Playing In The Classroom With The Ivanhoe Game

[This is a guest post by Stephanie Kingsley. She holds a Master's in English literature from the University of Virginia, where she specialized in 19th-century American literature and textual studies. She was one of this year's Scholars' Lab's Praxis Fellows, and she plans to work in digital editing, publishing, and project management. For more information, visit --Ed.]

This past April, the University of Virginia Scholars’ Lab‘s Praxis Fellows released their practicum project, the Ivanhoe Game. Since the launch, the Fellows have dispersed for the summer: I graduated, and several others went off to visit family and friends. We all wrapped up our semesters and took a well-earned vacation, as, I hope, did most ProfHacker readers. Now, however, the fall semester quickly approaches, and the moment is ripe for renewed consideration of the Ivanhoe Game.

For readers unfamiliar with the Praxis Program, it is a one-year fellowship which trains six graduate students from various disciplines to plan, design, develop, and launch a digital tool for use in humanities scholarship. Guided by the Scholars’ Lab faculty and staff, these students — accustomed to working solo on an endless chain of research papers — learn to work collaboratively on a project. Congratulations to my teammates Scott Bailey, Eliza Fox, Veronica Ikeshoji-Orlati, Francesca Tripodi, and Zachary Stone for a fabulous year, and many thanks to all the Scholars’ Lab for their mentorship and support.

[Pictured above: The 2013-14 Praxis Fellows with Scholars' Lab faculty and staff: (left to right, top to bottom) Wayne Graham, Jeremy Boggs, Eric Rochester, Zach Stone, Eliza Fox, Veronica Ikeshoji-Orlati, Scott Bailey, Bethany Nowviskie, Purdom Lindblad, Francesca Tripodi with son Lev, and Stephanie Kingsley.]

Given the collaborative nature of the Praxis Program, it was fitting that we turned our attention to the Ivanhoe Game. Ivanhoe started as an email exchange in which Johanna Drucker and Jerome McGann adapted the text of Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe. The game was later developed by Bethany Nowviskie and others at the UVa SpecLab, where critical interpretation was based in game play. The Ivanhoe Game is a platform upon which scholars can learn about a text and create criticism on that text through role-play: by assuming a fictitious or historical role, a player can make more daring and imaginative sallies of thought than might otherwise be possible. Thus, out of playful experimentation, scholarship is born.

As you conclude your summer holidays and anticipate the coming semester, now is a good time to consider the methods which would guide your class. How do you plan to engage your students in the course material? What kinds of assignments will you expect your students to complete? As you consider these questions, I would ask you to think about incorporating some play with the Ivanhoe Game.

Built as a WordPress Theme, Ivanhoe is simple to install and easy to learn and use. Rather than have students in your course on Gothic fiction write a paper after reading Dracula, why not have them assume their theoretical stances in the forms of roles and experiment with them — and thus better develop them — by playing an Ivanhoe Game on the novel first? Give your game a title and description/prompt, and you’re ready to go! Even create rules for your game if you like — although none are required! Ivanhoe can be played in any discipline, with a variety of media, and with players of all ages and educational backgrounds. Players develop roles related to any topic and then make comments from their assumed roles. The applications are endless. See the following Praxis Fellows’ posts for Ivanhoe game ideas: “All systems go! (we think),” “Call for Ivanhoe Testers!,” and “A review of the suffragette game.”

This idea is not new, especially not to ProfHacker writers and followers. Jason B. Jones wrote in 2010 in his post “Playing to Learn,”

… I have found that having assignments that are marked off as “games” can free students to think more alertly about class material. The game format frees them to make connections or to try arguments in ways that would seem uncomfortable in a formal paper.

Even if you are not teaching a course the coming semester, why not take your own ideas out for a test drive with Ivanhoe? Play can be a great way to experiment with ideas to find out whether you want to pursue them. Anastasia Salter writes on games and small projects as great ways to test ideas in her post on “a game a week”: “Working small means taking things from my idea pad out for a test spin instead of letting them wait for a day when I have more time to invest in them.” In Praxis, we too experienced the freedom of putting our small ideas forth in the forms of moves without necessarily having completely fleshed-out theories. Furthermore, interacting with other players’ moves inevitably impacted our individual gaming strategies. For instance, in our suffragette game, while I had a fictional plotline unfolding surrounding a relationship between Herbert Asquith and suffragette Mary Leigh, Praxis fellow Zach Stone introduced a historical dialogue from a Parliament meeting concerning the suffragettes’ hunger strikes and force-feeding. This introduced new complexity for my own move-making, and I was forced to adapt my role to the historical realities brought to bear by my fellow Ivanhoe player.

[Screenshot from Ivanhoe: A move on the Suffragette Journalism Game. Click to enlarge.]

Such experimentation encouraged us to think about the pedagogical benefits of game play. Characterizing Ivanhoe more as “gamification” than a game — according to The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook written by Karl Kapp, Lucas Blair, and Rich Mesh (2014) — Praxis Fellow Francesca Tripodi wrote, “Gamification means that we are using elements of games to create a more engaging pedagogical environment.” We Fellows experienced this increased sense of engagement during our team Ivanhoe games as we pooled our individual thought experiments to create a coherent sense of what Ivanhoe meant for us. We also used this approach in figuring out how best to work together as a group. In my final Praxis post, I compared the evolution of our team dynamics over the course of the year to an Ivanhoe Game: individual scholars collaborated, contributing their unique talents and ideas, to craft anew an old concept (Ivanhoe), while also discovering their own roles within the Praxis team (developer, designer, project manager, etc.). Our Praxis blog documents each step in the creation of both the Ivanhoe Game and our team.

But collaborative and experimental game play doesn’t stop with our cohort. Follow next year’s Praxis cohort to see where they will take Ivanhoe next. They, too, will be blogging about their experiences as a team.

So while you’re relaxing at the beach or embarking on other summer adventures, consider giving Ivanhoe a try this fall in your courses, and let us know what you think by joining and discussing Ivanhoe in our
Google Group!

To begin playing, download the Ivanhoe WordPress Theme from our informational website, and you can look forward to a semester of making new connections and enjoying hours of both fun and critical insight in your classrooms!

Have you tried out the latest version of Ivanhoe? If so, please share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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