My students no doubt think I am a broken record (if they knew what a record was). Every day, as they are working on their Hero’s Journey Video Game Design Project, I am reminding them: What is your story? How will the player “read” the story by playing your game? Is each level a “chapter”? Where are you putting text into your game?
It’s important that the narrative be part of the game, but they often get wrapped up in the design of the game that they are apt to forget about the story. My daily and constant reminders, and questions as they work, are more about narrative than level design at this point in time.
As always, I am working on my own game as they work, too, as a way to share out my thinking process, my workarounds, my progress and a mentor text for them to play to understand the mix of game and story that this project is all about.
You can play my game, in development process, if you want. I am revising my game as I work, re-publishing new versions as I add new levels/chapters, and talking through my process with my students.
We’re just starting up our video game design project, with a theme of the Hero’s Journey as the storyframe for video games being designed and then published by my sixth graders. The other day, I gave them a few games from last year’s class (as well as my own mentor game) to play and to write about, from a player perspective.
This weekend, I came to the end of Gee’s book, and I found myself once again appreciating the perspectives he brings to the picture. It’s most pertinent now for me because I am bringing my sixth graders into their game design unit, starting today. While Gee’s work looks more at the player within a game system, and all the literacies that are part of it, my aim is more around teaching my students how to think of a game as a story, and the story as the framework of the game.
Gee’s wrap-up thoughts around Affinity Spaces and the fluid nature between game designer and game player (particularly as more and more games have open ended entry points for players to mod, or hack, games) is intriguing. It reminds me there is so much I don’t know about video games when it comes to reading and writing and thinking.
And Gee also admits that this kind of literacy moment is still emerging (he wrote the book a few years ago, but that is still true, I believe) and there is much we don’t know, and may not know, for some time. That makes it all very intriguing as a curious teacher of writing and reading, right? I think so.
Gee’s earlier exploration of digital identity within the framework of video games now bubbles up again around cultural identity and cultural understanding. He posits that the immersive storytelling elements of video game design allows for an experience for the player that has the potential, at least, to bring them into the world of “the other.”
This idea of “walking in the shoes” of another through a literary experience is not new, of course. Good books do the same. Video games can bring that to another level because of the player’s identity within the game itself.
Gee shares a few games that he has played which have done just that — shifted the cultural perspectives so that the player comes to understand motives and rationale for another. A game centered around the Middle East, where the player is an Arab as opposed to the traditional game where Middle Easterners are often the terrorist enemies (particularly in the wave of games that came after the 9/11 attack on the U.S.).
Gee’s argument that video games, with all of its complexities, provides the possibility of deeper context is intriguing. Notice that word “possible,” for not all video games rise to this narrative challenge.
He also notes that this kind of immersive play as learning can happen rather seamlessly in well-designed games, so that the player is barely aware of it. This ties back to his earlier discussions around how games teach players to get situated in the game mechanics.
In many ways, this chapter’s exploration of story and text is why I wanted to read this book in the first place. I am intrigued by how video games may or may not push our understanding of story into new directions, and how “texts” might play a role in the player’s experiences and learning.
There is certainly an immersive quality to media-rich storytelling, and video games — if done well — pull you into that story in a rather disorientating way. While Gee explains how many games give you teaser introductions as a way to “teach” game mechanics for the user, most successful games weave the design of play in the design of narrative in ways that are intricate and finely woven. As Gee notes, sometimes the player doesn’t realize that they are being surrounded by story.
Here, Gee is analyzing in detail how we “read” video games by playing video games, and what is going on with the learning process in doing so. He argued that games are, in fact, rich in various texts, some more visible than others.
A section in the book about the written or digital instructions that come with games (which may be less and less part of the gaming experience now) are often part of the “semiotic language” of the game, in that the vocabulary and language of instructions are in tune with the mechanics of the game design system. Reading them in isolation is disorientating. Picking and choosing parts to read, when you need them — as gamers do — surfaces a language all of its own, with transactional values.
The real “reading” happens with the “playing” and that moment when the story and the game merge together seamlessly is the reason why players play these kinds of games (with a narrative arc).
The player, and the choices they make along the way, act in partnership with the writer/game designer, so that agency for character development and plot arcs are done in mutual agreement, even if that thread between writer (game designer) and reader (game player) is not always evident.
What I appreciate here is that it has me thinking again of what writing is, and how writing changes with digital media like video games. And therefore, how can I as a teacher help my young students tap into that immersive element to bring new ways to write?
The topic of digital identity and digital persona and how we project both who we are and who want to be (or at least, want to be seen as) is an intriguing topic made relevant by the ease of identity flux in online spaces and video game environments.
Gee’s critical look at how video game players use identity to bridge the span between real life (who I am in the real world) with gaming (who I am in this immersive world) to a third aspect (how decisions I make in this immersive world pushes against my real world identity) is pretty interesting. I am particularly attuned as a teacher to that third piece — of how one world overlaps with the other — in what he calls “projective identity.”
I appreciated how Gee brings this look at video games back to how it might have importance in the classroom. He uses a science classroom as an example, showing how we want our learners to imagine themselves as scientists when learning about science. They take on the identity of a scientist, and that overlap between what they know of science and what they think a scientist may know (and how that is made visible) is a key element of learning through hands-on work and playfulness.
I think this does happen in many areas, such as history (read like a historian for multiple perspectives) and math (explain your answer in terms someone else might understand) and Language Arts (write a story from a perspective of the character, paying attention to voice). But Gee notes that we don’t always make this visible to students, even though many already do this in the games they play outside of school.
Gee’s work has had a lot of influence on thinking about literacy and video games, so I have seen some of his video presentations and read smaller pieces, but never the book itself. It’s a bit dated now (2003, and updated 2007) but it seems so far that Gee’s ideas and insights still stand up.
Gee’s defining of terms such as affinity spaces (a favorite of mine in relation to CLMOOC), Semiotic Domains (a new one for me), and literacies and learning already has me thinking of my teaching and my own learning.
I appreciated that he approached the topic from the standpoint of a father wondering what his son was doing when playing video games, and then as he immersed himself (perhaps more so than most of us would do), he began to uncover the variety of skills and literacies needed to play these games but also the invisible literacies in the design itself (which is where I am most interested).
I am curious/confused about this Semiotic Domain concept, and how people immersed in a system of some sort share commonalities of learning and more. What is this concept? Well, “Semiotic domains as described by Gee (2003) refers to a variety of forms that take on meaning such as images and symbols, sounds, gestures and objects.” It also refers to “… distinct collective consciousness shared by people with similar interests, attributes or skill sets …” — from http://etec.ctlt.ubc.ca/510wiki/Semiotic_Domains You can tell there’s a lot to unpack there.
The elements of multimedia composition coming together into the video game medium/format is undeniable, and finding ways to showcase those elements seems important, particularly as I work with my students in a few weeks on our own video game design project.
I’ve been reading the book on the Kindle and then using my highlights and notes for sharing of some quotes. This kind of curation works most effectively for me in my busy life for finding and keeping some anchor points. This third quote nearly goes in the direction of immigrant/native, which would have turned me off (even remembering the 2003 publication date), but Gee straddles the line and makes it more about adults needing to pay more attention to what kids are doing.
I’ve been remembering two (but I suspect there are more) video games that integrate the player’s doodling skills as CLMOOC (Connected Learning MOOC) explores the elements of doodling and sketching this Make Cycle.
The first game is one that I have often done with full classes with interactive boards. Draw a Stickman is easy to use, and has some fun elements that will get the whole classroom engaged, and I often use the activity as an introductory lesson around plot design, foreshadowing and character.
All you do is follow directions on the screen, drawing what you are prompted to draw, and the website uses your doodle to move the story along to the next chapter. The Epic app, which the website promotes, is designed along similar lines for mobile devices.
The second game that came to mind as we were doodling this week is Drawn to Life, a Nintendo game that we have on Wii here at home and my older kids once played it on mobile devices, too. I have only watched the game a bit and remember reading about it, as when it came out, the whole concept of player agency was a big deal.
I suspect the unexpected nature of players as artists is difficult to design for, as the parameters of what a player might draw or want to use can shift at any moment. But I like that concept of the player’s art skills and imagination being baked into the design of a video game format, and wish there was more of that.
Any other major drawing/doodle games that I am missing?
I can’t say I am utterly unknowledgeable about Minecraft, but my basic understanding comes from the excited chatter over the years of my sixth grade students, particularly during our video game design unit, and my youngest son. It’s often confusing chatter to an outsider like me, with a vocabulary and a flow all of its own.
Whenever I have tried to jump into Minecraft, I have quickly gotten lost and felt aimless. I could always see the potential in collaborative World-building — and there are amazing examples of how educators are using Minecraft to connect with learning — but now I realized that what I needed were: goals with a interesting hook, a knowledgeable guide to keep me alive and a crew to hang out with.
My Networked Narratives colleague, Keegan (ie Crazyirishman7, there in the corner of the video), provided all three, by setting up a Minecraft Realm server space and inviting NetNarr folks into an exploration of a new world. I joined in, along with Terry G. (“the Annihilator”), and we spent about 90 minutes watching the sun rise and set at an alarming rate, as we began to build a home before the zombies came, with a bed to regenerate ourselves; a garden for food that Terry farmed with gusto; and a mineshaft where Keegan and I began to seek out ore and then diamonds.
Keegan, an educational technologist at the university level, clearly knew what he was doing. Terry and I clearly did not, as I scrambled to learn how to swim and walk and run and turn, and I kept a little command cheat sheet that he had sent us right at my fingertips. I’ve never been more grateful for fake torchlights and lanterns than I was yesterday.
But that’s how expert-novice relationships work, and that’s how the Connected Learning theory comes into action with immersive experiences like this. We dove in, made mistakes, died a few times, re-spawned, and had a steady hand following Keegan, who was generous and patient with us. I know a whole heck of a lot about Minecraft now than I did 24 hours ago, even with lots of reading about it. I even ended up with a Diamond Pickaxe, after using the crafting device that Keegan set up. Apparently, that’s a good thing to have.
Keegan also set up a livestream of our adventures in his Twitch Channel (a new experience for me) to share our experiences with the larger NetNarr community (more Connected Learning in action) and we used an app called Discord to be able to “talk live” amongst ourselves as we explored Minecraft. Keegan has since migrated the Twitch video to YouTube (where you can see me as Meatballlol5, which is my son’s avatar all suited up like Deadpool, since I borrowed his account to play with my NetNarr friends, much to his amusement. He even dropped a Minecraft Hacking book at my side while playing, as if that would help me. Thanks, kid.)
Since the Networked Narratives course is centered on a concept of Digital Alchemy, Keegan’s plan for the Minecraft World space is to move into “magic potions” and crafting of “elements,” as a way to explore the notions of Alchemy in a Worldbuilding Space. I find that intriguing, and watched as he wrote out our “goals” on the walls of the house we are building. He gave me a sign to play with, too.
Our next step is to find a common time to go back to our world, and maybe invite a few more folks to come along with us (I’d say, connect with Keegan on Twitter and let him know). I’m intrigued by the possibilities of us building a world of magic, and then thinking about how storytelling might evolve from the mix and flow of immersive open-ended gaming experiences like this.
My sixth grade students are just now finishing up their Hero’s Journey video game projects in Gamestar Mechanic — they worked hard on design and story narrative and peer review and publishing — and many of the games have the elements that show solid learning.
A few rise up as exemplar video games, in my opinion, so I want to showcase a few. I used ThingLink to create a jumping off point (the links to lead to embedded games at our classroom weblog site) for you to play, if you care to try your hand at student-developed video game projects.