Ideas for an Actual Play Assignment in a Classroom

Ron’s ideas for Actual Play Reports have started me thinking about the usefulness of his approach for an upcoming experience I’m going to try in my 9th grade English classes.


Here’s the set-up: At the end of the semester, I will be teaching Beowulf to a varied group of 9th graders. I’ve been tasked this year with teaching a course that can reach students who have been challenged by English classes (some have learning disabilities, some have attention deficits, some are unmotivated, some have had bad English class experiences, and some are simply looking for a more deliberate pacing).


Beowulf is one of those texts which is challenging to ninth graders under any circumstance. It faces students with issues that they have a difficult time grasping and appreciating. Problems of scarcity, strange rituals, archaic notions of honor, mysterious monsters–these elements and more are baffling to first-time readers. 


What is the teacher to do? I’ve taught Beowulf many times, but this year, I’m taking a different approach. Since June, I’ve been creating a nuanced classroom game about Beowulf that involves resource management, tribal negotiations, and role-playing. For those interested, a rough draft of the player’s guide is here.


I’m planning to use the game as a way to bring the students closer to the world of Beowulf as we read the text. The game will put them into situations based on ones encountered by characters in the old English epic. 


But what do I do after we play through the game (and finish reading the poem)? I could just leave the game behind, hoping that it has done its work. But now I’m wondering about ending with a written reflection piece modeled somewhat along the lines of Ron’s “Best Practices for Actual Play Posting.” I will obviously have to do some tweaking to set up the writing assignment for students. But I would be interested in getting their thoughts. 


One thing that really excites me about my Beowulf project is this: In my mind, there is a lot of literature which is valuable because it provides an experience in a way that history books or other “dry” forms of writing cannot. But the experiential dimension of Beowulf is initially unattainable for many students. If a reader cannot fathom the problems and issues faced by the characters in the text, then how can we expect the reader to feel or to inhabit the text in any powerful or meaningful way? 


But what if a well-designed role-playing game can more dynamically put them into the world of an initially mystifying text? What if a student can become a character who now has to make concrete decisions and to discuss with her or his peers the crisis that is bearing down on the tribe? In what way can a gaming experience help a reader to better connect with a literary text–and, in so doing, to give them a more enriched experience of that literary text?


These are exciting questions for me, but it seems to me that I won’t be able fully to flesh out the answers to those questions unless I hear from the people who are playing the game (and who are struggling with reading the text). So I’m thinking that an Actual Play Response might be the ticket and that it will work on multiple levels: It will give the students a meaningful writing prompt, it will spark them to reflect on their reactions to two art forms (one literary, one a game), and it will give me some good evidence for how my game has worked (or faltered) for the players.


8 responses to “Ideas for an Actual Play Assignment in a Classroom”

  1. Angles of outcomes

    Those are some tricky vectors to place relative to one another. Here are the ones I see:

    • Appreciation for Beowulf as a story for nearly anyone, whenever – entails overcoming inertial and aversive barriers
    • Understanding and reflection upon Beowulf the epic, both of its time and historically valuable – ditto
    • Carrying out a required classroom activity – entails overcoming the "get through it, get past it, get the grade" context
    • Investing in a game and potentially enjoying it – entails a learning curve, a cycle of experience and assessment
    • Reflecting upon the story as illuminated by the game – requires the game actually to express relevant dynamics of this particular story
    • Reflecting upon the game as a structured experience – requires the game not to provide the story or any story as a discoverable but pre-written viewing experience

    … which looks like a lot! But not impossible.

    Ultimately it's the same profile of goals as a good scientific lab experience, which at first glance are depressingly rare, but if you know lots of instructors who are going their own way in the classroom, then there are thousands of excellent designs to examine.

    Wait, that gets me off track. I'm not saying you would emulate any of those activities, but rather, that the too-common and widely-perceived grind of the standard science lab period is like a stale wrapping on a great and unique learning experience if only the instructor is brave enough to peel it off.

    Before really getting into the document, I want to know more. It's not an easy question: why have students at this grade level, today's culture, faced with today's problems, encounter Beowulf at all?

    I don't intend that to be a zinger question, as if I pre-supposed it was answered badly. I also know that if the text is part of the curriculum, then it's not your choice in the first place. But I figure if you have the desire to wade into the thickets of those bullet points above, then you probably have your own answer, students' protests of irrelevance be damned, administrative curriculum requirements be damned. I'm interested in what it is.

    • Why Beowulf?

      Ron asked:


      Before really getting into the document, I want to know more. It's not an easy question: why have students at this grade level, today's culture, faced with today's problems, encountered Beowulf at all?


      That’s a very complex question, and one which demands multiple answers. Here are a few . . .


      One value of reading Beowulf is that it is a text which revolves around problems and crises: It shows characters responding to those crises in different ways, and also shows the consequences (sometimes unpredictable) of those decisions. Are those problems the same as the problems our society faces? Yes and no . . . but both the similarities and differences have important things to teach us.


      The problems faced within Beowulf are different than our problems: In our world, we face countless situations where groups and people are facing problems that our not our problems. This is the case both globally (the problems facing Vietnam, for example, are often not the problems facing the United States) and locally (the problems facing a single mother living in a housing project in downtown Orlando are not my problems). Does that mean that problems that are not my problems are not important or that I should not pay attention to them or learn about them? Holding to the line that my problems (or our problems) are the only ones worth thinking about would lead to a very narrow and toxic way of confronting the world. We should equip ourselves (and I should equip my students) to be able to build empathy: Even if someone (or some other group) is facing problems that are not my problems, I should develop the ability to see the challenges and difficulties facing them . . . and perhaps see a way to helping them or offering up solutions. That’s one way we can tear down walls and build community.


      The problems faced within Beowulf are similar to our problems: This notion might initial seem unlikely. The world of Beowulf is so different from our world. But if we develop the sensitivity to see some similarities, the text might give us a different lens through which to view these problems. To take one example, there are situations where a warrior of one tribe is harmed, and the members of that warrior’s tribe are then weighing the response: Is it better to wage war? to ask for some compensation of material value? to seek help from allies? to withhold resources from the offending party? To decide, I need to look at the options, evaluate possible consequences, and take action. The concerns of Beowulf are not entirely irrelevant to, say, the current situation involving the death of Jamal Khashoggi and the responses being weighed.


      Beyond the realm of problem solving, Beowulf is important because, in order to understand that text, we must expend some real effort to grasp the cultural background driving it. And if we are successful in that effort, we are gaining some valuable skills and tools that might help us to deal with cultural differences when we confront them in other contexts. Students might find the actions, beliefs, and values of Beowulf to be strange and foreign . . . just as they will find the actions, beliefs, and values of other cultures and communities to be strange and foreign. To develop an understanding requires imagination, empathy, creativity, and insight–and these are all abilities that can be cultivated and taught. Presenting students with a challenging text like Beowulf can build those muscles in a way that other easier and more accessible texts cannot.


      Beyond these more sweeping arguments, there are some other specific topics and themes that make Beowulf valuable: It is about how the “monsters” we face in the future are created by the choices we have made in the past. It is about adapting to new roles and changing situations as we age (and about how we confront our mortality). It is about dealing with conflicting value systems that we hold (for example, what happens when the value of maintaining honor comes into conflict with the value of  preserving health and even life?). These are all important, real issues and valuable to think about.


      Beowulf is a great text to confront these topics and others. And there is a real power to Beowulf both in terms of its story and in terms of the aesthetic experience it offers. But is not an “easy” text: It requires imagination and alertness from its reader. My sense is that a well constructed game (and in this case that means a game that can both stand on its own two legs AND also one that faithfully accompanies the poem) can assist in building those imaginative and intellectual powers.

    • Thanks! I have never managed

      Thanks! I have never managed to arrive at a conclusion about how these three things interact: pedagogy, with all its attendant institutional and professionalized baggage; therapy, or better, "self-realization," "personal growth;" and role-playing in the hobby sense, table-top, the kind we talk about here. I guess you could throw in performance art, specifically improv, although it's not relevant to this topic. Or for perspective, trade the last term out for martial arts or science (as in doing it) to find similar conundrums.

      The second term might look out of place, but as I see it, it's necessarily more relevant to K-12 teaching than is safe to admit. This teaching isn't just offering a social service, it's developmental intervention – a risky and conflicted form of parenting, like it or not.

      Anyway, I don't have a conclusion or secure position about those interactions, and consider all of us to be a state of discovery about them. That's why I'm trying to get clear as possible about the most basic goals of the activity.

      At the risk of over-simplifying, and thinking mainly in terms of design, I see the core concepts to be empathy and reflection: yes, "they" look different, but when you know X and Y, the differences are familiar after all, and you may now look different, to yourself, from when you last looked. To parody slightly:

      Wow, those Geats and Jutes are a bunch of thugs! I guess that's due to that whole 'scarcity' thing that was going on back in the Olden Days.

      And geez, those monsters they are always victimized by, they come right out of the bad decisions and bad luck in the characters' own living memory. They're not like invading aliens or "monsters" at all! I guess that's due to the primitive society back then.

      Wait … isn't all that pretty much the same as what we were just talking about, like, the world today?

      (later) Whoa. I just realized we are still in the Olden Days!! And Beowulf was showing us all the way back then how screwed up they were! Oh wait, how screwed up we are!!

      All of the foregoing is nothing but me getting my head together about what you're saying, not expected to be insightful. My one intended input is this: in none of the topics I mentioned above, can the result be inserted or implanted, it can only be cultivated.

      So the game might not work, or if it works, its degree of engagement may vary from person to person, or, and most importantly, for every person so engaged, the reflection may yield varying conclusions. E.g., my last line in the italicized portion may be taken as one such conclusion; it can't be explicitly stated as a desired result, only that those kinds of result are desired)

      I had to fight this fight tooth and nail as a prof, when I implemented a student teaching program which combined college juniors learning to teach with college freshmen in labs. The lab profs were told, wrongly, that they'd be getting "more help" and thus expected a crack squad of trained super-assistants. I replied, or rather retorted, that my students were themselves in a graded learning process and therefore would be in a state of flux, varying across success and failure, and that I expected them to receive support from those profs throughout. I also suggested that this process would be valuable for those same profs to reflect on the value of what they were teaching, or in many cases, were failing to do so. That conversation did not go well.

      Well, I think I'm rambling. To focus: what would be the best "wiggle" or "we'll see when we get there" points of the activity's design? The points at which you've maximized uncertainty about the specific outcomes? I'm talking about the full of range for all of these: the fiction of the game, the decisions of the players, and their potential reflections during or afterwards.

      P.S. To reply to this, hit the Reply button for the top comment in this thread. Use the New Comment field for starting new threads.

    • You continue to touch on

      You continue to touch on issues that are at the core of what teaching should be about (and also what some game experiences can be about).


      You wrote:  

      The second term [“self-realization”] might look out of place, but as I see it, it's necessarily more relevant to K-12 teaching than is safe to admit. This teaching isn't just offering a social service, it's developmental intervention – a risky and conflicted form of parenting, like it or not.”

      Self-realization is not out of place. I totally agree that, as a high school teacher, I have an obligation to do much more than just teach content or to build skills. The (often unstated) developmental work of teachers is crucial . . . though many teachers do not receive much direct help that equips them for that role. At least in my case, I was never told much about that aspect of my work. I’m hesitant to equate teaching with parenting, though there is overlap and, in an ideal world, teaching and parenting should work together (though differently)  to help young people achieve independence, self-reliance, and fulfillment. On any given day, some of my student can have as much time in my presence as they have contact with their parents, and that gives me a deep sense of duty that goes beyond delivering course content.

      “My one intended input is this: in none of the topics I mentioned above, can the result be inserted or implanted, it can only be cultivated. So the game might not work, or if it works, its degree of engagement may vary from person to person, or, and most importantly, for every person so engaged, the reflection may yield varying conclusions.”

      Yes. The levels/types of engagement and end-points of reflection will vary from student to student. I’d take it one step further and say that they should vary, though the structure and underlying assumptions of our educational approach often aim at conformity. In other words, education often seems to be set up to achieve a uniform outcome, but if we are interested in developing creative, thinking individuals, then we should embrace variance . . . provided those variances are also accompanied by growth. So if I were successful in designing a classroom game that met with different student responses, I’d be content and even eager to explore those responses.

      A bit of a digression for the Beowulf game, but one that touches on the work I do with students and that touches on both the issue of self-realization and the issue of an open-ended result: I’m coming to the conclusion that my sponsorship of a game club at school and to engage with students seriously in playing games is, for many of my students, becoming just as important as my role as a teacher in the classroom (though writing that might be heresy). In that club setting (and the club meets daily during breaks and lunch and even on weekends), there is crucial  social, intellectual, and creative work being done. And one thing that makes the club wonderful is that it is divorced from the concept of a prearranged, dictated outcome: Students can develop, grow, create, and imagine in a safe setting without the pressure of a test or assessment. In some cases, students have been learning about games used by me and one of my colleagues in the classroom, and then they find their way to my room during breaks and lunches to join the club. That’s been fun and satisfying to watch.

  2. Two quick questions

    How many tribes are involved and how is that determined?

    What are examples of the Event cards, and how many Event cards are there?

    Also, to observe an important detail: that all the tribes experience the same bounty/scarcity circumstances. Therefore our tribe can't enjoy bounty while yours starves, or any other inequity. Is that uniformity important to the game's goals, or is it simply a get-to-it, that's-what-we-did design feature?

    • (No subject)

      In terms of numbers of tribes and members per tribe, here's what I currently have in the rules. Note that Wyrd refers to the game master (who is probably the teacher).

      Here's what my rules state:

      Players belong to one of a number tribes—Geats, Swedes Danes, Frisians, Heathobards, and Wulfings. WYRD can decide how to do the sorting and assignment of players to tribes. A game can consist of as few as 1 tribe or as many as 6. It is ideal to have 2-5 tribes at the start of the game. 4-7 members per tribe is ideal. In deciding how to divide the players, WYRD should strive for a balance that will keep everyone involved. One member of each tribe should be designated as KING of that tribe. WYRD can decide the procedure for selecting KINGS.

      I want the game to be scalable, so that it can accomodate different sized classes. I also throughout leave the role of Wyrd (the teacher) flexible to handle the very different class dynamics.

      I currently have drafts of 10 event cards. Probably 12-15 would be good. The game will be designed to be flexible in terms of the number of class sessions devoted to it. The event cards are all based on scenarios occurring in Beowulf. Here's an example:

      Event 3
      Read to the Players:
      Two warriors belonging to an enemy tribe have appeared in your mead-hall asking for asylum. They relate that they have been accused of being traitors by their king, and they are now willing to assist your tribe if you will take them in. What do you do?

      After the event card is revealed, the tribes retreat to their respective mead-halls to decide on a response. The king (on the advice of other tribe members) decides on resource allocation, and this allocation gets factored into a dice roll. The tribe members also must prepare to role-play (a scene, a tableau, etc.), and their role-play factors significantly into the outcome assessed by the teacher / game master. (One thing the tribes are trying to accumulate is Fame, and a lame role-play will obviously not secure Fame). I provide guidance concerning resolutions on each event card for the person running the game.

      The bounty/scarcity issue is decided at the start of each turn prior to the revealing of an event card. As that mechanic now stands, there is one roll made which applies to all the tribes equally (e.g. the world is in a time of bounty), but then each tribe makes separate rolls to determine how this general state of the world applies to specific traits. This will lead to some differentiation so that a very unlucky tribe might be living in a time of bounty but not be faring as well as another tribe.  I also include the option to have one set of rolls apply identically to all the tribes.

  3. And the big question

    If I'm reading you correctly, you haven't tried this yet, but are in development for a planned event later in the current term.

    All right then, this is very important: never mind all that hoorah about adapting it to different class sizes or expanding it to availability for other instructors. It's this experience for these students, this time, which matters. That's the design consideration. That needs to inform how many tribes, how many students per tribe, which rolls pertain to each one, and to what extent the Other (monster) tribe gets rolling, because you kinda need that to be easy & likely.

    I'm not asking for any personal and specific information about your students; this is strictly quantitative. How many? For how many class sessions? How, and in what fashion, is it planned to be integrated with reading Beowulf? What other classroom work is involved in engaging with that text?

    • Here’s the breakdown: I teach

      Here's the breakdown: I teach 3 sections of 9th grade English, and those classes consist of 10, 13, and 16 students. So I'm thinking of starting with 2 tribes in the class of 10, 3 tribes in the class of 13, and 3 or 4 in the class of 16. The Grendelkin (monster) tribe will get formed in the process of play (players eliminated from their tribes immediately join the Grendelkin) so an extra tribe comes into play consisting of players dropping out of their other tribes.

      The game will accompany a reading of Beowulf (the Seamus Heaney translation) along my added information about Anglo-Saxon culture and history. I've been mulling over different possibilities for how the game gets incorporated. Initially, I thought of launching the students into a reading of the poem and then playing out the scenarios of the conflict cards after the students had read the relevant sections of the epic. But now I'm considering the reverse: That is, I could provide the students with some basic information about Anglo-Saxon society (relationship between Lord and Thane, the notion of honor, the idea of wergild, etc.) and then launch them into the game play experience, leaving the poem for the end (so that their understanding of the poem would be affected by game play). I might even be able to experiment with the ordering. 

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