‘Interacts’: An RPG Quest Board Assignment

I’ve been teaching physical anthropology for just over three years so I have still been making changes every semester.  Changes include staying up to date with new discoveries and looking for useful websites or thinking of ways to engage with the topic in daily life. For example, reading a biography of Darwin on the web could make him relatable and bring some insight into how he figured out natural selection, but it would be hard to make a whole assignment out of it. Or, to get people to see the natural world, I could have students take a picture of a plant on campus, where there are labeled plants and look up information about it online, but it is also too short and may run into access problems for the distant online students. I wanted to remove online quizzes for my campus classes, so I got rid of those assignments and made a new type called Interacts that are a collection of short activities.

{ One of the neat native plants at Grossmont College. }

{ One of the neat native plants at Grossmont College. }

The Interacts goal is to engage students with the physical and online world around them in terms of anthropology. The framework is set for fun as a way to make these activities habits in their lives. The model is from the daily quests of online roleplaying games. To keep players playing, these games have a rotating set of quests to do each day that involve some mundane activity for a long term reward. Adapting that model, I can have students do a batch of short activities as part of one assignment.

Students generally choose a handful out of ten options. They range from poking around a website and writing what they saw, to taking photos or drawing pictures of course topics. The variety made it so students who could not make it to campus in the timeframe or could not run a Flash plugin on their device could just pick something else to do. For each week, I tried to mix up the activity types so some had to be done outside, some could be done at home, some involved writing, some drawing, and so on.

{ Work-in-progress image when I was on a break. }

Since the instructions could be repetitive, I made up acronyms for different assignment types: WASPA for Write a Short Paragraph About, ATQ Answer This Question with a sentence, TAPO and DAPO for Take a Photo Of and Draw a Picture Of, and LOF as a Look Online For action. My secret hope is that this lingo will make its way into the rest of the world (they are true acronyms since they’re pronounced as words), but for now it does the job of consolidating the same instructions.

I made up activities as the semester went along. Some weeks were harder than others, such as finding things to do for the race and forensic anthropology sections. I also ran out of creative steam towards the end in the paleoanthropology weeks, so some of the later assignments just asked students to go back and do options they have not tried. One of the later activities asked for suggestions, which was very fruitful and kept the new activities train going a little longer. I also had sequels of earlier activities, such as looking up the etymology of a word or browsing sapiens.org for an article to summarize. Now that the semester is done, I can plan ahead for the next semester by spreading out the activities. For the more bare weeks, I can save some activities about earlier topics such as natural selection and genetics for those times. Students can still do older activities they skipped the first time too.

Some Interact activities were wildly popular across all of my sections. Early on, an archaeology activity of examining one’s trash can for material culture (borrowed from when I was a student at Berkeley) got a lot of positive comments. Interview activities, one asking a younger person about their interests, and one asking an older person about their upbringing, were popular and inspired some great writeups. Asking for stories about breaking bones got a lot of wince-inducing responses. A linguistic anthropology activity of explaining a meme also provoked a lot of analysis. Drawing activities were also popular with students. I was surprised when many students told me that they never really drew before but enjoyed that type of activity and found it useful for studying.

Some activities were not as successful. Not surprisingly, the un-standouts were in the race section. One involved categorizing people into racial groups at the PBS site to show that surface traits are unreliable in racial categorization. A small number of people took the activity and its no-win rules personally. The game is also showing its age with very poor resolution for the images. I knew that another race activity was risky: searching for and watching a stand up comedy routine about race on YouTube and examining its message objectively. While most of the students who did that activity had great insights on how professional comedians joke about a serious topic like racism, one student took the activity very poorly but yet went through with it to tell me how displeased he was. Due to the likelihood that the activity could do more harm than good, as well as the plummeting reputation of stand-up comedians, that activity is one of the choices to be dropped.

Next semester, the lineup will be adjusted to drop some of the boring activities and include some fresh ones. I didn’t realize that students found the drawing activities useful until the three-quarters point of the semester. I will sprinkle some DAPO activities at the start. A lot of things from the early topics could be drawn, from Darwin’s finches to cells and proteins. I am going to add a new type of activity: DTA, or Download The App. There are a few free smartphone apps that could be great activities: iNaturalist, Google’s Arts & Culture, History Here, and Ayumu are what I’ve found so far.

Interacts became one of the most popular assignments in my classes last semester. For the students, it offset the more boring and draining assignments while learning the life lesson that science and anthropology are all around us. For me, grading their work let me see more of the students’ personalities (offsetting the boring and draining grading). Instructors looking to make use of a great website, video, or outside activity could consider bundling a few together and having students choose what they want to do among them.

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