Role-Playing Games as a Learning Tool


Role-playing games have according to DeKanter (2006), proved to have a very significant place in invoking critical thinking and the ability to induce and develop diversified approaches in life and class. The element of lack is relatively minimal with players being rewarded for their creativity and intelligence in playing their roles and equally punished for mistakes done. One of the educational games identified by researchers to have a positive contribution to learning is Sleuth: shades of mystery. With the game played online, it has amassed a huge fan base. In this paper, we analyze the game through Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory and examine how the game contributes to the learning process.

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How to play sleuth: shades of mystery

The game involves a real-life situation depicting the player as a character in the game as a detective hunting down criminals and apprehending them for accusation in a court of law. The same way that life in the real world goes, the hunting down of criminals requires a very investigative mind with acute attention to detail in dealing with the tricky situations that one faces in dealing with intelligent criminals who have their means of concealing and wiping out any form of traces that might link them to their criminal acts.

Players are required to register online to obtain a detective identity and a password. New “detectives” are assigned an assortment of weapons and skills determined by their background information given when a player registers as a new detective. Additional skills are obtained as a reward for skills displayed or can be obtained from seeking the services of a paid trainer. The level of skill is expressed in points ranging from 1-12. The skills offered by the trainers range from handwriting analysis, tobacco analysis, judge of character analysis to footprint analysis. These skills are very important as they all count in capturing the right criminal where in each case, there is a criminal who has traceable evidence with the minimum being three stars out of five. The rare the evidence the harder the case.

Apprehension of the wrong criminal for three cumulative cases leads to the detective’s license being revoked and thus forced retirement. To continue play, one has to reset the detective or register again and obtain a new detective identity throwing him back to the starting level with zero points (skill level) and no equipment. To help in solving cases, detectives are allowed to make contacts with the public in Sleuth land and obtain clues. Again a detective can join an agency that will help him in solving mysteries.

Though the game is played online, one detective is involved only in one case. A case can be paused and playing resumed from the same point the next time one logs in. This is very crucial since these cases have deadlines. Failure to meet deadlines is treated the same way as the wrong accusation. Therefore the main goal in playing this game is catching criminals and obtaining the highest level of skills needed to help solve cases. Skills are however obtained when one is not on a case.

Analyzing the game

Sleuth indulges players into the world of detectives in the virtual world of Sleuth where the crime rate is high and the number of criminals unending. As a detective, one has to follow all the available means to bring the right criminal to book. There are multiple ways to solve each case though the ability by a detective to intelligently and strategically use his skills enables him to solve the case with ease and within the least time possible and having utilized the least resources such as money in obtaining information from contacts and training to acquire skills. The educational goal in playing this game is aimed at making the player, in this case, the student thinks critically and apply the techniques of collaborative problem solving to new and unfamiliar situations presented by each new case.

Sleuth world is filled with a variety of criminals with a wide range of possible crimes such as rape, shoplifting, house breaks, and car theft among many other forms of common crime. A player has to make use of information obtained from contacts or his fellow detectives in case of joining an agency and joining those clues and hints to make a concrete story that will lead to the arrest of the culprit. The concentration level in this game is highest when the detective is hunting down a criminal for example when making tracking a criminal on the run or making visits to their houses where they will often run away in pursuit of freedom. The final results of the chase will often determine the level of satisfaction obtained by the player. In case a criminal escapes from a trap, it will most likely indicate to the player that he is not concentrating on the game and thereby leaving open means through which the criminal can escape. This is very essential in making learners realize the value of dedicating the whole self mentally when undertaking a particular task such as learning in class where full concentration is required to grasp whatever is being taught.

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On the other hand, a player has to keep on remembering all the clues and hints obtained in the course of the investigation. Factors such as the description of a suspect by contact have always to be kept in mind in looking for the offenders. The same way in which DeKanter (2006) say of games making students increase their motivation to end tasks started and the same the motivation to see a winning result by the player in playing Sleuth, the same will be transferred into the classroom. This confirms what researchers have all along said that games do not compete with learning but can be utilized as a learning tool.

As earlier said in how to play Sleuth, the rules and objectives in play are well outlined in the page before a player commences play. The chances of a player getting lost in the middle of the game are very low. The rules are also very clear to guide on in attaining the main goal in the task. In this case, a player/detective is to seek clues and evidence that will be needed in nailing the criminal and accusing him.

As the player continues with his task in the game, his interaction and collaboration with other players are evident in the game as it progresses. This adds a lot to the flow of the game in that we may have a player giving a favor to a character in the game to earn their trust and in the long run befriend the character to obtain crucial information needed in completing the task. This is what Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory recommends that a task gives out immediate feedback. Again the final result of the whole game is known at the end with the right suspect being arrested or an innocent suspect being arrested. Arresting the right suspect, the player wins while arresting an innocent suspect a player loses.

In Sleuth’s virtual world, the task is laborious and tiresome due to constant chases and regiments. However, to the online player, the game is very light with only the mind and a few fingers as is required in operating a PC are required. This is the most contributive factor in self disappearance and indulgence in the game. The aspects of “what if” scenarios as DeKanter (2006) calls them call for total concentration that draws the player into the virtual world oblivious of his immediate surrounding. Again this level of indulgence absorbs the player completely making forcing him to be very keen, calculative, and strategic in making decisions. Why because? Innocent suspects arrested may force a player to lose his rank in terms of points as a detective or be forced to retire. Therefore is driven into being very careful while making decisions in the game.

All the activities in the game are carried out in the virtual time in the Sleuth world which is displayed on the page as “game time”. The activities undertaken in the game determines how game time elapses. For instance, when playing Sleuth and one decides to take training courses, game time elapses in days, while in the real world it might be in minutes or even seconds. Thus the player determines the time in the Sleuth world as it is not subject to real-time.


Sleuth has proved to promote constructivist learning in facilitating discussions between students and teachers about the game. As one player says of the game, “experienced players are always boasting of their intelligence not in the game only but the outside world”. Such is how the game encourages discussion and interaction but also facilitates sharing of ideas and strategies to use in playing that can prove to be very effective in the classroom.


DeKanter, Nick. (2006). Gaming redefines interactivity for Learning, TechTrends Vol. 49, No. 3.

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Jones, Colin. Enterprise education: the frustration of a pure contest University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia. Web.

Kadakia, Maya (2006). Increasing Student Engagement by Using Morrowind to Analyze Choices and Consequences. Sleuth: the world of mystery at, 2008. Web.

Dickey, Michele (2006). Game design and learning: a conjectural analysis of how massively multiple online role-playing games (MMORPGs) foster intrinsic motivation, Association for Educational Communications and Technology.

Biggs, J. (2003). Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student Does, 2nd ed., London: OUP.

Gibb, A.A. (2002). Creating conducive environments for learning and entrepreneurship: living with, dealing with, creating, and enjoying uncertainty and complexity, Industry & Higher Education, Vol. 16 No. 3, pp. 135-48.

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