Sunday, October 22, 2017

Children of the Earth

I've long been dissatisfied with the mundane ways fantasy RPGs portray dwarves (or dwarfs, whatever floats your boat). They are, more or less, short, stocky, grumpy, bearded humans, except that they live underground and are greedy for gold and gems. Like REALLY greedy for them. They're sort of gnomish but way more industrious. And, sure, maybe they have other differentiating aspects. They have knowledge of the underground spaces, can see in the dark, detect slopes, suss out new construction, and all of that, sure. But in the end they're just little people who have some quirks. All of those quirks provide ways to differentiate their powers and abilities from other playable races, though I've never felt like it was really worth not just being human. Even DCC has this problem, sadly, and I've never quite understood the reason for the sword-and-board ability for dwarves in that ruleset. Seems like any warrior should be doing shield attacks, right? Mostly, it seems (again) just a differential power, with no reason for being except for "Not a Human." I won't even get into elves and halflings, now, because they tend to suffer from the same, "Like a human, but..." problem.

What if dwarves were weirder?

I like to think of dwarves as being more like the mountains themselves than like the men in the mountain villages. In fact, I think about giants the same way. They are children of the earth. They are born of  the living stone (maybe literally "living") and take from it their flesh and bones, their character, their sense of the world. Different stone means different tribes. The granite and basalt dwarves are different. The dwarves around coal fields are especially odd (and flammable); and giants from those lands belch smoke and breathe fire. There are no sandstone dwarves, and none at all associated with sedimentary rocks: Only metamorphic and igneous rock will do.

Each dwarven "race" takes its character from its original substance. The dwarves of the Iron Mountains have grey skin, streaked with orange, and those who dwell in Cinnabar bleed mercury. The golden dwarves are beautiful and pliable, and desired by all. They hide themselves away, hidden from sight, protected from being stolen. Dwarves are of the flesh that is not meat.

A punch from a dwarf is like getting hit with a stone, and they have their own schools of unarmed combat. Such is the war they wage against each other, but they mimic the ways of humans to keep their true fighting traditions secret.

Dwarves cannot abide mortar and concrete. It smells of old death, and seems like an astonishing perversion of their very substance. They hate human cities for this reason. In every human habitation, they try to teach the natives to work stone properly, and with reverence, so that they can fit it perfectly without any cement whatsoever. But humans are stupid, and willfully ignorant. They can't take the time to learn, nor the time to coax the stones into their proper shapes. It takes a long time, and they are so short-lived.

Dwarves work stone more by persuasion than with blows of a pick, or chisel and hammer. They speak to the stone as they shape it, pressing their flesh into its flesh, and shaping it more like a smith than like a carpenter. Rather, more like an animal trainer, than like a craftsman. The stone listens. The stone speaks. The stone remembers, else how would the dwarves be born?

All the wizards want their secrets. All the elves want to steal their nobility, the mithril dwarves. All the humans pretend that the dwarves are just little, hairy, grumpy humans, perhaps from Scotland. They refuse to understand how wrong they are. They trade in the bones of the dead, looted from deep burial grounds. They will count a reckoning, later. Stone is patient. Stone can wait. Stone will not forget.

Dwarves (and giants) are the bones of the world, its blood and passion, and they have all the time in the world.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Romans... in Space (The Whole Thing)

It's been a busy couple of weeks, and much of my writing time has been devoted to completing this essay, my submission to the Southern States Communication Association annual conference. Give it a look. Note: I'm cutting and pasting from Word, so the formatting is a little bit wonky. I've also left out the appendices. Anyhow, give it a look, if you're interested.


Though most of the literature examining "gamification" in learning environments focuses on digital games and applications, use of game elements to "gamify" the classroom experience, or development of (usually digital) games to enhance student engagement, motivation, and other measures of affective learning, almost none of the literature approaches gamification as an exercise in role-playing. This article examines development of a role-playing simulation for the author's advanced public speaking classroom. This approach was inspired by the Reacting to the Past movement in history education, but differs in several important respects. A critique of the approach and suggestions for improvement are offered.

Romans… in Space! "Serious Games" in the Advanced Public Speaking Classroom

In the last decade-plus, "gamification" has become prominent in discussions of teaching and learning, building upon earlier scholarship in experiential learning, especially David Kolb's (1984) Experiential Learning Model (See also, Bergsteiner & Avery, 2014; A. Kolb & D. Kolb, 2005; Schenck & Cruickshank, 2015). The term "gamification" was first used by Nick Prelling in 2002 in the context of developing user-friendly, electronic device interfaces (Marczewski, 2012; Pelling, 2011), but the definition of gamification most cited in the literature is the use of design elements characteristic for games in non-game contexts (Deterding, Sicart, Nacke, O'Hara, & Dixon, 2011, p. 13).[1] Because the concept first emerged in digital communication, much of the literature available focuses on digital uses. Burke (2014), for example, defines gamification as, “the use of game mechanics and experience design to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their goals” (n.p.n., emphasis mine). Thus, theories and many applications of gamification were developed under a digital paradigm, so commonly are adapted to gamification models following the same paradigm.
Hunicke, Leblanc, & Zubek (2004) developed the mechanics, dynamics, aesthetics (MDA) framework to describe the essential elements of computer game design, and their work has been taken up as part of the broader understanding of gamification, as such (see also (Robson, Plangger, Kietzmann, McCarthy, & Pitt, 2015). Further, gamification has been deployed across divergent contexts in a variety of practical applications, including commercial uses and marketing, though its application in those areas has not been without controversy (Bogost, 2011; Zicherman, 2011). Gamification also is used as a means to add game elements to non-game leisure activities, as in the Zombies, Run! mobile application for walking and running (and zombie) enthusiasts (, and the Hero's Journey workout, a 60-day, bodyweight workout routine gamifies fitness development using a fantasy role-playing game framework ( Gamification also has a somewhat older counterpart in corporate, emergency response, and military training as the "Serious Game" (Cook, 2005).[2] It is important to note a tendency within the literature on "Serious Games" to emphasize that, though gamification may include game-like elements, such games are not always supposed to be fun or enjoyable.

Gamification in Education

It may well be, as Marc C. Carnes (2014) notes, that "play," as such, has a long history of vilification in educational literature, and that bringing the "fun" elements of games into more serious, non-game contexts may smack of subversion of authority and order. Nonetheless, educational gamification has proliferated, both in the classroom and in the literature. Dicheva, Dichev, Agre, and Angelova (2015) have reviewed the broader literature covering gamification in education, noting that, "there are many publications on the use of gamification in education but the majority describe only some game mechanisms and dynamics and re-iterate their possible use in educational context, while true empirical research on the effectiveness of incorporating game elements in learning environments is still scarce (p. 83).[3] The Washington, DC-based Educational Advisory Board, a for-profit consultancy, issued a report including a broad overview of game-based learning (GBL), suggestions for implementation and learning outcomes, and a list of challenges facing those adopting GBL practices (Patel & Vasudevan, 2013).[4]
It is increasingly possible and acceptable (even desirable) to gamify a variety of features of educational practice, in part because of the proliferation of games and gamification in other areas of life. Deterding (2014b) uses the term "gamefulness" to describe the increasing tendency for elements of games and gaming to influence the broader culture, suggesting that, "If ludification of culture captures how games and play increasingly inform other domains of our everyday life, we also can and must speak of its counterpart: the cultivation of ludus” (p. 23, emphasis in original). That is, since public and private life now feature games and game elements so prominently, and in so many forms and contexts, it grows increasingly simple to include gamification in education. Students recognize game elements as part of the grammar of public culture, and are able to apply them in non-game contexts. However, readers should also be cautious in the assumption that all students in all cases either will recognize gamified elements, or will to apply them in the way(s) intended by instructors. As with other literacies, facility with gamified elements is unevenly distributed among learners, despite growing salience in the broader culture. Even where gamification is implemented successfully in learning environments, learning and affective outcomes still may be uneven (E. Boyle, et al., 2016; Connelly, E. Boyle, MacArthur, Hainey, & J. Boyle, 2012).

Gamification of Public Speaking

Given the breadth of examples of gamification and game design applied in educational contexts, even in just the last decade, it might surprise readers that the subject of gamification in the present work—an advanced public speaking course—drew inspiration from entirely different sources. In this case, the major influences are tabletop role-playing games, a movement within history/humanities education known as Reacting to The Past (Carnes, 2014)[5], as well as game dynamics derived from this author's experiences with video games like the Civilization series and board games like Diplomacy. The author's goal was to develop an advanced public speaking course in which a game-like simulation provided students with a shared, fictional context and opportunities to role-play within that shared context in completing in-class assignments and activities. The use of simulation originated from the author's successful development of a group decision-making exercise in several semesters' basic public speaking courses. In those simulations, groups of students pretended to be members of a foundation selecting students for scholarship grants. They developed criteria for selection, chose "winners," and each group presented their selection process, their results, and then justified their choices in a 15-minute Q&A session in which the audience pretended to be members of the public and board members of the fictional foundation. As a test case, that activity demonstrated the applicability of simulation in the author's public speaking classroom and resulted in improved student learning outcomes in the persuasion module for that course. It also suggested the possibility of extending such simulation to cover an entire semester's speech activities.
Later, in planning for SACS-COC reaccreditation, the author's university hosted a series of meetings to discuss proposals for the quality enhancement program (QEP) portion of accreditation, a program to be developed around experiential learning. Shortly before these discussions, the author had discovered the Reacting to the Past movement in the humanities, and began to consider development of a game-like simulation in an advanced public speaking course. "Reacting" games treat history as a resource for students' experiential learning, not simply requiring that they learn historical facts, but also allowing them to participate by role-playing prominent "characters" in important historical events. Later that spring, the author fielded a game-like simulation in an advanced public speaking course, as proof-of-concept, but low enrollment in the course and the experimental nature of the simulated content achieved uneven results. While most students "bought in" to the simulated element, their limited numbers resulted in group-think when making important, in-game decisions, while the game itself was designed to create some degree of conflict of interests among participants. The game's intent was not simply to produce conflict, mind you, but some speech activities (e.g., in-class debates between game factions) did not go as well as they might have. Also, not all of the other assignments proved as useful as originally conceived. They would need either to be revised or reconceived entirely. However, it also was clear that our game-like simulation, whatever its shortcomings, had resulted in greater-than-normal student attendance and generated substantial engagement and excitement among the enrolled students. The course, though the results were not optimal, had worked to an extent that was difficult to ignore, and provided important lessons for extension and improvement of that first experiment. In spring semester 2016, a new version of the course was offered. In this work different aspects of course and game design will be described and assessed. Broader topics include course design and game design and their interaction, specific game elements and course speech activities, and integration of the university's learning management system in a course of this kind. Finally, student assessments of learning, engagement, and specific game elements will be considered.

Omega Station: Romans… in Space!

The broader conceit of this simulation was founded upon a speculative fiction, one in which the Roman Empire had never fallen, and in which they were beginning to engage in space exploration and limited colonization of the solar system. The choice of a fictional context was intended both to provide a real-world analog for their public speaking activities (e.g., deliberation and debate) but also to free their instructor from the confines of actual history. While the Reacting to the Past movement was inspiration for this approach, this author is not an historian, and a speculative future allowed for a situation in which just about anything could (and did) occur. This game design element was intended to provide a sense both of mystery about the outcomes of the narrative and some degree of player agency in how that narrative unfolded. Also, this future-Roman conceit was designed to allow your author (the game master, or GM) to draw upon the real heritage of Roman history, particularly its tradition of oratory, and especially upon the life of Marcus Tullius Cicero, perhaps the greatest Roman orator of all. It was hoped that the connection to tradition would also foster a desire among the students to take the simulation more seriously than not, a desire that was only partly realized in play. In this narrative, five praetorian families (Benedocto, Medicari, Novari, Palatina, and Skora) had been sent to run an asteroid mining facility (Omega Station) the fictional place where all of the action took place. Twenty students were assigned randomly to the five families (four each), and placed in a seating arrangement in close proximity to the other family members. The praetorian families and their interactions would serve as the social basis for the game element of the course, but that game would require tight integration with the course requirements, for a variety of reasons to be addressed in the next section.

Course Design vs. Game Design

One overarching goal for the course was that the speech activities should be central to our concerns. While the game was important for adding a sense of context, it should not be what we spent our time doing in class. For this reason, game "turns" were made part of the homework for the class, resolved between class sessions, and reported to the students via the university learning management system's discussion application. The game's mechanics are reported in a later section (see, "Game Mechanics"). The course itself, however, needed to be designed in such a way that the overarching narrative provided context for in-class speech activities. This was attempted through selecting speech activities appropriate to the narrative context, and structuring them such that each built upon the results of the others, making the game's narrative emerge from the actions taken, in-game and in speeches, by the student/players. In practice the relationship between the speech and game elements proved to be a somewhat uneasy marriage, but produced a definable story arc matched to the pace of the semester's meetings. The space available in this writing does not permit extensive treatment of the game/speech interrelation, but a brief summary follows, below, after an overview of the "game mechanics" portion of the course (see "Speech Activities"). The game rules used in this course are included in the appendix to this work, for readers interested in viewing them.

Game Mechanics

The game mechanics for enacting this setting included use of "characters" (one for each student) in the manner of a computer or tabletop role-playing game (RPG). Lay discussions of tabletop RPGs almost inevitably lead to reference to ur-games like Dungeons & Dragons and various "geek" and "nerd" stereotypes, but using RPG characters in the classroom provides students with personalized narrative spaces for creativity and improvisation, and enables the development of group narratives based on individual character arcs. For these reasons, tabletop RPG characters provide an important means to engage communication students through immersive and interactive play, with space for narrative and interpersonal improvisation. To define this narrative space, two different role-playing games were used, and then combined with several author-designed game mechanics.
The first game, Microscope: A Fractal Role-playing Game of Epic Histories (Robbins, 2011) was intended to provide an explanation for the students' characters—player characters (PCs)—of the history of their families and of how Rome had come to space. It helped us answer the question of what had happened differently than what is recorded in the actual historical record. During the second class session, the author led a session of Microscope to answer the question, "How did Omega Station come to be?" Suffice it to say, without going into too much detail, that the students surprised your author. They demonstrated great, often confounding, creativity in the unfolding narrative with unexpected events (e.g., alien artifacts discovered under the ice of Antarctica, a deep space shooting incident with unknown extraterrestrials, etc.), important ancestors of the Five Families (e.g., Jimmy Skora, Jr., Will Ferrell Palatina), and other oddities. The outcome of the Microscope game shaped the emergent narrative over the course of the semester, though not always in the expected ways.
The other RPG used was Apocalypse World (Baker, 2010) from which three specific game mechanics were selected. Two of the mechanics were used to provide player characters with role-playing archetypes (e.g., Face, Spymaster, Prospector, Tactician, etc.), with associated "moves" allowing each member of each family to contribute during game turns in specific, unique ways. The Face role was mandatory (as leader of the family), but then each family selected others from among several others. Not all roles could be covered by the remaining three players, ensuring that each family had particular strengths and weaknesses compared to other families. This design element was developed to necessitate inter-family cooperation as the players discovered the limits of their in-game actions. There also was need for a resolution mechanic for actions with uncertain outcomes. Apocalypse World uses two six-sided dice as a means to resolve actions taken in the game. The resulting die rolls would provide chances for success, success with consequences, and failure of in-game actions taken by characters. In the case where different characters engaged in opposed actions, two rolls were made and compared. In all cases, the author used this game mechanic to improvise narrative outcomes, rather than specifying die roll results, so as to maintain students' narrative immersion.
Several original game mechanics also were employed in this game, including an asteroid mining mini-game and a social intrigue mini-game. The asteroid mining element was the means through which each family generated income. The income could be used to buy ships, bid on exclusive mining rights in the nearby asteroid field, or (in an unexpected move by players) to bribe other families to take specific actions in favor of one's own family. Wealth generated in the asteroid mining-mini-game resulted in a "score" that added to each family's victory points, though the "leader board" was kept secret until midterm and then again at end-of-semester. The social intrigue game dealt with attempts at spying on other families, discovering upcoming Complications dictated by the game master, and enhancing the reputation score of one's own or defaming that of the other families. Each of these game systems, in combination with character roles and their associated "moves" allowed each student to affect the narrative course of the game (Complete game rules are included in the Appendix to this work).

Speech Activities

One of the greatest challenges faced in running this class was keeping the "class" and "game" portions relatively independent of each other. While it may not be immediately clear why such separation is important, it was critical. The course has programmatic student learning outcomes, which must be achieved regardless of course format. Incorporation of RPG content into the course was an aberration, and focusing too much on the game would detract from students' ability to learn to deliver various types of speeches needed to achieve specific learning objectives. So, it was necessary to ensure that the "game" portion of the course occurred outside of class time (for the most part), while at the same time providing context (and some content) for the actual, in-class speech activities.
Speech activities in the course began with a research-based informative speech, but most assignments emphasized effective deliberation and policy argument, including group deliberation, policy speeches, and policy debates. The informative speech required each student to provide a response to a specific research question dealing either with Roman history (e.g., "Who was Marcus Tullius Cicero and what were his accomplishments?") or with possible human futures (e.g., "How could asteroid mining help development of space-based industry and activity?"). Beginning with the Roman history, we moved to the current space programs (government and private industry), trans- and post-humanist theory, and speculation about the human future in space. Students were, at the same time, accomplishing course-specific outcomes (e.g., completing research, crafting and delivering a research presentation) and providing everyone in class with a sense of the broader context of the simulation comprised by the game. The goals of the informative speech demonstrate how the author attempted to negotiate between the "game" and the "class" elements of the course, such that students were able to meet specific learning objectives for the class but also remained engaged in the context of the game.
Beyond the informative speech, the speech activities were designed to build cumulatively, allowing students to scaffold learning outcomes from one assignment to the next. So, a Faction Deliberation assignment explored the elements of effective policy, and required each family to develop a response to a policy question (e.g., "What should be done to prevent piracy among the families?"). The Policy Speech required each student to provide a stand-alone policy argument that included all of the required "stock issues" logically required for such a speech (e.g., harms, inherency, plan, etc.). Finally, the Faction Debates required to students to debate matters of policy, each student receiving a chance to argue for both the affirmative and the negative side, in different speeches, in a modified parliamentary debate format.
The class and game elements, by mutually reinforcing each other, provided an immersive experience and a "serious game" in which students' speech activities had broader meaning. They weren't simply delivering speeches in a class, but giving speeches with longer stakes based in a shared narrative framework. Moreover, the speech activities were developed in such a way that "playing the game" did not interfere with the learning objectives to be accomplished by students taking the course. While the "game" remained separated from the "class" by requiring that game turns be accomplished in the days between class meetings, as homework, all of the speech activities required in the class were founded in the context provided by the game. The broader effects of this immersion were (for most students) increased engagement in speech activities and a real sense that there was something at stake, besides simply completing assignments.

Learning Management System

The course used the university's chosen learning management system (LMS), Desire2Learn, including features used in other courses (e.g., grade book, attendance records). In this course, however, the discussion/forum features also were employed. A separate forum was developed for each of the five families, where they could enter their game moves for processing of game turns, communicate with each other, and otherwise engage with the "game" portion of the course. Using this feature provided several advantages. First, it kept game discussion in a space accessible outside of class sessions. It also provided a means to keep records of student interactions and game "moves," making it easier to process and review game turns and their outcomes. Finally, it allowed the instructor to communicate directly with individual families, rather than with the whole class. Two other forums were included in the LMS, one for directly addressing rules and procedures questions, and one allowing for open discussions among the families. However, those saw little (rules and procedures) or no (open discussion) use over the course of the semester.
In practice, using the discussion forums did not work as well as planned. In some cases, students forgot (or were not particularly engaged by) participation outside of the speech activities. This failure to engage sometimes had the effect of slowing down the pace of the game turns. Originally, the class was supposed to complete twenty-five turns, but only nineteen had been resolved by semester's end. Processing the game turns also became increasingly cumbersome as the semester progress, simply due to the overwhelming amount of information.


In-game narrative intrusions, termed "complications" in the game, were introduced at various points in the semester. Complications took the form of narrative descriptions of in-game events to which the families, and individual players, would have to react or adapt. The author had used such a narrative device in the scholarship board simulation, described above, to good effect. With the introduction of such complications, players might be moved to respond creatively to unanticipated challenges or take advantage of unexpected opportunities. One such complication also served as a means to demonstrate the concept of deliberation. Early in the semester, once the students had a basic grasp of the mining/wealth generation part of the game, those functions seemed routine to many. However, the news of a miners' strike (Complication!) created a situation in which asteroids captured for mining could not be used to generate wealth for the families. On the instructor side of the equation, there was no specific answer or outcome sought. It was important merely as an exercise through which the concept of deliberation could be introduced, so that the students might get some experience prior the Faction Deliberation assignment. A full session of the class was set aside to address a specific policy question, "What should be done to end the miners' strike?" This session created both an opportunity for learning, but also a series of narrative consequences that would continue to unfold over the course of the semester.
In practice, thatclass session was organized as a legislative deliberation. Individuals (speaking for themselves or for their families) were invited to contribute to a broader understanding of the causes of the strike, the conditions resulting from it, possible remedies and their potential advantages/disadvantages, and even to consider the broader framework of values underlying the discussion. This was the first occasion when a student suggested a violent solution to an in-game problem—literally killing the strike leaders to bring the others in line. This caused a great deal of controversy, and motivated others to advance less violent solutions. Though the problem ultimately was solved in peaceful fashion, by implementing safer working conditions and granting time off for vacations and free transport to Terra Roma, at least one student continued to be troubled, stating in the course assessment (discussed in next section):
I didn't like the idea of a violent game. In the hall way, after a debate speech I gave where I made a claim against a class mate, this class mate actually continued the fuss about a claim I made against him. This can be dangerous. Violent games get people engaged and it can go overboard sometimes. (personal communication, April 2016)
The author was not notified of the incident at the time it occurred, but it clearly indicates that narrative immersion can generate passionate responses, and that it's important for instructors using such course designs to account for possible negative interactions, both between students and between individual students and game elements. While some themes might be completely out-of-bounds for the course (e.g., violent or eliminationist rhetorics, sexually explicit content) it's also important to find ways to include explicit discussion of what is/is not acceptable in terms of interaction, game themes, or even specific game mechanics (e.g., piracy) in the context of students' personal growth and development. While the author believes it's important that students engage with, and learn to discuss productively, a variety of themes that might come up in class (even troubling ones), such latitude should also include discussion of interpersonal empathy, honoring of diverse viewpoints, and professional interaction with one's colleagues.

Assessment of Course

At the end of the semester, students were asked to complete an assessment of the course. Several quantitative items asked them to report self-assessment of course learning outcomes, level of engagement with various course elements, changes in confidence in public speaking, and prior experience with various types of game activities. Open-ended items asked them to reflect upon their initial expectations, lessons learned, impact of the game upon in-class speeches, what they enjoyed least/most about the class, and "other comments about the game or class." While there is not sufficient space to review all of these elements, we will consider the students' assessments of their learning outcomes.

Self-Reported Learning Outcomes

The course in question has the following learning outcomes:
  • Students will be able to deliver oral and written communication appropriate to instructor-specified situations and audiences.
Assessment: Oral presentations and accompanying written work evaluated with associated rubrics.
  • Students will develop significant academic research for appropriate oral and written communication.
Assessment: Oral and written work evaluated with associated rubrics.

Several questions were asked regarding learning outcomes, and student responded to them using a Likert scale indicator, with "1" indicating lowest/most negative assessment, and "5" indicating highest/most positive assessment of the item. Nineteen of twenty students responded to the assessment.

Learning Outcome 1

Q4: As a result of taking this class do you feel you are able to develop oral presentations tailored to specific situations? (Avg 4.37, N=19)
Q5: As a result of taking this class do you feel you are able to develop oral presentations tailored to specific audiences? (Avg 4.42, N=19)
Students provided strong positive self-assessment, for these items, of growth in their ability to create presentations adapted to specific situations and audiences, with 15 and 17 students, respectively, reporting "4" and "5" results, and none reporting "1" or "2" results. Further, analysis of students' open-ended responses suggested that some of this self-assessed growth resulted from the game and narrative features of the course, particularly the contiguity between the role-playing elements and students' ability to perform in specific speeches. In brief, playing a role provided students with a better sense of the connection between self-as-speaker and the co-constructed narrative framework. Their speeches were not simply being addressed to a "pretend" audience that is unknown/unknowable because it's hypothetical, but to a specific, known audience and situation which, though it is based on pretense, is both known and possesses a certain narrative coherence contiguous with specific assignments. The shared framework afforded by game play allowed for a clearer sense of the audience to whom their speeches were addressed, and the available means of persuasion for addressing that audience.
The instructor's evaluations of their speech and debate performances tended, with some exceptions, to support the students' self assessments. The degree to which these students addressed both this specific audience and the specific situations to which their speeches pertained, demonstrated superior results when compared to other more "standard" iterations of the course. They knew whom they were addressing, and they were better able to determine what situation-specific arguments might move this audience.

Learning Outcome 2

The second learning outcome, however, was not achieved at as high a level. In this case students were asked:
Q6: As a result of taking this course do you feel better prepared to answer a research question as part of developing an oral presentation? (Avg 3.84, N=19)
In this case, only 13 students reported positive (4 or 5) results, while 5 reported neutral (3) and one student reported a negative (2) result. In future courses of this type, the author will address this shortcoming by requiring additional research in both of their prepared speeches (informative and policy), and spending more in-class time discussing the importance of research and factual argument in policy deliberation.
In this case, the instructor's evaluations support the students' own self-assessment. While most of the informative speeches demonstrated effective use of research, including appropriate citation techniques, the depth of research was not as profound as it should have been, based on assessment of the annotated bibliographies submitted to as part of their written work. Further, while students were asked to complete an ungraded outline in preparation of the speech, only a few of them actually completed that component. In future courses of this type it will be important to integrate the research, writing, and speech components more explicitly, and to make the written components more rigorous.

Assignment Specific Outcomes

The author also was interested in student assessment of specific assignments used in the course, including evaluation/critique of students' own, and other students', speech and debate performances. The following questions and results captured those elements of the assessment:
Q7: As a result of this course do you feel better prepared to evaluate and critique your own oral communication performances? (Avg 4.37, N=19)
As with Learning Outcome 1, students reported strong positive assessments of growth in their ability to evaluate their own performances. The self-critique assignment asked the students to write a minimum of three pages, and to "provide description and analysis of your speech performance, and describe specific goals for improving it… [and to] discuss your role in the simulation, and how you incorporated it into the performance you gave, the topics you covered, and so forth" (course syllabus). While many of the students demonstrated insight and attention to detail in completing this assignment, the instructor's evaluation of these assignments noted that self-assessment of learning and development often took a secondary role to description of the speeches' game-related content. In the future, it will be important to include additional discussion of effective self-critique process, and to develop an assignment more focused on speech performance and improvement.
Students also were required to critique others' performances, and were provided with rubrics with which to do so. It was assessed as follows:
Q8: As a result of this course do you feel better prepared to evaluate and critique other people's oral communication performances? (Avg 4.21, N=19)
Students reported relatively strong positive self-assessment of their abilities to critique others, but the instructor's assessment is somewhat more negative. Simply put, the rubrics were not the best instrument for the job, as they simply required that students check boxes and assign scores. They were simple to complete, but resulted in shallow assessment of others. It is one thing to assess something as effective or ineffective, but another to suggest what changes or improvements might be made. In the future, it will be important to require that such assessments be justified using specific, detailed notes, and require provision of actionable feedback.


Experiential learning theory suggests that deep and authentic learning is supported by curriculum that allows students to become engaged actively with material, to experience learning through action and not simply through rote learning or context-free practice. This author believes that a course based around game-like simulation including role-playing game elements is an effective way to provide effective experiential learning in an advanced public speaking class. However, such an approach creates significant challenges, even when the instructor is well-acquainted with both the course material and the means to simulate situations in which persistent role-play is possible.
Among the greatest challenges is understanding (and accepting) that, while some students will become very engaged in such a course, it may lack appeal for others. Further, it is impossible to know in advance how many students, or which ones, will be productively engaged by the simulation. While the author's students, in general, reported high engagement and interest with the course when it was run in this manner, approximately ten percent of them stated explicitly that the approach was not something that interested them. They would have preferred a more standard approach to the course, and the "game" failed to engage them. As noted above, even getting them in the classroom is no guarantee that the students will engage the course as expected. Some will not. Also, it's difficult to determine in advance what kinds of assignments, when included in a game-like simulation, will help students best to learn the expected knowledge and acquire the requisite skill sets. Even when "the course" and "the game" are well-matched, students' engagement and learning are not assured. A student can be a creative, engaged role-player in the game, but still demonstrate average or poor ability in completing required work for the course. That said, the same situation would seem to pertain to any form a course might take: Some students will engage, some will do the work, and others will not. At least with an immersive scenario like the one described in this work, more students tended to be more engaged, and, very importantly, they actually attended class at a greater rate than non-game iterations of the course. Further, no students dropped the course and no one failed to achieve a passing grade, something unprecedented in the author's experience.
Another significant challenge represented by using a game-like simulation is that it's nearly impossible to play-test such a scenario in advance of implementation. The only time an instructor is able to assemble enough "players" to fill a course is when they come into his or her classroom. This makes it difficult to align coursework with simulated elements during the first iteration of such a course. However, assuming that one's academic department and institution are supportive of this sort of approach to instruction, further iterations of the course get progressively better. This assertion is supported by the author's previous experience using immersive games in a basic course in public speaking. Successive uses of a group speech based in a role-played situation allowed for better results. Experience with adverse outcomes and conditions provide opportunities for instructors to improve the course and its delivery. As a result, students' experience of the simulation/scenario and achievement of desired learning outcomes improve relatively quickly after the first iteration. It is worth taking the risk, and learning from the mistakes that one will inevitably encounter, when fielding either a discrete assignment or, as in this case, an entire course relying on role-play, game-like simulation, and the various course work such scenarios support.
Finally, the "game" element of this course was complex, perhaps needlessly so. Though it hasn't been discussed extensively, the sheer amount of bookkeeping required for logging individual players moves and their results was nearly insupportable, requiring at least an hour per turn to document, to process, and to notify students of the results. This alone slowed down the game, and took time away from more productive elements of the course's implementation. As suggested above, only a few students really relished the complexity of the game elements (e.g., turns, character "moves," etc.) and some outright hated them. In design, these elements were supposed to make the simulation more "real" and promote immersion. Instead, they may have created a situation where the complexity caused many students either to be confused by or to tune out the "game" part of the course. Nonetheless, most students were deeply engaged by the more narrative elements, and enjoyed role-play as an element of their experience in the advanced public speaking course. In future iterations, the course might benefit by emulating the "foundation board" exercise from the basic course in public speaking, dropping the rules-heavy elements, and engaging in more improvisational role-play to drive the emergent narrative. The narrative, in fact, seems to be what drives most of the engagement. Students are interested in seeing what comes next, and engaged in taking part in the story. Even simpler "gamified" elements like leader boards and achievements, as used in this course, didn't have the effect (or as much effect as intended) of increasing student engagement through competition between the families. Most didn't care, and some disengaged because their team wasn't "winning." Others became so engaged by it that they violated significant professional and social norms, making other students uncomfortable, as discussed above. "Gamification" in that sense may not be suitable for every classroom.
Even with these challenges, this author's experience using the Omega Station: Romans… in Space! simulation in an advanced public speaking classroom was overwhelmingly positive. Most of the students remained engaged throughout the semester, taking part enthusiastically in the class activities and nearly every student attended every class. During discussion with students at the end of the semester, many of them were effusive in their praise for the course. Even those who were less engaged acknowledged that they appreciated the experience, though it was not one they would care to repeat. The author plans to offer a modified, "rules-light" version of the course in Spring 2017, and to improve upon some of the more problematic elements described in this work.


Gamification has become an important part of educational practice, and even classrooms that are not "gamified" in the sense discussed here may include elements of "gameful" culture brought into being by video gaming and other forms of play. Gamification in education, as described in academic literature, is relatively new in its development, only emerging in the current millennium. Though it relies on older work scholarship in experiential learning, much of it is concerned with digital-based learning games, simulations and, in many cases, just the inclusion of gamified elements to supplement more traditional education. In this work, the author has described a rather different approach to gamification in the advanced public speaking classroom, one that emphasizes role-play, improvisation, and narrative. This approach has its roots in tabletop role-playing and relies on students' interaction with each other, with their instructor, and with course materials and activities specifically tailored for such face-to-face interaction. While not without its flaws, this sort of gamification provides a useful means for increasing student engagement and enhancing students' abilities and confidence in public speaking.


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[1] See also Deterding, Dixon, Khaled, and Nacke (2011) and Deterding (2014a).
[2] See also Michael and Chen (2006); Susi, Johannesson, and Backlund (2007); Peterson (2012), Chapter 3; Cate and Albright (2015); Roselli and Rossano (2015); Spöttl and Schulte (2015); Bauermeister, et al. (2016).
[3]Additional, recent works not included in Dicheva, et al. (2015) include, Adams, Mayer, Koenig, and Wainess (2012); Banfield and Wilkerson (2014); Bilgin, Baek, and Park (2015); Botte, Imbellone, Marinensi, and Medaglia (2015); Bramesfeld and Good (2015); Cain and Piascik (2015); Chang and Wei (2016); Chen, Burton, Mihaela, and Whittinghill (2015); Cheong, Filippou, and Cheong (2014); Cicchino (2015); Coccoli, Iacono, and Vercelli (2015); Cózar-Gutiérrez and Sáez-López (2016); Erenli (2013); Faiella and Ricciardi (2015); Marklund and Taylor (2016); Niculae and Duda (2015); Nordby, Øygardslia, Sverdrup, and Sverdrup (2016); Olsson, Mozelius, and Collin (2015); Palmer (2016); Ulicsak (2010); Vagg, Tabrica, Ronan, Plant, and Eustace (2016); Wilson, Calongne, and Henderson (2015).
[4] See also Tulloch, (2014); Urh, Vukovic, Jereb, & Pintar (2015); Van Eck (2006).
[5] See also Barnard College (2016); Boss (2002); Courage (2004); Lang (2014a, 2014b, 2014c).

Friday, August 26, 2016

Romans... in Space! (Introduction)

Last spring semester, I had the opportunity to try something new in my Advanced Public Speaking class: I built the course around a game-like simulation with role-playing and some war-game and resource management elements.

While I'd done a version of the course a year earlier, including some of the innovations I planned to include in Spring 2016, only 8 students registered and the course wasn't as well developed. This time, I spent most of my winter break from classes writing a more complete set of rules and mechanics for the simulation, and lining up its core concept: Roman praetorian families competing for wealth in our solar system's asteroid belt.

The course began with a full complement of 20 students, and absolutely no one dropped the course. This is unprecedented in my experience. For the game I divided the students into five "families," each of which would compete (and/or cooperate) with the others to earn wealth and reputation. Wealth could be acquired through mining asteroids or pirating other families' ships and selling them for scrap. Reputation could be acquired by engaging in social intrigue of various sorts: spying, rumor-mongering, and so forth. Each score was recorded as a number of points, and combined to create the total score.

One of the greatest challenges I faced in running this class was keeping the "class" and "game" portions independent of each other. While it's not immediately clear why such separation is important, try to think about it this way. The course has some pretty clear learning outcomes, and these must be achieved regardless of course format. I have to meet them, just as any other instructor would. My incorporation of RPG content into the course is sort of an aberration. So, focusing too much on the game would detract from students' ability to learn to deliver various types of speeches needed to pass the class. My fix involved making the "game" portion of the course happen outside of classtime (for the most part), while using it to provide a context (and some content) for the actual speech activities.

Below, I've included the FAQs from my syllabus.

Next post I'll explore more details of my approach to the course, and in subsequent posts I'll explain the rules, how they were implemented, and some of the research emerging from the course.


Here are some preemptive responses to questions you might have about how this class is organized. Please be sure to raise any others that come to mind, as we move along in the semester.

What do you mean by "participation" in this game thing, and how does it apply to my grade?
At various points in this syllabus, I have made reference to your participation in this course. Let me take some time to describe what I mean, in greater detail. Participation means showing up, being on time, taking part in discussions of texts and readings. Participation includes just showing up for class, but it also means that you participate actively in class activities. So, this course will include participation in two other elements: (1) Participation in Simulation and (2) Participation in Role-playing. These elements will be discussed in the next two FAQs.

You will receive a grade based on your participation in this class. It's worth 100 points of the 1000 total points available. Roughly half of the grade is for attendance and half of it is for your engagement with our simulation. You should take part willingly and enthusiastically, and engage effectively with other students, both in an out of class.

What is a simulation and how do I participate?
In the clearest possible terms, a simulation is a real-seeming (but speculative) scenario. Your participation usually occurs in some sort of role, in order to pretend that it's real and that you can affect events as they unfold. Simulations are used for teaching a variety of things, especially applied tasks, like performing CPR, or dealing with customers, or responding to an emergency situation. Lots of people use simulations to prepare for things they expect to encounter in the world, to be ready (as much as they can) when they do so.

In this course I hope to create a simulated situation that requires you to use your speaking skills to inform, persuade, and make decisions in a small-group context. The simulation provides a sense of a larger context in which the speaking occurs and the decisions are made. You will compete and cooperate with others to respond to the situations and events encountered as part of the unfolding "story" of the simulation. My role will be to write and adjudicate the simulation, and to provide "real-world" responses to your own actions' impact on the simulated world.

How will I interact with this simulation?
Each student will be assigned a role: A particular person whom you will "play" almost like an actor playing a part in a play or film. You will use the boundaries of your role as a guide to your particular participation in the simulation. You will pretend to be that person in the simulation, and you should remain "in-character" as you do so, role-playing the part.

Of course you also will be engaged in speaking and other classroom activities. Those, too, will require some degree of in-character play. Just roll with it, and take the opportunity to see how this kind of role-taking affects your speaking persona. In fact, you might be surprised how often you do this, anyway, in different contexts and with different people.

What is role-playing?
Role-playing is "playing pretend," basically. Every kid at some point pretends to be something—a character in a book or movie, a person with a particular job, etc.—and it's a big part of learning how to be a person living in a world with other people. Even fanciful role-playing allows us to try out ways of being in the world that are not necessarily familiar or comfortable, and to expand the repertoire of responses we can have to the people, situations, and events we will encounter in our lives.

The purpose of the role-playing in this simulation is to help you get your head around what it means to speak in context. You're not just giving a speech for a grade. Rather, you're pursuing your own interests, your family's interests, and the interests of the Empire. The speaking is happening in a deep, fictional context. You will have a part in that context.

How do I participate in role-playing?
You will play a "character" who is a member of an influential family, but is also an individual with particular beliefs, attitudes, and personal motivations, and who also has social and cultural obligations. The student playing that role must do his or her best to represent that character, and leverage that character's resources and means of persuasion in order to influence outcomes in the scenario.

No one player has everything she needs to succeed. No one faction of players can succeed without the cooperation of the others. This means that your individual interests will conflict, your factional interests may be at odds, but you must somehow find a compromise in order to accomplish what you must.

Why are we doing this?
It is my belief that the best learning comes from a feeling of involvement in what one is trying to learn. A "normal" public speaking assignment doesn't ask much more of you than to do a bit of research, to write a speech outline and develop visual aids, and to present the result in front of the class. However, most people don't spend a lot of time presenting academic-style speeches in their jobs and social lives. Instead, we apply our communicative skills in ways that are usually less formal, but also more impactful upon our work, our relationships, and our careers. Both are important styles of communication, and you need to be competent in each.

By taking part in this simulation, you are going to learn some important formal skills in communication. You will do research to provide you with information about how to respond to the situations produced by the class's interactive simulation. These will result in formal speeches, like the Informative Speech and Policy Speech assignments. You also will need to be able to argue your positions informally, in assignments involving deliberation or debate. For these assignments, you will need to be able to respond to the speech of others. Having a role to play makes that easier, because your knowledge of the situation, your place in it, and your relationships with other student "players" helps you understand what you might say, your motivations for speaking, and what you hope to accomplish (beyond completing the assignment).

So, each student will take the role of a particular person whose interests are impacted somewhat differently by the decisions made for dealing with game-based situations. You must represent your interests, find compromise (when and if possible), and take some course of action (or inaction). Your responses will affect the situation. I will decide how it is affected. Your speech will have consequences, just as in life, but in a more dramatic (and dramatized) fashion.

What role do you play, Johnson?
I am the Game Master (GM). My job is to adjudicate the game, handle the game mechanics, keep track of progress, keep score, and ensure that you stay engaged in the simulation. I will determine in-game effects of your various speeches, if there are any. I know what you must do to "win" and a have a set of rules to make that happen. I also (of course) will need to evaluate your speaking activities and written work. My main focus, though, will be to create an environment with unresolved tensions—i.e., plot crises, narrative tension—that you must deal with. It is my hope that such things will amplify the sense of immersion in the simulation achieved by students in this class: I want you to be engaged in what happens here.

How will we be able to affect the outcomes of the simulation?
I will treat your in-game actions as real, and will incorporate them into the simulation as they occur. Some of the actions will have little effect, but others may be consequential, even critical. I also will take into account elements of the speeches you give in class, using them to craft the overall narrative. Each game turn is something like an episode of a soap opera. Your actions in each turn help to create the game narrative as we play.

What does it mean to "win," and how does one do so?
"Winning" means accumulating score. You will do this in two categories: Wealth and Reputation. At the end of play, the highest scoring family wins. I also will ask you to pick the top three speakers for each speech assignment, and award a limited number of bonus points to participation based on those tallies. I will calculate that score separately.

What sorts of research do we need to do?
You will need to understand what history shows us about various relevant historical periods, especially the Roman Republic and Empire. You also will need to have some understanding of humankind's present and future in space, and some knowledge of a philosophy called, "transhumanism." I will suggest some readings to get you started (see below), but you also will complete specific research assignments to expand upon that information. For example, each student will give an Informative Speech in response to a particular research question, provided by me. Your research will be in the particular area covered by that research question, and you should become the class expert on that topic.

As each member of the class contributes his or her research to the discussion, the larger picture will become clearer. It is my hope that the Informative Speeches will grow directly into related Policy Speeches.