Role-playing Games in English Language Teaching
By Katherine Oliva Ortolani, Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo
The sun is hanging low in the sky as you all approach the tavern’s door. You hear the music and smell the fresh-cooked meats. You put your weight against the door, and as you open it, you are hit by dozens of voices and new smells. ‘Ye will ne’er catch me alive!’ The Dungeon Master, who was voicing the narrator and the hanging dwarf, then looks at the players and asks: ‘What would you like to do?’
This is one of hundreds of possible scenes played and interpreted during a role-playing game (RPG) session. Creative thinking, leadership skills, and human connection are some of the skills that can be developed during a single gaming session. This article reports on how RPGs were utilized to teach English as a foreign language to Brazilian students of all ages in Brazil.
I’m a Brazilian English teacher, and I have been teaching English in Brazil for fifteen years now. I’m also a PhD candidate in Applied Linguistics, so one could say that the drive to research flows through my body, especially when the opportunity to try something new presents itself. I also have a major in Fashion Design, which gave me even more resources for my creative-thinking toolbox. For this Creative Corner article, I wish to share a creative teaching solution. It involves the principles and themes of RPGs used for online English classes aimed at local students of all ages in Brazil.
RPGs in my Life
For much of my life, I have been surrounded by fantasy and friends who would invite me to play RPGs with them. For some reason, my interest was never really piqued. After getting married, however, there was no escaping it; my husband was an RPG lover.
A little before the pandemic, I had immersed myself in some tabletop RPGs with him and some friends of his. I was introduced to many fantastic creatures which I knew from my love of fantasy books and films. I was then gifted a set of seven dice. They were beautiful! They vary in color, size, material, and texture. After creating my character and filling out my character sheet with my character’s information, which included, for instance, name, gender, their class (e.g., fighter, wizard, bard), equipment (e.g., sword, dagger, lyre), and spells. The Dungeon Master (DM)—the person who narrates the story and voices the non-player characters (NPCs)—started setting the scene. As an educator and a teacher of English, I could not help but to analyze and visualize each step of the game as a teaching mechanism. I thought about how effective these games could be if used with children.
The games and the strategies needed to play them enable involvement and opportunities to develop problem solving, decision making, and cohesive team-working skills–all skills deemed important by Vygotsky (1978), who argued that children’s learning processes happen by internalization of habits, vocabulary, and ideas of people whom they socialize with. Most importantly, perhaps, it did not encourage competition between friends. It encouraged teamwork. After all, teamwork makes the dream work!
Online Classes and Gamification
The COVID-19 pandemic exploded in the beginning of 2020. I found myself at home with a PhD project to work on and Business English classes for adults to teach online. The real challenge, though, was the children. Have you ever taught children in person? It is quite challenging in its own right and demanding beyond belief. What was I to do with them now that the classes were online? I accepted the challenge anyway and tried many different methods. I used textbooks, online games, and storytelling. I was running out of resources, and it was very hard to keep the attention of the 5-year-olds who were on the other side of the screen. Parents or guardians had to be present during the classes; they needed to call on their children’s attention so that they did not leave their chairs or go play with their toys. Everything was messy, until it dawned upon me to implement some of the RPG techniques I had analyzed over a year prior to the pandemic. RPGs allow people to interact and explore their own imagination. When applied to teaching, I hoped it could keep students involved and motivated. … It did!
I searched online to see if there were RPG books for kids, and I happened to find many at my disposal. The language was a little complex for Portuguese speakers who would only have two 1-hour classes during the week, so I knew I couldn’t exactly play with them the stories the way they were originally planned. Thus, I created a story according to the children’s daily routine, focusing on grammar and vocabulary learning; it was an English class after all.
I guided them through a world of fantasy with dwarves, elves, goblins, orcs, vampires, dragons, dinosaurs, werewolves, and even Santa Claus appeared to ask them for their help. The students were the heroes on their fantastical journeys. I put together a presentation with some images I could get online and started teaching them vocabulary as I told them the story. As described in Ortolani and Ortolani (2021), an article I wrote with my husband about this experience, students would initially find themselves in a tavern, a restaurant, or even a bakery. They would then be approached by a waiter (played by me) who would ask them what they would like to eat. Since some of them couldn’t read proficiently yet, I would present a menu filled with images. Here, they would have to order using the sentence starter “I would like” plus a food option, such as ice-cream, French fries, a sandwich, and so on. Someone else, an NPC, would then show up and engage in a conversation with them, which is when the main quest would be presented.
As an NPC, I told them about a missing amulet and asked them for their help to find it before a terrible villain could. After accepting the quest, they could then go to a store to buy whatever equipment they deemed helpful for completing it. At that point, I introduced more vocabulary. They were able to buy a limited number of items such as swords, maps, potions, daggers, ropes, candles, backpacks, books, rations, shields, and armor. They loved it. On their journey, they met more NPCs and interacted with them. They were free to speak, be curious, find solutions to problems, identify animals and objects, count, spell out words, and do their favorite part: fight monsters using the equipment they had gotten throughout their journey. Eventually, I asked them to create their own characters. They drew and described them (see Image 1).
After seeing how well the RPGs worked, I decided to use them in my private classes with adults. It could not have gone better. By creating their characters, they built a pseudo-bridge over their walls of insecurities. It was not the individual expressing themselves; rather, it was their characters. By being someone else, they felt more comfortable putting themselves out there. They spoke without fear of making mistakes, and this gave them more confidence. With older (above 10 years old) and more advanced students, I was able to work with writing. I asked them to write their backstory and a recap of each game/class from their character’s perspective.
I even had an official character for myself drawn by a professional artist (see Image 2). The character’s name is Luna. I decided that she would have no fashion sense, mixing lots of patterns and wearing a potato sac for a dress. Her hair changes color according to her mood, so if I say she has pink hair now, it means she is shy. She carries a spell book around, which shows that she is a scholar, and she values research. She will always learn new spells! I had as much fun as my students creating it.
Using games in teaching is nothing new. It has been done for quite some time. The secret, however, lies with RPGs. They are fantastic at capturing the attention and imagination of children and adults alike. I can now keep students on the edge of their seats and never wanting to leave them. Their world is no longer trapped by the limitations of COVID-19 or whatever else life throws at them (for the brief moments in which our classes take place).
This has been my experience. I also believe that these techniques have the potential to transcend the pandemic. In my own context, I will keep applying them even after the restrictions are completely lifted and hope others will consider doing the same.
Ortolani, K. N. P. O., & Ortolani, A. N. (2021). Games-based learning: An experience report in teaching English during the pandemic. Matraga-Revista do Programa de Pós-Graduação em Letras da UERJ, 28(53), 248-256.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: Development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.
Elves, humans, fairies, ghosts, wizards, and fighters by some of the students
Luna, an elf wizard by Katherine Oliva Ortolani and Felipe Manossieri
Katherine Oliva Ortolani is a PhD candidate in Corpus Linguistics at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo. Her current research focuses on the language of fashion through a multi-dimensional perspective (MDA). Her research interests fall at the intersection of applied linguistics, English language teaching and learning, fashion, and games.