Dynasties & Dragons: A Role-Playing Game for Developing Term Papers

A Jesuit, a eunuch, and a courtesan walk into a classroom….

No, it’s not the opening of a tasteless joke. It’s just another episode of Dynasties & Dragons.

Now in its fourth year of implementation, “the other D&D” has evolved into a complex semester-long role-playing game that I have integrated into my introductory undergraduate survey courses in Chinese history.

I teach at a small, public college outside of Philadelphia, and many of our incoming students have never before written a term paper or completed any kind of research project. The vast majority of the seats in my survey classes are filled by non-majors looking simply to fulfill gen-ed requirements. Complete unfamiliarity, apathy, and even resistance toward the subject matter are not at all uncommon.

The pros and cons of gamification have come up in numerous venues online (see, for example, here, here, and here). Personally, I have found that by turning the term paper into a game I can not only remove many student’s reservations about the assignment but also successfully increase engagement and understanding throughout the semester.

Since I began using D&D, the quality of the research that is evident in my students’ papers has increased notably year over year (many tweaks have been introduced along the way to optimize the game for this specific outcome). Moreover, the students have responded well to it in their semester-end course evaluations. Many credit it with helping them become more enthusiastic about writing the paper, about the relevance of the course materials, and about the practice of history more generally.

The elements of D&D are described in more detail below. As you will see, it is a low-tech, paper-based game that revolves around the development of fictional characters that are fleshed out week after week, and that interact with other characters in the class through specific challenges. Preparing their characters and interactions leads students through the processes of reading, researching, and thinking about the course materials and historical content presented in class.

Though most will say that D&D seems more like fun than work, students find that by semester’s end that they have come to deeply understand several pivotal historical events through the eyes of their character. They have a good idea of a topic for their paper. They have become familiar with the use of legitimate sources for historical research and how to properly cite them. They have already culled relevant material from the textbook, other assigned readings, and outside sources that are pertinent to their papers (including primary and secondary sources as well as material culture objects). They have collaborated with at least one other student in the class by sharing sources, and their research materials have been double-checked through a process of peer-review. They have learned how to use JSTOR and other online repositories, and even (gasp!) how to check out an actual book on reserve at the library.

More importantly, students have not done this work in an end-of-semester cram session that is stressful, counterproductive, and threatening to academic integrity. Rather, they have distributed the work throughout the semester, learning valuable time management skills while receiving constant feedback from peers and the professor.

I offer the below description of my game as fodder for fellow gamifiers everywhere. I have provided details of how I implement the game in my classroom, but it is a work in progress, so please feel free to hack it for your own purposes. If you implement any portion of D&D, or if you have any improvements to suggest, or even if you want to suggest different game altogether, by all means leave a comment.

How to Play Dynasties & Dragons

The Character Information Sheet

Gameplay revolves around the “character information sheet” that the student develops over the course of the semester, and which eventually becomes the outline for their paper. At the very beginning of the semester, I give a lecture briefly overviewing five different character-types, and require students to choose a group for the remainder of the semester.

For the history of premodern China the categories are:

  1. a member of the political elite
  2. a merchant
  3. a religious figure
  4. a nomad from the steppe, or
  5. a peasant.

For the history of modern China the categories are:

  1. a literatus,
  2. a European merchant or missionary,
  3. a Japanese person in China,
  4. a Manchu, or
  5. a peasant.

The “Tweets”

Throughout the semester, students fill out the Character Information Sheet as they imagine that their character was able to tweet or send a status update telling us what he or she was doing at various critical junctures in history. As the semester progresses, students write out their tweets on their Character Information Sheets for the 1500s, 1600s, 1700s, 1800s, the first half of the twentieth century, the second half of the twentieth century, and today.

The events and the details covered in each tweet are up to the student. For example, if a student’s character is a European, she might consider how a Portuguese merchant or Jesuit might have reacted upon traveling to China in the early 1500s, how a Protestant missionary might react to the Taiping Rebellion of 1850–64 (an uprising led by a Chinese man who thought he was Jesus’s younger brother), what might befall a representative of a European government during the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion, or how an American businessman might have fared with the rise of Mao. If the character is a Japanese person, the student might place him as a pirate off the coast of China in the seventeenth century, a murderous infantryman in 1937 Nanjing, and a Japanese corporate tycoon doing business in a post-Mao Special Economic Zone. If the student has created a Manchu character, her “tweets” might trace the rise and fall of the Qing dynastic family and engage with the construction of the category of “ethnic minority” in the post-imperial period. A peasant character might transform from a field laborer to a member of the imperial harem, a Communist cadre, and a low-wage worker in a high-tech factory. The character categories are designed to have maximum social mobility throughout the period studied in class and to emphasize the cultural and ethnic diversity of China. Each student must have seven tweets, and the possible combinations available for the imaginations are endless.

On the line immediately below each tweet, the student writes the citation for the source of information they used for that item. This source can be a section of an assigned reading, an article from JSTOR or Muse, an object from ARTStor or a museum website (using Google Art Project), or any one of a number of reference books and sourcebooks I have placed on reserve at the library in advance. Each citation must be formatted correctly using Chicago Manual of Style.

The students hand in their character information sheets for grading at the midterm and again at the end of the semester. This gives me the opportunity to check their ideas for their tweets, verify they are using sources well, and make sure their citations are properly formatted.

Game Days

In addition to the constant updating of the character information sheets, periodically throughout the semester an entire class period is given over to an “episode” of D&D. On these game days, each social category sits together, and all students must have their information sheets up to date in order to play. The first thing the groups do is check their members’ character sheets for completeness and the citations for proper format. If any students have not completed their tweets or have not properly cited their sources, they have to sit out. Students with complete character sheets then use the remainder of the class period to compete for points (these count toward their grade in the class).

How points are earned changes each episode. Here are brief descriptions of the four game days from the survey of modern Chinese history:

Episode 1 is based on the material culture of the Qing dynasty. Each student brings into class a printout of an object their character could conceivably have owned, used, or built in the Qing, which must come from an approved source mentioned above. The student must have in their possession concrete evidence that someone fitting that character’s description could actually have come in contact with that particular object — a photocopy of a textbook page, for example, or a printout from a museum website. Students take turns presenting their objects to their groups. A point is earned by a student when his or her object stands up to the scrutiny of the group. The rest of the group earns a point when they can successfully disqualify an object on the basis that it does not date from the appropriate time period, that the presenter’s story is historically implausible, or that there is a problem with the corroborating source. All arguments for or against the object must be made using valid sources. Throughout the class period, I float around the room, moderating these exchanges and awarding points by stamping character information sheets with a red Chinese inked seal. (With a total per-semester enrollment of about 60 students split across two sections, my classes are small enough to oversee the gameplay personally without using teaching assistants.)

Episode 2 requires students to analyze a reading assignment that is familiar to all instructors of Chinese history, a series of documents reporting on an encounter between the British ambassador George Macartney and the Chinese emperor Qianlong that took place in 1792–94. During this class period, students make arguments from their characters’ perspectives for or against Macartney’s proposition or Qianlong’s response. Points are earned by articulating a position that makes sense for that character, while making explicit reference to particular passages in the reading.

For Episode 3, student are asked to bring in a printout of a primary source by or about their character from the first half of the twentieth century. They must be prepared to talk about the source itself, but also to interpret what this particular source tells us about their character’s changing experience and attitudes. Points are earned for defending quality sources that stand up to peer scrutiny.

Episode 4 is called “Communism’s winners and losers.” Students are asked to prepare their own narratives about how their characters fared during the Cultural Revolution. These do not need to be written out, but each student should have prepared enough notes and details to be able to answer questions from classmates. They also must bring in printouts of the source texts used to construct the story, this time in duplicate. In this particular episode, points are earned by connecting one student’s character with another in the classroom. For example, if one student creates a story about a factory owner and another student creates a story about a Communist labor organizer, the two students can earn a point each by creating a narrative that connects the two characters and their experiences. Each pair of students then swaps their duplicate printouts and citations, and thus take home an additional source for their paper.

The episodes used in the survey course on the history of early China are similar to the four just described, but are modified to suit the timeframe of that course. They consist of:

  1. a debate in which the students must articulate where their characters stand on the political and social theories of several Warring States philosophers,
  2. a study of material culture objects from the Tang dynasty similar to Episode 1 above,
  3. a poetry slam, where students read Song-era poems and explain how they are relevant to their characters, and
  4. a marriage market, where points are earned for finding suitable marriage matches between characters (similar to Episode 4 above).

The Final Paper

While the various components of the game are graded and receive points throughout the semester, they also lead to a final product: the term paper. The assignment calls for students to explain the social, political, economic, and cultural transformations undergone by a given social group over the historical timeframe covered in the semester. Students now need to translate the knowledge they have gained over the semester by tracing their individual character’s experience and interacting with their groups into a non-fictional academic paper about the social category as a whole.

While such an assignment may have seemed daunting to the students at the beginning of the semester, if they have been following along with the game, they will find that they have already completed the research and planning they need to write a high quality paper. They already have a good understanding at least their own social group, an outline of the crucial historical junctures they underwent (the tweets), a collection of high quality secondary sources on those topics, at least one material object and one primary source to integrate into their paper, and a properly cited bibliography.

Perhaps best of all, they just might have learned that having fun and doing research are not incompatible.

(Previously published on Sep. 9, 2014, and moved here from piercesalguero.com.)