And I’m kind of excited about it. Okay. I’m ecstatic. I’m like a hardcore gamer two minutes before the midnight release of the latest Call of Duty.
If you’re a regular reader, you know from one of my past posts that I’ve been avoiding the gamification bandwagon. So, what, you may ask, inspired the change of heart? The only way that I can describe it is as a perfect storm.
First, there is the phenomenal success of my current second-semester FYC course, which is utilizing immersive role play and Second Life as ways to engage in critical analysis of the texts in our literature reader. I plan to go into more detail in a future post about what exactly we’re doing, how, and how successful it has been in terms of engagement and improvement of critical thinking/writing skills. While immersive role play is a major aspect of many games, I’m using it more for its emphasis on taking on the viewpoint of a particular role than for the play component of doing so. The fun that students are having as they adopt their roles, though, cannot be ignored, especially now that the semester is coming to a close and students are finally comfortable with their personas and taking risks with their interpretations of our texts and how they choose to communicate those interpretations in material media.
Secondly, I’ve been playing more games myself lately. I’m not really a gamer (at least I wouldn’t describe myself as such, especially in comparison to some of my students and my son). I do occasionally play one of the Lego franchise games with my son and I’m game (pardon the pun) for anything that involves Harry Potter (we even have a wizard’s chess set). But I recently experienced a personal loss and I’ve found games to be a way to keep my mind occupied, relieve some of the stress, and escape from the real world for a little while. I personally prefer puzzles, and the hidden object games for the iPad are ideal for me because they combine puzzle solving with literary or historical settings (like my current favorite Blackwood and Bell, set in Victorian England). The more I play, the more I begin to personally experience the level of engagement, immersion, and motivation that I regularly observe in my son when he’s playing his favorite PS3 games. Blackwood and Bell keeps me engaged because I can earn “money” for solving puzzles and I use that money to purchase items to add to my little plot of Victorian London. I’ve found myself spending quite a bit of time rearranging my buildings, decorations, and exhibits and trying to work out strategies that will allow me to level up and expand my landholdings without compromising the design of my “yard” (I, personally, care more for authenticity in my design than leveling up and simply throwing everything on my yard, and some of the anachronistic designs of other players’ yards drives me nuts).
Next, I’ve recently discovered and become intrigued by interactive fiction (IF). I always enjoyed reading “choose your own adventure” books as a child, but because I was not a gamer growing up, I had never heard of or played IF. I discovered it after reading several recent articles on some free tools that have recently been developed that make writing IF easier for those without coding experience (“Make Games in the Classroom with Inform 7,” “Choose Your Own Classroom Adventure with Inklewriter,” “Interactive Fiction Game Design,” “Creating Interactive Text with Twin,” and Kevin Hodgson’s series of blog posts on IF). The concept of IF caught my attention, not from a player’s perspective, but from a writer’s perspective and the potential that I immediately felt it held for teaching FYC students about viewpoint, authorial choice, and reader engagement. Because it makes the reader, or player, the central, active component of the text, it places direct focus on two writing concepts that I’ve always struggled with communicating to students effectively: the primacy of the audience and the need to have a purpose for everything you do as an author.
Lastly, all of these things solidified into a single idea when my university announced that next Fall’s freshman read would be Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I was familiar with a few of the stories from the book and especially liked “How to Tell a True War Story” because of the pressures it puts on viewpoint, the author as authority, the reader as passive/active agent, fiction/truth, space/time, and the linear nature of the traditional plot development. I immediately recognized that IF would be a perfect way for students to engage with the book, as it, too, places pressure on these same aspects of storytelling.
But IF is not an easy concept, either as a player or writer. I recognized that I could not just throw students in the deep end of IF and expect them to swim. Around the time I was considering how to couple O’Brien’s book with IF, I was reading Jane McGonigall’s Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World as a way to prepare for the second iteration of my immersive role play course this summer and, in the course of talking with a colleague in the computer science department about that class, was lent a copy of Lee Sheldon’s The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game. These books, along with some articles I had been reading on IF (which I’ll discuss and link to in my next post), helped the gears to slowly begin clicking into place. As I continued to sketch out ideas, I began to get more and more excited by the prospect of turning my FYC class into a game; but not just any game. An IF game.
I plan to post about the details and the steps I went through to develop them in subsequent posts, so this post will simply be a summary of my plans.
Where to start?
Since I plan to ask students to write a piece of IF as the capstone project for the class, it only seemed right that I try my hand at it first. In this sense, being unfamiliar with IF was an advantage, since my students are likely to be as well, so I am able to experience the process as they will and thus I will be taking detailed notes as I work my way through it. But I’m a busy person and don’t necessarily have time to write just for the fun of it (as much as I’d like to). So, I decided that the best way to make the time I spend writing my first piece of IF useful would be to make the IF my syllabus for the course, so that they will actually have to play the IF in order to navigate the course. This will kill two birds with one stone: not only will I be gaining experience with writing IF, but it will also immerse the students in IF as they play their way through the course, thus allowing them to see what IF can do and to experience it as a player, so they will be more mindful of the player’s needs as they write their own piece.
But turning the syllabus into IF that the students must “play” will only work if students buy into it. Again, immersion, engagement, and motivation are all vital to encouraging this buy-in. In The Multiplayer Classroom, Sheldon points out that the more we can incorporate the game into the course, the better our chances of encouraging students to become immersed in the game. So, I decided to make the entire course a game that students would navigate and play via IF.
One the central principles of game design is theme and theme consistency. Since our focus text is about the Vietnam War, the game’s theme became apparent early on. The hard work was deciding how to adapt that theme to the FYC class and the students’ IF project.
With this in mind, I developed the following scenario:
It is the near-future. Instead of weapons, wars are fought with words. America is on the brink of a second Vietnam War. In order to prevent this, a small contingent of military leaders and diplomats have developed the idea of an elite new force of writers who will use IF to invoke empathy and, hopefully, avert the war. The students have been recruited into this elite special operatives force. As recruits, they will go through some basic training before embarking on a series of missions that are all part of Operation “War Story.”
I’ll go into more detail about the game itself in a subsequent post. Basically, I’ve divided the term up into missions, with each mission containing several assignments culminating in a boss level, which will range from a diagnostic writing assignment (at the end of “basic training”) to an annotated bibliography (at the end of the research, or “gathering intel,” mission) to a review of a piece of IF (covert surveillance) to completing their own piece of IF (endgame). Players must complete the boss level before they can proceed to the next mission. As they complete assignments, they earn XP (experience points) and as they accumulate XP, they rank up from recruit to private to private first class, etc. Their rank at the end of the term will be converted into a special operative status, with those displaying distinctive service earning an A, veterans earning a B, rookies earning a C, and those who’ve gone MIA (equivalent to a D) or AWOL (equivalent to an F) earning an NC.
In developing the game via IF, I’ve been able to integrate puzzles (quizzes), if/then scenarios (if you score a certain percentage on the quiz, you unlock a useful object), and objects (such as keys, tactical upgrades, and supplies that will help them complete the missions). I’m using AXMA, a non-open source (but still free) version of Twine, and it also allows me to integrate images, hyperlinks, videos, music, and sound effects into the game. I’m trying to incorporate suspense (a security breach, a mysterious package left by a late-night stranger, a phone ringing insistently) at strategic moments, such as midterm, to keep the interest level up and change up the pace of the course.
A final (for now) word about IF
The aspect of IF that I did not really consider at first, but which is becoming more and more interesting to me, is the level of reading literacy it promotes and requires. Most FYC course objectives include reading skills, but there is often so much work to be done to get students’ writing skills up to par, that reading gets short shrift. I recognize that reading and writing skills go hand in hand, but rarely do I have enough time to address reading to the same depth and degree as I do writing. Integrating IF as the syllabus for the course and requiring that students read several examples of IF pieces and then write their own IF, and all of the emphasis that process places on the reader and the reading, will allow me to focus as much on the reading process as the writing.
As I mentioned, I’ll be posting more in-depth posts that will address my use of IF and how I’ve turned the course into a game. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from others who have integrated IF into classes or who have gamified their classes (or both).
And if you’d like to start reading some IF, I highly recommend Muggle Studies.