Of Dragons and Myths – Remote Professional Development with Games: An Interview with Jasmine Bishop

With many employees “working from home” during the pandemic, professional development programs are being challenged to create meaningful and engaging opportunities for adult learners, despite the physical distance.

Jasmine Bishop and Enoch Park developed an online pilot course in leadership and soft skill development using Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), a popular role-playing game (RPG) to engage adult professional learners.

For AACE Review, Jasmine Bishop explains how she used principles of gamification and game-based learning to create an innovative educational experience.

Where did you get the idea of using ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ for leadership training in adult education? Are you active in the fantasy role-playing community?

Having attended a variety of communication and personal development courses, I found myself desiring a more engaging, rewarding and entertaining experience. Where the content in these courses was typically good, the planned interactions felt forced and I personally was no more prepared to handle challenging interactions with colleagues than when I first started.

I wondered, what would make these scenarios less awkward? Provide me an actual opportunity to practice the skills I’m learning and dare I say it – be fun? 

At this point, I had spent a few years participating in role-playing games. I started off feeling quite ‘silly’ as I had not grown up playing them. However, over time I truly enjoyed the interactions among characters, which led me to eventually becoming a DM (Dungeon Master) and running my own campaigns.

The confidence I developed came naturally from playing RPGs was a major reason I thought the method had validity and was worth researching. I started by researching if any educators had incorporated RPGs into their own education programs. I found several cases on table-top role-playing games being used in face-to-face courses with varying degrees of success. Inspired by the case studies and my own experience, I set out to develop a soft-skills building course initially, later incorporating leadership elements. 

For those unfamiliar with the game, can you tell us a little bit more about the game and describe a typical Dungeons and Dragons session?

Wizards of Coast, the games publisher, explains Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) “is about storytelling in worlds of sword and sorcery”. This storytelling is what crafts the environment and allows the DM to fill the scene with all manner of persons, beasts and trials to which player characters must work together to overcome. The game is bound only by the participants imagination (or how much a rules-lawyer will allow) and the group dynamic. 

In a typical game session, players will create a character based on an archetype (or a combination of) and gain experience and levels from the monsters they defeat and the missions they complete. 

What is different and what is the same about playing D&D in an online environment?

In-person game sessions tend to be a social event where the group can share a meal or snacks and game in a casual atmosphere. Printed character sheets, dice, maps and figurines are traditionally used but many players are now using tablets, laptops and other pieces of technology to enhance their sessions. For online sessions, video conference software is needed to connect with others and tools like D&D Beyond can be used for player sheets, Google Slides for presenting visual elements such as maps and so on.

The difference between an in-person and online session really comes down to how well you prepare (working out any technical issues ahead of time) and how you plan on prompting player interaction. I will note, it’s very convenient to be able to mute players – you can’t do that in an in-person session!

How did you embed leadership training and soft-skills into the game?

The amazing part is – I didn’t. The role-playing component of D&D naturally allows for players to gain these skills over time. What I did was craft sessions that allowed for more opportunities in which players would be able to practice soft-skills and take initiative in leadership roles. 

I want to highlight a quote from the games co-creator, Gary Gygax,

“Games give you a chance to excel, and if you’re playing in good company you don’t even mind if you lose because you had the enjoyment of the company during the course of the game.”

By using a game, players can enjoy the experience even when failure occurs. How many of us can say we walked away from a failure in a training session and were happy and would want to do it again? I sure never have! However, I have been badly hurt by a red dragon and couldn’t wait to rally my team for another attempt!

How did participants react? Did you face any barriers or skepticism?

Since it was a pilot program my initial group was formed from interested participants. These individuals were willing to give the course a chance and knew there would be bumps along the way. The biggest jarring part was getting them to reflect on their actions within the game. 

You are asking individuals why they made a choice, something they may have done with limited information and underpressure. The result of that action may not have always led to successful completion of the goal. Instead it may have cost them greatly or injured a teammate. Where painful at times for them, reflection and self analysis allowed them to not only learn more about their reactions and motivations but for some this led to revelations in their personal and professional lives.

When working on recruitment for the pilot, I found many potential participants were not interested in even trying to play an RPG. Getting these individuals to see the value an RPG was going to be a challenge – they simply saw it as a “child’s game” and a “waste of time”. 

When pressed on what they wanted to see in a course, they wanted engagement, good scenarios and opportunities to practice – the very items an RPG could offer them! Where they agreed the courses they had taken in the past may have been boring and not as beneficial as they could have been they also really didn’t want to try something new. Personally, I would love to see these change resistors in a game! It is my belief that once they get over their skepticism they would benefit greatly. 

How did you evaluate if the training achieved the intended learning outcomes?

I used open-ended questioning, reviewed participants’ peer activities and had them complete self assessments for evaluation. I also performed informal interviews during ‘check-ins’ to collect any additional thoughts and insights from the participants. These methods were conducted throughout the course in order to see if and when growth occurred and to what extent. 

What were some unexpected results of the training?

I was actually surprised to see how well participants were able to relate interactions they had in the game sessions with real life situations they were in. Specifically recognizing how their communication style and personality type were causing friction with others. 

One participant reflected on this lack of listening skills, where originally he listed listening as a strength in his SWOT analysis. He found, he may ‘hear’ others but he does not take their thoughts into consideration when making decisions – and it only took him almost killing the wizard with an acid trap to learn! 

In times of heightened Zoom-Fatigue it’s refreshing to think about training approaches outside of web conferencing tools. Do you think this added to the participants’ motivation?

It definitely had an effect on their motivation, but the way in which I presented the activity had a big impact I believe. I encouraged participants to dress casually and to bring snacks – closer to how an in-person session would be run. For many remote workers, they must be professionally dressed on their work calls and eating and drinking is frowned upon.

Where we used twitch in the initial pilot, there are other video conferencing tools available that offer fun video enhancements features, like filters that would be great to offer for additional individuality to be brought into game sessions for added motivation. 

Does your D&D training concept work equally well online and offline? Are you planning an in-person version once this is safely feasible?

The course is designed as a more long term program for professionals where coursework is done asynchronously in order to fit their schedules. In addition, the program is designed to span over a specific amount of time in order for relationships to be built among the participants and trust to form. This approach is different from typical one or two day professional development courses that tend to follow more of a lecture then practice via scripted scenario approach.

I have considered a hybrid approach, where coursework is still done asynchronously and role playing is done in-person, however, I wish to lower as many barriers as possible for course completion and this may not be a viable option for a lot of working professionals. However, with that said, I do think in-person options would be successful for dedicated long term participants who are given the proper resources and time for such a program – such as corporate and custom training sessions. 

Are there other fantasy role-playing game worlds that you would recommend to look into for professional development training?

I would recommend Shadowrun, which is a science fantasy tabletop role-playing, as another great choice but I think almost any RPG would work. The central focus needs to be on interactions and the ability to create opportunities for those interactions, especially where a team is working together toward a common goal or purpose.  

Let’s talk a bit about the foundational principles behind your work: What are the differences between Gamification, Games-Based Learning, and Game-Inspired Design?

Gamification is defined as the “use of game design elements in non-game contexts”, basically using game theory and game mechanics in non-gaming contexts to encourage a specific behavior. Think leaderboards, badges, trophies, points systems and “unlocking” certain content via mastery of preceding content. (Deterding et al., 2011)

Game-based learning refers to “the pedagogical approach of utilizing games in education”, this is using games to achieve a defined set of learning outcomes. Basically, learning through games. Take chess for example, it teaches strategic thinking. (Anastasiadis, Lampropoulos and Siakas, 2018)

Game-inspired design applies game elements to the educational experience, it dynamically adjusts to the skill of the participant, facilitates proximal development and promotes engagement and even fun. The “freedom to fail” is one game element that provides students with the opportunity to try different approaches to a problem in order to obtain success.

You recently presented your work at UNC Cause 2020. What are some other future plans you have for research and practice?

With the conclusion of the initial pilot program, I will be updating the course to incorporate feedback I received from my participants and reviewing alignment to the course’s original learning objectives. In addition, I am determining the validity of a second pilot with a wider pool of participants, where I will most likely be changing my Learning Management System (LMS) and will need to re-develop the course within a new platform.

As for the future, I am currently preparing my application for the Ed.D. in Education Leadership with a concentration in Learning, Design and Technology at UNC Charlotte. My wish is to continue to explore game related learning methodologies for non-credit professional development courses and continue my research and projects with my doctoral dissertation. 

About

Jasmine Bishop is a CRM Analyst in The Office of OneIT at UNC Charlotte. She has over fifteen years experience in web and application development and a passion for Human-Computer Interaction and Game-Based Learning. She holds a Bachelors in Software and Information System, a Graduate Certificate in Instructional Systems Technology and is completing her M.Ed. in Learning, Design, and Technology. In addition she has earned multiple professional certificates and is currently pursuing application to the Ed.D. in Education Leadership at UNC Charlotte.

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