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  • Michael Matfess

Learning Through LARP

Live Action Role Playing (LARP) has been around for thousands of years under different names and in different forms. Some of them resemble reenactments that rely on specific roles and rules of play that make them less original and their outcomes more predictable. The many Civil War reenactments are excellent examples. One could argue that the war games and simulations common in our military are LARPs. The uniforms and the game play follow a certain script but may allow for real time decisions that give the participants a level of autonomy. The military has long understood the value of these ‘games’ for training purposes. Fighter pilots are able to experience dangerous situations in a safe environment where failure is understood to be a valuable part of the learning needed to be successful under live situations. While it is true that recreational LARPs haven’t always included specific educational components, many people have experienced social learning (empathy, teamwork, critical thinking, etc.) through their participation in them. However, more recently there has been a rise in the intentional inclusion of educational content in LARPs, the result of which is the EDU-LARP.

An EDU-LARP (short for Educational LARP) applies to LARPs that are designed with educational goals as integral components. Organizations like The Story School have adopted the goal of providing high quality EDU-LARP experiences through summer camps and after school programs. The essential elements to a successful EDU-LARP include a well written story arc that challenges the players to work together toward a common goal. In some cases, the ultimate goal may not always be evident to the players at the outset of the game and may actually be decided by the players as part of their exploration and the growth of their characters. As the players encounter different characters and situations they use critical thinking to plan their next moves and develop their characters’ personas. The key is to give the players agency and autonomy within the game which may lead the players in a path not expected by the LARP’s designer/plot team.

In an EDU-LARP, when players are confronted with adversity they will be tasked with using information and knowledge that may be outside their normal breadth of knowledge. It will be up to the players to decide how best to acquire the necessary knowledge either within the game or outside the game. This is the exciting part of the experience from an educator’s perspective. Players, when afforded the opportunity, will seek out sources of information on their own time (between sessions within the LARP). The player acts as their own teacher and seeks out answers instead of having information thrown at them in a classroom. The subject matter required for the players to succeed within a particular EDU-LARP may be all on a single topic. An example of that would be a series of challenges and circumstances where knowledge of the Periodic Table is required to succeed. As the LARP progresses the players will need to strengthen their knowledge of chemistry. Motivated players often use their own time and resources outside the EDU-LARP to learn more about the topic so they can use that knowledge later in the game. This style of EDU-LARP is very useful in classroom settings as the teacher can make specific lessons required learning within the LARP in their own subject matter. Longer EDU-LARP experiences, like the ones offered by The Story School at their summer camps, will include learning that spans several topics. The game design often requires players to learn topics that complement the skills their characters wish to possess. For example, a player that wants to earn the ability to fly may have to demonstrate an understanding of the principles of drag and lift. A different player may want to be a healer and must master a body of knowledge that includes anatomy, wound care, and infection prevention. Players are expected to not only demonstrate their knowledge to gain a skill; they may need to show proficiency with the subject matter on subsequent use of a skill and may even be tasked with sharing their knowledge with other players. This motivates players to acquire and retain information as a means of achieving their own goals, as well as their team’s goals, within the game. This style of EDU-LARP is perfect when teachers work together in an inter-disciplinary setting where they design a LARP that require learning across multiple disciplines (Math, Physics, Chemistry, History, Language Arts, etc.). EDU-LARPs are exciting tools that can be used in classrooms and less formal settings like camps or after school programs to created “Effective Learning”

In 1984 David Kolb published his 4 stage learning cycle (diagram below). He posited that Effective Learning (emphasis added) occurs when a person progresses through four stages: 1-having a concrete experience followed by 2-observation of and reflection on that experience which leads to 3-the formation of abstract concepts/analysis and generalizations/conclusions which are then 4-used to test a hypothesis in future situations, resulting in new experience; thus, beginning the cycle anew.

EDU-LARPs follow this model by presenting the players with situations (encounters) that cause them to observe and reflect on the situation in front of them. Their reflection should result in the formation of abstract ideas and conclusions that then provides them with a tactic they explore and test by applying it in the game. The result of the players’ efforts will then either allow them to advance to a new experience or give them feedback that changes the experience in a way that requires them to cycle back to find a better solution. In other words, the players must learn from each encounter and use what they have learned in subsequent encounters. It is this action of learning new things in stage 1, moving through the next 2 phases, and ultimately applying the knowledge in stage 4 that results in players learning new things. The iterative nature of the process, along with the self generated teaching, combines to help people retain knowledge for future use. This is advancement over traditional teaching methods as players engage in self-directed learning, repeat the learned information, and use the information to inform future experiences. Those lessons can easily be applied to the real world in the same way that pilots use their lessons in simulators to learn important aspects of flying a plane. The 4th stage effectively has the players answering for themselves the age-old question posed by students everywhere, “Where will I use this thing I am learning?”

EDU-LARPs provide a unique opportunity to motivate students to learn new material across a broad spectrum of topics in a way that rewards them for their knowledge and application of ideas and concepts. The result is “effective learning” that students will retain longer and use more effectively in future decision making and strategic thinking.

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