Live-action roleplaying (LARP) is often associated with dress-up and make-believe, but if intrepid researchers have their way, it could also have a positive effect on real-world computer science education.
The act of "LARPing" is when participants put on costumes and embark on made-up adventures in the physical world, which can include large mock battles and fantasy quests "kind of like a Dungeons and Dragons or a video game come to real life," as one passionate LARPer told Business Insider.
"LARP is a particularly profound vehicle for self-discovery, therapy, and education," says Sarah Lynne Bowman, an adjunct professor in Humanities, English, and Communications at Austin Community College and Richland College in Texas, and Ashford University in California; she also is a role-play studies researcher. "When players physically embody their characters, they often experience a strong degree of immersion into the physical, emotional, and social world of the setting."
Because of that, LARP may be a potent way to teach computer science. By immersing students into fictional scenarios that teach real-world computer science skills, some researchers claim LARPing can promote learner engagement and subject matter recall. In fact, one high-profile project funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is trying to prove just that.
In 2020, the NSF awarded $1.2 million to a team led by principal investigator Katherine Isbister, a professor of computational media at the University of California, Santa Cruz, to build a summer camp that uses LARP to teach middle-school girls computer science.
The camp will use a live-action roleplaying story created by nonprofit The Game Academy to introduce and reinforce computer science concepts and methods. Girls attending the camp will collaborate and compete to accomplish objectives that further a story they all experience together. In the process, they'll learn to program and reprogram wearable technology.
"The idea is that the girls will be building and programming wearables to use in a LARP that they are involved in, thus building connections between campers and creating a powerful social motivation for learning [computer science] skills," says Isbister.
A large part of the reason LARP offers educational benefits over traditional classrooms is because it helps students play-act their way through a very real fear of failure.
"In creating a shared fictionalized world and alternative identities within the game world, individuals are given the opportunity to transcend their real-world doubts, insecurities, and feelings of inadequacy," says Joshua Archer, executive director of The Game Academy and a collaborator on the summer camp project.
For instance, students at the camp will use wearable devices with inputs and outputs that drive in-game organic interactions. In the process, they'll have opportunities to go to a computer lab to make modifications that move the story forward. It's a fun, challenging way to experiment and learn without the fear of looking dumb, bombing a test, or facing other real consequences.
"Students wear the mask of a character to protect them from failure," says Aaron Vanek, a creator at The Game Academy who is working on the project. "If incorrect, their character can respawn."
This increases student motivation and enhances subject matter recall, making LARPing a potentially valuable educational tool in computer science, which requires mastering complicated and difficult subject matter. The plan, says Isbister, is to run the camp for two summers, then create a "camp in a box" experience to share with educators all over the country.
However, despite the advantages of LARP-based education, challenges remain to implementation.
The biggest is COVID-19. In-person camps like the one Isbister and team are planning become a lot more difficult to execute in pandemic times. In fact, the team already has a backup plan if they can't launch the first in-person camp in the summer of 2021. (Other in-person camps run by Archer and The Game Academy have already been forced to pivot to online models.)
And, even with online pivots, giving all computer science students access to collaborative LARP games could be a challenge, says Kellian Adams Pletcher, founder of Green Door Labs, a company that creates game-based learning experiences. "We're already seeing that online learning hits disadvantaged kids the hardest," she says. "It's difficult for a lot of kids to get online and have a stable internet connection, dedicated learning time, and a quiet place to focus."
Even without a pandemic, says Pletcher, "Games are really difficult to incorporate successfully into a traditional, K-12 classroom for a bunch of reasons, the biggest of which is time."
These factors could mean LARP-based education in computer science remains a fantasy. Then again, LARPers routinely make the impossible come to life.
Logan Kugler is a freelance technology writer based in Tampa, FL, USA. He has written for over 60 major publications.