I felt solace in knowing that I was not alone in sleeplessness on the first night of Utopia/Dystopia. Sarita had emailed me and said her daughter was awash in ideas and enthusiasm for our new role playing unit, wondering how her character would engage in the world at the end of the 21st century. I could not sleep for the same reason, but in a different context; what had I missed in designing this unit?
For the past couple months, Jesse and I had steadily built up the upcoming thematic unit. After hearing several kids ask if we would repeat last year’s Land Management thematic, I felt certain that we needed to rehash it, but wanted to experiment with new forms. So I revisited my notes and experience from 2014, and thought of how I could best modify the unit. I came to Jesse with a premise, that by the end of the 21st century people were constrained to self-sustaining cities which were rife with challenges for their citizens to overcome. Together, we developed the framework for what would be known as the Utopia/Dystopia thematic unit.
By the second day, I was feeling the stress of breaking new ground. Students were confused, unsure of what to do, and limits I had never thought of started to pop up. I found myself wishing for the simplicity of liquid currency after realizing that the bitcoin wallets would not support small denominations and we would be constrained to 100 bit or more transactions. How would we deal with electricity at 2 bits a card with these restrictions?
“I don’t get it. I am confused, Pak Noan”, Ruby stated candidly. A student from last year, she was struggling to grasp the new resource cards that had come into play.
“I wanted to send him 50 bits, but I lost 150 bits. My computer is broken.” Felipe chimed in seconds later. Not alone, the cacophony of frustrated and confused voices started to resound through the class. Had I just created a disaster of epic proportion?
After the first week, the students aged 11–14 had the rules pegged. The process was not intuitive, but they got it. Now came time for strategy, and with a diverse group of students came diverse solutions.
Britt, an aspiring musician of 12 came to me first: “You said we could make money for our art. Can I have a form and start writing songs?”
“What are you going to write?” I responded.
“I want to sing about our Arcology. You know… what it is like living here and that stuff.”
“What about making an anthem, where you tell us how great our nation is and what makes it unique?”
“Sure, how much can I get?” she asked.
“You tell me what you think is fair, and we can make a deal.” And that was just the start. The students diversified greatly from creating family units which would share food to industry magnates who wanted to have a monopoly over an entire resource.
By the end of the second week, students were starting to test the boundaries of what was possible.
“Can I be in charge of trading between classes?” asked Jake. He had successfully set up his ventures to meet his needs, and was looking for ways to expand his influence. I responded with “Sure, but who controls trade?”
Jake thought about it a while, and then said “I want to be the port.”
I looked at him quizzically and said, “Well, a port is no good without other ports to trade with. Find friends in other Arcos and then we can talk about controlling trade.”
Another student, Fynn, who had been conspiring with a few other students in his grade and younger, came to me after class and said he wanted my job. He wanted to control the events and play the role of the central authority. I struck a deal with him: “How about this. Give me a deposit of 10 000 bits, and if you successfully manage a day, I will return 8000 bits.” I wanted some accountability and commitment, and this made him think about the consequences of goofing around.
“I’ll think about it”, Fynn replied.
Despite having rules laid out in front of them, it was only naturally that mistakes were made. After helping Milan calculate out his needs on the 5th day, he said “Oh man, I have been spending way too much for technology this whole time. I lost so much money.” In recognizing that, a new focus and attention to detail was apparent in his play.
As each scenario struck the citizens of the class I was in charge of, they had to respond with solutions they derived. When I tried to feed them ‘Soylent Green’ they bought their food from outside sources. After air filters failed on some floors, the students created deals to ensure they would get their food. When insurance was offered, some students spent what little money they had left to cover themselves in the event of a disaster.
Inevitably, disasters did come. A meteor shower randomly wiped some citizen’s homes off the map, while others scraped by without much harm. Observing how the students supported each other (or failed to do so) was one of the great joys of watching these events unfold. Some consoled each other with strong citizenship, while others gained a macabre glee at watching chaos reign.
Now, after four weeks, the joy of establishing oneself and braving the craziness of the early days is past, and middle age has set in. Most of the students have established their roles in their mini societies, and daily life lacks the spunk and unexpectedness it originally had. In the role of the central authority, I have taken up the task of steering students towards what I dub ‘Great Ventures’, ideas the students generate which can better their whole society.
A mother sent me a curious email asking what exactly we were doing with their kids. Talk about Dystopia was non-stop, and the student was nagging at her to make him a rich man through a bitcoin transfer. I too have experienced the excitement shared by the students. Before the day starts, they recount events of the last classes, and compare prices of resources between classes. On many days as the gong signaling the end of school sounds students remain behind to hash out the last of their experiences and talk.
This points to obvious engagement felt by many of the students, and while some learning experiences were pre-determined, many happened by chance. I learned much about how I would improve the experience, but more of what I learned came through suggestions and comments made by students.
“Pak Noan, the amount of land you gave us was way too large. You need to make it smaller” stated Julian in an after school discussion. I asked him how I could remedy this and he said “probably change it so blocks are 2 or 3 times bigger. 4 times might be too big.”
Eve confronted me the other day when I was thinking of letting votes that did not completely follow the rules count: “They should not count. They heard the rules. And besides… you made me redo my whole endowment for the arts form because I did not read the rule about blue ink!”
Like many students, I feel I have experienced a huge learning journey in this unit. I started with an idea, but needed a co-conspirator to bring it to the table. In executing the unit, the middle school teachers Sal, Jesse and Dian worked with often complex and sometimes incomplete rules to make the experience their own as well. I also learned that while there were many things that could be improved, only by trying and trying and trying again can that improvement be realized.
This article is a repost from a Role Playing Game (RPG) Unit made for Green School in 2015–2016. The game, Utopia/Dystopia, was created as an ambitious attempt to get kids deeper into meaningful RPGs that would work as a tapestry to practice critical skills such as collaboration and adaptation. This game is all about imagining a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) World. All resources to recreate this game are available here. Enjoy!