You are standing in what used to be the library

As most people probably know, video-games have origins in text. Back in the day, text was pretty much all there was. These games are not forgotten, but formed the basis of today’s semi-open world games, forging the foundations of game-rules and game-play. Despite the visual evolution of games, you can still find the origins of text adventures online – which began, and live on as Interactive Fiction. The magical words that spawned a generation, Adventure begins.

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.

My idea was that it would be a computer game that would not be intimidating to non-computer people, and that was one of the reasons why I made it so that the player directs the game with natural language input, instead of more standardized commands. My kids thought it was a lot of fun.”

— William Crowther

There are plenty of these games still online, lovingly curated by people long forgotten in this era of gamification. But they were both romantics and adventurers who helped create the code that today powers the Internet and began the epci adventure we all experience daily as “ICT”.

Despite numerous studies and scholars attempting to find a definition for video games, something that seems to take an extra-ordinary amount of time, money and effort, it seems that no one has managed to come up with one that does more to describe how games feel to players than calling it Interactive Fiction.

I don’t like the idea of Serious Games, as it smells schooly and sells-out programmers like Crowther and fiction writers like Gibson in order to appease the minutia of experts defining them. Most equally they don’t like comics, cyberpunk, steampunk or Buffy. That doesn’t mean they are right.

Can we go back to the origins of the adventure, and find ways of using game-play that doesn’t have to have a ‘sanitised’ label on it? I think so.

Today, this idea of transmedia is being explored taking advantage of new tools – and requires new literacies. It has close relationships with Augmented Reality games and even the what you are about to see more of – devices that augment console game play – like the new Skylanders, where your physical characters unlock pathways and talent of your in-game character (which is marketing’s brilliant idea that sucks). Just for the record, as soon as it say’s “sold separately” you sucked the fun out and I’m not playing. So while I advocate for games, I don’t advocate for this idea that shoving a console in a room creates more motivated and engaged humans.

There are plenty of people keeping the idea of adventure alive — though now is has morphed into “transmedia’ – and these games don’t have to reside on devices most people will associate with games.

Schneider (2005) states that “the readers of hypertexts appear as empowered readers, liberated from the constraints imposed by ‘traditional’ literature – some commentators even raise the question whether the very terms ‘reader’ and ‘reading’ might not have become inadequate for hypertext reception”. This type of reading requires skills not required in traditional reading.

Oh no, so moving from printed to page to ePub isn’t as 21st Century as it seems. In an era of ‘push me’, i’ll do everything read/write technology, it seems that we are no more creators now than when we started, as few people are actually learning how code works, and how to link the medium’s together. I recall the phrase “A good story, well told” by Adam Elliot. To me a this isn’t using one media, or embedding some widget inside another widget, it’s understanding the media itself, and then linking them together to tell a good story. In many ways all Internet media is Interactive Fiction, as reality is only that we experience first hand.

Take a look at The Amanda Project as an example of what I am driving at. The Amanda Project is the first collaborative fictional mystery told across an interactive website, and an 8-book series published by HarperCollins.

Amanda Valentino is the most mysterious, the most magnetic girl you’ll never meet.

How good is that! No it won’t leap off the page and tell you exactly how to use it, you have to figure it out. However, I’ve posted the synopsis video and suggest you look at this post, just to illustrate the link with the original idea of mapping an adventure. Here’s a clip from a teacher talking about the Amanda Project.

It’s worth watching, then going back to the website and pulling it apart. There’s nothing in there that is impossible to re-create. Even if you didn’t use this book, there are plenty of ways to rethink reading and writing. There is a free teachers kit – which if you an educational developer would give you some clues on how you could re-package any story, or perhaps, with a little creativity, create just enough story for another subject. There are so many resources about writing, such as the Sydney Writers Centre that getting started isn’t impossible at all. Then there are tools, such as Inform7, which allow kids to create their own interactive fiction based on natural language.

These things are all games as much as they are books. Even if you’re not yet interested in jumping into Massively Minecraft with us, this post is a fore-runner to where we are heading with our guild. Almost all our players now have the skills to create Interactive Fiction, it remains to be seen if they’d want to. What we know is, that there has to be a constant call to adventure in which they explore their own creativity – and to me, Interactive Fiction is a game, and reading today is not about just about text or where it appears. All we have to do is make it part of the game, to facilitate the steps in the mission and to celebrate the end product.

I take great issue with games, when they deceive kids if the only acceptable meaning is that which the teacher wants, presented in ways they like to mark. My view is that using  play as a frame has strong links with the past – and quite happy to say that I believe using and then creating ‘transmedia’ as Interactive Fiction is an approach to ‘digital literacy’ that connects the dots for some students far better than arguing there read/write web is anything more now, that when Berner’s Lee invented it. You have always been able to read write, if you had the literacy of the day.

To figure out what’s next, we have to be willing walk down that road, and find out what’s in the brick building, not wait until some merchant appears from the distance and tells us as we hand over money. Adventure still awaits – and for the most part it’s still free.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

An entry at VWBPE. “WB Yeats – An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”. Made with a game. Another fine example of how to engage with play and not disrupt school.

If you liked this – take a look (and vote) at for one of the other – amazing productions from virtual worlds! Enjoy.

Tales of Utopia

In the beginning part of the year, I started collaborating with Jeff in Montana on a Gifted and Talented project, where middle school students undertook a unit on Utopia.

The study book was Animal Farm. We developed a series of activities to meet the standards, which ultimately had the goal of engaging students in creating their own original short stories that used themes taken from the book and other texts.

The project culminated in his students publishing their book online. The stories they created are excellent! Proving once again that students can be really amazing.

I was trapped. I reached the end of the long hallway, out of breath and scared out of my mind. They were coming after me, I could feel their presence. I knew I never should have spoken up. Now I was the enemy, and they were going to execute me.

Now the book is published, and what would be even more amazing for them, would be to see people actually buy it – outside of their class and parents.

You can preview the entire book online; and have a browse though their work. Imagine telling middle-school kids that in a few weeks they are going to publish a 10,000 world novel!

Watching the clock definitely didn’t make school go by any faster, if anything it just dragged it out. Waiting for the bell to ring was like watching grass grow. My teacher seemed indifferent to our suffering, as she squeezed everything she could out of her lesson to make it last until the very last second. Please let something interesting happen, I thought. All I need is a little explosion, that’s all. It was as if the sky read my thoughts.

So consider buying it – or at least reading a few stories and leaving them a comment.

It costs under AU$40.00 (less with the discount of $10!) and will make a great resource for anyone teaching Animal Farm and interested in creative writing.

As a bonus (bribe), we’ll give you the entire unit so you can teach it.

This includes a series of lessons, writing tasks and the theory behind how it was designed – (as the project is founded more in games archtypes than Blooms). Even more tempting, we’ll work with you online so you can ask questions. We’d love to see the project grow.

If you put the following code in at the appropriate time and you will receive a $10.00 discount. Click here to buy the kids book and preview their work.

$10.00 off discount code = eduCreateQ31

I have to thank my friends Angela and Kerry for their help in this project, their advice was invaluable (again) – and a massive thanks to the students for their enthusiasm and creativity.

This project has become a significant influence on my project with Jo Kay in Jokaydia GridAnimal Farm 3D, where we are taking this from two dimensions to three, as a transmedia project. Creating a world for students to learn is no small task and really has taken a year to get to the point where we have started the design and development of the world – and the supporting documents needed to teach and learn with it. This will be ready in late June. The final project will allow schools to drop students into a secure, private, immersive work, explore a new narrative and ultimately create their own writing.

But right now – if you scrape up some money and want to grab a great unit of work at the same time … then click the link!

Write a book in a day

04112008561Day 1 of the ‘Book in a Day’ creative writing project with 9th graders ended in an almost party like atmosphere from the 60 students who took part today. The final hour had 60 students in one big room, furiously working in groups to finalise their work and publish it.

The scene reminded me of the buzz that advertising studios generate in the final moments before some suited up account representative takes the creative thoughts of the writers and designers to pitch for the account.

What also stuck me was the organisational skills and co-operative skills that the students have.

04112008558No teacher was pushing them along or giving motivational speeches. From the moment Lucy Gresser posted the days work groups, the kids threw everything at it. Even the students that tend to lurk on the very brink of engagement usually, were sucked into the vortex of creative writing that was going on.

We presented a short video montage of themes from Orwell’s Animal Farm – spliced between images taken in Second Life from Tempura Island (a recent field trip with the Jokaydians). This was the visual base from which they had to produce a book – on a given theme – 8000 words. The students almost fell off their seats when seeing that – 8 0 0 0 words? – it looked impossible – and in a single day – madness, but we are  giving them a summative writing test in a day. We thought they could do it, now they had to believe it too.

We didn’t want them to start getting into graphic design, so the supplied material negated them spending time there. The end product would be a simple 5.5″ x 8.5″ book, with a title cover and about 12 pages in which 6 students developed their storyline – and each took equal share of creative writing – 1000 words each, or approximately 2 pages of writing.

04112008556Two pages of creative writing might now sound too much, but to get 9th grade boys to undertake such a thing is, in my experience, a rare thing.

We are so used to seeing students produce reports and recounts – using crutches like Google and Wikipedia, that the work done recently in community blogging in their Green Up project – gave them the confidence to engage with the task.

The way in which we’re designing projects and lessons is delivering confidence, engagement and a sense of adventure in learning – or at least that is the feedback that students are giving us. They bail staff up and talk about ‘learning’ and Gavin Hayes reported last week how he overheard kids at the cricket nets discussing teaching approaches between classes, and which worked best.

The students are very aware of what good teaching and learning is, and that accountability fuels the enthusiasm of the teacher. 9th grade is often a difficult grade, and our school used to be a proof of that. Now, we have learners, not issues.

They are reflective writers now, so this project is pushing them into being creative too. The year long skills that they have developed, under the project leadership of their teachers, especially Lucy Gresser in English was paid back in a single day it seems.

The boys know how to collaborate and share information and ideas and the groups took several different approaches to the task.

One, for example, decided that they would co-operatively create the first ‘chapter’ of a thousand words. From that they each took a subsequent chapter individually. This approach they thought would give them some common unity and style, so the remainder of the writing would be much more connected.

These are decisions that they can now make as they are experienced in what makes collaboration work. They are now a long way from the prior norms where a few do the majority of the work and the other coast along for the ride. They all WANT to contribute – and support each other using the critial friends process that they have been taught all year.

The know how to use a GoogleDoc and share it to speed up their effectiveness – they can throw 8000 words into InDesign in half an hour and format a publication. Their fluency between technologies now affords them methods of collaboration to manage time, pace and delivery.

04112008557During the day, it is significant that Google was not a tool that students used. There was no desire to try and ‘find answers’  or short cuts.

I think that the way in which the English projects have been designed and presented to students in the last 6 months have sufficiently promoted individual thinking and writing that to a large extent, students no longer see Googling as the best way to learn. They may hit it for quick facts, but do not rely on it anymore. That to me is a massive shift away from prior ‘norms’ that we saw in 9th Grade ICT based classrooms.

Lucy is writing up the more literacy aspects of today on her blog, so I’ll link there, where she has also posted up some examples of the work the students did today.

All 14 groups posted their work on time, which is 112,000 words. The next step is to work with them to extend the project in terms of design and publishing – and post the combined works on Lulu for purchase and download by their families – and of course the world.

Day 2 will see some 80 students do the same summative task – and I’m really pleased to know that Judy O’Connell will be sparing some time to come and get involved in the afternoon!

I am finding that students work really well in carefully planned tasks that have a sense of urgency and deadlines about them. We’re finding that 2 week projects appear to yeild higher engagement than 4 or even 6 weeks. Lucy is also very adept at using a range of formative methods – this is a critical teaching skill to ensure that her classes are not only meeting outcomes – but also demonstrating sound knowledge of the syllabus content.

If there’s one critisism of project based learning I have – it is in teachers being able to track and evidence syllabus content as well as meeting outcomes. There is a danger that ‘content’ is glossed over in the desire to have a ‘cool end product’. This isn’t something that is happening – and I think that using Web2.0 tools makes the formative work far more transparent, than if students were using more tradtional PBL approaches, but it does take a lot of strategic planning to build that into activities – the results however, are worth it. To see these students work right through recess and lunch, almost oblivious to it, and then to end the day so enthusiastic is amazing.

Shakespeare’s Second Life

A quick flip-video of students working collaboratively to design and build their ‘sets’ for their current Machinima project, based on modern interpretation of a Shakespeare play. Students also document their design and build here in a blogging community. For teachers who are generally interested in using MUVEs and Video Games in Education you might want to check the educator Ning group here. I’m in the last phase of our intranet being moved to a virtual world, so the kids are going to be the architects and engineers. They have had 1 hour a week this year in Teen Second Life – but at least it is on the time table and in the curriculum!