[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” H. P. Lovecraft famously declares that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.” It’s the experience of this sort of fear that he views as the test for true supernatural horror fiction. He crafted 100-odd stories around this concept, and countless later authors adapted it in their own horror fiction, cementing the concept as part of Lovecraft’s legacy. However, this fear is integral to not only Lovecraft's writing but also his racism. Lovecraft was born in the era following Civil War Reconstruction. He grew up when African-Americans were seeking civil rights and greater freedom, which was also the time when the white supremacist ideology proliferated. His fear of the unknown compelled him toward the latter. His works did not simply reflect the era in which he lived. They actively promoted fear of what he considered the racial “other.” His stories oozed bigotry, targeting African-Americans especially.
Lovecraft’s legacy troubles me, as an instructor of literature. He has shaped horror fiction immensely, but his bigotry challenges modern readers, writers, and teachers, as do the tainted but influential legacies of so many artists, philosophers, and historical figures in other disciplines. When discussing these figures, some students ask me whether measuring the past by modern standards is “fair,” while others hasten to brush bigotry under the rug of history. Of course, students must understand an issue in relation to its historical moment. Likewise, students must examine their personal, modern reactions to it as well.
Class discussion helps students debrief and articulate their critiques. It helps disrupt the notion that, by default, courses seek to celebrate assigned readings and subjects. It can even help complicate modern views of an influential figure. Yet, I’m sorry to say that discussion is an instructional form in which students can easily distance themselves from the content, which is why some students dismiss the challenging issues that can haunt course material. Whether students are discussing history, fiction, or politics, nothing necessitates that they actively consider the subject in relation to themselves or their self-understanding.
Other types of pedagogy such as experiential learning, which emphasizes learning-by-doing, promote personal reflection and analysis more actively. This pedagogy is on the rise for its formative power, but teachers do not need to take a field trip or involve their students in a service-learning project. They can experience it through role-playing, which teachers can use in a variety of contexts to confront challenging content.
To some extent, teachers may use reading itself as a form of roleplaying—or at least role-taking. Whereas role-playing involves decision-making for a character in a given circumstance, role-taking involves merely imagining ourselves in that circumstance, perhaps to determine how a character feels or to assess their reaction. In fact, role-taking is central to genres such as horror, whose authors manipulate readers into identifying or empathizing with characters. They require the reader to experience events through a character’s viewpoint and typically make this character relatable. Ideally, readers imagine themselves in that character’s situation and adopt similar feelings, in this case fear.
True role-playing activities are different. They involve an active player (rather than a passive reader) who chooses how to speak and act within a customizable conflict. These activities immerse students in course content, so that the conflict is more personal and students have a harder time distancing themselves. In fact, feelings from role-playing games may “bleed” into real life (and vice versa). The boundaries between player and character are even more permeable than reader and character.
Personalize social issues and deepen engagement
Recently, tabletop role-playing games have started entering classrooms. Dungeons and Dragons, which is perhaps the most famous of these, has experienced a major revival. Teachers, especially at the high school level, have been incorporating the game to develop students’ problem-solving, literacy, and communication skills. The game’s utility derives from its experience as a collaborative story-telling event. One participant, the “game master,” runs the event as a narrator and referee, while other participants play characters of their own invention within the story. They use dice to determine whether their characters accomplish tasks and they work together to overcome difficult challenges. Although these games tell fictional stories, players confront very real issues in them and create characters that are very personal, often unintentionally. This mediated personal experience is why after-school programs, therapists, and correctional facilities have started incorporating these games.
These games are especially useful for confronting, not merely analyzing or critiquing, social issues and ethics. For example, although students cannot take a field trip to 1920’s New England or the fictional Lovecraft county, the Lovecraft-themed tabletop role-playing game Call of Cthulhu allows them to interact with American history, experience Lovecraft’s literature, and grapple with his bigotry in a more personal manner than reading or discussion. Tabletop roleplaying games are often designed around literary genres but have a variety of historical (as well as fictional) settings in which political, philosophical, and religious conflicts inform scenarios. Most importantly, instructors can modify these scenarios to fit their discipline and learning goals.
In one of my recent courses, Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu provided students the opportunity to confront Lovecraft’s bigotry by creating and playing their characters in his fictional universe and early 20th-century setting. I divided students into several groups, each of which had one game master and at least three players. Students created their own characters, choosing how their backstories fit into the setting and context, and most of them confronted issues of gender, sexuality, and race, not always consciously. One student created a character whose sexuality had been a source of conflict. Another character confronted intersecting experiences of race and class in her backstory, complicating a life of crime.
In creating their characters, students researched these issues in early 20th-century America, as well as France and, surprisingly, Tibet. They may have intended their research to fit their characters into the setting and context, but students, in most cases, built their characters around kernels of personal truths, which means that they were situating themselves and their performances into the setting as well. Students’ personal attachments to their characters compelled them to research history, literature, and culture. Moreover, it compelled them to consider these contexts in relation to themselves, safely exploring issues through characters of their own invention.
Game masters were asked to adapt their scenarios and conflicts according to their players’ personal interests, inquiries, and comfort zones. Later, when students played the game and faced unexpected conflicts, they had to act as protagonists but without any scripting. The scenarios provide neither a right nor wrong answer, and the players’ decisions could potentially worsen the situation.
After the game ends, students can process their choices and experiences through discussion, at which time the instructor can guide conversation toward learning goals. Instructors can have students consider issues of genre and character; they can alter the scenario to probe historical issues of gender, race, or religion; or they can require students to analyze their decisions in relation to theories of ethics.
Although their experiences in these scenarios are “only” simulations, the learning that occurs and its personal nature can be extremely impactful. Just as interactive theater requires readers to become “spect-actors,” Call of Cthulhu and other tabletop role-playing games require students to become characters or, perhaps, “char-actors.” As readers, they may look upon Lovecraft and his bigotry from a balcony of sorts, a supposed bystander to events and beliefs that occurred long ago. As characters, they are forced to react to this bigotry alongside his characters and monsters. They are forced to grapple with Lovecraft’s ghosts both literally and figuratively.
As I recently discovered, when accompanied by supplementary reading and learning goals, tabletop role-playing games have the power to personalize social issues and deepen engagement. Teachers can use these games to explore not only literature and history but also theatre, philosophy, religion, and politics. Perhaps most importantly, instead of dictating a “message” to students about what to do or think, these types of activities ask them what can be done and, more specifically, what they can do in the real world.
A. D. Olson is a visiting professor at Gustavus Adolphus College, where he teaches courses in early British literature. His research in Renaissance education raised his interest in educational role-playing activities and subsequently led to the course that this article describes. His Reading and Roleplaying course examined how readers relate and identify with characters in a text, as well as how gamebooks like the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series modify the reader's experience. In his classrooms, he is always trying to incorporate similar activities, including some adapted from Renaissance curricula, such as "ethopoeia."