Nov 03

Games, serious play, and digital pedagogy

I’m not, strictly speaking, a gamer, nor am I anything like an expert on the subject. But one of the things I’m interested in talking about at THATCamp is the pedagogical potential of serious play: the use of games to engage students with a topic or get them to enter a text in a new way. I thought of this because for months I’ve been playing an online game called Echo Bazaar (a.k.a. Fallen London), a turn-based “appointment game” linked to Twitter, which is set in a sort of steampunk-esque 19th-century London that’s (literally) gone to hell. Players assume a character and play out a few turns at a time, making choices that determine the storyline and build up certain character traits that in turn unlock further storylines. Because I’m a literature Ph.D, part of what I find most appealing about this game is its riffing on the tropes of Victorian and Gothic novels (with generous dollops of Lovecraftian horror) and its constant literary allusions to everyone from Jane Austen to T.S. Eliot. It also forces the player to experience narrative in sometimes unfamiliar ways, as a character moving through a story by choosing different potential outcomes and watching other storylines open or close as a result. The creators’ blog has more information, including a fascinating series of posts about what they call “narrative physics.”

Thinking about games like this one and others more deliberately designed for pedagogical purposes (like the University of Virginia’s Ivanhoe Game), and about location-based games like Gowalla, and about conversations like the recent Playing with the Past unconference on history gaming, I think we could have quite an interesting session on play as a way of bringing the digital humanities into the classroom. As a librarian, I usually teach students in very pragmatic ways — here’s how to use the catalog properly, here’s how to deal with the quirks of this or that database, here’s what “peer review” means — and I’m always looking for a way to communicate to them just how playful and exploratory the research process can be. I’d like to talk about games as a model for research, but I think there’s also plenty to discuss about games as a way of analyzing a text, or exploring a historical period, or encountering the arts.


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  1. Dan Callahan

    I was actually thinking for a while about a session on video games and what they can teach schools, but I haven’t quite been able to pull together my various thoughts and reference notes. I will at the very least attend and be willing to contribute to a discussion on a session like this, though!

  2. Erin

    This is absolutely a session that I would love to attend! I’m more than a little obsessed with the potential for gaming to be used in educational settings and I would welcome hearing more about new games such as the one described above and their possible ties to learning.

  3. Trip Kirkpatrick

    +1 (worst. comment. ever.)

  4. Adam Lipkin

    This is a great session idea, and one I’d love to attend. Given the ongoing gamification trend, it’s clearly something we need to be thinking of in higher ed and dh.

    (Incidentally, I also have a huge love/hate relationship with Echo Bazaar, which is both wonderful and amazingly flawed.)

  5. Andrew Logemann

    Sounds like an interesting conversation. You might be interested in Lee Sheldon’s course at Indiana University that used “experience points” rather than grades to bring this concept into the classroom. His syllabus for the course is here, and the write up that appeared on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus blog is here.

  6. blogs.brandeis.edu/edtech

    Andrew, my first thought about Lee’s course was, “that’s great,” but on looking at it, the gamer in me balks; everyone knows that in good game design, it takes the fewest number of points to get to level 2, not the most. If I didn’t know better, I’d suggest that he merely took the traditional 2000 points the course normally uses and renamed them as XP. 🙂

  7. Trip Kirkpatrick

    Roger Travis at UConn uses aggregative grading also and is very approachable, if you want to talk to someone about that notion.

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