October 22, 2015 at 10:45am
Dane Lisser

Tabletop Gaming and the Hero Complex

Can Dungeons & Dragons be used to understand literature? Can you study the early years of Batman to determine how heroes have been portrayed over time? A group of Secondary English Education students at Millikin University are exploring these themes as part of their research on literacy instruction.

Matthew Gremo, a junior from Decatur, Ill.; Ryan Morgan, a junior from Elwood, Ill.; and Ryle Frey, a senior from Decatur, Ill., all presented their research findings at the 48th Annual Illinois Reading Council (IRC) Conference in Peoria, Ill., on Oct. 1-3.

This year's conference, themed "Passport to Possibilities," brought together professional educators, educational researchers, and children's/young adult authors to provide support and leadership in promoting and teaching lifelong literacy. The 2015 conference featured over 40 featured speakers, hundreds of exhibitors and more than 300 practicing educator and exhibitor sessions.

Matthew Gremo and Ryan Morgan partnered on their Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) project, titled "Tabletop Gaming in the English Classroom: Pairing D&D and Literature to Promote Literacy."

Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy tabletop role-playing game where each player controls only a single character, which represents an individual in a fictional setting. During the course of play, each player directs the actions of his or her character and its interactions with other characters in the game.

As part of their research, Gremo and Morgan created a weekly installment of an on-going tabletop campaign. They adapted elements of Dungeons & Dragons to place students within the world of literature. The goal was to have students better understand plot development and literary themes through practical exposure to individual concepts and ideas.

"We looked at a role-playing system called Pathfinder, based off Dungeons & Dragons, and tried to simplify the rules of the game so it could be easily learned in a classroom environment," said Gremo. "The goal is to apply role-playing systems to literature. The teacher takes on the role of the game master and has their students interact with the story. At the end of the actual game, the students are then given a series of writing projects."

Those in attendance during Gremo and Morgan's conference presentation were able to interact and learn more about the game. Gremo says they plan to implement the project in classrooms at local schools next semester.

"We will actually gather data on how this project assists students with comprehension and literacy," said Gremo. "I would certainly like to use this system in my own classrooms in the future."

Reflecting back on the conference, Ryan Morgan said, "I think our presentation was particularly great because we were able to have a conversation with the audience. I was glad to be part of a project that helps students see the purpose of each plot point and the progression of a story."

Ryle Frey's research, "Batman and the Hero Complex: Learning by Conducting Psychoanalysis of Literature and Life," explores how various texts can help student's understanding of the "hero complex."

Specifically, Frey used the graphic novel "Batman: Year One," written by Frank Miller and illustrated by David Mazzucchelli. "Batman: Year One" explores both the early days of Batman's crime fighting in Gotham City and Jim Gordon's emerging years in the Gotham City Police Department. Frey also utilized Shakespeare's "Macbeth" and "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins.

Frey wanted to determine how the treatment of heroes has changed over time, especially in cultures, societies and even text types, from traditional to graphic novel.

"I focused on having the students become psychologists in a way," said Frey. "We used 'Batman: Year One' so we could bring a new mode of information to the classroom, and bring something relevant that would get the students excited to learn."

Dr. Michael Cook, Millikin assistant professor of English, worked with all three students during the research process. The students are currently working with Dr. Cook to put their projects into text for publication in a book chapter and a journal article.

"Both projects are novel in nature and have the potential to truly change the way in which English teachers think about and provide instruction for literacy," said Dr. Cook.

Dr. Cook added, "These are great examples of Performance Learning because they are providing resources to both pre-service and in-service teachers. I was truly amazed at the level of support the students received, and we've already been approached about presenting again at next year's conference."