“Continue to resist and we will crush you. Instead, surrender to us, and we will give you roads, villas and baths.”
Claudius grins at you. It’s your call. One of your villages must be sacrificed in order to complete the deal, but then peace will be restored throughout the land. What are you going to do in these circumstances?
This is the kind of choice that pupils might be faced with as part of a megagame, also known as “live-action role playing” (LARP) and related to ARGs (alternate reality games).
Unlike Mantle of the Expert, megagaming is not a method of teaching (although they both involve role play); it is an adult pursuit that can be adapted for the classroom.
Megagaming isn’t overtly focussed on developing commercial or workplace skills, preferring instead to immerse its participants in historical, ethical or fantastical scenarios that require creative decision-making and problem-solving in something approximating real time.
Because it is an enthralling adult hobby in its own right, it can be complex and demanding, and often requires a grounding in historical or cultural detail to get the most out of it. Luckily, there is a growing international community of megagamers who are dedicated to bringing the pursuit into the classroom. They are writing, adapting and simplifying megagames so that pupils of all ages can enjoy them, too. So, what does a megagame typically look like?
It generally requires 12+ players, but can accommodate hundreds.
It can be played in a morning or afternoon but is usually a whole day.
Every player has a specific role, eg, President of Japan, Double Agent Scientist or Alien Alliance General.
Resources such as money, technology, information or materials are restricted, so that decisions are interesting and the game requires strategy.
Creativity and freedom are key. Players can choose to do almost anything within the game that is reasonable, which requires control players to decide if they can do things and if so, what the consequences are.
There are often ethical dilemmas or struggles written into the game.
There is usually a debrief where players “tell their story” and assess and evaluate the gameplay.
An enlivening time
Paul Howarth, a former teacher who is now an educational games consultant, is passionate about megagaming. He sees it as a way to give pupils “a chance to fail in a non-threatening environment” while they have a “completely enlivening time”.
He also underlines the idea that it involves “dynamics within teams and between teams” – something I experienced first-hand last year when I played an alien at one of the world’s biggest megagames, Watch the Skies 3.
To the hundreds of players below us, we were just one alien blob trying to invade – but we played a whole complex game-within-a-game of factions, politics and war that they never even knew about (I led the alien council and managed to push my own agenda quite successfully in the end, simply by virtue of being a former teacher and knowing how to pretend to be in charge).
Megagames can range from accurate history lessons to crazy, chaotic supernatural-world experiences, but they all aim to highlight the interesting problem of making decisions when not all information is available.
Quintin Smith, a games expert who is also an experienced megagamer, says that all pupils “should absolutely” try their hand at megagaming. “Any number of complex, real-world situations can be quickly understood if you let kids step into the shoes of world leaders and policymakers.
“Not only can you explain and explore important events from as many sides as you like, you’re encouraging kids to cooperate and develop problem-solving skills.
“You can tell a kid 10 times the reasons why a war started. When they find themselves starting that war because they need that same something, they develop a grasp on that subject unlike anything else that you will find in education.”
Sound good? There are some brilliant games already written for you to try: for around £25, you can download the materials to help you run a megagame at megagame-makers.org.uk. Alternatively, you can go ahead and write your own, like Shaun McMillan did along with his students, with amazing results (head to bit.ly/Megagame to see it in action).
Lucy Rycroft-Smith is a teacher and education writer