Hiding the Vegetables: Roleplaying, Games, and Simulations

Originally featured In the 2019-20 winter issue of  Hackley Review 

While this academic school year offers Hackley’s first course explicitly designed around roleplay gaming as the central mechanism for understanding, analyzing, and creating content, games, and simulations have been a tradition in Hackley classrooms for years.
Go back in time to the 1990s, and walk into the basement of Symmes Hall—you’ll find Mr. Fitz’s seventh-grade class debating the merits and flaws of one- and two-house legislatures as members of the Constitutional Convention. Climb two flights of stairs, and you’ll hear students planning a road trip across the U.S.—accounting for gas, food, lodging, and entertainment—in Mr. Gutheil’s sixth-grade math class.

Walk through Hackley hallways today, and you’ll find roleplaying, games, and simulations in all academic departments, across all divisions, during class, after school, and on the weekends in the chapel. Over these last few years in particular, Hackley’s gaming tradition has taken a more active role in the classroom and the community, with the Hackley Game Club, a gaming iGrant developing classroom practices, and this upcoming spring, Hackley will host its third annual NYSAIS conference on roleplaying, games, and simulations for teachers and administrators at surrounding independent schools.

Ask students and alumni to recall their gaming experiences at Hackley, and you’ll be regaled with stories about zombie invasions and World War I dogfights during afterschool programs, creating and breeding curly-horned caterpillars in seventh-grade genetics labs, political backchanneling and multilateral peace treaties being struck over lunch in the dining hall—as well as the day the Black Death came to the sixth grade’s village during history class. “The Black Death is a good one, as morbid of a topic as it is,” sixth- and ninth-grade history teacher, Jared Fishman recalls. “It’s definitely the simulation kids come back remembering.”

This year marks Mr. Fishman’s twelfth year at Hackley, running games and simulations in his history classes as well as coordinating and running programs for the Hackley Game Club and After School Knowledge program (ASK). He recalled how the Black Death simulation was already a staple of the sixth-grade curriculum: “My mentor teacher, Mr. Fitz, already had experience doing this Black Death simulation...and it was great because the kind of academic work the students were doing in their reading and for homework had a direct impact on their decision-making in the simulation.”

A key to this decision-making—and roleplay gaming itself—stems from character creation: constructing a narrative point-of-view through which a student can view the material. “One thing that Jared and I have done is create scenarios that are grounded in a historical event,” Mr. Fitz says. “But from there, it’s the kids who have to come up with what their character’s response is—and that’s fun because you get the kids to react to the historical ‘stuff.’” Roleplaying characters can safeguard students who are trying out ideas or actions for the first time, encouraging risk-taking and accepting the potential for failure.

In terms of the value games and simulations bring into classrooms, co-author of Hackley’s gaming iGrant, Peter Sawkins, cites the growing and well-supported research that game play of all different kinds can help enhance traditional educational pedagogy. “The process of learning from experience can improve memory, problem-solving, logic, and pattern recognition,” Mr. Sawkins says. “And one of the very important elements of experiential learning—and specifically the incorporation of games into teaching methodology—is that it can be applied across different subjects, ages, and grade ranges.”

Middle-School science teacher and Hackley Game Club faculty member, Emma Olsen sees a whole other level of engagement from her students: “I get different kids. They have a personal stake in the lesson, and I think that’s really the value of gaming in science because it’s so easy to be totally removed from what you’re learning [...] because the material can be abstract or microscopic things you can’t perceive. So for kids who struggle to visualize what an imbalance of carbon in the atmosphere might look like, our climate cycle game is a very real way to experience it.”

These sorts of experiences can be transformative for students, not only when it comes to learning new material, but when it comes to understanding the real-world impacts and conversations about that material. When reflecting on the previously-mentioned seventh-grade genetics lab in which students create and breed fictional caterpillar “Villagers,” Mrs. Olsen says that the simulation is “a stepping stone to talking about a more difficult topic. But now that they’ve experienced what [genetic selection] looks like, they have more context. They always think CRISPR gene editing is really cool, but they don’t understand why people are so hesitant to introduce genetic technology—but when you can point out to them that they were just doing selective breeding with their caterpillars, and then ask them what would they think about doing it with people, they’re horrified by that—so now you can have a more in-depth discussion about genetic selection.”

These kinds of activities foster student investment that pushes beyond scores, grades, and college resumes. When former class president George Wangensteen ‘16 came to Class Day in 2018 to present the Oscar Kimelman Award to history teacher, Vladimir Klimenko, he spoke about the healthy dose of competition between classmates during their games of Diplomacy. When discussing the effect a game like Diplomacy has on a student, a course, and on an entire grade, Mr. Klimenko said, “The interpersonal dynamics are fascinating. Also, there is the element of geographical limitations and opportunities in historical games. Kids are compelled to learn the mapboard. If realistic, this helps them think about real-world dilemmas stemming from physical and political geography.”

Ultimately, what it comes down to, according to Mr. Fishman is “getting them to engage in the material and get them invested in what they are doing. He says, “I try to get them to really care. I try to get them so upset or ramped up in the content that they are excited to come to class that day. It’s almost like hiding the vegetables in the meal. I try to make these games really content-heavy so that the students don’t even realize the kind of work that they’re doing because they’re having so much fun doing it.”

The academic advantages to roleplaying, games, and simulations in the classroom cannot be overstated—however, at times, the social benefits equal, if not exceed these academic advantages. Sophomore Catherine Lapey, who has been gaming since middle school, believes that regardless of the game she and her peers played during their ASK sessions, there is a camaraderie and collaboration built into tabletop and roleplaying games that forges meaningful, long-lasting relationships. “Gaming helped me to create new friendships and build bonds with people that I likely would not otherwise have,” she said. “It taught me that I do not need to do everything with the same group of people.” FJ Hogg ‘19 shares a similar experience: “Gaming has definitely helped me socially. There are a lot of classmates that I may never have talked to without gaming.”

Hackley affords its teachers abundant professional development funding, iGrants, and classroom autonomy when presenting material to students. That, combined with the network of relationships Mr. Fishman and the Hackley Game Club has cultivated with Hudson Scholars, and the NYSAIS teaching conference has helped the hilltop emerge as a center for classroom gaming in the tri-state area.