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.

—–

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:

5 Ways to Make the Most of Computer Science PD

By Rachel Hegarty, Zulama Support Guru

So you’ve just signed up for a computer science professional development course for this summer (or you’re about to)! As our students know, a new learning experience can be both exciting and a little nerve-wracking. Here are 5 ways you can make the most of your PD:

1. Don’t be afraid to jump in and mess around.

Playing with a new technology is often the best way to learn it and GameMaker has some great tutorials. Consider your five-year-old and how quickly she figured out your smartphone!

Games and learning computer science

2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

In the Zulama and CSTA Computer Science and Game Design PD course, the Support button is your friend, as is our customer service crew. If we don’t have the answer for you ourselves, we’ll work hard to find it out. But first, ASK. If your PD doesn’t provide customer service, ask another teacher or check for forums. Inquiry is part of learning, after all, and that’s what we’re all in the business of doing.

3. Don’t be afraid to fail.

Really. Please. A failed game build or line of code is just an iteration, and iterative development is the way to design anything. Failure is good. Failure teaches.

Computer Science Teacher Professional Development

4. Don’t be afraid to play.

Building games can be an exciting avenue into CS. And if you build games, you should definitely play games. Ask your students what games they’re playing and try them out. You’ll better understand where you can go with CS and ways you can teach CS principles if you can speak your students’ language.

5. Don’t be afraid to dream.

As you work through your course, think about things you could do in your classroom to reinforce and explore CS principles. What can gaming and coding do for you? What can it do for your students?

—————————————————————————————————————————————————

Haven’t signed up for a CS PD program yet for this summer? Check out the Computer Science & Game Design course, co-designed by the CSTA and Zulama! You’ll learn game design and programming skills, earning a Computer Science & Game Design Certificate.

Sign up for our Computer Science & Game Design PD here!

When There’s a Will There’s a Way: Getting Creative with Funding Computer Science Education

Four years ago, educators in Butler County, Ohio were facing a crisis. They wanted to implement modern curriculum and teacher training in schools across the county in order to re-engage students and prepare them for the rapidly changing job market. But, like in many other regions, Butler County’s resources were scarce. Before the educators could even think about making a change, they got stuck on one question: “Can we afford this?”

In their moment of doubt, they were able to turn the way they were thinking about funding inside out. They flipped the question from, “Can we afford this?” to, “Which organization can fund this?” It was not a matter of whether or not the funds were available, but a matter of who could provide the funds. This shift in thinking set them free!

The Butler County Educational Service Center put together a grant proposal for Ohio’s Straight A Fund. And . . . voila! A new curriculum aimed at impacting 3,028 students from grades 7 to 12, was implemented in Butler County’s classrooms. Students across the region were:


  • designing games for their programming course
  • writing stories for a screenwriting course
  • building digital portfolios to showcase their projects

 

 

You too can find creative ways to pay for curriculum or professional development. And once you recognize there is plenty of available funding out there, you can think less about the price tag and more about the number of students a program would impact or how fun a PD experience would be.

Whether you are a teacher or a school leader, tons of grant programs are available to you—and made specifically for you.

Resources for Finding Grant Programs

Grant Programs for School Leaders

Grant Programs for Teachers

Going Free-Form

You can get even more creative when it comes to finding funding. One way is looking to local companies for support. For example, you might send a funding proposal to a local technology company, and ask them to sponsor your school’s computer science PD. For decades, schools have fostered successful partnerships with local businesses:

“Since 1990, the Lees Summit (Mo.) School District has worked with 250 local business partners, including corporations that send experts to the high school’s marketing classes and local banks that deploy volunteers to help teach math in elementary classrooms. For even longer, the Anchorage (Alaska) Public Schools has cultivated relationships with 500 local businesses and organizations, which do everything from providing mentors to funding school projects.” (District Administration, 2012 via EdSurge, 2016.)

If you are writing a grant proposal or business partner proposal from scratch, here are some foundational questions to start with (adapted from the CS4HS Google Grant Questions):

  • What kinds of organizations, local offices of education, etc. are you working with or planning to work with in developing and implementing this opportunity?
  • What are up to five learning objectives your opportunity will achieve?
  • What is the learning format and agenda?
  • How is the content relevant to computer science?
  • How will you make sure concepts are taught effectively in the classroom? (You may want to include a quotation from a teacher who has taken the PD course or used the curriculum before.)
  • How will you measure success?
  • Who is your target audience?
  • What are your expenses?
  • How much funding are you requesting?

—–

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 Game Design Is an Awesome Introduction to Computer Science

Lynn Vanderzyl was new to teaching high school computer science (CS), and she started out in the logical placeteaching a programming course using Visual Basic, Python, and Java. Unfortunately, the course wasn’t engaging her students: “My classes were too small and they dropped my program.” The following year, the course was redesigned with a focus on game design, with students working together to build video games and learn CS in the process. And it worked!

“They are still learning to code but they don’t realize it.” —Lynn Vanderzyl

Student demand for this course was so high that Lynn offered four gaming classes in the first year, and all of them were full. She’s since added two more advanced game programming courses and loves the projects that her students create each year.

Why is game design an awesome introduction to computer science?

As a part of our Computer Science and Professional Development blog series, we asked CS and game design students, teachers, and professionals that question. A few answers showed up consistently:

  • Games make CS relatable.
  • Games help students understand why they’re coding.
  • Games prepare the next generation to shape society.

 

“It’s culturally relevant for kids.”

Before students can learn CS, they have to want to learn to CS. And as Lynn discovered, a love of gaming can draw a lot of different students into a computer lab. Schell Games game designer, Sabrina Culyba, sums up why students get so excited to take a CS course when it is based around gaming:

“It’s culturally relevant for kids. They play games. Their peers play games. By leveraging game design and game creation, you give kids a reason for computer science to be meaningful as an everyday tool that helps them create and express themselves.” Sabrina Culyba

 

Students see the tangible results of their code.

Games are more than just a gateway into CS; they can also serve as long-term learning tools. James Staffen, an undergraduate CS major at Penn State and a former Zulama student, is a big believer in learning CS by designing games. He started programming in high school and knows how challenging the learning process can be.

“When you are coding just to learn coding, you don’t understand what the point of it is. When you are coding to build a game, you can easily see the results of your code, the point of coding, the power of coding.” —James Staffen

Lynn agrees that it is thrilling for students to see the “immediate results” of their code. She adds that this fun experience leads students to want to dig deeper: “Once they get a simple game going they want to add more to it. The only way to add to it is to learn more coding.”

 

 

Game design prepares student programmers to shape society.

What are the bigger-picture implications of learning CS through building games? How do we want the next generation of computer scientists and programmers to think, communicate, and design? Sabrina Culyba explains that games help students develop empathy, a key to using computing skills effectively in the real world.

“Good game design requires you to consider your players—what are you trying to help them feel, understand, achieve? This mindset of designing to meet the needs and desires of others is a critical skill for us to cultivate in students as they grow up to build the next technologies that will shape our society.” —Sabrina Culyba

Sabrina’s point raises the question: What other skills, along with empathy, do student programmers need in order to grow into positive, powerful forces in modern society? At Zulama, we believe that collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity (if we were cooler we’d call them the 4Cs) are vital skills for all students to develop. Traditional CS courses don’t always focus on helping students build those skills. But when students work together to make games, they naturally tap into their creativity, talk to each other, and solve problemsall while learning the principles of computer science.