Thursday, April 1, 2010

Blogger Challenge: More Than a Game

Attic skeleton
Location: Virtual House of Usher

Can we build a virtual space that exploits an interest in gaming but with "winners" preventing, instead of causing, violence? I've been eager to respond to this challenge from Rezzable.

This could be one of the most fruitful uses of virtual-world technology where, unlike MMORPGs or stand-alone games like the Grand Theft Auto series, educators and students can create content. During my time researching virtual worlds, then teaching in or about them, I've often been asked this question by faculty colleagues:

"What's the educational use of this technology?"

There's a barb hidden in that question, of course. The faculty members are skeptical that anything that so resembles a game could be worthwhile in a "serious" classroom. Yet three years into using the virtual worlds Second Life, Heritage Key, Reaction Grid, and (now sadly defunct) Metaplace, the answer seems clear.

Simulation and Immersion

I've a strong sense that unless educators include these two aspects of virtual worlds in a pedagogically sustainable way, we will never hold the attention or respect of "Generation GTA." In American higher education, the first inklings of change are there, often at smaller schools "hungry" to engage students who want education to be interactive, faculty responsive, and tasks connected to each other. I'm not so sure that currently "elite" colleges and universities, comfortable with the pedagogical status quo and a traditional faculty reward/incentive structure based on juried publication, can ignore the move to "edutainment." My wife's K-5 students are learning through roleplaying archaeologists exploring Ancient China and podcasting interviews with famous African-Americans for for Black History Month. These students, with so many interactive educational experiences, will soon be enrolling in higher education.

Moreover, what about when they graduate? In an increasingly consumer-driven market, what do students really need beyond our gates? How many stapled and linear papers will they ever write after graduation?

What if, instead, we took what is best about that sort of learning--critical thinking and research--and employed them in genres students would forget were "for a class"? I'm not advocating the end of reading Shakespeare; I am advocating "living" Shakespeare while reading the plays.

First of all, immersion and simulation make possible options I cannot afford financially, or could not be possible at all in the traditional classroom. As a long-time designer of paper-and-dice roleplaying games, I thought that I could play a variation on an old theme: "players" are tasked to solve problems that avoid, rather than cause, bloodshed in a potentially violent setting.

Enter an unlikely hero known for his violent dreams: Richmond's home-town boy and the Godfather of Goth, Edgar Allan Poe.
Cast and Crew

About the House of Usher

We wanted both to honor Poe on his 200th birthday and also find a way to deepen students' engagement with his "The Fall of the House of Usher," a morbid, and endlessly enigmatic, short story of a family curse laced with hints incest, premature burial, and necrophilia. And that is just in the print version!

All those years of Dungeons and Dragons taught me how to turn that into something immersive, and we did just that.

My students come into my classroom door expecting that virtual world settings will resemble those of the games they play. It's refreshing to disabuse them of the notion that all online content needs violent action to engage participants. I'd argue that, conversely, the most intriguing elements of traditional games involve solving puzzles, because anyone with good manual dexterity and a command of a user interface can move an avatar and shoot fast enough to win. Even in games for hard-core gamers like the Left for Dead series, the players must work in teams and confront situations that demand critical-thinking skills.

So take away the zombies, well, all but one zombie, and you have Poe's Usher, a tale that I recently helped, as chief builder, put into Second Life as an immersive simulation.

We could have simply built a maze with Roderick and Madeline Usher inside, and led students by the nose through a 3D version of the story. Instead, we let participants know that they'd be looking for clues and playing the role of Poe's narrator, summoned to the House of Usher by a frantic letter from Roderick. Once there, they'd face the utter madness of their old friend, the palpable wasting illness of his sister, and the dark history of the Usher family. Unlike Poe's tale, however, the students had a mission: save the Ushers if they can, since unlike the deterministic story, the ending was in their hands.
First Steps

What the Students Did

They took to this like the problem-solvers they are when gaming, and they reported that the hour they spent in the house seemed to pass in minutes. They thus became immersed in the action despite the lack of gore, other than in a realistic Victorian Kitchen, and absence of weaponry, other than a pepperbox pistol Roderick might use if the students became too blunt when trying to save his sister.

While the learning curve for virtual worlds is currently steep, it was also once steep for using film in a classroom, for writing and distributing one's own course materials, for designing Web content. For House of Usher, the students did not even need to master more than the basics of the interface we used; instead, I wanted them to focus on reliving Poe's story with the option--in fact, the assigned goal--of changing his ending. Then I wanted them, in writing, to reflect on what an interactive "lab" accompanying a printed text might mean for how we read and preserve classic works of fiction.

Students took to it eagerly, roleplaying the concerned friends of mad Roderick and his ill sister, and they generally fared well at saving Madeline from premature death. For instance, they figured out ways to distract one actor while appealing to the other actor's reason, searching for clues, or located the hidden crypt where so much of the action occurs. In fact, they recommended making things even more difficult for future participants.

As actors interacted with students, everyone also felt part of a process that continues in 3D as well as at a wiki with clues, advice, and backstory. For the first group, we gave them roleplaying as well as beta-test tasks. Based upon the students' critques, we have changed the architecture of the Usher crypt (our confusing maze was actually too easy to navigate, the students said). We added more clues and a hidden room, and we learned how to use sound and lighting effects to enhance the mood to fit Poe's oppressive and disturbing vision. I've added a section to my Koinup profile with images tagged from our work with the simulation.

The project continues to evolve, and more classes will experience Poe's fiction in an entirely new way, a fitting tribute to Richmond's favorite dark dreamer.
Never Forget--Back it up!


Lokum Shilova said...

Thank you very much for participating in the blogger challenge always a pleasure to read your ideas

Rik Panganiban said...

sounds like a sweet way to embody literature. Thanks for sharing this!