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

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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.