Play It Again, Sam

It has been a long wait – almost seven years – since I wrote about the wonderful world of Samorost, and the creative opportunities it provides for an inventive teacher (see Sam, The Spaceship and Me), so you can imagine how excited I am to get my hands on Samorost 3, just released by Amanita Design, and described thus:-

‘Samorost 3 follows a curious space gnome who uses the powers of a magic flute to travel across the cosmos in search of its mysterious origins. Visit nine unique and alien worlds teeming with colourful challenges, creatures and surprises to discover, brought to life with beautiful artwork, sound and music.’

What’s not to like? If that doesn’t tempt you, have a look at the preview.

See also Machinarium, from the same company.

For teaching ideas across all curriculum areas, see previous post by following the link.

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Digital Narrative Changes Gear

“My name is Alice. I’m nineteen years old, I have a boyfriend and I work at a remote gas station just outside the city. I’m up against the clock to deliver my latest college assignment before the deadline, but as usual things aren’t exactly going to plan. I’m surrounded by clutter and paperwork, bombarded by alerts and text messages. The last thing I need is a mysterious customer turning up in a gas-guzzling sports car…”

website

The new-look Inanimate Alice website

Fans of Inanimate Alice, the popular digital novel for young adults, will be delighted that the much-awaited Episode 6 is due for imminent release. Building on the life experiences of the young protagonist Alice Field, Episode 6 takes the series to a new level, both in terms of the narrative and digital storytelling itself, moving from 2-D to a 3-D gaming platform and what is described as a ‘fully immersive’ experience for readers. Alice is now aged 19, and working in a remote gas station on the outskirts of town to pay for her studies at the local college, where she is …………well……….creating her own story. And this time around readers get to see under the bonnet and inside the engine of the story via Alice’s development blog, where she talks to the reader about scripting, 3D audio, video game graphics, spatial narratives and more.(http://devblog.inanimatealice.info/). This is a feature which started with the beautifully-crafted ‘Development Journal’ to accompany Episode 5: Hometown 2, and is especially interesting for students who are developing their own digital stories. Here is how the story-makers for the Bradfield Company describe what they are trying to achieve:-

“With Episode 6, I’ve been exploring Alice’s drive to become a games designer using the sort of technology and approach I could very much imagine Alice herself getting excited about. This episode feels like an immersive game – you literally are in Alice’s shoes. It’s quite multi-layered. As she gets older, the issues Alice has to deal with as her story unfolds get more complicated, and the more ambitious, adventurous and (hopefully) accomplished she becomes with new media.”

Andy Campbell, Director of Digital Media at One Development Trust (and Inanimate Alice developer)

“The challenge with Alice, traditionally a linear narrative, has been to build up her storytelling strengths (add more emotional arcs and depth, create three-dimensional characters) while responding to the user’s actions with a greater measure of agency (meaning, your choices have real consequences). The episode is in Unity 3D, which introduced a range of new interfaces and a free-roam environment with a first-person point of view. Instead of “playing as Alice,” my idea is to play as a “friend of Alice”—going along on her adventures, interacting with her, and occasionally making choices and taking actions that she might not like. The trick is, fans of Alice know that the user never actually sees her. In past episodes, her presence is most prominently featured in the form of narrative statements—simple text on the screen, aimed at her audience in an indirect but personal way. We’ll see how that plays out in this new format.”

Lorri Hopping, Game Developer, writer and narrative designer on Episode 6: The last Gas Station

If you can’t wait for the official release of Episode 6, you can watch the trailer and sign up for early access on Alice’s website at http://www.inanimatealice.com which will also give you free access to the Development Journal referred to earlier and some sneak previews of Episode 6 screenshots. I also have it on good authority that plans are underway for a special Teachers’ Edition of IA some time in the New Year, which will bring all of the educational resources from Episodes 1-5 into one neat package for use in the classroom.

In the meantime don’t forget that you can already access these episodes and some fantastic resources absolutely free by going to the website and clicking on Education. The Create link will take you to a gallery of content created by students of all ages from around the world, as well as the ‘featured classroom’ of Kristal Doolin, young ‘Teacher of the Year’ who talks about how Inanimate Alice transformed the way her students developed their literacy skills.

Finally, for a comprehensive overview of the learning opportunities afforded by using Inanimate Alice in the classroom, I would suggest you check out this article by Robert Stumbles, an educator with over 15 years experience teaching in schools in Australia and Japan. Fantastic stuff. Enjoy!

Education – Playing The Ultimate Game?

“A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”

James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games

Here we are in the middle of another ‘glorious summer of sport’ as the mainstream media would have it, from the Wimbledon tennis championships via the British Lions’ rugby tour, The Ashes cricket series and a certain tour of France to THE-ICARUS-DECEPTIONthe Open Golf Championship at Muirfield in Scotland. For anyone who is interested in such things – and I count myself as one of them – there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from feeling part of the drama these events undoubtedly provide, but I have posted before about the danger of making easy comparisons between sport and education (see Learning in the Long Run). My instinct then was that ‘playing games’ may provide a more appropriate analogy, though even that notion seemed to imply that in education there must inevitably be losers, an idea which I was finding difficult to accept. Not all games are the same however, as I discovered this week when reading Seth Godin’s latest book, The Icarus Deception, in which he makes reference to the work of James P. Carse, Professor Emeritus at New York University, and specifically the distinction he makes between finite and infinite games:

“A finite game is one with a winner and a loser. A finite game has rules, yes, but it also has an end. The goal of a finite game, then, is to win, to be the last man standing. The industrial age embraced the idea of finite games. Market share is a finite game. Hiring someone from a competitor is a finite game as well – you have this all-star, your competitor does not. Every season of the NFL is a finite game, with just one team winning and everyone else walking away a loser. Infinite games, on the other hand, are played for the privilege of playing. The purpose of an infinite game is to allow the other players to play better. The goal of your next move is to encourage your fellow game players to make their next moves even better.”

Subtitled ‘How High Will You Fly?’, the Icarus ‘deception’, according to Godin, is that while everyone knows that part of the myth which tells how the wax melted on his home-made wings when Icarus flew too close to the sun, sending him spiralling to his death, the other part of the story is now largely forgotten – the warning about the dangers of flying too low and the risk of crashing into the sea. The tale of Icarus has become synonymous with vaulting ambition or hubris, and is often used to prevent people ‘getting above themselves’, a familiar schooldays lesson for many. Godin’s point is that in the industrial age we have been rewarded for fitting in, knowing our place, not making a fuss, while ignoring the dangers of aiming too low. In the post-industrial age of what he describes as the ‘connection economy’, there will be no alternative but to stand up and stand out, and no limits on what can be achieved. In the connection economy, the true measure of your work is whether you touched someone:

“The connection economy has changed how you get a job and what you do when you get that job. It has changed how we make and listen to music, write and read books, and discover where to eat, what to eat and whom to eat with. It has destroyed the mediocre middle of average products for average people who have few choices, and it has enabled the weird edges, where people who care find others who care and they all end up caring about something more than they did before they met.”

Let us suppose then for a moment that the purpose of education is to prepare young people for their place in the world, and that the modern world is indeed something like Godin describes it. Would it be reasonable to conclude that education is more of an infinite game than a finite game? If your inclination is to answer that question in the affirmative, the implications for any formal education system are clear – that ,while competition can be useful, healthy and fun in certain contexts, we need to move away from the fixation on competition in the form of standardised tests (finite games), and emphasise instead the more important ‘C’ words – Creativity, Cooperation, Caring and Connection. It is only by doing this that we will free young people to be themselves, take risks, fly higher, make better art and recognise that they all have something valuable to contribute to the common good.

“As you’ve guessed, the connection economy thrives on the infinite game (and vice versa). Because connections aren’t a zero-sum investment, because ideas that spread benefit all they touch, there isn’t an overwhelming need for a winner (and many losers). In the finite game, there’s pressure to be the one, the one in a million. The problem with one in a million is that with those odds, there are seven thousand other people on the planet who are as good as (or better than) you are. Winning a finite game in a connected world is a sucker’s bet. In any finite game with high stakes, it’s obvious that it will quickly become work, that you’ll be under pressure to take steroids, cut corners, and abandon generosity in favour of focusing on the end. Our best art is strenuous. But it’s not strenuous in service of creating scarcity and of winning a finite game. It’s strenuous because it’s personal and generous. Infinite games bring abundance and they bring the satisfaction of creating art that matters. Play.”

Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception

Further Reading: Finite and Infinite Games, A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility by James P. Carse

Addressing the Gender Imbalance

In the immediate aftermath of my previous blogpost on how to engage boys in reading, I discovered two very interesting items related to the topic of gender imbalance in the classroom. The first was a report by the Teaching Agency which suggests that the number of men training to be primary teachers in England has increased by more than 50 percent in the last four years, surely a figure to be welcomed by everyone with an interest in education and schools. The second was this TED talk by Ali Carr-Chellman on how to engage boys through the use of gaming in the classroom. Thanks to Fernando for bringing it to my attention via the Transmedia and Education group on Facebook.

A former colleague and fellow DHT of mine used to maintain that many of the problems in schools at the end of the 20th Century had been caused by what he described as the ‘feminisation’ of education. I disagreed with him entirely, and I still do. The issue for me is not that we should treat boys very differently from girls, but that the curriculum should more accurately reflect the broad range of interests and passions which exist in the world, and that the range of texts with which teachers and students engage in the classroom should be much broader than it often is. As always, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Machinarium

mach 1A few weeks ago I wrote about an online adventure game called Samorost, and its potential as a stimulus for creative writing, storytelling, problem-solving and the development of talking and listening skills. After months of speculation and anticipation Amanita,the makers of Samorost, have just released Machinarium, an even more mind-boggling adventure narrative with a science fiction theme. The basic premise of the game is that a little robot figure has been unjustly dumped on a scrap heap behind the city, and the player has to rebuild him before helping him return to the town, where he must prevent the criminal Black Cap Brotherhood from blowing up the residence of the town ruler. And following the true plot structure of the Quest he must also rescue his robot girlfriend, of course.mach 4
Like Samorost, the game is played by pointing and clicking the mouse at certain objects in sequence to progress to the next level. The player must help the robot to solve a series of puzzles while discovering the reasons for his plight and the urgency of his return. Again, the graphics are stunning in their detail, colour and texture, and, unusually for a computer game, the soundtrack is more than just a background annoyance (in fact it is a work of art in its own right and available as a separate download). The game is more complex than Samorost, and although there is no spoken dialogue, it has been enhanced by pop-up thought balloons, an inventory of items which the player has to collect, and, thoughtfully, a clue to help you on each level if you are really stuck, but even here you have to work your way through a mini-arcade game to unlock the secret. Prepare to be enthralled.

Watch a short trailer here (note that the visual quality does not compare to the actual game).

Edinburgh International Book Festival

Had a really enjoyable day yesterday at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where I was taking part in a panel discussion, and making a presentation on Technology and Literacy. My co-presenters were Judy Robertson, a computer scientist at Heriot-Watt University, and Lili Wilkinson, an Australian cyber-journalist (no, I had never heard of it either) and the session was chaired by Joy Court of CILIP. The subtext for the seminar was, “Can video games, the internet and other ICT applications help young people engage with literature?”

Judy spoke about her work on the Adventure Author project and about storymaking through computer game design, while Lili took us into the fascinating world of www.insideadog.com.au , a website which promotes young adult literature, highlights Australian writers and their work, and generally engages young people in the world of books. The name incidentally comes from the Groucho Marx quote, “Outside of a dog a book is a man’s best friend, inside a dog it’s too dark to read.”

For my part, I was wrestling with the notion of engaging young people with literature, and how this related to technology and literacy. Engaging with literature is certainly “a good thing”, but literature and literacy are two different animals. Anyway, for what it’s worth, here is a slightly abridged and adapted version of my presentation. Some of the references will be familiar to you if you are a regular visitor to the blog, but I make no apologies for referencing them again.

“In her wonderfully clever but very readable book  about the development of the reading brain, Proust and the Squid, American professor Maryanne Wolf tells the story of how Socrates, in the 5th Century BC, called on all his rhetorical skills to fight against the acquisition of literacy and the introduction of the Greek alphabet, believing passionately that the written word posed a serious threat to society.

His concerns had three aspects. First, he contended that oral and written words play very different roles in an individual’s intellectual life. Secondly, he regarded the fact that the written word reduced the role of memory as catastrophic, and finally he warned that oral language had a unique role in the development of morality and virtue in society. In other words, he felt that writing was just plain bad and was likely to lead to the end of civilisation.

Professor Wolf sees clear parallels between Socrates’ resistance to that  transition from an oral to a written culture, and the shift that we are currently witnessing  from a written tradition to one that is increasingly driven by visual images and massive streams of digital information.

 (It should be remembered of course, that we wouldn’t know any of this but for the fact that his words were being recorded in writing by that young rascal Plato, who obviously knew a thing or two about the future).

So the nature of literacy is changing. Reading is no longer simply about reading words and sentences, or even books; it’s about reading other codes as well, particularly the codes of still and moving images. And of course, it’s about reading and creating multi-modal texts, texts which combine words and pictures and sound.

In attempting to redefine literacy for the new century, Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence  has it as “the set of skills which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language, and the range of texts, which society values and finds useful.”

There is at least one reference to “society” too many there for my liking, but you have to commend the attempt to recognize that literacy is a much broader concept than it was even twenty years ago.

So what part then does, or should, technology play in developing this new literacy?

I’m inclined to agree with Marc Prensky, the American learning and technology expert, author of Games-Based Learning and Don’t Bother me Mom, I’m Learning, when he says “the role of technology in our classrooms is to support the new teaching paradigm”, a paradigm which he describes as the shift from the old pedagogy of teachers “telling” or “talking” or “lecturing”, to the new pedagogy of young people teaching themselves with the guidance of the teacher, a combination of “student-centred learning”, “problem-based learning” and “case-based learning”.

Prensky argues that “if we can agree that the role of technology in our classrooms is to support the “new” pedagogy…..then we can all move much more quickly down the road of reaching that goal. But if every person continues to talk about the role of technology in a different way, it will take us a whole lot longer.”

 That description of the new teaching paradigm may bring a bit of colour to your cheeks, especially if you are a teacher, but the key message is clear – technology is a means of supporting learning, it is not an end in itself.

The question posed in the programme for this event was “Can video games, the internet and other applications help young people engage with literature?” The answer of course is YES. Games like Myst, Samorost and Neverwinter Nights, to name but three, provide exciting, stimulating, and imaginative contexts in which young people learn to solve problems, work collaboratively and think creatively. They have the potential to transport young people into the kinds of worlds which they might also encounter in literature (think of the world of Narnia for instance). More than that, the games allow them to collaborate to create the imaginary world and the narrative for themselves, and to explore the meaning and the rules of genre, which encourages them to look for more, and so on.

However, not only do the games encourage comparisons with literature, and provide introductions to more traditional written texts, they are perfectly valid texts in themselves, if we accept the broad definition of “text” as “the medium through which ideas, experiences, opinions and information can be communicated.”

Technology can also broaden opportunities and help to eliminate social inequalities. For young people who for various reasons are unable to go very far from their immediate environment, it can bring the world to them. It can give them access to people and events they would not otherwise be able to take advantage of.

GLOW is the world’s first national intranet for education. Funded by the Sottish Government and managed by Learning and Teaching Scotland, it connects learners and teachers in a number of ways. Glow Learn is a Virtual Learning Environment which includes tools to share, organize and search for digital resources and courses, monitor student progress and provide learners with access to structured content – it can be used at any time and from any location which has internet access. Potentially, for example, it could provide the ideal solution in THE EXTREMELY UNLIKELY EVENT THAT ANY KIND OF PANDEMIC HEALTH ISSUE SHOULD CAUSE THE CLOSURE OF OUR SCHOOLS.

The Glow Meet facility is a web conferencing tool which allows people to interact using video, audio and a shared whiteboard space.  Dr Mel Gibson’s presentation, Visual Literacy, Learning and Graphic Novels was relayed live from this venue last Thursday, not only allowing a wider audience to hear the presentation, but allowing them to ask questions and take part in the discussion as well.

 So I believe that far from being in opposition, technology and literacy are mutually supportive. I also believe that the reason literature matters so much to us lies in the importance of narrative. It is through constructing our own narrative, and reading other people’s narratives, that we come to understand who we are in the world and how we relate to everyone else.

Video games (computer games?), the internet and new Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, wikis, podcasts and social networking tools make it easier to share, and enthuse, and engage young people with the traditional literature which we all know and love, but sometimes it is the computer game, or the film, or the graphic novel, which provides the narrative and which is every bit as valid a text as the book.

Finally, to return to Socrates for a moment, I suppose if we are entering a new era in the development of language and literacy, we need to have a new alphabet.

Now repeat after me: A is for Apple, B is for Blogger, C is for Cooliris, D is for Delicious…………………

 Alphabet