Looking back, I can trace my understandings of complex adaptive systems to starting an activity at age eight. At eight, I got to become part of a group of people participating in an activity that required me to: read a vast quantity of material at a fine detail level of comprehension, cooperate with up to 7 other people at the same time, learn to support others, learn to value the unique qualities and contributions of others, learn to put the good of the group before the good of myself, recognize that a group of people all aligned to the same goal accomplish more than they could alone, pull my own weight, ask for help when I needed it and offer help when it was time to reciprocate, accurately communicate my needs and what I was going to do, create supported arguments to argue both for and against a proposed action, continually integrate new information into an existing understanding, understand tactics and advantage, map accurately using scale factors, convert units, use metal math, understand probability, use my imagination, and slay dragons.
Right up to the slay dragons most people are asking “where can I sign up myself or my kids”? However, the slaying of dragons seems to be a major controversy. Dungeons and Dragons has received a lot of bad press because people focused on the killing of monsters instead of the highly complex system of gaming that it is. I know my mother was always challenged when she stood up for our right to play it. The reasons she would list would be many of the above ending with I know where my children are, what they are doing, and with whom, can you say the same? I cannot imagine that any parent, grandparent, or teacher would say,” No I don’t think my son/daughter/grandchild/student would benefit from that list of skills”. So if these are the skills that Dungeons and Dragons and other fantasy role playing games help promote, it begs the question how does it enable an environment that allows those skills to be used?
To answer this question, I will relate what happens in a typical Dungeons and Dragons’ game to the identifiers of complexity as defined in the work Engaging Minds
(Davis, Sumara, & Luce-Kapler, 2008). Dungeons and Dragons takes a group of 4
to 6 adventurers (people) and gives them an end goal to accomplish. In order to accomplish the goal the
group has only the equipment they presently carry, the things they find, their
skills and abilities, and their ingenuity. Some of the equipment, skills, and
abilities are possessed by more than one of the adventures to provide some
redundancy in the system. This not
only allows more than one adventurer to work on a task if needed, but also provides
flexibility in who is assigned which task to accomplish. On the other hand, some skills and
abilities are unique to a character thus providing diversity to the group. By drawing on their unique and diverse
skills and abilities the group can accomplish more difficult or specific
tasks. The group, over time,
develops a taken-as-shared understanding (Cobb, 1990) which allows
them to create group tactics that require each member to be aware of not only
what they might do but of what the other members might do. They then need to decide on the best
course of action for both themselves and their teammates, all in but a minute
or two. This collective thinking
is echoed in the words of Paulo Freire when he said, ‘It is not the “I think”
that constitutes the “we think” but rather the “we think” that makes it
possible for "me" to think’ (1985,
Dungeons and Dragons also provides recursive challenges that allow the characters to learn and adapt at the same time. While the room may be the same size, with the same type and number of opponents with the same group of adventures neither the outcome nor the path that encounter will take are certain. The group of adventures now has knowledge of the typical behavior of their opponents to use in their strategizing. They may have new equipment, skills or abilities that will change the tactics of the group. They may have group members unable to use their regular skills or equipment which also change tactic. Encounters are always dynamic and the adventures need to be able to adapt and learn from the system or they die (an on-paper death which requires much work and hassle to start a character over again). Sometimes, the skills, abilities, and equipment are all held constant but the opponent changes. This requires the group to think on their feet to notice difference and similarities between this and past encounters, as well as to notice what is working and what is not. There again, the group must again adapt or face an epic character death.
Role playing games are an imitation of life and, in that regard, reflect the complex system that we live in.
Cobb, P. (1990). Multiple perspectives. In L. P. Steffe, & T. Wood (Eds.), Transforming children's mathematics education : International perspectives (pp. 200-215). Barcombe, U.K.: Falmer Press.
Davis, B., Sumara, D., & Luce-Kapler, R. (2008). Engaging Mind Changing Teaching in Complex Times second edition. New York: Routledge.
Freire, P. (1985). The Politics of Education. Cambridge, MA: Bergin and Garvey.