Role-playing Games as Petri Dish for Whimsical Tinkering

“I like to think of play as the art of world-making, and that play is about inventing invented realities. It is about creating a world, physical or virtual, inhabiting that world, and then eventually becoming inhabited by it.”

– Edith Ackermann, “Playful Inventions and Explorations: What’s to be Learned from Kids

We’re sitting at a kindergarten lunch table, munching on snack crackers and carrot sticks — when all of a sudden Kumbalayo, the evil sorcerer with fat warts on his nose bursts into the laboratory and we all transform into Pusheen kittens in an attempt to escape. In the real world, we’re small and struggle with things like peeling open clementines, but in Kumbalayo’s laboratory, we can have any power we want – the ability to shape-shift, to hypnotize, to sneak around like a ninja – and “there’s always a way to escape” (as Dustin reminds us often.) In the real world, I am the only adult – everyone else is 5 or 6 years old – but today in the game world, I am a Pusheen kitten and I am hiding behind a rack of jelly donuts. Sometimes I am the storyteller, but today I am waiting for Lilah the Donut Princess to save me. A bell rings and we all turn back to humans. The laboratory fades away and we start packing up our lunches and wiping down tables. “Can we continue after school,” Lilah asks. “Of course,” I say, “Bring your wand.”


Every time you play a game, you enter a magic circle, “a temporary world inside the ordinary world dedicated to the performance of playing.” The circle is both a concrete boundary – a playground, a card table, a basketball court, a computer screen – and a state of mind that leads players to deep immersion, increased motivation to overcome challenges, and a willingness to adopt new rules and roles. I think about the magic circle often in my teaching practice, which from the outside may barely resemble “teaching” at all. Since becoming a FabLearn Fellow, I have worked in two non-traditional learning spaces: (1) MetaMedia, a free, drop-in digital media lab designed for middle-school students in Evanston, IL and (2) Brightworks, a K-12 private school in San Francisco, CA where kids learn by making projects based on thematic units (called Arcs). In both environments, I have spent a portion of my work time playing games with kids (an enormous privilege) and observing how their play sessions influence their project work. I’ve noticed that role-playing games help establish a whimsical, child-generated narrative context in which physical, social, and digital tinkering emerge and flourish. Because these tinkering experiences are embedded within a dramatic narrative story, they have the power to create indelible emotional memories for children.


At Brightworks, children are afforded a lot of choice in how they navigate their school day. They co-construct classroom curriculum with their teachers (called Collaborators). They choose the format and focus of their capstone projects. They are given Independent Design Time each day to dig into personal areas of interest. Brightworks students enjoy role-playing games, which tend to involve character creation and open-world exploration.  This year at Brightworks, there are two primary cohorts of children who play collaborative role-playing games during school, the LARPers and the Text Adventurers:

  1. The LARPers (live-action role-players) primarily consist of older middle-school and high-school students, who schedule outdoor play sessions during the all-school recess block. One high-school student is the game master and is responsible for planning the narrative, codifying the rules, and directing the game each session. The game master establishes a scenario (eg. “The players are on a ship sailing to a nearby town and are attacked by orc-pirates”), which the players then physically act out using costumes and props.  Characters and narratives are developed over multiple play sessions.
  2. The Text Adventurers primarily consist of younger students (5-8 year olds), who initiate games during moments of down time (ie. walking from school to the park, over lunch, after school, etc.) Games require one storyteller who guides players through a story and offers them choices along the way (eg. “Kumbalayo bursts into the lab. Do you [Choice A] or [Choice B]?”) Characters and narratives rarely develop beyond single play sessions, although storytellers tend to remix each other’s themes and scenarios.   


Sometimes during play sessions, children will make physical artifacts to enhance their storytelling. Sometimes the artifacts are two-dimensional representations: character sketches, maps of the world, diagrams, etc. Other times, the artifacts are three-dimensional: props, costume pieces, or environmental spaces that mirror the game-world. 

During one outdoor play session, the Text Adventurers traced the outline of a boat in chalk on the blacktop to the (not-quite) scale of an actual boat. They could climb inside of it with their bodies and be rocked overboard during shipwreck. With just a line on the floor, they were all able to know how it felt to be squished into a tiny vessel, and were naturally compelled to wonder, “what if we made our a boat a little bit bigger?” During an indoor session, they used a set of color-changing LEDs to conjure the lighting of a lush forest, topped a couple of life-size Lincoln Logs with a green blanket for trees, and cued up Howard Shore’s Fellowship of the Ring score so that they, too, could walk barefoot around The Shire. 

The LARPers also make physical artifacts: helmets, shields, and weapons — all from duct tape, foam, and other scraps. These props are more precious and permanent. The older kids take turns toting their cargo to the park each day in a giant barrel. They repair them when they get bruised. They develop regulations around how to care for them, and become irritated when rules are broken.The LARPers store their artifacts in a public place, which allows them to become incorporated into the Text Adventurer’s play sessions as well.


Role-playing games at Brightworks don’t come from a box. There are no instructions to reference or online forums to consult for advice. The children’s habits of play are as much a construction as the props and costumes that they physically build, and they constantly tweak these structures depending on the dynamics of each session.

Often before play, the Text Adventurers reset their group agreements: How do we take turns playing? How long can a person’s turn be? Can anything happen during a turn? Are we each in charge of our own character – or are some of us sharing characters? How many players can the storyteller handle today? They tend to need the help of an adult to facilitate this conversation, resolve disagreements, and ensure that everyone’s ideas are heard.

The LARPers, on the other hand, are entirely self-organized and document their systems in a binder carried around by the game master. They think deeply about how the game is perceived by others, how they share space on the playground, and how new players join their game. For many of the LARPers, the game is more than a pastime. It’s an identity that they proudly adopt.


There are common limitations in both styles of role-playing games:

  • Games can’t be played in exactly the same way twice
  • Game progress can be easily forgotten or misremembered
  • Every component of the game has to be pre-determined by the storyteller or game master, which means that nothing can happen by chance. 

In some instances, LARPers and Text Adventurers will use digital tools to overcome these barriers. For example, a LARPer, feeling constrained by the linearity of a notebook, charted his game’s plot using Twine, a free web-based tool for coding interactive fiction. Some Text Adventurers have adapted their games into sharable Scratch projects, creating animated avatars that they can control on the screen. During one play session, Text Adventurers programmed a Micro:bit to become a random number generator, which determined the success of their move. Similarly, a LARPer has experimented with prototyping spells that can be cast from player-to-player using RFID tags embedded in cloth satchels.

This form of tinkering, unlike the previous two, typically happens outside of the play sessions. If I’m trying to nudge a Text Adventurer towards Scratch, I might suggest we try to adapt one of their role-playing game stories into a digital project. For some children, this is an excellent provocation, and they slide into programming with gusto — but even in that ideal circumstance, their whole bodily approach changes. They go from standing to sitting, from being aware of the physical environment to staring at a screen, from creating in concert with others to working mostly alone, from rapidly erecting imaginary worlds to slowly crafting sprites, from authoring with their hands and mouths to feeling limited by the keyboard and mouse.

Is there a way to prepare the environment so that this shift doesn’t happen and children can engage in digital tinkering while maintaining their play? 

Last week, I visited Dynamicland, a community workspace in Oakland, CA that attempts to solve this problem by reimagining the computer interface. At Dynamicland, people create software together by “programming” on scraps of paper. The paper-code is seen by a camera/sensor rig mounted in the ceiling and then the program is projected live onto the tables, floors, and walls of the space. The setup encourages programmers to incorporate physical materials into their projects. During my visit, I play-tested a game by Nicky Case called Frog Wars, where players flick origami frogs over projections of buzzing flies to score points. That same program was then transformed into a game called Tub Wars after Nicky brought new materials onto the table. The physical materials, which included a baking sheet filled with water and bathtubs made from plastic cups, inspired a whole new theme and style of play. There was no latency between playing the original game, imagining a way to remix the game, and playing the remix. 

For the foreseeable future, the Dynamicland technology is only available to people who have access to their headquarters in Oakland (boo! hiss!), but it represents one potential solution for integrating digital tinkering into physical play. In the meantime, as we wait for the technology to catch up, it’s important that we nurture playful makerspace environments so that children see tools as direct extensions of their imaginations and as vehicles to help tell stories, share visions, and make magic.