See Grog Run

Narrative as gameplay in teaching and learning.

GUEST COLUMN | by Scotty Iseri

the digitsThink back to the caveman days. The early dawn of language. Grog go up hill. Grog run away from saber tooth tiger. Grog slip on banana peel and land flat on bottom.

Not a great gag to be sure (though a banana peel is always a winner), but this is how Grog told his fellow cave persons about the Saber tooth tiger den on the other side of the hill. Grog tell story. Grog’s friends learn. (Grog’s friends laugh at banana peel joke). Storytelling is the way we have learned since the dawn of humanity. Throughout history there are great stories that were designed to teach: From the works of Plato and biblical parables such as The Good Samaritan, to the Cat in the Hat and Hop on Pop we have learned, respectively, The Dialectical Forms of Government, the meaning of loving thy fellow man, early language skills as well as the lesson that one should not, in fact, Hop on Pop.

My company, The Digits, makes educational games. I know, I know — snore, right? Most educational games aren’t very good. But we make educational games with a difference. We focus on storytelling combined with game play to make games that actually teach.

Technology has changed storytelling. Paper made it so we wouldn’t have to memorize The Odyssey any more. Radio and television brought the arts of visual and audio storytelling to fore. And in the Digital age, storytelling is changing at a more rapid pace than ever before.

I mean, duh doy, right?

While we may be a long ways away from Carmen Sandiego and Math Blasters technologically speaking, the storytelling in educational games often seems stuck. A lot of educational games work on the drill and kill method. I like to think of these “games” as digital flash cards. As what usually happens with technology, we take a while to figure things out. Early television shows were repurposed radio plays. Early novels were repurposed epic poems. We borrow from the past to springboard on to the future. Take what worked in one medium and place it in the new one.

So in a world of PlayStation, iPads, YouTube, and Skype, how do we tell stories that make the most of technology? We tackle it in two ways:

1) Narrative Interactivity: The Digits Episodes have more than one ending. But itʼs not a simple “Choose Your Own Adventure” style of storytelling. The different branches of the story are determined by gaming elements that blend seamlessly into the narrative. The viewer becomes the player and actively engages in the storyline, and has to put their math knowledge to use. When the player fails at a given task, a different branch of the story tree is launched wherein the player gets a chance to practice to try again.

2) Community interactivity. For all intents and purposes, we consider our characters “real”. You can write Gorgolax an email. You can leave a comment on our YouTube channel for Ray Ray to answer. Heck, you can even do a live video chat with our characters. Modern audiences are used to having access to the tellers of tales, whether through @replies or Facebook posts. By treating our characters as real, we allow the audience some direct access to them. And more importantly, we respond.

A game like Angry Birds provides the mere hint of a story: Pigs steal eggs. Birds angry! Birds get back eggs. Yet they’ve built one of the most popular game franchises on the mobile platform. So why do we put so much thought and effort into adding story to our interactive experiences? One key reason is narrative’s ability to provide relevance. It doesn’t matter if they’re from Readfield, Maine or Chicago, Illinois, they can use our asteroids to learn about circumference, or our deadly space carp to learn about measuring angles. In using story to educate, we create common points of reference for children.

One of our biggest challenges is getting the right kind of feedback. Obviously app reviews are nice, and review websites are fantastic (one reviewer called us “Sesame Street for the 21st century, which more than anything, gets at the heart of what we’re trying to create here at The Digits). But the right feedback loop for me would be the perfect communication circle between parents, teachers, and us as developers.

How can we make things that are fun to play at home, but actually have measurable positive impact in the classroom as well? Certainly we have anecdotal evidence that support our theories, but the story of our company, and the stories we tell, continues to evolve. We’re no longer Grog hunting for saber tooth tiger, but we have a long way to go before we’re making the Shakespeare of educational games.

Scotty Iseri is the founder of The FUNDA Organization, an interactive media company based in Portland Oregon. FUNDA produces the interactive educational show “The Digits” which was nominated “Best Educational Series” by the IAWTV, and has been called “Sesame Street for the 21st Century”. Scotty was an inaugural mentee for the Center For Asian American Mediaʼs Fellowship and was a finalist for the Public Radio Maker’sQuest 2.0 grant. He has years of experience in children’s theatre, has produced for Chicago Public Radio and was a teacher in Chicago’s After School matters.

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