What Table-Top Gaming Taught Me About Teaching

Friday, 20 November 2020 6-minute read

It never ceases to amaze me how big the overlap is in the Venn diagram of PhD students and table-top gamers. My experience of this hobby has been symbiotic with many of the other things I do, and in no place is that more salient than in teaching. Being a Game Master has made me a better tutor, but not for the reasons that one might think. Yes, many of the skills required to be a GM — a role which combines being a storyteller, referee, and moderator — are useful when facilitating a tutorial discussion: being able to improvise and adapt one’s game or lesson plan depending on the direction the conversation takes, integrating everyone in the discussion (especially those who might not be as confident), encouraging collaboration between people, resolving conflict or disagreement at the table, et cetera. Practising these skills when gaming makes managing tutoring feel more familiar, and the confidence I garner doing one thing bolsters me in the other. This is, however, a superficial understanding of the dynamics at play. GMing has helped me be a better tutor not just through practising the common skills involved, but by inculcating me with values and practices in contemporary play culture that have a strong benefit to how we teach.

Disclaiming Authority

The publication of D. Vincent Baker and Meguey Baker’s Apocalypse World in 2010 inaugurated a genre of independent games called ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’. One of the key design principles of PbtA games is the curtailed authority of the GM over the game or story itself. Its guidelines for the GM included the instruction to ‘sometimes disclaim decision-making’. Instead of the game being the GM’s story, PbtA games are all about a collaborative conversation between the players and the GM, where everyone has a more equal say in the world they create rather than the GM being the author of the world that players explore. These games are not alone in their questioning of a GM’s authority and authorship, they are just an indicative example. There are other genres that are do away with the role entire, ranging from GM-less drama games that implicitly adopt principles of egalitarian play to anarchic games that explicitly overturn these hierarchies at the table from decolonial, queer or feminist perspectives.

The diminishing control of the GM in indie games mirrors efforts to decolonise knowledge in a university and question knowledge is shaped by hierarchical assumptions about whose perspectives are authoritative within the academy. Students who bring different experiences and insights to the table expand the scope of the discussion, as well as the range of the curriculum, in critical ways. I remember a discussion that I had planned on Katherine Mansfield’s short stories for my first-year English Literature tutorial: I set a series of tasks with the purpose of teaching students to respond critically to secondary material, and set readings that corresponded to this. The class, however, went in a different direction entirely as my students chose to discuss trauma, in particular the gendering of definitions of trauma that assumed a single traumatic event. Rather than railroad them to my lesson plan, I rolled with it. As much as I was mortified at the prospect of having to lead a discussion on a topic for which I was ill-prepared, after having GMed for some predictably unpredictable players the evening before, I was much more comfortable with changing plans on the fly. I disclaimed my authority to the class, and said to the students that I was not as prepared or knowledgeable about this, but I was happy to go along with them as this was a much more interesting discussion than Henri Bergson’s idea of the qualitative multiplicity of time and how that relates to a short story’s moment of epiphany.

Be a Fan of the Players

One of Baker’s most valuable principles in Apocalypse World was the adage ‘be a fan of the players’: the MC’s role is to show the players’ characters in the best light, to make their stories interesting and dramatically satisfying, and to respond to the players’ enthusiasm and creativity with kindness and in kind. This is a lesson I really took to heart: I remember how difficult I found containing my excitement when my first year students examined the contrast of trauma in as a war veteran’s shell shock and two women’s recollections of their abusive father in ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’. I as excited as I was when my players try to instigate communist uprisings in my games, and I was astonished to see the just how nuanced their understanding was of the vicissitudes of gaslighting and coercive control. All I did was encourage them to develop their insights, contextualise the analysis within the framework of existing theories and definitions of trauma, and situate the ethical thrust of our discussion within the current legal and legislative climate around issues of domestic abuse. I tried to give them all the conceptual and analytical tools they needed to be able to articulate the perspectives they were bringing to class.

Playing it Safely

The most important thing I learnt from table-top gaming is to do with an emerging movement around safety in play, particularly when dealing with intense or distressing emotional content in games. People like Kienna Shaw and Lauren Bryant-Monk, who won a Gold ENnie Award in 2020 for their TTRPG Safety Toolkit, have been advocating for a safer play culture in the indie gaming industry, and likewise Faye Sutherland, Emily Booth, and Alan Jackson have been promoting this in Edinburgh’s local gaming scene. The tabletop gaming community already has in place practices when it comes to dealing with distressing material or promoting open communication regarding one’s emotional boundaries. This could be something like calling for a time out when something comes up, taking a step back, and talking above the table about what the problem is so that everyone can work together to resolve it and make whatever adjustment required so everyone can participate fully. I know this one time I was very much off my game when teaching, and I told my class this, and that I would be much slower to answer their questions or manage the flow of the class. They students were incredibly supportive and understanding, and were willing to adapt their style of engagement to this. This is something I wish I had done more when teaching, so I could normalise asking for adjustments that someone might need in order to participate in class more fully.

Where pedagogy is

In the 1997 film Cultural Criticism and Transformation, bell hooks says in an interview that ‘popular culture is where the pedagogy is, it’s where the learning is’. A community as vibrant and dynamic as table-top gaming is very quick to develop values and practices of equality and inclusivity that our pedagogy may benefit from (not in the least because these communities change more readily than institutionalised orthodoxies of what teaching really means). This is most salient in the ways in which table-top gaming is working actively towards a plurality and inclusivity of voices, and a safe and equal environment in which they can converse. This is why I find the growing interest in the symbiosis of table-top games and academic inquiry to be especially promising, not just because of the dynamics of gaming itself, but an emerging set of values in the gaming community that the academy can learn from.