigh the risks.
As I mentioned on Twitter, the ultimate design accommodates both the wargaming-style traditional military history as well as a more empathic approach based on cultural understanding. I hope it is a good summation of ways we can approach history and social studies through the lens of roleplaying. In future posts, I’ll visit the other subject areas of Strixhaven and how they fit into the design: mathematics, language, science, and art.
Did RPGs spur interest in any particular region or time period for you? If you’re a social studies educator, how would you use (or how have you used) roleplay in the curriculum? Leave a comment below and please subscribe for more updates on Revue