This year, as the first year students experienced the crowds and chaos of Welcome Weekend, I also experienced some crowds and chaos of my own. I was at the sold out Indianapolis Convention Center (and Lucas Oil Stadium!) for GenCon 50.
If you don’t know what GenCon is, I don’t blame you. I hadn’t heard of it before last May, when one of my friends asked if I wanted to join him on the premier convention for tabletop gaming. GenCon, short for Geneva Convention (in honor of its founding location, Geneva, Wisconsin), is an annual convention where tabletop gamers, creators, and enthusiasts gather to play, purchase, meet, and more. In short, it is fun. Yet, I find myself often afraid or embarrassed to talk about my experiences at North America’s largest tabletop gaming convention.
It is my experience that many people look upon tabletop gaming (role playing games and indie board games) with a kind of “other” focus, meaning that it is a hobby enjoyed by some distant group unconnected with one’s own interests. There is, I think, something subversive in this mentality; it can at times be demeaning to those who participate in the hobby, and it writes off a whole cultural phenomenon without recognizing its beneficial implications.
I am not under the impression that everyone needs to enjoy gaming. After all, tabletop gaming is a type of play, and people of course enjoy different kinds of play. What is of concern is the tendency to write-off tabletop gaming as mere nerdy escapism, and as a result miss out on the many benefits of the hobby. I would like, however, to focus on the educational benefits of tabletop gaming.
The first example of tabletop gaming as an educational tool is a fairly standard one: it is a device that can be used to encourage learning engagement in a K through 12 system.
Consider the example of the quintessential role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. This system is designed to utilize basic mathematics and reading comprehension. The whole host of actions in Dungeons & Dragons are based around a system of roles and added bonuses. Each action can be equated an algebraic function, where x is the dice roll. By couching a lesson in algebraic functions in the guise of a game, a teacher can encourage learning through play and also answer the age-old mantra of grumpy math students, “When am I ever going to use this anyway?”
In a related way, roleplaying games encourage reading comprehension because they offer students a text to read and understand that they enjoy. Most RPGs have corresponding rulebooks, and in order to play the game one must both read and understand the text of the rulebook. And, because there are so many different genres of games, it is easy to find a student a game he or she is interested in playing, and by connection a book he or she is interested in reading.
In addition to encouraging engagement in the standard education system, tabletop gaming offers for players of all-ages experience and practice with an important workforce skill: improvisation.
Improvisation is a skill that most everyone needs sometime in their career. It appears, at face value, a fairly simple skill: it is merely the ability to act, unprepared, according to some set of knowledge or stimuli. But, as many people who have been interrupted during a presentation or report can attest, it is an art easier defined than enacted.
Though tricky at times, improvisation is a skill like any other, meaning that one needs merely to practice it in order to improve. There are a few ways to practice: you could make it your habit to be interrupted during presentations frequently; you can take an (often expensive) improvisational comedy class; or, you could get into the hobby of tabletop gaming.
Consider what a tabletop game is: you are given a list of information—character qualities, skill statistics, in-game knowledge, etc.—and asked to act accordingly. Of course, there is strategy involved, but as in life, strategy only takes you so far. It is easy to hit a series of bad roles in any type of game, leaving you far from the position to act out your plan. What results is the need to connect the information provided to you in a new way.
Sound familiar? Of course it does, because this is the same method and practice used whether you are answering questions at a press conference, or the guest star on Whose Line is it Anyway?. What tabletop gaming offers is nothing different than the skill showed in these examples; it just comes in a different (and, in my opinion, more enjoyable) package.
I conclude with my favorite educative function of tabletop gaming: social education. Many board games and most role-playing games require the players to appropriately read and act off of the social cues of their companions. In fact, there is a growing number of games which focus heavily on personal reactions.
Take, for example, the role-playing game Masks, which is a teenage superhero game which focuses gameplay just as much on the interpersonal relationships between the characters as it does on beating the supervillain.
A game and a system such as this can be an invaluable resource for players on the Autism spectrum, because it gives them a venue which to practice their understanding of typical social interaction. This venue even has stakes attached—negative behavior can lead to negative reactions. In this way, role-playing games offer an analogous model to everyday life in a safe environment.
Even better, the educative powers of tabletop gaming does not extend merely to those who have trouble with typical social behaviors. A well-moderated game filled with a variety of players also enables socially typical players to learn how to best include and incorporate those who struggle with social cues.
As with all education, I will wrap up with a bit of homework. I encourage my reader to go and check out a tabletop game, whether it be an indie board game like Settlers of Catan or a roleplaying game like D&D or Masks. Read the rules. Play it if you want. But take the time and consider the many ways it could be used to enhance one’s education. And, of course, have some fun!
Evan Holguin is a senior in the Program of Liberal Studies. He loves penguins, coffee, C.S. Lewis, and his favorite role-playing game is Fate. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.