Apr 07


First Year Demons: Teaching Through IF and Games

Posted by: Becky Slitt | Comments (1)

This is the first in a series of blog posts about the Hosted Game First Year Demons, which was released on April 8, 2016. In this first post, I’ll talk about why and how IF can be used as a teaching tool, especially its combination of immersive first-person perspective and concrete dynamic feedback. In the second post, I’ll talk about the process of developing the story, particularly why we chose to set it in China, and how I approached the process of writing a game whose characters inhabit a culture that isn’t my own. In the third post, I’ll talk about the way the game changed as I turned it from an educational exercise into a more story-centered game.

Where Did This Game Come From?

First Year Demons had its origins in a pilot project to assess the effectiveness of interactive fiction as a way of teaching cultural literacy.

Recent studies show that reading fiction can improve empathy and understanding. Interactive fiction and RPGs take this principle one step further by allowing the player to inhabit a first-person perspective. The player isn’t just learning about another culture; they’re imagining that they live in that culture.

So the pilot project’s team hypothesized that people would learn more effectively about other cultures through the first-person perspective of IF and roleplay than through third-person texts. Imagining themselves as insiders – navigating social situations, making the choices that a person in that culture would make, enacting cultural values – would allow a much deeper understanding than simply learning about that culture as an outsider.

The team planned to teach three groups of people the same information, each in a different way – third-person nonfiction, first-person IF, and live-action roleplay – and then assess how well each group learned that information. First Year Demons was going to be the IF text used in the experiment.

Unfortunately, the project was discontinued before we got to actually teach anyone or discover how well they learned. But in the course of developing the stories, we learned a lot about how to teach through IF.


Teaching Through Games

Obviously, the word “game” covers an enormous variety of activities, and there will always be exceptions to the rules that I’m setting out here. But games in general have some qualities that make them inherently good teaching tools, and especially for teaching cultural principles.

First, they offer concrete goals. Hit the ball far enough that you can run around the bases. Reach the other side of the board. Capture all of your opponent’s pieces. These goals can easily be made to serve an educational purpose. Get the rocket to land in the right place – for which you have to figure out the equation for its trajectory. Build roads that will deliver goods to the Inca emperor in the shortest amount of time – for which you have to learn about the technology and history of the empire.

Second, games provide instant feedback that tells the player whether they succeeded in moving towards their goal, and lets them try again if they didn’t. This cycle helps the player learn, and – more importantly for our purposes – allows them to demonstrate that they have learned.

In a ChoiceScript game, that feedback registers in multiple ways. First, there’s the stats screen: you can see the bars moving and numbers changing depending on the choices you make. Second, there’s the text itself, which can be made to comment on the results of your choices. This commentary can be both explicit (direct responses in the authorial voice) or implicit (narrative cues, character reactions, context, etc).

Those strengths – instant feedback, concrete goals, explicit and implicit social commentary – were what we wanted to draw on when we taught cultural norms through interactive fiction.

In the next blog post, I’ll talk about the process of developing the original concept, and how I adapted the ChoiceScript game design model to fit our experimental and educational needs.

Supported by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) via Department of Interior, Interior Business Center, contract number D13PC00246.  The U.S. government is authorized to reproduce and distribute reprints for Governmental purposes notwithstanding any copyright annotation thereon.  Disclaimer:  The views and conclusions contained herein are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies or endorsements, either expressed or implied, of IARPA, DOI/IBC, or the U.S. Government.

1 Comment

  1. C_Micah says:

    I suspect you are a teacher or professor of some sort. Though all I have to go on is that fact that both of your games so far involve students which isn’t exactly the most impressive evidence.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed learning about China and Chinese culture back in college. Even fulfilled my foreign experience requirement by interning with the Confucius Institute on-campus. So I’m definitely interested in seeing where this blog series goes and in playing First Year Demons.

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