Interview: Aaron Vanek, Executive Director of Seekers Unlimited (Edu-LARP Kickstarter)

As a parent of two bright children, I am always seeking ways to not only challenge them, but get them thinking creatively. As a gamer, I know first hand that board games and roleplaying games do both of those things well, so I actively seek ways to play with them whenever I can. And when I find Kickstarter projects that engage not only education but entertainment for school-age children, I’m immediately interested.

SU_header-logoSo let me introduce you to Seekers Unlimited, whose Kickstarter “Creating Educational Live Action Role Playing Games” project. Seekers Unlimited has been developing “Edu-LARPs” in California schools for the last year or so – focusing on subjects ranging from astronomy and chemistry to forensic science and exploring scientific philosophy in the classroom. And from watching even just a few of the videos on the Kickstarter page, these kids are engaged, learning, and having fun all at the same time. What’s not to like?!

Though I’ve already backed the project personally, I had to learn more. So when an opportunity came up to ask Aaron Vanek, Executive Director, Founder, and Designer of the company, I jumped at the chance!

Q: Can you introduce Seekers Unlimited to our readers and share how the organization came to be? 

Seekers Unlimited incorporated in February 2012 after a run of the game Star Seekers for a charter school’s sixth grade. I’ve been larping, or live action role playing, for nearly 25 years. It wasn’t until 2006 at the LARPY awards (a dreadful yet evocative attempt to make an Academy Awards show for larp) that I realized how widespread larp was around the world. I began research on other groups and discovered the Nordic larp scene, which is very progressive. Inspired by the work of Scandinavian larpers, I started thinking about other purposes for larp besides entertainment: research, therapy, business training, and education. I wrote an essay called “Cooler Than You Think: Understanding Live Action Role Playing” that attracted the notice of those same Nordic larp scholars and critics. One of them, J, Tuomas Harviainen, from Finland, read my essay. It inspired him to write an essay for a German larp book, which he sent me as a courtesy. Only two essays in this book were in English, but one of them was “Four Reasons Why Edu-Larp Works” by Malik Hyltoft, who started a school in Denmark where the entire curriculum is larp based.

After reading the essay I knew edu-larp could work. About this same time I was playing in an entertainment larp created by Christian Brown called Starship Valkyrie, where people pretend to be crew of a star destroyer fighting a war against alien invaders. Normally in those games the method to repair shields or engines is to draw a card from the customized console and assemble the parts listed on the card, e.g. 10 points of Engineering, two hypersonic screwdrivers, five widgets, etc.  Get them all at the console at the same time, and it will work again. 

I wondered what would happen if, instead of moving bits of fiction around, someone would need to do a math equation or solve a science problem to fix the shields. 

It took a few more months to find a school willing to let us test
Star Seekers, based on Starship Valkyrie, but we finally did. We ran once a week for about two hours a day for, I think, six weeks. Based on those results I was convinced that educational larps could work, and then I started the business. We’ve since run Hit Seekers, a math game where students play music company executives; Ancient Mesopotamia, a week long immersion into the culture of the Hammurabi’s Babylon; and now, six different larps that were written for 8th grade science class. 

seekers-unlimited-classroomQ: What are the goals for Seekers and the Kickstarter you have going now?

We primarily want to bring the science larps to market so other schools can implement them. We are right at the cusp of the big curriculum change from the state requirements to the Common Core Standards. We’ve known this was coming, but the teacher and principal of the charter school we were developing these science games for were, for one last semester, using California standards. So we designed for them. Besides adjusting content to meet Common Core standards, we need to add material from the playtests–what worked and what didn’t–as well as information for teachers unfamiliar with larp on how to organize and manage them. There’s also some more nips and tucks we want to do to characters, puzzles, add artwork, etc.

We didn’t charge the school anything for these, so all development and production costs were incurred by Seekers. We’re hoping to recoup that, plus some of our minor operating expenses, and have the ability to roll out the games to schools. If we do really well, I’m hoping we can expand our roster from a tiny handful of overworked volunteers to an actual staff that can devote more time to producing these lessons. 

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background with LARPing?

I started playing Dungeons and Dragons at a young age, but after a few years grew restless sitting around a table with other adolescent boys; there’s only so many times you can throw dice at a target instead of rolling them to hit. We played “adventure” and some simple homemade fantasy larps in a tree-lined area near my apartment. I recall participating in a few organized larps when I attended a gaming convention in the Bay Area, but my larping really took off when I started my freshman year at UCLA. That’s when I joined Enigma, UCLA’s science-fiction, fantasy, horror and gaming club. They created their own larps, called “live games,” the summer before I arrived. I was hooked, and in 1990 I co-designed and produced my first larp for Enigma, a Call of Cthulhu scenario. 

I’ve been playing and designing relatively consistently since then, with a four-year famine in the mid 90’s while I attended graduate school in Chicago–although I did attempt to play remotely in another Enigma live game once. Too bad we didn’t have Skype or video chat back then. 

Q: Working with kids has its own challenges and rewards. Do you have any examples of how you’ve seen the program help kids in Los Angeles?

We have a lot of video from the students and teachers, in their own words. The most obvious example is the engagement and enthusiasm they have for larps; they always enjoy playing. This translates into motivation to attend school: in some schools, getting the student to show up and remain in class for 50 minutes is an accomplishment.

I’ve seen students grow as human beings; empowered to make their own choices, they can see what the consequences are without really suffering. In edu-larps, the character role can fail, but the student, the real person, might not. 

I’ve seen students grasp very deep meanings for concepts of writing, civilization, religion, scientific inquiry, and more. They “get it” on a deeper level because they are intrinsically motivated to find the answer, not extrinsically forced to memorize something that the instructor commanded them to learn because the school district and a textbook written by someone years ago in a city far away dictated that they had to know this lesson by this date. 

I once witnessed an 8th grade class of students begging the teacher to do more math problems. The girls were the most insistent. Girls! Math problems! I just set up a game (“Be Your Own Planet!” available as a reward on our Kickstarter) where a correct answer to a mass-density-volume problem meant a team could fire an asteroid to attack another team. One team of girlsreally wanted to get revenge on a team of boys, and they were slightly frightening in their requests for more math problems. 

seekers-unlimited-noirQ: What has been your most rewarding moment so far with the program? 

When we were running the Ancient Mesopotamia larp for the Playmaker School, through Gamedesk, one of the modules (mini-scenarios) that we had required the priest characters to present the Epic of Gilgamesh to the other students (characters). We didn’t give them any direction on how to do it or what to do, just that they had to do it at a certain time.

These students set up a call and response oral story, where some played the part of Gilgamesh or the monsters while others played tabla and bongos. I still get chills thinking about how sixth graders were re-enacting this ancient human story, arguably the first epic, and doing it so well. Every student was involved, engaged, and, for the most part, learned at least the gist of the tale. All while the teachers stood in the back of the room; the students were teaching each other and themselves. 

Q: Roleplaying in different contexts can definitely produce great results. Is Seekers investigating any other areas LARPs could be used beyond education?

Not currently, but I would love to use larp as part of a PTSD treatment program for returning soldiers. I twice toured the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, where soldiers play a larp before overseas deployment (audio slideshow of my trips here). I’d love to see something like that for returning troops, something to help them get re-acclimated to civilian life. Right now, though, we’re concentrating on classroom education for students.

Q: Why choose Kickstarter? And why now? 

Kickstarter seemed like the best choice for us not only to raise funds, but to gain exposure to the world–to do interviews like this, for example. We considered IndieGoGo, but at this point in time, I think Kickstarter has more visibility and prestige.

We wanted to launch over the summer because at the time we still didn’t have our tax-exempt status. There was a wee scandal in this department of the IRS, and all applications were delayed. We had no way of being able to tell when we would get our 501(c)(3), and we wanted to at least do something to get off the ground instead of waiting. Kickstarter seemed like the most logical choice. 

We now have our 501(c)(3), however, just a few weeks shy of one year since we mailed it in.

Q: Why focus at the 8th grade level for the six games in the Kickstarter? Do you have plans for games with different grade levels and subjects?

In this case, that was just what we had made. When I contracted with this particular school to run an edu-larp, they asked that we concentrate on 8th grade science. So that’s what we did. As it turns out, it’s very difficult–for me, at least–to design a larp on just one subject. So in those larps there’s also history, math, writing, 21st century skills, etc.. We’ve done other subjects and levels in the past, and we’d certainly like to expand to all grade levels, all subjects, including pre-school and adult education. So far the schools that have allowed us to create curriculum for them have been roughly middle school level, from 6th to 10th.

Q: If you had to pick your favorite of the six games, which would it be and why? 

All of them have their appeal, and they all were a favorite for at least one student in the playtest class. I’m torn between “The Great Phlogiston Debate”–which I would love to run again purely as an entertainment parlor larp–and “Noir”, which I made based on a request from one of the students. He was a fan of Raymond Chandler, and asked me if I could make a crime larp. So I did. That seemed to be the class favorite.

Q: If this Kickstarter is successful, will there be additional projects in the future for Seekers?

Yes. Even if we’re not successful, there will be future Seekers projects.

Q: What can we do to help?

Donations are nice…REALLY…NICE…but spreading the word is great, too. Tell people what we are doing, watch the videos. Sign up for our newsletter off our website, “Like” our Facebook page, subscribe to our Twitter feed (@SeekersUnltd).

I know larp is a pejorative in many circles, and truth be told I don’t like the sound of it either, but the method and art of live action role playing is quite powerful and has had a profoundly positive impact for many people, kids and adults. With your help, this could improve education and the lives of many students. 

At the very least you’re supporting the farm league for future larpers. 

Q: If there’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, what would it and its answer be?

I haven’t been asked “Who do I make the check out to?” and the answer is “Seekers Unlimited.” 😉


I have to offer a big thank you to Aaron for answering my questions and I hope the project gets fully funded!

To help out, stop by the Kickstarter page and lend a hand if you can. It’s a great effort and I hope to see it come to fruition!

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