Grand Theft Education — Harper’s takes on educational gaming and emergent narrative

I doubt the piece will appear online, but the latest issue of Harper’s features a fairly extensive and often compelling discussion on the rise of educational gaming:

Lesson plans are being adjusted accordingly.
Last year hundreds of new educational video games were released, on
subjects ranging from algebra to U.S. history. In order to assess the
video game’s pedagogical potential, but also its implications for the
English language, Harper’s Magazine brought together four experts — two
video-game enthusiasts and two teachers — and charged them with a task:
to dream up video games that might teach, of all things, writing.

Based on the title, and Harper’s general editorial bent (glimpsed in the “of all things, writing” quoted above), I was expecting a largely curmudgeonly treatment, but was pleasantly surprised that both of the “teachers” slated to defend the sanctity of the printed word seemed quite excited by the possibilities.

I’ll quote a few of my favorite exchanges below, in hopes of nudging a few people closer to the

RAPH KOSTER: It’s long been known that brussels
sprouts are not as much fun as chocolate. As Mark Twain put it, “Work
consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever
a body is not obliged to do.”

JANE AVRICH: Right. Tom Sawyer gets the other kids to paint Aunt Polly’s fence by turning it into play.

It’s very important to set up that context. In the video-game world,
this is called the “magic circle” surrounding games. And it has to be a
circle of no consequence: What you’re doing in here doesn’t matter
outside it, so it’s okay to fail. You’re forgiven. One of the problems
with standard pedagogy is that it all matters too much, there’s a
pressure to succeed. And that turns off a lot of learners. Pressure
situations are difficult for some people.

BILL WASIK: So zombies it is. Presumably, as students go along in the game the words will get more difficult? The zombies wilier?

All good games start off relatively simple and they get more and more
challenging. The learning is what keeps you roped in: Wow, it got a
little bit harder, but I’ve gotten a little bit better.

I particularly enjoyed the following exchange, if only because it served to reinforce a niggling suspicion I’ve been harbouring about one of my current guilty pleasures:

AVRICH: My friend Griffin suggested an idea
for a game to teach writing. I thought it was very clever, considering
that he’s ten. He said, “What about a detective game, with questions
and real clues?” Such a game would involve finding patterns and
discovering evidence. It could be a great way to learn narrative.

WASIK: Could you modify a game like that to include real reading?

Yes, my idea would basically be a hybrid. In order to move to the next
phase of the game, you would have to read literary texts and answer
questions about them. The questions would grow more difficult,
detailed, and arcane, and the answers would create a pattern, a text
within a text. The text, a unique story determined by the player, would
ultimately lead you to the goal of your quest: the secret scrolls of
Atlantis, for example, or the buried wing of the library of Alexandria.

within this frame mystery would be the mysteries of the English
language, everything from basic rules of grammar to the obscure
etymology of words-this word is Greek, this is from the old French,
this is Arabic, and so on. Our language is full of historical and
cultural riddles. Drama too: the conquests that transformed it could
provide great visuals. A magician-mentor figure could guide you back in
time to show you through the different eras: the Druids and the Romans,
the Angles and the Saxons, William the Conqueror and William

KOSTER: That’s a great idea. Have you heard of alternate-reality gaming?

AVRICH: I don’t think so, no.

It’s a relatively new genre of game, in which the play links up with
the real world in some way. The first well-known one was actually made
as a promotional campaign for Ai, the Spielberg/Kubrick movie. In the
credits at the bottom of the movie poster, a woman was credited as the
film’s “Sentient Machine Therapist.” People who saw it knew that it had
to be fake, but when they searched for the woman’s name online, they
found academic papers by her, websites that cited her. The more they
dug, the more they found, and they had to keep up this exercise in
close reading. Eventually they found their way to phone numbers,
meeting places. In the end, many hundreds of players wound up playing
this game to figure out the hidden history. The game you’re describing
sounds a lot like that. It’s an exercise in a form of literacy.

That’s the idea-to create a really great mystery story within the game,
but where the reading supplements would be bits of actual literature.

I hate to make the analogy, but I also think the appeal would be very
similar to that of The Da Vinci Code. Which is a very gamelike book,

AVRICH: Yes, that’s true. The protagonists solve a series of riddles in order to move from level to level.

One of the signs of how important gaming is now, I think, is that video
games have started to influence our ideas of narrative, as opposed to
the other way around. The best example of this is the television show
Lost, this huge hit that is in some ways trying to build a television
show structured like a video game. The show has all these little clues
that you can only see if you freeze-frame on your TiVo.

Lost has run its own alternate-reality game, in fact. During its first
season, in 2004, the show ran television commercials for a fictitious
airline-what was it, Oceanic?

JOHNSON: Oceanic Airlines, yes.

KOSTER: And viewers could visit this airline’s website and find hidden details about the show.

As with video games, there are hint guides to Lost that have been
created by fans online, all these fans with way too much time on their

AVRICH: I have to admit, I love Lost. I’ve actually had
conversations about Lost with my students that have turned into
discussions of reading skills.

None of the preceding will be too mind-blowing to a regular reader of Infocult, but speaking for myself this relatively simplified treatment helped me to get a tighter grip on some conceptual strands that are ceaselessly pulling apart in my own thoughts.

And at the risk of busting all manner of good faith fair use limits on quotation, I can’t resist pointing at the concluding thoughts:

AVRICH: My concern, really, is for
language. Which I fear is becoming more uniform, more practical, less
grammatical, less edited, and more bland.

KOSTER: What we mean by
literacy is changing. If you look at books like The Da Vinci Code, a
lot of what it does is appropriation-of a painting, or a historical
text-and annotation, with this whole cottage industry of providing the
footnotes: the TV specials, the books. To me, there’s a question
hanging over our conversation, which is: What kind of writing do we
hope to teach? We might like to teach kids to write like Proust, but no
one writes like Proust anymore. Appropriation and annotation are
becoming our new forms of literacy. Think of blogs, for example: most
blog posts are reblogs, they’re parasitic on things other people have
written. It’s a democratized writing, a democratized literacy.

This plays into the virtual revolution I was describing earlier.
Everyone in the overdeveloped world will have the took they need to
create this amazing stuff, whether it be blogs or films or games. None
of it will rise to the peaks that we associate with names like Joyce or
Proust, but a great deal of it will be fantastic. And there will be so
much of it that it will inevitably divide into niches, into small
groups devoted to the art that they are making. In a way it’s the
fulfillment of an ancient dream. Everyone can have a creative life and
a meaningful dialogue with the culture. Everyone will be an artist, but
the price is that no one will be a great artist. There will no longer
be a place for such a being.

I mostly agree with these conclusions, though remain unconvinced that new media precludes the rise of genius. It all seems a little too mathematically tight to satisfy me. Elsewhere, the participants seem to find consensus around the notion that new media forms are fine for iterative plot development, but that they can’t do interiority as well as traditional literature. In Koster’s words “All nuance is lost in games. They are intrinsically and irredeemably formal in nature.”

I suppose he oughta know. But aren’t we in a very early stage in the development of these forms? Maybe somewhere — either within an individual of Shakespearean scope and power or in a hive of complementary souls — there lurks a transformative creative act that will transcend such limits?

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About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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8 Responses to Grand Theft Education — Harper’s takes on educational gaming and emergent narrative

  1. Wow.

    I do agree that the “nuance” may be lost in these games.

    I wonder if this type of educational gaming would “take” with the new media generation? It brings to mind when I was in elementary school it was thought that they could get kids interested in literature (such as shakespeare) by presenting them in graphic novel/comic book style. Ironically enough nobody read them, they just looked at the pictures.

  2. Jim says:

    “I suppose he oughta know. But aren’t we in a very early stage in the development of these forms? Maybe somewhere — either within an individual of Shakespearean scope and power or in a hive of complementary souls — there lurks a transformative creative act that will transcend such limits?”

    Beautifully said, Brian. Koster’s inclination to preclude the possibility of this narrative form so early on in its development seems hasty. In fact, the positioning of 3d immersive environments and sophisticated narrratives together (something that the physics engine of Half-Life 2 always makes me drool over) makes me think quite the opposite. Grafting the arguments of depth vs. surface in such essentialized terms seems to me an inadequate conceptualization of the interactive worlds that are emerging all around us.

    The increased potential for a transformative creative act that we may not be able to neatly attribute to a singular representative of genius, which is very exciting in many ways.

  3. I blame my family for my Lost fixation. And my friends.

    Now I have to go find a copy of the issue. Grrr.
    But thanks for the pointer, oh namesake!

  4. Ulises says:

    Hey Brian. We’ve been having an interesting conversation around the Harper’s article. Raph Koster and Gus Andrews have pitched in. Check it out.

  5. Raph says:

    We are indeed at an early stage with videogames. but we’re a very far cry from being at an early stage with GAMES — they’re one of the oldest art forms on the planet. When you cite Half-Life (or indeed any narrative whatsoever) you are not talking about games; you are talking about interstitial narrative other media (generally animated film in the form of machinima) interrupted by moments of gameplay. This marriage produces what might be called “interactive entertainment” as a subset of games, but it doesn’t mean games themselves are bringing the interiority; rather, it’s the narrative, which is well-established as excellent at interiority, which is providing it.

    Games are fundamentally models, and they have the strengths and weaknesses of models.

  6. Brian says:

    Patricia — it’s worth remembering that making stuff shiny is no guarantee of success. I’m personally optimistic that these developments can benefit teaching and learning, but there are bound to be missteps.

    Jim — Raph will take me to task for conflating this intersection of games and narratives with games themselves, but I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one hoping for the thunderclap of inspiration.

    Bryan — thanks for making my pleasure a little less guilty. It frightens me a bit to say that Lost will undoubtedly be making more appearances on this weblog.

    Ulises — great post. Thanks for pointing it out, I wish I’d seen it earlier.

    Raph — it occurred to me I might have been stretching the point you were making about games. My post should have made the distinction. That being said, it seemed like pretty much the whole discussion focused on that ‘interstitial narrative’ space, so my conflation didn’t feel too violent at the time. What I find myself wondering is if we are still in a binary-hybrid mode with games on one side and narrative on the other, or do ARGs represent an evolution into something more distinct, novel, and significant? Or am I just hungry? This is all pretty new to me, so I expect more cognitive fumbling will come. (BTW, for me one of the best outcomes from reading the Harper’s piece was discovering your stuff.)

  7. Raph says:

    The conflation of narrative and games is a long-standing discussion in the game studies world. So don’t take my critique too much to heart. 🙂

    An example like “Typing of the Dead,” the game referenced in the forum, is an example where it is not the narrative that pushes along the learning, but the model. The narrative merely serves as something to hang the actual learning on. This is quite the converse of the games where you have a deep and rich story and expect it to carry the learning.

    ARGs as well as the better narrative games do manage a hybrid. It’s not at all impossible. (Bad ARGs often do have a massive divide between what the puzzles and the narrative are teaching, though). It’s a matter of careful craft, really.

  8. There is an interesting interview with Chris Crawford, the noted game designer, about a new direction for interactive fiction here:;?articleID=192503697

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