Election 2016

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.

Works Cited 

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 [1989].” 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.