How Games Can Bring Storytelling to Life in Your Classroom

By: Chris Klug, Assistant Teaching Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and Anna Roberts, Head of Outreach at Zulama

As games continue to evolve and attract broader audiences, they have become sophisticated vehicles for storytelling—putting the player (i.e., audience) at the center of an experience and giving them the power to bring the narrative to life. Story-rich games like Journey, FireWatch, This War of Mine, or Dungeons & Dragons engage your emotions and immerse you in new worlds. Could these qualities of story-rich games help engage your students, introducing them to unique and exciting learning experiences?

“I’m not sure I would have been able to transition from reader to
writer so easily if it had not been for gaming.”
—Junot Díaz, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author

Game stories draw from the same core principles that writers have used to craft stories for millennia. Most games have a plot, characters, a theme, and dialogue, making them exciting for students to explore as writers and “readers.” This post examines some of the similarities and differences between games and traditional storytelling, providing tools and inspiration for bringing games and game narratives into your creative writing or literature classes.

What’s the Same? What’s Different?

Point of View

All stories have a Point of View that determines whose eyes the reader experiences the story through. In games, that Point of View is always first person because the player is the protagonist—deciding where to go, interacting with the world, and making decisions that impact the game.

More on First Person and Third Person in Games
If you’ve played games before, you may have heard them referred to as first person (playing the game through the protagonist’s eyes) or third person (playing the game as the protagonist, viewing them from the outside). But those references are to your perspective through the graphics, not the character’s Point of View in the story.

First-Person Perspective in What Remains of Edith Finch by Giant Sparrow Gam

Third-Person Perspective in Journey by thatgamecompany

 

Structure

Most stories draw from a traditional three-act structure that the character moves through, and game narratives are no different.

Act 1: The Beginning
Here the story introduces the major characters and the Inciting Incident, the event or decision that begins the story’s problem and sets the story in motion. For example, in Gone Home the story begins with Katie, the protagonist, returning from a trip to Europe to find a locked, empty house. The Inciting Incident is an ominous letter left on the front door from someone named Sam.


Gone Home by The Fullbright Company

Act 2: The Middle
This is where the story develops, where the protagonist encounters a series of obstacles and setbacks that creates rising Tension. At times, the protagonist (aka player) may feel like they’re getting further from their goal, and even need to learn new skills or strategies in order to progress. An interesting challenge arises in writing Act 2 of game narratives. As the protagonist, the player experiences setbacks more directly than one might when reading a novel. The game’s writer must keep that experience in mind, providing challenges but ensuring that the player still feels like they are making progress.

Act 3: End
Here the protagonist encounters the Climax and wraps up any loose ends. The protagonist must use all that they’ve learned so far in the story to tackle the hardest challenge of them all. In games this is often referred to as “the Boss Fight,” but in story-rich games it might not be a fight at all. In What Remains of Edith Fitch one of the final scenes brings two stories together, merging fantasy and reality, and forcing the player to do different actions with each hand as they move between the storylines.

Emotion

Like traditional stories, story-rich games can make a player feel things in intense ways—the fear of entering a dark room, the joy of mastering an especially hard mission, the discomfort of an awkward situation, or the sadness of losing a beloved companion. Games are great at evoking some emotions and aren’t so great at others.

Games Aren’t Great at: Empathy
While empathy is often used in traditional stories to stir the reader’s emotions, that’s not so in games. The player is a direct agent who makes decisions and choices, so the emotions they feel are typically built through those experiences. The player is much more like an actor in a play rather than the audience watching the play.

Games Are Great at: Guilt
One emotion that is easy to evoke in games is guilt, which is almost impossible to elicit in traditional storytelling. Guilt occurs when a person believes (accurately or not) that they have compromised their own standards of conduct or a moral standard. As readers of traditional stories we’re passive, we can empathize or feel sad but we can’t compromise ourselves through the experience. Games charge the player with making decisions as the protagonist, letting them choose how they’ll play (moral vs immoral) or presenting them with hard choices that impact the game or other characters.

A recent example from Anna’s own gaming experience:
I’ve been playing Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, a game where one class of people (the augmented) is being oppressed by the larger population. In one part of the game, I (as the protagonist, Jensen) had to sneak into government offices to obtain documents that would help two people escape the city. When I arrived, I found out I could only save one of them and had to quickly choose between the two. I had met both of these characters, knew their stories and what they would face if they didn’t leave. The decision was a guilt-ridden one for me that lingered well after I had stopped playing.

Games Leave Room for the Player

One of the biggest functional differences in storytelling in games is that the game has to make room for the player–giving the player varying levels of freedom to interact, explore, and make choices within the game. This difference changes how the author needs to think about writing and even designing the story. From the moment of inspiration, game writing is a problem-solving exercise: creating a world and moving the player between major plot points, while also making room for the player to feel active and make decisions.

“In a game, you’re going to have to allow for player agency—the player needs to exert some control over the narrative’s direction . . . [this] changes how the story is laid out, and the tools a writer has at their disposal. ”
—Bill Gaider, Senior Writer at Bioware

An Analogy
Imagine that the writing process is like driving a car through the woods at night and the road is your story. If you’re writing fiction or poetry, it’s possible to just drive and discover the road as your headlights light the way. When writing a game, you need to know the end point and major intersections before you start driving. You’ll still discover details along the way that create a rich experience, but you have to understand the map first. (Of course, this approach can be used in traditional storytelling as well, it’s just mandatory when writing games.)

Bringing Games Into Your Classroom

Interesting, huh? And that’s just the start! Here are a few resources and ideas that could help you bring games into your classes:

Lucid Learning: Gone Home in a High School English Class

Paul Darvasi has done a bunch of cool things with games in his high school English classes. Paul’s blog details his experience using Gone Home as a literary text in three senior English classes. He provides “everything a teacher needs to know to duplicate the experience and, hopefully, build on it.”

Zulama Courses

Storytelling in Games
Zulama offers a 15-hour course called Storytelling in Games that is perfect for bringing game narratives into middle school English classes. In the course students create a game story through The Hero’s Journey.

Screenwriting
We also offer a full-semester Screenwriting course (co-developed with Chris) that helps high school students understand, critique, and write dramatic stories for movies, games, and television.

Computer Science and Game Design Certificate (professional learning)
If you want to learn more about games and game design yourself, the Computer Science and Game Design Certificate is a great option! Offered jointly by the Computer Science Teachers Association and Zulama, this 30-hour online course is a fun, rigorous introduction to both computer science and game design concepts.

Edutopia: Using Games for Serious Learning in High School

Social Studies teacher Matt Farber has written a book on game-inspired learning. In this Edutopia article he dives into a few more great story-rich games and how they could be used in schools to enhance students’ learning.

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This post is part of a blog series in support of our new professional development opportunity, the Computer Science and Game Design Certificate, co-developed with the Computer Science Teachers Association. For more on the intersection of computer science and professional development, read the previous posts in the series:

Why Real-World Projects?

Real-World Projects

With the Zulama Real-World Projects course, students deepen skills they gained in other Zulama courses to design and build a playable game for a client, such as a small business, nonprofit, or their school district. Students learn how to manage client relationships while strengthening their core competencies, including collaboration, team building, problem solving, systems thinking, and creative solutions, and grit. Here are two shining examples of teachers who’ve had great success with the course:

Lynn Vanderzyl:

Lynn Vanderzyl, a Zulama teacher at Harmony High School, has taught Real-World Projects for the past two years. The first year, two of her students found a client within their own school–their AP Environmental Science Teacher. According to Lynn, “They made a 2D Jeopardy game in Unity for their AP Environmental Science class. The class used the game to review for their AP exam.” This time, she is starting out the school year by having her students design with GameMaker: Studio and Oculus Rift. Lynn wrote, I love watching everything the students have learned in the other Zulama courses come together!!!”

img_0919Chris Lucas:

Chris Lucas from West Allegheny shared that he is teaching his Game Production and Marketing Class as if it were a Real-World Projects class. His students are working on various game-design projects, including “an elementary game for a special education teacher” and “a DNA game for our high school science department.”

 

How could the Real World Projects course be used to spark design and entrepreneurship at your school?

Why Short Courses?

If you’re looking for a way to infuse game design, project-based learning and core competencies, such as collaboration, communication, and knowing how to work both independently and as a team into an English, Math, Science, Art, Social Studies, Tech or Zulama class that you are offering this year,  Zulama Short Courses might be the perfect solution. These courses are 12-20 hours long, so they are generally taught over the course of 3 weeks. We designed the course content for Middle School students, but it can be directed towards students of all ages depending on skill level.

ms-short-course-integration

More than a few wonderful educators in our community teach Zulama Short Courses, including Chris Lucas at West Allegheny. We asked him a few questions about his experience:

img_0904What did you enjoy most about teaching a Short Course?

I used the GameStar Mechanic Short Course as a supplement to my Game Design class. It worked really well. It gave me an opportunity to incorporate video game design principles along with the board games we were making. I liked how it was effective at giving the students a glimpse in video game design. They could put the principles we were learning in the course into practice.

How did your students react to the Short Courses?

The students loved the short course.  They really enjoyed seeing how the principles we learned in the Game Design class correlated into building a video game.  They also were able to submit their games to the STEM National Game Design Challenge.

img_0907What would you tell other teachers who are thinking of integrating Short Courses into their Middle School curriculum?

I think it would be great to incorporate into their Middle School curriculum. With each course being so short, the students would be able to get a glimpse into the different programs that will be offered at the high school.  It would also give the students experience with the software they will be using in high school, so it may allow for them to get into more advanced concepts in the high school courses.

 

Announcing New Short Courses!

Three new Short Courses are now ready and available for Zulama schools!

BB Sub RobotArcade Game Design

Students will use Scratch and a Hummingbird robotics kit to build their own arcade game! Learning the fundamentals of game design and coding, they will use LEDs, motors, and sensors to create a game that lights up and moves.

IMG_2968Science Game Design

Science is everywhere, from tiny bacteria to space travel! Your middle schoolers will team up with friends to build and play a game about a popular science topic of their choice!

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 12.18.20 PMGamestar Mechanic Game Design

Your students will learn to apply five elements of game design to build a game using Gamestar Mechanic. They will create a design document, prototype, and play their game with friends!

We Want Your Feedback!

For a limited time, we’re opening up the opportunity to be the first to use these new 15-18 hour courses in your classroom, whether your school has purchased the Short Courses or not!

In return, we’d like to hear your feedback about your experience with the new courses.

What we ask from you:

  • Complete a 5 minute click and submit survey at the conclusion of the course to let us know how your class enjoyed the course activities and project
  • Take a short followup call from Zulama to share your course experience with us
  • Your classroom meets the requirements (below) for the course you’d like to teach
  • You are willing to share samples images of your student’s work

Only with feedback from our valued teachers and administrators, can we continue to bring innovative and engaging new content for your students to enjoy! We couldn’t do what we do without you!

This offer is only available through the end of Summer 2016, so if you’d like to take advantage of this opportunity, talk to your administrators, and send us an email at sarah.avery@zulama.com for more information!

Classroom requirements for each course are listed below:

Arcade Game Design Requirements

  • Access to access Scratch 2 (free)
  • Hummingbird Duo Base Kits, can be purchased here.

Science Game Design Requirements

  • Must teach in a grade 6 through grade 9 classroom, preferably in a science classroom

Gamestar Mechanic Game Design Requirements

 

 

Making it Indie Style

By Sarah Avery, Zulama Community Advocate, Educator

Your students want to be indie developers? That’s great! It takes a lot of time and energy to become an indie developer; however, with the correct preparation, anyone can publish games!

What is an Indie Developer?

An indie developer is someone who develops and publishes games independently.  During this process an indie developer wears many hats, including marketer, accountant, networker, artist, developer, and more.  A common misconception is that an indie developer is only responsible for developing and designing a game.  However, once the game is completed, how will it reach an audience? How much will the game cost?  These are just two of the many questions posed to independent game developers.  Indie developers can spend months to years on one project, brainstorming playtesting, and iterating until it is publishable.  All the while the developer must network, research, and market their project in order to make money. Part game designer and business professional, an indie developer should be prepared for a wide range of responsibilities and hard work.

What are the Benefits of Being an Indie Developer?

With so much work involved in being an indie developer, it may seem to be easiest to work for a large company.  In some ways that is true; however, there are also benefits that accompany developing independent games including:

  • Freedom:  As an indie developer, you would have complete control over your game. You would be able to choose how the characters look, the artistic style of the game, how the story is developed and more.  You would have complete freedom to make the game however you feel is best.
  • Learning New Skills: With the wide variety of roles an indie developer takes on, it’s very difficult to not learn new skills.  As an indie developer, you would learn skills from marketing, to networking, to programming, and beyond. This is also a great way to meet established professionals who can mentor you through this learning process.
  • Passion: One of the main reasons indie game developers develop their independent games is their passion for game development.  It takes real love and commitment to spend months on one project before exposing it to the world for criticism and feedback.  Through this process you watch your game from an idea, to a prototype, to a published product. As an indie developer, you may not make a lot monetarily, but you will gain a lot emotionally and personally.

How can we Prepare Students to be Indie Developers?

As with all Zulama courses, the Game Production and Marketing course key skills needed for game development. However, in some ways it goes a step forward.  With a large focus on publication and marketing, students learn the skills needed to present their games to the world. As an indie developer, it’s not enough to just make a great game, you must also know how to share and sell it to an audience.  In this course, students do just that through a simulated economic market.

In addition, throughout the Zulama courses, students work in IDEA teams.  IDEA Teams, in conjunction with a focus on Project Based Learning, allow Zulama students to gain an in depth understanding into the design and publication process. From their in depth study of game design, Zulama students are well prepared to tackle a variety of career paths, from higher education to independently developing games.

To learn more about what it takes to be an indie game developer, check out the video below from Extra Credits:


How have you prepared your students to publish their own games? Comment below!

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