Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Narrative, Challenge, Reflection

 “Do not…keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play.”


I admire Professor Scott Nicholson’s scholarly work about games. He inspires people to look at different aspects of games with a more critical eye, particularly in an educational setting. And he helps fuel my interest in games for learning, using game experiences inside or outside a classroom to encourage people to expand their horizons. His latest project – EscapeIF uses educational storytelling (in a familiar programmed text adventure format) to provide an innovative and engaging framework for classroom learning. In exploring EscapeIF I realized this format relies on three core elements – narrative, challenge, and reflection – all of which easily apply to teaching as well as our own game experiences.

Prof. Nicholson has helped us look at games differently for years. He’s explored issues of gamification, games in libraries, and most recently escape rooms from a scholarly perspective all while maintaining an enthusiasm for games and game design. His “Board Games with Scott” videos still linger on YouTube and continue to serve as a solid reference for those exploring specific titles even today (I recently got sucked into his old but fascinating feature on Mah Jong). He ran an online course on gaming in libraries and published Everyone Plays at the Library: Creating Great Gaming Experiences for All Ages in 2010. While at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies he ran the Library Game Lab and Because Play Matters game lab; at Wilfrid Laurier University he’s director of the Game Design and Development BFAA program and the Brantford Games Network and lab. He’s developed and promoted his ideas though academic publishing and online videos, working to make his scholarly ideas accessible and practical to those who explore and enjoy games in a non-academic capacity.

So it’s no surprise his latest work related to escape rooms – of which I’ll admit I know frightfully little, though Prof. Nicholson’s “Escape Rooms 101” video helped – takes an accessible form intended for classroom use. EscapeIF combines two concepts, escape room elements and “Interactive Fiction.” Wikipedia broadly defines the escape room experience as “a game in which a team of players discover clues, solve puzzles, and accomplish tasks.” Most folks of my ancient generation know “Interactive Fiction” as a pick-a-path gamebook popularized by the Choose Your Own Adventure series, the early Zork computer adventures, or, in a roleplaying game sense, a solitaire programmed text adventure (a format I particularly enjoy designing and playing). Each EscapeIF game scenario includes three modes: a narrative element that presents a setting and situation, navigated by player choices through numbered text paragraphs; a related challenge for player-students to solve within the context of the narrative (often introducing or reinforcing classroom lessons); and a freeform reflection period to discuss the game, including how the challenge concepts applied to the narrative framework to establish practical relevancy to real-world application.

Prof. Nicholson explains the importance of reflection in the EscapeIF System Overview (as well as reminding teachers to varying degrees in the individual EscapeIF game scenarios):

The most important part of any learning activity is reflection. It is recommended that one-third of the class time be reserved for reflection, as reflection is the time when the learners are able to learn from each other, to connect what they learned to other class material, and connect what they learned to the real world.”

These three components – narrative, challenge, reflection – are no doubt familiar concepts to scholars and educators, but stand out to me as both working particularly well in the EscapeIF academic framework and as a means of looking at recreational games.

I'd point at the sad face too
if I were doing math....
My son offers me some limited insight into the academic process at the middle school level. Although he’s a good student, he’s quick to note when certain classes are “annoying” rather than engaging. Too often classroom exercises include little narrative to stimulate students’ interest or time for reflection to reinforce how they learn and how they might apply that knowledge to situations outside the classroom. Teaching often focuses on the challenge portion, instilling necessary concepts and skills, then practicing them in repetitive classroom exercises, followed by a test to gauge knowledge retention and application under duress. Rarely is a challenge followed by reflection: where do we see these concepts applied in everyday life? Why are they important to learn (beyond proving students know them in Standards of Learning tests)? What careers might use these skills? Certainly some courses offer more opportunities for narrative and reflection: English, literature, and History come to mind. My son’s particularly enjoyed assignments in English, History, and his gifted students course that departed from traditional challenge-based learning to include assignments involving narrative and reflection. But math and science remain solidly academic and less prone to inventive methods of teaching. (I’ll admit I’m biased: math and, in a secondary capacity, science, never came easy to me in school.) EscapeIF seem best-suited to these subjects (as demonstrated in the game scenarios offered), enticing students to envision a problem environment through the pick-a-path narrative, working together to solve related challenges to affect that narrative, and reflecting on the process and its real-world application.

Prof. Nicholson provides plenty of advice using EscapeIF games in classrooms to practice skills beyond those in each game’s challenge section: working in groups, finding a consensus, sharing knowledge to help others. The website provides additional tools to help educators (and mundanes like me) understand EscapeIF: a video introduction, an overview of the system, sample scripts, a creation guide, advanced game options, even an online game using videos and web pages to provide potential users with a student’s perspective on the game experience.

EscapeIF has a lot of potential and some constructive goals promoting accessibility, customization, and community. Although distributed through electronic means on the internet through websites and PDF files, EscapeIF does not require electronic devices to use in the classroom. Teachers can print out each game scenario and, using just a white/black board, run the game in class (though they can embellish each game with available props if they like). This aspect makes EscapeIF accessible to even low-resource classrooms and also allows teachers to customize each experience to their subject, academic level, and teaching style. At the moment EscapeIF exists in a beta form, meaning Prof. Nicholson is seeking feedback to improve the project (what gamers might call “playtesting”). He also encourages teachers to create their own EscapeIF games and share them through the project’s Facebook community page. Use and adapt the format: all the current EscapeIF games are released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License; meaning users can “freely copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format” and “remix, transform, and build upon the material” with proper attribution for non-commercial purposes.

EscapeIF’s three-part framework also applies to games across the adventure gaming spectrum. A game’s narrative or theme often draws us to the game (though, admittedly, sometimes the game mechanics prove more enticing...but they must also work with the theme). Understanding and implementing the rules through reading instructions and applying that in play provides the challenge; here players reap the most rewards, combining the narrative/theme with the challenge/rules for an engaging game experience. We don’t always think about the reflection portion, but often times we subconsciously engage in that. How many times have we played games – especially roleplaying games – and spent hours afterward talking about the action, reliving heroic deeds, laughing about epic fails, and generally reveling in what we most enjoyed (hence learning about what different players found fulfilling during the game experience)?

I feel a strange affinity for EscapeIF. I can relate to its three-part framework as a means to examine how we explore and appreciate recreational games. I particularly like the use of the pick-a-path format for the narrative (which reminded me of the programmed tutorial adventure format from The Lord of the Rings Adventure Game that inspired my own Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game where the gamemaster reads the entries guided by player choices and the results of their actions). And I relate to this kind of learning experience when reflecting on my own early education and what my son’s experiencing today...something beyond and in fact more exciting than the usual classroom routine of rote learning, textbooks, exercises, and tests. While I’m an advocate for using games for learning I realize one can’t use that method exclusively; students need to learn core skills in a formal environment. But more non-traditional learning might help increase interest in the classroom and offer different perspectives on applying lessons in real life situations. I’m interested to see how educators use EscapeIF, if they can build a vibrant community, and how Prof. Nicholson further promotes and develops this refreshing educational tool.

EscapeIF seems like the kind of occasional learning experience that might have engaged me in elementary and middle school, particularly in math, which still vexes me today. Certainly academic challenges remain the core of the school experience, but cramming information into kids can only go so far. With more narrative engagement and thoughtful reflection students might learn more instead of simply sit there being taught.

Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.”

Fred Rogers

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