I’m probably revealing my inner geekiness if I reveal that I know what live-action role-playing games or “Larps” are, although I’ve never played one. I did once read a good book on Larps, Lizzie Stark’s Leaving Mundania which I thought did a fine job in reporting on what Larps are, including their popularity.
Larps are games where people assemble in a place, are given a scenario, and then proceed to construct their own drama. Think of them as a kind of improvisational theater that can last a weekend and you’ll have a rough sense of what happens. According to Stark, Larps are popular enough that some organizers have bought former Boy and Girl Scout camps near big cities and converted them into places where people can spend their weekends playing Larps.
You may wonder what this has to do with philanthropy. The answer is that educators are starting to use Larps in their classrooms—and the Gates Foundation is giving grants to develop them.
James Clasper, in this Financial Times piece first went to Denmark. The Scandinavians have developed a variant of Larp called “Nordic Larp,” which I believe is more like theatre and less like Dungeons and Dragons. According to Clasper, Nordic Larp is the third most popular organized activity in Denmark, eclipsed only by soccer and handball.
Clasper goes to a boarding school called Osterskov Efferskole, which houses 90 students in a building that used to be a nursing home. “Hand-painted coats of arms decorate the dining room and its basement houses a costume shop.”
Each week the teachers introduce a theme. When Clasper visited, it was H.P. Lovecraft week, and the students pretended to be British spies (in tuxedos, like James Bond), or the Illuminati, who were battling Lovecraft’s scary monsters.
Now of course one can see why this school would be popular. Who wouldn’t want to go to a school where you can play games all day? The teachers explain that the students do learn things. Trigonometry could be as dry as dust for many students—unless you’re told you’re a military engineer who has to rapidly construct a bridge. In fact, one student displayed a peerless knowledge of the intrigues of the Roman Senate—because the conflicts in her Larp showed her how politics in the ancient world worked.
According to Aalborg University professor Lisa Gjedde, the students at Osterskov are up to the national average on grade nine and 10 exams and above average on others. (The article doesn’t say on which subjects Osterskov students are above average.)
Clasper discusses some American organizations that are supposedly implementing edularps. One of them, GameDesk, is the one that got Gates Foundation grants. Another one, The Game Academy offers after-school sessions in role-playing games, as well as a summer camp that first began in 2016. They seem to be primarily devoted to role-playing games, which are board games and something less interactive than a Larp.
More Larp-like are the programs developed for college history classes by Barnard College historian Mark C. Carnes, Reacting to the Past, as a way of making college history courses more interesting. Carnes, who has been developing these programs for over two decades, summarized his findings in his 2014 book Mind on Fire. James C. Lang, an English professor at Assumption College, reported on what these programs are like in a three-part series in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2014, beginning with this article where he played a module about Indian leaders’ plans for obtaining independence from Britain in 1945.
The programs are popular enough that the professors teaching them have formed the Reacting Consortium, which has gotten grants from the Endeavor Foundation to develop more modules.
The idea is that the professors buy the workbooks (published by Norton) which include primary readings. The module then climaxes with a Larp-like event where students pretend to be great men and women from the past.
The modules may well seep with political correctness; the one on “Greenwich Village 1913” asks, “Can corporate capitalism allow an economically just society or must it be overturned?” which asks the wrong question because none of the bohemians in the Village would have referred to “corporate capitalism” – they just didn’t like capitalism. They seem like a cross between a Larp and high-school debate to me.
But I see no reason why college professors couldn’t have programs that actually were Larps. Here’s what I’d do if I was an English professor getting students excited about Shakespeare.
Imagine you’re teaching the plays about the Wars of the Roses, from Richard II to Richard III. You’d have the students read the plays, of course, and perhaps watch the fine “Hollow Crown” adaptations the BBC recently produced. You tell students they can get extra points if they read Shakespeare’s sources for more background on the characters.
Then you can spend a Saturday running simulations based on deep knowledge of Shakespeare’s characters. The professor could also be the game master, providing information and acting as director. I’d give students options: if they didn’t want to be characters, they could work on costumes or food if they also submitted papers providing the evidence for the costumes or the meals.
This class would be a little unusual, but I bet students emerge with a deeper knowledge of Shakespeare than in traditional classes—and they’d have a class they’d always remember. After all, what’s more fun: reading Henry IV or being Henry IV?