It's education through live-action RPGs, and it's spreading.
At Østerskov Efterskole, a boarding school in Hobro, Denmark, immersion in the subject matter is the central educational strategy. Students can be immersed in literature, immersed in history, or even immersed in a mission through outer space as they flee from futuristic American astronauts, according to founder and headmaster Mads Lunau.
"Actually, in that setting, [the US] has aligned with the Chinese against the Danish fleet, so they have to align to beat us. But there is one [Danish] ship that survived, and it's traveling through space," Lunau told VICE.
Some kind of lame classroom board game? Not so much. According to Lunau, "it's more like LARP," referring to the global phenomenon also known as live action roleplaying, often oversimplified as a mix between Dungeons & Dragons, and Comic Con-style cosplay, or mixed up with Civil War reenactment in the US.
In the US, LARPers got a little too much media exposure back in the 2000s, and the realization that dorky grown-ups with in costumes with swords were pretending to fight each other in the woods resulted in a barrage of online mockery.
But LARPing in Denmark and elsewhere in Scandinavia, while also a nerdy pastime, can be a little more intense. In its most extreme, it looks less like a Renaissance Faire, and more like an Ingmar Bergman film—with elaborate historical experiences that don't allow any non-functional, or non-period props. While a LARP experience can use the "mechanics of a board game" to keep it fun and on-rails, that doesn't begin to capture the experience, Lunau told us. "It's more something where you tell the story, or you're part of the story," he said.
LARP is a motivational tool at Østesrkov. In what Lunau calls an "ordinary educational system," you do things in the hopes that you're pleasing the teacher. He sees this as a "narrow" motivation, and one that "certainly isn't the motivation you get when you get into your work life."
Østerskov Efterskole (efterskole means "afterschool") is a boarding school where students aged 14- to 18-years-old attend a one-year program. Østerskov might be on the weirder side for an efterskole, but it still fits into the efterskole box. These schools are a Danish tradition that would seem just generally weird to the test-score fanatics in places like the United States.
The time you spend in a totally optional efterskole—usually just after wrapping up your primary education—is your time to get away from your parents, discover yourself, get onto the college track, study art and music, or just maybe fool around with other teens. Now, in the case of Østerskov Efterskole, you can do all that while going on interactive adventures through history.
"We made a whole school using narrative to motivate young people or students to get into the subjects—a normal way to study," Lunau said.
Except in this normal school there are tons of props and costumes. "We have a lot of props and dress outfits from the school," he said. It's not a school where you learn to LARP, though, so the kids don't have to learn to sew their own tunics. In fact, costumes are optional. "They are not told to dress up, but it gives them a better feeling," Lunau said.
Not so fast with the prosthetic elf ears, though. "Fantasy is not really part of the agenda here," Lunau claimed, although he added that "they do a lot of fantasy playing when they use the games in their spare time." But on the whole, the game narratives at Østerskov are educational: They come from "narratives in history, or from society or from literature." In short, they're LARPing their way through the dusty old material from their textbooks.
Lunau founded the school ten years ago, basing it on an idea that had been cooking for decades. In the 80s and 90s Lunau and his associate Malik Hyltoft worked as organizers in the Danish gaming world. "We observed a lot of young people absorbing a lot of knowledge in order to play the games. Thick books in foreign languages containing complex descriptions of processes, rules and environments, or large quantities of different fiction—or historically based literature," Lunau told American researcher and recreation therapist Hawke Robinson in an email provided to VICE. Robinson is the founder of the RPG research center, and works with students in Spokane, Washington, using RPGs as what he calls an"intervention modality," for students who require unconventional forms of education.
Lunau's idea was met with little resistance, because of Denmark's more flexible education system, along with a really laid back education minister who Lunau says responded to the idea by going, "'this is interesting, so try it out.'" The eventual closure of one school wouldn't be a big deal, the minister reasoned, "but if it did work, with some good results, it would be good for everybody," Lunau said.
Such positive results, he hoped, might be particularly dramatic for special needs kids.
About 10 of Østerskov's 90 students have what Lunau calls "serious challenges," among them autism and major ADHD. These students are aided by three on-staff special needs teachers. About 30 other students cope with lighter disabilities, such as dyslexia, and dyscalculia.
Hawke Robinson tracked down Lunau because the smaller operation he runs in Washington State also features LARPing as an education tool, particularly for special needs students. Often Robinson's version is less academic, focused instead on education with simple, real-world applications.
"Let's say there's a goal that says we want this group to learn how to use the public transit system in Tacoma," Robinson told VICE. The exercise that teaches them to use the bus is a tabletop RPG, that turns into LARPing in the final chapter. "You're all agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," the game begins—placing the students squarely in the comfort of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, instead of the boring real world. As the students uncover the clues, they'll uncover an evil plan to release a virus using the public transit system in Tacoma—one that will turn everybody into zombies. "They follow some clues and ride a couple of buses to key locations to try to thwart the bad guy's plans," Robinson said.
Lunau's program, focuses instead on Danish school curriculum. "So if you want them to know about the European Union, they actually play foreign ministers having a meeting," he explained, "or they have an environmental conference where they try to solve the world's problems"—an idea not far removed from the Model United Nations.
"This week we're doing Ancient Rome," he said. Students have to conduct the Roman Senate, battle Roman adversaries like Carthage, build aqueducts, and mine the Alps to support the ancient Roman war machine.
Simulated experience is, in theory, a mnemonic device, helping the kids remember important information they'll be tested on later. It's an assertion that has showed up in promising scientific research, but it likely deserves further exploration.
However, in the case of the both the American and Danish programs, there's a bonus outcome for kids with autism and Aspergers, and it's an ironic one, considering LARPing's geeky reputation: an improved ability to interact with other people in a healthy way. Robinson's program works by putting kids and adults with social difficulties in a setting where they're working together for a common goal, and he says it works. "They're getting core social skills that really don't get developed in a classroom setting or video game setting."
A 2008 paper by psychiatrist Jacqueline Countryman also stresses the importance of group interactions and roleplaying in teaching social skills to students with autism. Robinson documents his findings, and posts volume after volume of his own research at the RPG Research Center website, where his papers apparently await the scrutiny of mainstream neuroscience and educational researchers.
Lunau fully acknowledges the significant portion of his students who go, in his words, "'This is great! We also LARP in school!'" and they're there because their hobby makes school less boring for them. But, he insisted, "it's not a school for LARPers—it just attracts them."
"You can use this system in a normal school if you wanted to," he added. That kind of judicious dissemination of his ideas—just a LARP or two sprinkled into a more conventional curriculum—might happen down the line, but things seem to be moving even faster than that: a whole new LARPing-focused efterskole is opening in Denmark, according to Lunau. "We are happy that we are not the only one in the world. Now we're two." What's more, at least one student who attended the school the year it opened is so committed to this kind of pedagogy that he's returned this year as a substitute teacher.
As for more conventional results, Lunau says they're seeing those too.
"We had a girl that was a special needs student and she was not doing well in her former school," he said. "And we had her for exams in history." Her teacher was a bit nervous when she had to explain the inner workings of the Roman Republic's government. But sure enough she demonstrated fluency with the ways the Senate decided things, along with "what the different roles of the senate were, and how it worked with the rest of the Italian people." According to Lunau, "She received what I think would be a B or A- in American grading system," but he said there was one last question thrown at her before the test administrator was satisfied: "How did you do this?"
Her answer, according to Lunau: "'It was not difficult because I was there.'"
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