Edmond Chang has always considered himself a fantasy freak. Once he was given the opportunity to do a focus group on LARP (live-action role playing) in graduate school, his love for introducing people to the practice and activity blew up from there.
“Live action games are really interesting,” Chang, an assistant professor of English, said. “There are very few times you get to do the thing or be the thing, and in my class, students get to experience just that.”
Chang teaches English 2100: Critical Approaches to Reading, Writing, and Playing Fantasy. This is the first semester the class has ever been offered. Chang’s students are challenged to think about the ways that U.S. culture doesn’t fully embrace fantasy. The course uses fantasy literature and popular culture to think, talk and write about the real world.
“This is another way for us to explore identities,” Chang said. “In this class we’re talking about race, gender, sexuality, class and ability, all in the context of fantasy novels and literature, but also in LARP.”
The class began the semester by reading early fantasy primarily written by straight, white men. Students are challenged to think about who gets to be the hero, who tells the story and who survives, Chang said.
“Near the end we’ll read only recent fantasy written by people of color and think about if the genre has changed,” Chang said. “Do the conventions get shifted? What does it look like to have characters that aren’t stock characters? These are all questions students are asked.”
The students apply those questions through the LARP game Archaea, which was created by Chang himself. He has had previous experience running the game, so he figured it would be the easiest to teach his class.
“I think it’s pretty easy to make a character. It’s harder to start interfacing with the world, but the students are already getting used to what they need to do,” Chang said. “So hopefully as they do that, they won’t think about the rules or second guess themselves and just play.”
In Archaea, all of the characters are human, but there is no end goal the students must reach because it’s about what they experience along the way. The students focus mainly on the culture and politics of the game, Chang said.
“The LARP part is a time to see if these issues come up in the game as well,” Chang said. “Does the game make room for things like different representations of gender and race? Do we want to go there and think about what they mean?”
Chang could teach this as a straight reading course, but there is something about experiential learning he thinks is valuable enough to put these ideas and practices into motion.
“It lets students practice other skills than just reading and writing,” Chang said. “Also, there are ways we can look at literature that will help us think through the choices we would actually make.”
In the short time Chang has taught his students, he has seen a significant change in their perspectives of their everyday lives.
“One of the things they’ve gained a lot of is being aware of the world around them,” Chang said. “With LARPing, even though it’s fun and interesting, a lot of students have built confidence within themselves.”
Fantasy and LARPing have been large parts of Chang’s life, and he’s grateful he gets to share his love for fantasy in an experiential environment with students.
“In a lot of ways, I’m blending English with a gym class and a theater class, so that’s awesome,” Chang said. “It’s a lot of fun, and I wouldn’t do it otherwise.”
Julian Shepherd, a senior studying creative writing, was looking for a fun class to take and decided on English 2100.
“I really like it. I’m a pretty shy person, but it’s still a lot of fun,” Shepherd said. “I’ve never tried LARPing before because it’s kind of weird to walk in to a really male-dominated space, but it’s more structured here, so I feel a lot better about it.”
Shepherd has thoroughly enjoyed the class thus far and encourages other people to take it as well.
“It’s more fun than I thought it’d be, so I would definitely do it again. I’ve learned a lot about diplomatic teamwork, too,” Shepherd said. “I would encourage other people to take it if they’re ready to really do it. They need to be prepared coming in that this is a thing that’s happening.”
Dominique Edwards, a junior studying creative writing, had no idea the class would be the way it is.
“It was a very different experience, and it’s nothing like I expected it to be. I love it though,” Edwards said. “It’s a lot more hands-on. We do a lot of stuff geared toward being in fantasy and what it means to us.”
Edwards has learned a lot from Chang regarding real world application.
“Fantasy is a lot deeper than what we make it out to be, especially on gender, race and sexuality,” Edwards said. “I really like how my eyes are open to those kinds of things because I used to not really care for it. Now, I look for it in everything, and it’s really cool to apply fantasy to my real life.”