A live-action roleplaying game about political organizing, rhetorical listening, & strategic communication
Sara Lovett, University of Washington
Election 2016, Game [Download Link]
Election 2016, Critical Essay [Download Link]
Summary of the Game
Before I became a composition instructor, I learned of the importance of listening in acts of persuasion through my experience as a political organizer. Every day, I listened to the stories of strangers, persuaded undecided voters, and refined my own views in the context of others’. These experiences helped me better understand multiple perspectives on issues I had once perceived as black and white. Though seemingly unrelated to composition, political organizing requires many of the same rhetorical skills that first-year writing (FYW) programs emphasize: attention to audience and context, analysis and synthesis of viewpoints, and rhetorical awareness, among others. The capacities I developed as a political organizer are some of the same competencies that I want my FYW students to acquire. To this end, I developed this live action roleplaying game (LARP) in which students portray voters, canvassers, and strategists in the composition classroom in order to practice to listening to others’ stories, considering the consequences of persuasion, and navigating difficult conversations about their views and values.
Election 2016: The Game uses live-action roleplaying game conventions to teach listening and empathy as critical civic and rhetorical capacities. This LARP is based on the 2016 US presidential election, which might seem too volatile and precarious of a subject to engage students in. Yet, this topic can also open space for conversations about disenfranchisement, the electoral college, media bias, and how extreme political views develop.
This game invites students to listen rhetorically—in other words to listen across difference and contextualize their own viewpoints as a prerequisite to persuasion. Listening-based pedagogies (see Krista Ratcliffe, Cheryl Glenn, and Wayne Booth, among others) aim to cultivate an expanded capacity for critical and compassionate thinking as students work across difference. The LARP medium offers one way for composition teachers to develop more robust pedagogies for helping students more thoroughly and empathetically take into account others’ views before trying to convince them, negotiate and reframe their own views, and, at times, allow themselves to be persuaded.
Outcomes and Scaffolding
The pedagogical goals of this LARP are to
- teach listening and understanding as important rhetorical capacities,
- contextualize the consequences of persuasion,
- compel students to negotiate and perhaps revise their own views
- honestly represent diverse perspectives,
- productively challenge students’ views without causing unproductive conflict or harm.
My accompanying curriculum consists of two assignment sequences. Before and during the game I assign projects that engage students in critical, contextual analysis of their characters as well as rhetorical skills such as argumentation, audience and genre awareness, and synthesis. The first sequence targets rhetorical skills and contextual knowledge that prepare students to engage in this game. For example, they practice making evidence-based claims, addressing counterclaims, articulating stakes, and composing in a variety of genres for diverse audiences.
Scaffolding activities draw upon a variety of genres and perspectives aimed to scaffold course objectives while preparing students to engage in roleplaying.
Following this sequence, students spend two days discussing the rules and roles of the game and setting expectations and norms for respectful gameplay, students spend the next two and a half weeks of the course in character working toward their assigned objectives.
The second sequence invites students to apply their rhetorical skills within the context of the game. Assignments include:
- An analytical, reflective paper in which students compare their own positionality with that of their character and craft a plan for how they will portray that individual. • A multimodal project in which one player makes a claim to another player’s character by creating a text within the game, strategically using skills pertaining to audience, genre, listening, claim-making, and research skills.
- A post-game reflection connecting the game to the course’s learning goals—in particular, rhetorical situation, research and synthesis, listening-based claims, and revision.
When choosing course texts for students to practice critical reading, synthesize, and analysis skills, I include some that provide background information on the American electoral structure and major political issues relevant to Election 2016. This context can especially help students who are recent immigrants or international students who are less familiar with US politics. I first taught this game with across three weeks in a college writing class with 15 students. However, it can be adapted for a variety of contexts. I have run it as a 2020 primaries game for that spanned two full days for middle school students and as a 3-hour game for adults at a composition conference. No matter the time frame, it is critical to scaffold the serious topics that relate to this game as well as the politics of representing a character in a LARP.
Roles and Responsibilties
I assign roles in the first week of class to give students time to get acquainted with their character and develop their backstory and views in more depth so they will become fleshed out, complex representations of people rather than caricatures. Prior to assigning roles, I circulate a list of the roles and distribute a survey to students. Assigning roles strategically and collaboratively with students can maximize learning and minimize student discomfort. I ask my students to write a blurb describing themselves in a similar fashion to how the characters are described. I invite them to disclose as much or as little as they would like about their personal politics. I also ask students to identify which characters are most and least like them in terms of identity and views. Then, I ask them to veto any characters they would not want to play and list their top three character choices. After collecting surveys, I usually give students one of their top three choices on a first-come, first-served basis. However, I try not to assign students any of the roles that they said were most like them. I ask students to develop their characters and negotiate the relationship between their character’s views and their own before the game begins. Each character has a unique goal and story, but each role has some overlap with others in order to account for student absences. The purpose of the early character assignment is for students to become acquainted with their character and develop their backstory and views in more depth so they will become fleshed out, complex representations of people and not simplistic caricatures. Additionally, character development tasks are intended to compel students to start negotiating the relationship between their character’s views and their own. To build character representations, students will need to research the communities to which their characters belong as well as the history behind their belief systems and analyze the rhetorical situations in which those beliefs were from.
While roleplaying fosters a unique environment for students to practice rhetorical skills, it also poses risks that must be accounted for. For thoughtful, respective roleplaying to succeed, teachers and students must invest temporal and emotional resources to learn about how intersectionality, appropriation, and representation are relevant to composition skills and to gameplay. These concepts can be scaffolded through readings, conversations, and interactive discussions. The 2016 election scenario poses potential risks related to students’ identities, privilege, and power.. In order to avoid reproducing stereotypes through their portrayal of characters, students must develop their characters as thoroughly as possible before they start roleplaying. In cases when students are portraying characters from identity groups different from their own, they must advocate for those groups without trying to emulate or appropriate that group’s perceived characteristics. This can be made clear to students through conversations about stereotypes, allyship, advocacy, and appropriation and through norm-setting prior to the game
For this game to adequately recognize and address the experiences of both characters and students, the facilitator should frame it through a lens of intersectionality that acknowledges and confronts how multiple forms of oppression and discrimination based on race, gender, and socioeconomic status among other factors simultaneously impact individuals and groups. Legal studies scholar and Black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw originated the term “intersectionality” in her 1989 essay “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex.” In her essay, Crenshaw proposes an alternative “single-axis framework”—the tendency for stakeholders in law case to focus on “the most privileged group members” among “those who are multiply-burdened” (139- 140). Considering identity markers—especially markers associated with marginalized groups— in isolation does not reflect reality and can erase people’s lived experiences. In the context of this game, that means that students need to research and reflect on their characters’ experiences and identities through the lens of how their multiple identities intersect. As Crenshaw states, “the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism” (141). An intersectional approach can more effectively account for multiple concurrent and potentially conflicting affordances of and barriers to access that occur both systemically and in individuals’ lives. While no game can represent all perspectives, this LARP attempts to represent a wide array of the diverse perspectives that impacted the 2016 US presidential election in the hopes that students can better understand the results of the election in a historical context while building rhetorical skills and learning about the impact of media and political organizing.
LARPing, Empathy, and Social Justice
Despite the importance of addressing structural racism and legacies of colonialism in writing studies, as Victor Villanueva noted in 2006, it never seems to be the right moment to confront racism in our discipline (according to those who would rather not address the issue). A resistance to recognizing and intervening in white supremacy in the field of composition reflects how, regardless of identity, many people are averse to “being disturbed”—“to hav[ing] [their] beliefs and ideas challenged by what others think” (Wheatley 34). Given the public resurgence of white supremacy in the Trump era, Villanueva’s statement rings true more than a decade later. In the presentation “Learning from the Student in the Trump Hat” at the 2019 Conference on College Composition and Communication, Erinn Metcalf, Melody Niesen, and Chelsea Everly Orman argue for “building empathy and understanding where reasoning fails” through storytelling. Roleplaying games offer one form of storytelling that immerse students in the lives of people unlike people they may know in real life.
This game builds on legacies of social justice in both LARPs and composition scholarship to explore and critique an array of positionalities and viewpoints representative of the American electorate. The controlled environment of a roleplaying game can offer space to learn—through the lens of a character—how to cultivate empathy and critique inequity by listening rhetorically across difference. The Poverty Simulation, a social-justice-oriented simulation, situates players as people living in poverty who need to access the services they need to survive. The characters in this game (like many in my LARP) are based on real individuals, grounding play in lived experiences and encouraging players to veer away from caricatures and stereotypes. A central value of the Poverty Simulation is empathy: as their website says, “unless you’ve truly experienced poverty, it’s difficult to truly understand.” The Election 2016 LARP upholds similar values: if you have not lived the lives of individuals whose views and positionalities are unlike yours, it is difficult to understand why they voted for a particular candidate or why they may not have voted at all. Unlike in the Poverty Simulator, Election 2016 LARP players are not encouraged to necessarily validate the opinions or values of their characters as they come to understand those views. This LARP examines people’s lives as they are and the seemingly contradictory ways in which they may both harm and uplift others (sometimes even themselves). That said, careful thought and time should be devoted to scaffolding and debriefing both gameplay and real-world events.
As an educational LARP situated primarily in composition studies, Election 2016 draws on rhetorical theories of listening and empathy to engage students with their characters in substantial but safe ways. Composition scholar Eric Leake makes a related case for teaching empathy as one way to integrate listening practices into the first-year writing curriculum. He suggests that an orientation toward empathy teaches students to react not only with texts, but also with the values and ideas that they contain, and, as a result, understand and respond to texts more holistically and thoughtfully. In foregrounding empathetic listening practices, composition instructors prepare students to negotiate their views collaboratively, listen to voices that often go unheard, and ideally, extend their rhetorical skills beyond the classroom in order to more fully understand and respond to others’ viewpoints. In the context of this LARP, empathy connects students to their roles and the context of the game and helps them develop capacities for engaging with others’ views—and that engagement may include persuasion or disagreement after and outside of the game. Rather than agreeing or reaching a consensus with their character, students should be encouraged to represent and listen to the character’s views and hold them beside their own while reflecting on and problematizing the convergences with and divergences from their own perspectives (I use a daily play log as one way for my students to reflect).
Rhetorical listening practices offer an approach to cultivating empathy in the writing classroom that can be applied to gameplay. In her 1996 article “When the First Voice Your Hear is Not Your Own,” Jacqueline Jones Royster calls for empathetic, dialogic communication practices that account for unequal subject positions. Krista Ratcliffe and Sheryl Glenn (among others) have recently taken up Royster’s work through the theorization of rhetorical listening, practices that create space for interlocutors to hear each other’s views and, in response, negotiate their own views. Like Metcalf, Niesen, and Omran, Ratcliffe and Glenn advocate for a shift away from the stoic rhetoric upheld by Aristotle and his contemporaries and toward messy, immeasurable human experiences. A major goal of rhetorical listening is to hear and come to know those experiences for the sake of greater understanding, problem solving, and potential collaboration across difference. For the sake of this game, I define rhetorical listening as a tool for negotiation that allows students to hear others’ views and, in response, negotiating their own views.
While listening can help interlocutors understand and learn from one another, openness to persuasion can also be dangerous. Persuasion can be used as a tool to coopt vulnerable individuals into violent institutions (cults, gangs, and even terrorist organizations). The 2016 election scenario poses additional risks related to students’ identities and power dynamics. While roleplaying is fictional, the characters portrayed can pose real dangers to students through stereotypes they perpetuate or through problematic views for which they advocate. It is essential to contextualize and historicize acts of listening and, in doing so, acknowledge that not everyone has equal agency in the listening process and, as a result, rhetorical listening can pose additional risks to vulnerable individuals. A critical approach to rhetorical listening, in which the role of power and positionality in negotiating across difference is explicated and contextualized, is necessary for the purpose of fostering productive discourse that does not silence or endanger speakers or listeners. Such strategies are intended to compel interlocutors to contextualize their views, consider the impact of persuasion on others, and acknowledge and challenge the ways in which power and privilege work against acts of listening must be employed (Trainor 14-15, 17, 20-22; Adams and Zúñiga 96). Despite the dangers and pitfalls of rhetorical listening, the underlying philosophy—that individuals need to develop a more comprehensive understanding of one another in order to create a more just rhetorical community—is worth pursuing.
Adams, Maurianne and Ximena Zúñiga. “Getting Started: Core Concepts for Social Justice Education.” Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice. Eds. Maurianne Adams and Lee Anne Bell. Routledge, 2016, pp. 95-130.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics .” Feminist Legal Theory: Readings in Law and Gender. Taylor and Francis, 2018, pp. 57– 80.
Glenn, Cheryl and Krista Ratcliffe. “Introduction: Why Silence and Listening Are Important Rhetorical Arts.” Silence and Listening as Rhetorical Arts. Eds. Cheryl Glenn and Krista Ratcliffe. Southern Illinois University Press, 2011, pp. 1-19.
Leake, Eric. “Writing Pedagogies of Empathy: As Rhetoric and Disposition.” Composition Forum, vol. 34, 2016.
Metcalf, Erinn, Melody Niesen, and Chelsea Everly Orman. “Learning from the Student in the Trump Hat.” Conference on College Composition and Communication, 15 Mar. 2019, Pittsburgh, PA.
Poverty Simulation, www.povertysimulation.net/.
Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.
Trainor, Jennifer S. Rethinking Racism: Emotion, Persuasion, and Literacy Education in an All White High School. Southern Illinois UP, 2008.
Villanueva, Victor. “Blind: Talking about the New Racism.” Writing Center Journal, vol. 26, no. 1, 2006, pp. 3–19.
Wheatley, Margaret J. Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future. 1st ed., Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2002.