Thursday, July 23, 2020

Ludoverse Lab: Ryan Windeknecht's World of Professionals Teaches How to Think Ethically

Future Programming Note: The Ludoverse Lab’s summer trilogy will wrap up in August with Jesse Burneko’s Dungeons and Dilemmas. What follows below is a report on the second installment of our foray into fantasy role-playing games that lend themselves to classroom use.

July brought the second part of the Ludoverse Lab’s “Summer Trilogy.” In this case, we had Ryan Windeknecht at the helm. He teaches philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and, as he explained to us, he tried an experiment in 2016 when he brought Dungeon World into his classroom. Since then, he has continued to expand, revise, and refine the experiment. That has resulted in what he calls The World of Professionals. This amounts to a rich and workable fantasy rpg framework which he uses to teach students about ethical schools of thought within his professional ethics classes.

I recorded the two sessions we played, and you can access them here:

The recordings (which are admittedly long, even in their edited form) contain clearly marked headers and footers, so I encourage you to hop around to view the sections that most interest you.
There are so many artful and edifying touches, but here are a few notable highlights:

Classes as embodiments of occupations and ethical schools of thought 
In Ryan’s game, you belong to one of five guilds, and initially they sound like your traditional fantasy tropes: There are Paladins, Merchants, Artificers, Clerics, and Wizards. Pretty standard fare.

But then some spice and sizzle gets added. The classes are subdivided into various occupations. For example, if you are in the merchant guild, you might be a butcher, baker, cheese maker, crofter, or herder. The classes are also presented as allegorical placeholders for contemporary professions. For example, we should think of Paladins as lawyers, Clerics as health care workers, Merchants as business people, Wizards as educators, and Artificers as skilled tradespeople.

The coup de grace is that each class is also tasked with upholding an an ethical outlook:

  • Paladins are Kantians (driven by the laws and imperatives);
  • Artificers are Utilitarians;
  • Merchants are Contractarians;
  • Clerics adhere to Care Ethics;
  • Wizards subscribe to Virtue ethics.

Dungeon Delving as Gamified Quizzes and Thought Experiments
After creating their characters, building a village, and forming into adventuring groups, the students (who are now players in this game) venture into dungeons to work through ethical thought experiments and to collect badges. Each dungeon begins with a puzzle, which is a gamified quiz based upon a required reading, and then the students engage in various surreal situations where they must demonstrate clear ethical thinking in order to progress.

The conception of the game is brilliant, and the mechanics are also solid. Ryan has replaced dice rolling with a token economy which effectively puts added emphasis on the arguments and thought processes of the players as opposed to the reliance on random fortune.

As I note in the debriefing, one of the great payoffs of the gamifying engine is that students collaborate in resolving the ethical thought experiments. Moreover, since the party involves characters thinking things through with different ethical frameworks, they can see how the different systems see the world and approach situations.

Debriefing Brainstorm: Students as GMs and the Village
In the debriefing, we consider some different lines of approach and points of emphasis. I was curious as to how you would deal with game play in a class of 20+ students, and Ryan notes that this can get challenging. The idea that you might be able to pull students into the GM (or assistant GM) role would be an interesting solution to the problem of dealing with numerous adventuring parties playing simultaneously.

We were also interested in expanding the role of the village. I’m a bit hesitant to go too far in that direction. For all their artificiality and railroadiness, the dungeon delves offer a tightly structured scaffolding that would be hard to beat. Some of us were thinking of pushing towards village adventures, and this would be worth exploring. However, I fear that the more open ended and organic nature of the village context might prove impractical in the classroom without some system of managing the play. If the dungeon delves are working (which they seem to be) then I wouldn’t be too eager to abandon the format.

In part one, you will see the list of moves and agendas that drive the game. Those familiar with Powered-by-the-Apocalypse games will note the ancestry of this engine. As a teacher, I appreciate the way that this organization breaks things down for the students into small, manageable units. You will note that the moves are legion, and at first blush, this might seem intimidating. But if you put this into the context of a semester-long course, it is not as daunting as it might first appear. If a student can work towards gaining competence with the moves, it is clear that they will have developed some formidable skills of communication and critical thinking.

One last item of note: Midway through part 1, Ryan fields questions about whether the game agendas are to be conceived as player-facing or character-facing, and he responds that they exist on both levels. This highlights another great strength of the World of Dungeons: When learning the moves and resources available to the characters, the players are also learning the procedures and skills that they can carry with them from the gaming table . . . into the classroom . . . and then beyond.

Concluding Thought: The Call to AdventureRyan’s approach has much to offer educators, regardless of their discipline. I’m excited to hear reactions of other teachers and to see how we might adapt this type of educational game play to different classrooms and disciplines

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