Using Virtual Models #5

I have been using discussion activities throughout this year’s research of Minecraft Club in order to gather reflections from the children about the club. As before, this is inspired by David Gauntlett’s ‘Identity Models’ work. A small group of children build virtual models using a shared map in the iPad version of Minecraft.

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Yesterday I conducted two group interviews (#5 and #6) in school before the penultimate week of the club.

My intention was for discussion in each session to focus on three areas:

1. For the children to reflect on the nature of the club itself, with a focus on their motivation to continue attending weekly for a whole academic year.

2. For the children to discuss their perceptions of Banterbury, their ‘virtual community’. I asked them to describe what kind of place Banterbury is…

3. For the children to suggest some ‘episodes’, ‘events’ or ‘instances’ for me to look more closely at during my data analysis, based on what they felt had been ‘particularly interesting or important’. In order to prompt this part of the discussion I gave them two examples that I was already looking at – the horse funeral and the sheep song.

The following is a brief outline of the discussion session 5, centred around the models produced by the children, based on repeated re-watching of the screencast from the sessions.IMG_0470

Discussion Session #5

  • Model 1 created by Callum <Yoloface23jr> – A Place to Relax to convey the value of social gameplay

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Callum’s model represented relaxation in the game, which he suggested is one reason to play the game. He then began to focus on the importance of social gameplay, particularly for him as a new member of the class at the beginning of the year, who joined the group from another school: ‘It’s a really great way for me to join in….I’ve got to know people so well through Minecraft Club. I don’t think I’d know anyone this well or be this best friends with anybody without Minecraft Club.’ Asked why a club around Minecraft was a good place for this social time he replied:

‘People talk more, there’s a bit more chance to talk and demonstrate their feelings in what they build… so I think I’ve got to know them quite well… and what they like and stuff’.

I asked if, for example, a chess club would have helped in the same way. He replied that he wouldn’t have gone, neither would anyone else!

  • Model 2 created by Alex <Castaway112> – Mushroom House to convey variety in the game

Alex directed me over to his mushroom house and, after a bit of time establishing how to enter, he gave me a guided tour. This model was intended ‘to explain all of the places you can go’ (in Banterbury) ‘the forest… sand… mushrooms’. Above one of the doors was a sign reading ‘this is not a door’. Confused by this I asked why, to be told that ‘it’s clearly not a door’. Things are not what they appear to be.

As he led me around the house I saw ‘the most dangerous fireplace in the world, a baby sitting room, a room with a sign that says ‘do not enter because of chickens’ (we enter – there are no chickens) and a farm with cows with mushrooms on their heads’. He suggested that this ‘reminded him of the craziness of the world’ in Minecraft Club.

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  • Model 3 created by Joseph <Steve> – A Gallery to suggest ‘infinite possibilities’

Joseph created an art gallery as a chance to try out using things he had not used before. He said that this reflected that ‘there are lots of items that they don’t use in the club’ and therefore possibilities that they had not yet explored.

IMG_0469 IMG_0468 IMG_0465Additional points

Alex began by suggesting that I should look more closely at the events around the creation of Banterbury Library. This was interesting as this is already the focus of some of my data analysis. When asked why he suggested, ‘definitely when they were making the books… we were actually doing writing…. We actually tried to do something that is exciting’. Callum agreed and suggested that a focus on the library was important because ‘a lot of people think that Minecraft is just about building structures but you can build books and stories and stuff as well, which is quite good… It’s a feature that is in Minecraft all the time, and it’s part of real life… there’s books in real life…’

Joe discovered a glitch in the game where the doors were only half rendering. They then began to notice that it was possible to change skins in this new version – they left the game to change their skins: ‘Awesome! That is so cooool! Epicness!’

There was also some discussion over the legitimacy of the naming of the town Banterbury. Callum expressed frustration about the town being called ‘Banterbury’ – ‘WHY IS IT CALLED THAT?!’ He attributed its naming to one specific player’s particular interest in the word ‘banter’. Alex suggested a possible origin for the name Banterbury – a youtube video of another game ‘Terraria’ where a player names his world ‘Banterbury’ (I could not find this, however). There was a suggestion that there were some ‘power’ issues relating to the naming and the subsequent perceived ‘ownership’ of the town and control over certain activities was something that they found potentially frustrating and potentially led to the forming of groups within the club. They talked about how the girls (and some boys) like ‘all their stuff private and make a massive fuss when someone goes in’. I will pursue this more specifically elsewhere.

They also further emphasised the important of the social aspect of the gameplay in the club: ‘You can work together… sometimes we talk about other things, we talk about things while we are playing’. This ‘makes it more exciting’.

 

Video Games as Narrative Spaces

IMG_0846I will be running a workshop on Friday 27th March at Sheffield Hallam University for PGCE students, titled: ‘Video Games as Narrative Spaces’.

This workshop is built around three examples of video games being used in a KS2 classroom to enhance and supplement the literacy curriculum. Whilst demonstrating the potential for using video games in these contexts, each example will also be used as a springboard for discussion, encouraging you to reflect on your own teaching practice in relation to themes around technology, engagement and the nature of literacy itself.

Games discussed will be: Proteus, Thomas Was Alone and Minecraft

 https://prezi.com/embed/fvl9p0pzomnd/?bgcolor=ffffff&lock_to_path=0&autoplay=0&autohide_ctrls=0#

Storying in and around a Minecraft Community

unnamedI presented a webinar as part of the CAMELOT Project Webinars series on Friday 13th March. After a number of unexpected technical hitches at my end (my prezi had to be converted to a powerpoint, and then the university wifi wouldn’t let me access Adobe Connect from my Mac, so I ended up tethering through my phone – phew!) I enjoyed the unfamiliar experience of presenting online, which essentially amounted to talking to my computer in an empty room. There were some great questions and some really nice feedback, so the experience was overall very positive.

You can find the link to the archived recording on this page and my abstract is below.

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Storying in and around a Minecraft Community

Recent work around the use of Virtual Worlds in educational contexts has conceptualised literacies as communal processes, whilst considering complex notions of collaboration through participants’ multiplicity of presence. Screen-based virtual worlds can also be viewed as multimodal texts, constructed by multiple players. Shaped by these ideas, this presentation draws upon data collected during an extra-curricular Minecraft club for ten and eleven year old children, exploring the ways in which the players take up the narrative opportunities offered by the game, as they collaborate to build a ‘virtual community’.

With a focus on the literacy events and artefacts generated in and around a virtual space, this presentation describes how this established, self-directed group of children used this environment to compose and create improvised stories. It explores how the literacies constructed through their interactions were influenced by resources drawn from their wider experiences, shaped by their experiments with in-game multimodal creation. The children’s interactions enabled them to form their own individual and collective textual landscapes, through a set of emotionally charged manifestations of literacy, played out in the hybrid virtual/material world.

My original Prezi Presentation is here:

https://prezi.com/embed/j-qmpqdpzmbz/?bgcolor=ffffff&lock_to_path=0&autoplay=0&autohide_ctrls=0#

REFERENCES

BAILEY, Fiona and MOAR, Magnus (2001). The Vertex Project: children creating and populating 3D virtual worlds. International journal of art and design education, 20 (1), 19-30.

BARTON, David and HAMILTON, Mary (1998). Local literacies: reading and writing in one community. [online]. Routledge.

Burnett, C. & Bailey, C. (2014). Conceptualising collaboration in hybrid sites: playing Minecraft together and apart in a primary classroom. In: Burnett, C., Davies, J., Merchant, G. & J. Rowsell (ed.). New Literacies Around the Globe: Policy and Pedagogy. . Abingdon, Oxon, Routledge., .

CARRINGTON, Victoria (2005). New textual landscapes, information and early literacy. In: MARSH, Jackie (ed.). Popular Culture, New Media and Digital Literacy in Early Childhood. Oxon, RoutledgeFarmer, 13-27.

CAZDEN, Courtney, et al. (1996). A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures. Harvard educational review, 66 (1), 60-92.

CHARMAZ, K. and MITCHELL, R. (2001). Grounded theory and Ethnography. In: ATKINSON, P., et al. (eds.). Handbook of Ethnography. London, SAGE, 160-174.

COPE, Bill, KALANTZIS, Mary and New London Group (2000). Multiliteracies: literacy learning and the design of social futures. New York, Routledge.

DENZIN, Norman K. and LINCOLN, Yvonna S. (2011). The discipline and Practise of Qualitative Research. In: DENZIN, Norman K. and LINCOLN, Yvonna S. (eds.). The SAGE handbook of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, Calif, Sage, 1-19.

DICKEY, MicheleD (2011). The pragmatics of virtual worlds for K-12 educators: investigating the affordances and constraints of Active Worlds and Second Life with K-12 in-service teachers. Educational technology research and development, 59 (1), 1-20.

GAUNTLETT, David (2007). Creative explorations: new approaches to identities and audiences. London, Routledge.

GEE, James Paul (2007). What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Second Edition: Revised and Updated Edition. Palgrave MacMillan.

GEERTZ, Clifford (1993). The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. London, Fontana.

HINE, Christine (2000). Virtual ethnography. [online]. Thousand Oaks, Calif; London, SAGE.

ITO, Mizuko (2009). Engineering play: A cultural history of children’s software. The MIT Press.

JENKINS, Henry (2004). Game design as narrative architecture. Computer, 44 , s3.

MARSH, Jackie (2011). Young Children’s Literacy Practices in a Virtual World: Establishing an Online Interaction Order. Reading research quarterly, 46 (2), 101-118.

MERCHANT, Guy (2009). Literacy in virtual worlds. Journal of research in reading, 32 (1), 38-56.

MILLER, Daniel (2010). Stuff. Polity.

O’MARA, Joanne (2012). Process drama and digital games as text and action in virtual worlds: developing new literacies in school. Research in drama education, 17 (4), 517-534.

STREET, Brian (2003). What’s “new” in New Literacy Studies? Critical approaches to literacy in theory and practice. Current issues in comparative education, 5 (2), 77-91.

WOHLWEND, Karen E., et al. (2011). Navigating discourses in place in the world of Webkinz. Journal of early childhood literacy, 11 (2), 141-163.

WOLCOTT, Harry F. (2008). Ethnography: a way of seeing. [online]. Lanham, Md; Plymouth, Altamira Press.

Minecraft Club: Paratexts and the Funeral of Thouga the Ocelot

I have made a decision not to try to summarise every week of Minecraft Club, mainly because I don’t have to! It is actually more fun (and less stressful) to take part in the club, or sit back and take in what’s going on from a distance. My more formal research will begin in September with a new group of children. Nevertheless, I will continue to post some thoughts on the club from time to time.

This term I have decided to have some impact on the children’s participation, after leaving them entirely to their own devices to create their community during the previous term. Over Christmas I purchased two copies of a book – ‘The Beginners Guide to Minecraft‘ – and intended to present these to the group this week to see what, if any, use they made of them. Unfortunately, in the hurry to pack my bags for the cycle into school, I completely forgot them.

However, as coincidence would have it, one child had brought in his own book – ‘The Minecraft Annual 2014′. He was quite eager to show me the book, which he them proceeded to use throughout the session, following step by step instructions to build a house – ‘Cosy Cottage’. In conversation with me, he likened this to the process of constructing a Lego model, which he also said he enjoyed. Later, he called me over to see his finished house, and seemed pleased with his creation:

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Whilst this quiet, methodical construction project was taking place, elsewhere activities were more lively and less prescribed. Much of the action seemed to involve animals – horses, cats, sheep (sheep who seemed to be producing lambs, at one point), squid and ocelots. It was, in fact, the death of one ocelot in particular – Thouga – that provided a narrative thread for most of the group for a sustained period of time. I’m not sure how Thouga met an end (or, indeed, how an ocelot got the name Thouga) but my attention was drawn to events by a mass of hilarity and excitement stemming from an onscreen message, an open invitation:
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Although I’m hazy about the actual procedures and arrangements involved, a virtual funeral was conducted, with the attendance of the majority of the group, and Thouga’s short life was celebrated with animated enjoyment.

Minecraft Mimesis

“Language has many words for the imaginative function: dream, simile, analogy, theory, fable, schema, game. All involve not just one-to-one correspondences, in the way indicated by the idea of copying and imitation, but whole imagined worlds.” – Keith Oatley (2011, p.16)

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I have been thinking about the ‘storying’ that happens as the children are interacting with each other in Minecraft Club. During each session the children create their own stories in and around Bradborough – often verbally, occasionally textual, always enacted.

I’m currently reading Keith Oatley’s ‘Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction‘ which makes suggestions about what – and how – we learn from fiction. At the beginning he mentions the term ‘mimesis‘: ‘the relation of a piece of fiction to the world’, providing two families of meaning:

1. Mimesis as world reflection, where the fiction give a direct impression of the world as it is. Imitation, copying…

2. Mimesis as world creating / world simulating , where the fiction recognises ‘what goes on beneath the surface’.

Both of these definitions, but particularly the second, could apply to some of the children’s interactions and performances in Minecraft. Oatley also talks about play as ‘the gateway to fiction‘, making links between children’s imaginitive play and the creation of fiction. I need to go back and re-read some of his ideas, but I think there is scope here for examining some of the children’s storying activities with this in mind.

Reference:

Oatley, K., 2011. Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction, 1 edition. ed. Wiley.

Minecraft: The Social Capital of Virtual Secrets

Today’s Minecraft Club was the first for almost six weeks. Things have been hectic and real-life has repeatedly got in the way, in spite of regular requests from children. So, it has been a while…

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As a result, children are eager to get going. They enter the classroom in fits-and-starts, depending on how quickly they were able to eat their lunch. The first children grab laptops and get going, only to find out that they had not been left on charge. (Cue the dreaded beeping battery alert…) Those who headed straight to the older desktop machines are able to work without such direct disruptions.

A couple of children begin the session with celebratory song as they boot up their computers – we are treated to the ‘Star Wars’ theme tune and ‘a song from Mario’ (I didn’t recognise this and had to ask – it certainly wasn’t the chart-topping ‘Gameboy’ Mario tune I remember from my youth).

I had not decided on any particular focus for my observations. I logged myself in and made my way around Bradborough – spawning in a house, under surveillance of a cow and a dog. Reading the reactions of some children, it soon becomes clear that something is happening. This turns out to be a continuation of the ‘secret’ building project outlined in this post, where two children are working away from the rest of the group.

Ever the tactless teacher, I loudly ask them about their project, unwittingly giving away their new location to some of the rest of the class who had been looking for them. Oops! It turns out that there is a growing interest among the group, relating to exactly what the pair have been planning, and where they are building it. They seem to have abandoned their previous building site (inside a sphere) for somewhere, in their words, ‘more out in the open’. Yet they are adamant that they will not voluntarily reveal their location to others, making it clear that they would not welcome any other helpers:

‘Too many people know already. They’ll wreck it’.

The secret project.

The secret project.

In spite of their protests, the pair seem to be enjoying the real-world attention and the fact that their clandestine activities are getting under the skin of others. One child in particular is becoming increasingly frustrated about his exclusion from this mysterious activity and decides, quietly at first, to exact virtual revenge. Soon, someone calls out, delighted:

‘The statue – it’s got a moustache!’ 

Individuals relocate themselves slightly, either in the real-world (to a different screen) or virtually (to another in-world location) to see that – yes – the Bradborough statue (previously built by one of the pair) is now sporting a fetching moustache and chest-wig. This gets a big laugh: home-grown humour is a currency in this class.

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‘Revenge is best served hairy!’

It is the culprit – immodestly monikered mrfabulous – who responds, with dramatic timing:

‘Revenge… is best… served… hairy!’

Soon rebounding from the fact that his virtual response has not afforded him the knowledge he required – he is still none the wiser regarding pair’s whereabouts – mrfabulous then re-positions his protest to the real-world. Abandoning his computer, he moves across the room to the pair and begins to bargain with them, stepping up negotiations by withdrawing the offer of an invite to a forthcoming party. Interestingly, he does not take the chance to look at their screens to uncover their location – would this be cheating? It seems that the prize is not purely to know their location, but to be privileged with the imparted knowledge and welcomed into the group.

Concerned that mrfabulous’ exclusion may now become a distruptive threat to the peace of the group, I quitely intervene and ask the pair to let him in on their secret. They comply quickly, without question.

It is interesting to watch the location of these two children gaining social capital. This, more than any of the sessions so far, demonstrates how virtual events can have real-world consequences, and there’s perhaps a potential link to be exploited here relating to online and offline behaviours.

——–

These children are now eleven years old, and I was also their teacher when they started school at the age of four. Observing them during this session I am reminded of the focussed, long observation notes I used to make when they were in the reception class, in order to record instances of learning. You can learn a lot about children by observing their actions, but there no requirement to do such things as they move further up the school and their learning becomes, necessarily, more formalised. There are some similarities here between the observations I made all those year ago, of children participating in parallel play in the sandpit and water trough. However, seven years on, many of these observations of the children using Minecraft focus on their interactions with each other, rather than their investigation of the objects that make up their environment. This virtual play seems inherently social, if not always sociable.

There is one point today – with the threat of impending fallout – that I find myself narrowly avoiding the words I’ve thus far forbidden myself from uttering:

‘It’s only a game…’

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‘Thomas Was Alone’ Lesson 3: Creating a game and reflecting on participation

During a third and final lesson inspired by the computer game ‘Thomas Was Alone’, a class of Y6 children begin to create their own versions of the game, using Scratch.

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Objectives

With the dis-application of the current ICT curriculum, it seems to make sense to look ahead to the Draft 2014 National Curriculum for guidance. I found the following objectives for this lesson in the ‘Computing’ programme of study:

Pupils should be taught to:

– use logical reasoning to explain how a simple algorithm works and to detect and correct errors in algorithms and programs

– use sequence, selection, and repetition in programs; work with variables and various forms of input and output;

Reading Code

Before we started work on the computers, I provided each pair with the following sheet, showing some basic Scratch scripts that I had created to help the children to get started.

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In order to get the children to think about the code, I asked them some direct questions, getting them to draw on their previous knowledge to describe the purpose of each set of instructions. When asked, for example, what the first few lines of code were for, some children were quick to notice the x and y co-ordinators mean that this would place the sprite on the screen (‘It sets where Thomas will spawn – vocab transferred from Minecraft here?)

Creating

The children had used Scratch before, but in a less directed way. This time I set the focus for the task. Since we last used the application, a new version has been released that runs in a browser. Most children used this version and quickly adapted to the slightly different layout. A few children had to revert the the desktop version when we found that Chrome was missing from their laptops and the new version of Scratch would not run in their older version of Explorer. (A frustrated teacher screams, internally, but tries to remain outwardly calm.)

While their creations were a very rough and basic appropriation of the original game (levels were set on a single screen with no scrolling, for instance) all pairs managed to create at least one playable level. Some children found it easy to replicate the code and began to adapt it for their own purposes. Others took longer to realise that attention to detail was vital for success. Some children soon realised that a ‘level‘ was a variable that they had to define for themselves, whilst others needed this pointing out.

The fact that all children could get instant feedback from the program – their code either worked or didn’t – meant that they did not need the me to tell them whether they had got their coding ‘right’ or not. Some children were more adept at isolating errors than others.20130524-220013.jpg

Daniel Willingham refers to this capacity for ‘immediate feedback‘ inherent in some computer based applications. He suggests that, while ‘discovery learning‘ has its drawbacks (children can end up discovering, thinking about and, therefore, memorising the ‘wrong’ things), in some circumstances involving computer use it can be positive:

‘Discovery learning is probably most useful when the environment gives prompt feedback about whether a student is thinking about a problem in the right way. One of the best examples of discovery learning is when kids learn to use a computer… Kids show wonderful ingenuity and daring under these circumstances. They are not afraid to try new things and they shrug off failure. They learn by discovery. Note, however, that computer applications have an important property – when you make a mistake it is immediately obvious. The computer does something other than you intended. This immediate feedback makes for a wonderful environment where messing around can pay off. Other environments aren’t like that.’ – Willingham, 2011

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Reflections on participation and partnerships

While each pair produced at least a satisfactory outcome, the participation of a few individuals during the lesson was less consistent (at the ‘lacking engagement‘ end of the scale, rather than the ‘disruptive‘ end). While the children can take some responsibility for their own engagement or participation in a task, I also feel that my organisation and the nature of the task itself may have made some children’s contributions less even.

The children worked in the same random, broadly mixed-ability, pairings that had resulted in a very high level of engagement in the first of these three lessons, where the children played and read the text in the game. There, I noted self-directed and adaptive turn-taking strategies and high levels of on-task collaboration.

During this lesson, however, it was clear that some children were deferring control of the task to their partners. Generally speaking, this seemed to happen where there was a greater divide in the skill-set between the two children. In groups where the task-related competency was more evenly matched between the partners (whether both could be considered ‘experts’ or otherwise) the children genuinely seemed to be working together to create the game. However, in the mixed-ability pairings, those who were more adept at the coding task seemed to take over, leaving the less able children to look on or, in some cases, look elsewhere – requiring me to intervene, at least in the cases where I noticed that this was happening.

It is interesting to contrast the differences in the quality of participation between these two tasks. Were some children less engaged during coding because it is more challenging than playing the game? Less fun? Did I pitch this activity too high for some? Would the children have had more opportunity to achieve at their own level if they had access to a computer each? As a reading activity, all children could access the text during lesson one (the children’s decoding skills were broadly matched – the differences came in their comprehension and their internalised understanding). Also, in terms of progressing in the game, all children appeared to believe that they could participate and achieve. (I’m also wondering whether there’s something worth exploring here relating to Carol Dweck’s work on ‘mindsets‘ and motivation, but I don’t think my memory of the lesson is specific enough to be able to do anything more than speculate on this at this point. Similarly, how does this minority disengagement sit with Willingham’s generalisation that ‘they shrug off failure‘?)

This all reminds me that organising effective class work using technology needs careful consideration; that the configuration that works for one activity will not necessarily suit the next. It’s simply not sufficient to say that children work best in pairs on computers, or that all children should work individually (some children here clearly benefitted from working alongside their peers). The relationships between children and technology-based tasks is more complex.

References:

Willingham, D. (2011) ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom‘ (Audiobook), Tantor Audio

Dweck, C. S. (2006) ‘Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential‘ Random House, New York.

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‘Thomas Was Alone’ Lesson 2: Re-imagining a story

Following on from a previous lesson with a reading focus, a class of Y6 children use the text-rich computer game ‘Thomas Was Alone’ as a stimulus for writing practice.

20130605-070749.jpg Although the formal SATs tests have ended, I still need to collate evidence of the children’s independent writing to support my assessment of their writing levels. As the children had engaged well with the game’s story during the previous lesson I decided to capitalise on this motivation by using the game as a prompt for writing

Reflections on Organisation

This ‘lesson’ itself (actually more of an assessment task than a learning opportunity) was relatively uninspiring in its execution; once I had shared the writing task with the children they had about 10 minutes to plan and then 45 minutes to write their stories, with no support. Alone.

As with their SATs tests, the children were seated in pairs, facing the front of the classroom. This is in contrast to their regular table groupings – usually a formation of 4-6 children, facing inwards. (The ‘front’ of the room is defined by where the electronic whiteboard is, actually at the side of our ‘U’ shaped classroom. There’s a non-electronic whiteboard on the opposite wall, but somehow that doesn’t seem to say ‘front’ quite as strongly as something that glows and has a computer attached to it.) Some children initially commented on how they actually liked sitting this way (‘Can we keep the tables like this?’ ‘Yeah, I think it’s good!’) although this novelty appears to be wearing off as they are eager to return to their previous tables. I think there’s a place this type of seating arrangement – I have seen an improvement in some children’s writing over the past couple weeks as they have been required to write independently, at length, on a number of occasions.

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Unlike the previous lesson where the children read the game’s story, collaboration is not allowed. During the task, as with the previous tests, I notice children ‘shielding’ their writing, with books and their hands, where they would usually be eager to share and show what they have done. Eyes are very much focussed on their own pages. Personal space is defined by rigid postures and, as I look around the class, I can see a clear channel of dividing space across the middle of each table, between each pair, that is rarely crossed. Only shared resources, such as rubbers and rulers, are allowed to inhabit this space. There’s the usual sense of purpose, but without the familiar buzz of enjoyment. Whereas the focus is usually on the process of learning, here it is the outcome that is most important.

The Stories

The stories produced by the children are an interesting mix of literal – those that describe the game’s characters as quadrilaterals moving through levels – and those that mirror the games’ personification techniques in order to create characters with more complex personalities. When I ask them how they felt about the task, some children comment how easy they found it to write a story using the game as inspiration. When I ask why, one child suggests that having played the game they experienced the story directly from a characters perspective. Another child, however, states that they found it quite difficult to bring in their own ideas as they kept thinking about the ‘real’ story – so, as with any writing prompt, this didn’t suit all of the children.

Marking their work later, I’m pleased to note that the children’s stories at least match the quality of those created during other recent assessment tasks. Some are perhaps slightly longer than they would usually produce, which is perhaps an indication of their enthusiasm for the task. Grammar and punctuation has been applied well in most cases – at least as effectively

Summary

So, did using this game as a prompt for writing make the children better writers? No. (Clearly, in this context, there’s no expectation that it would.)
Did using this game as a prompt for writing make the children worse writers? No.
Did using this game as a prompt for writing make some children more eager to write? Yes. For some, using this game as stimulus appears to have had motivational benefits. For others, it wasn’t an easy task.

Extracts, for your reading pleasure:

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‘Thomas Was Alone’ Lesson 1: exploring character and narrative themes

A class of Y6 children use the computer game ‘Thomas was Alone’ to help develop their understanding of narrative voice, personification, use of setting and themes in a digital text.

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The title screen. And yes, Mr Gove, some children did ask, ‘Shouldn’t Thomas have a capital letter?!’

I have been a fan of Mike Bithell’s game ‘Thomas Was Alone’ since playing a demo version last Summer. The game’s strong story – narrated by Danny Wallace and presented on-screen as subtitles – had potential for literacy-based classroom use. Last Friday, at the close of a week otherwise dominated by SATs tests, I found space in the timetable to introduce it to the children. I planned three sessions inspired by the game.

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Level one. Starting out alone.

This first session was a designed as a reading-comprehension development activity, providing the children with a series of questions to explore whilst playing the game, leading to a whole-class discussion. The story itself touches on some potentially interesting themes such as friendship, co-operation and difference. These themes, as part of the game’s embedded narrative, become apparent very quickly, in the very early stages of gameplay, meaning that the children could engage with the story quite quickly. The characters in the game are geometric shapes; Thomas himself is a red rectangle who meets and interacts with other quadrilaterals of varying sizes and colours. What makes the story stand out is how effectively these simple sprites are invested with such strong characteristics, motivations and emotions. The game, therefore, provides an excellent example of how narrative voice can be used to personify inanimate objects.

Objectives

I was interested to explore where, if anywhere, this activity would fit with the Draft 2014 Primary Curriculum. The following extracts from the KS2 Literacy Programme of Study seem to do the job:

1. ‘During Years 5 and 6, teachers should continue to emphasise pupils’ enjoyment and understanding of language, especially vocabulary, to support their reading and writing.’

2. ‘Pupils should be taught to recognise themes in what they read, such as loss or heroism. They should have opportunities to compare characters… and discuss viewpoints (both of authors and of fictional characters), within a text and across more than one text.’

3. ‘Pupils should be taught the technical and other terms needed for discussing what they hear and read, such as metaphor, simile, analogy, imagery, style and effect.’

4. ‘Pupils should be shown how to compare characters, settings, themes and other aspects of what they read.’

5. Pupils should be taught to understand what they read by:

– drawing inferences and justifying these with evidence from the text
– identifying how language, structure and presentation contribute to meaning
– provide reasoned justifications for their views.

The Questions

With all this in mind, the children were given a paper copy of the following note-taking sheet to get them to consider questions in four main areas – Character, Setting, Narrative and Meanings.

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Playing the Game

I installed the game on the classroom laptops and desktops. I used the free demo version of the game from the official website. (I own a full copy of the game myself, but regardless of the fact that my class budget would not have stretched to multiple copies, the demo version was long enough to provide enough gameplay for the 20ish minutes available in class. Using the free demo felt a little stingy, but it meant that all children could have a go rather than just using one copy on the electronic whiteboard. I’m also pretty sure there will be some PS3 versions of the game purchased by the children, judging from their positive reactions.)

As with previous games I have used in the classroom, all children were engaged from the start. They worked in pairs, sharing computers and headphones. There is a lot going on when a class full of children are engaged in gameplay and it’s impossible to capture everything, but I did note some patterns emerging as I made my way around the room:

– Most pairs initially negotiated a turn-taking schedule, where an individual would take control the game, either based on short time intervals, or by alternating turns on completion of a level.

– Most interactions with me involved the children giving answers to the questions on their sheets. Very few children referred me to their progress in the game, perhaps as I had started the lesson by emphasising the literacy focus of the activity.

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– Many children interacted with children from other pairs, asking them for help when they were stuck on a particular challenge or querying and comparing their progress: ‘You can’t get him in like that… Shall I show you?’, ‘How do you get past this level?’

– As the gameplay progressed, discussion between children also began to include dialogue related to the story and an increased focus the questions they had been given. It seemed that initially they needed time to orient themselves within the game and to learn the mechanics of the gameplay, but fairly quickly were able to combine this with a focus on the ‘reading’ element of the lesson.

– All pairs worked with purpose. As additional characters were introduced in the game, the turn taking became more complex and less defined within each partnership. Most pairs began working together on finding a solution to each level, rather than persisting with the turn taking approach: ‘How do I do this? Oh, I see! You have to work together!’

– Successes and discoveries were often declared out loud: ‘Yes! We got them all across!’, ‘Hey! Now there’s a new guy!’

– In spite of their engagement in the game, most children were very proactive in completing their note-taking sheets and all had something to contribute to the final discussion.

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Making notes during play.

The Discussion

I ensured that we had 20 minutes at the end of the session to discuss the children’s responses to the questions. (In the event, the children would have been able to talk for much longer.)

I asked for their opinions on each of the areas addressed on their sheets. The following are extracts the responses they gave verbally and on their sheets:

1. Characters

I asked the children to describe the characters and their relationships. They provided information about the three main characters, along with evidence from the text in the game.

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Characters’ feelings are revealed through text during play.

‘Chris is evil… He called Thomas a ‘revolting idiot! He hated Thomas.’

‘John wants to prove himself.’

‘Thomas spawned alone.’

‘One character seems envious of the others.’

‘The characters needed each other to escape from this place.’

‘He found his constant tutting amusing.’

‘John wanted space…’

I also asked how the characters were had personalities, given that they are merely geometric shapes.

‘The narrator of the story speaks the characters thoughts. We learn about the characters from the narrator because the characters don’t actually speak.’

2. Setting

I asked where the game was set and what this location was like. I also asked what it might be like from the characters’ perspectives. Some children simply listed the characteristics of the setting. Others were keen to describe the setting using their own words, incorporating their own creative vocabulary.

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‘Underground caves. Pipes. Sewer. Not very bright. Nothing is curved.’

‘It is all dark and you don’t know what to expect next.’

‘Scared. Tired. Trapped.’

‘Lonely… More like a training program, making him smarter.’

‘Dark like a prison.’

‘Dark feelings inside: no radiant sun, no fresh trees, no lush grass, no happiness there – it’s like a prison, surrounded by blackness, trapped.’

3. Narrative

I asked what the story behind the game was, and also asked how the game developed.

‘It’s about a guy trying to leave places and go to new places while meeting new friends and new challenges.’

‘The story develops by telling you about his life.’

‘He learns things as the story goes on.’

Some of the children’s responses showed a very literal reading while others picked up on some of the subtleties presented in the narrative.

‘Thomas is in a computer program which is built to test him.’

‘Thomas knew the world was training him.’

4. Meaning

Finally, I asked the children to identify any themes or messages they felt were embedded in the game or its story.

‘To get on with each other. The characters had to work together to get where they needed to be.’

‘We found out that it needed good teamwork because they can’t do things on their own. They have different strengths.’

‘Don’t give up! I got that from playing the actual game, not from the story. You had to keep trying to get to the end of the level.’

‘Teamwork is always good no matter how many arguments you have.’

‘One friend is always better than none.’

‘It told you that you need other people in life to help you.’

‘Even if you’re lonely you can still get through.’

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Conclusions

I would not suggest that using a computer game as a classroom reading activity is preferable to reading novels, or that computer game should regularly replace the use of more traditional types of text. In fact, this experience was probably closer to reading subtitles from a film as opposed to a book. Nevertheless, in this case, a story-focussed game provided the basis for an engaging, inclusive experience that encouraged discussion and offered a different perspective on an author’s use of narrative and character.

During the following week I used the game in two more lessons: as a prompt for a story and as a basis for programming their own levels, using Scratch. I will write about these soon.

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Lesson 3: using Scratch to create new levels.