Tell us a story: Narrative in games

Around holidays and travel I’ve been loading my i-devices with a number of games to explore, and have noticed a growing number of games where the story is not only the main focus, but is delivered in increasingly inventive ways.

lifelineOne of the simplest examples is Lifeline (iOS and Android, best on mobile) which is a text-only adventure based on a familiar outer space/alien invasion theme: however, a clever use of real time narrative delivery produces a strong sense of realism and urgency. You might help Taylor (the protagonist) decide where to travel, but he’ll then tell you it might take a few hours – and that’s it for a few hours: you won’t hear from him again until he’s arrived (or something happens en route). It’s a simple trick, but one which immediately gives you agency: you’re very much in step with the character – he waits until you have time to help, and you wait until he needs it again: you might go to bed having found Taylor a safe place to sleep, then wake up to find out whether he has survived the night.  The story is, in itself, interesting too – with a number of branching paths and alternate endings.

More complex examples come from Inkle, who have been faithfully and cleverly transposing Jackson and Livingstone’s original Fighting Fantasy (‘choose your own adventure’) book Sorcery into a four-part iOS/Android game. The original text has been chopped into short sections, that sometimes provide a straight ‘choose path A, B or C’ as in the original books, but sometimes merge with other game mechanics, such as motion-based fighting, or the rolling of dice in a gambling game. The narrative unfolds on a beautiful map, and the latest chapter (Sorcery 3) includes visual/narrative layers which change based on the time zone you’re currently in. It’s a clever, compelling mix which is just as thrilling as more graphically complex adventure games.

Sorcery's mix of narrative and graphic action

Inkle’s most recent game is 80 Days (iOS/Android) – that, you’ve guessed it, is based around the Jules Verne classic text. Again, here they’ve taken the original text from the book (though in this case, embellished it with their own creative additions) in order to set up an exciting race around the world. The transfer to a game means that many more routes and forms of transport are available than Phileas Fogg and Passepartout had available in the book: meaning that replaying is as exciting as the first play through. But what struck me most was the depth of branching storytelling: on each mini journey – say in an airship between Acapulco and the Caribbean – various narrative paths open up around the passengers on board with you, which can seriously affect your onward journey both positively and negatively. As with Sorcery, the surrounding graphics and game mechanics are beautifully executed, but its the way the strong narrative has been embedded completely with the gameplay that elevates the experience.

These are just a few examples of the growing number of games looking to use narrative in more creative ways, and in combination with other interesting game mechanics. The value of such an approach in a learning context is obvious in areas where narrative is studied (English language and literature): but such an approach might work well in other disciplines where learners need to engage closely with any text – how about turning legal cases into branching narratives to explore the real world implications of different decisions; or adding battle mechanics into a study of Anglo-Saxon saga poems?

In Focus symposium on Games, Gamification and Games Based Learning

The Centre for Distance Education (CDE) at the University of London have, for many years, run an excellent annual conference on Research and Innovation in Distance Education (RIDE). They also, from time to time, host occasional symposia on current issues in HE. Late in 2014 I was approached by Steve Warburton to design and co-host one such ‘In Focus’ event around games and gamification (linking into the current interest in this area).

Adrian Hon speaking

Adrian Hon (SixToStart), one of our invited speakers

I’ve known Steve for a while, and it was a real pleasure to work with him over the next few months to scope out and book a range of perspectives on games, gamification and learning from HE and industry. We particularly wanted to set up points of contention/discussion, and also include ample opportunity for active playful participation.

The symposium took place on 4th March 2015, in the impressive surroundings of Senate House, and from our point of view certainly fulfilled the above aims: we had the 100-strong audience scrabbling under chairs and on the floor to create epic stories from brickabrack, solve clues and battle for grand prizes; over lunch groups were playing noisy games of CubeQuest; and we heard some challenging perspectives for and against ‘gamification’ along with some inspiring examples of well designed games-based learning experiences.

I’d designed a new variant of my ‘Curate-a-fact‘ game to get teams working together during the day, and it worked a treat – with eleven teams (60 people) submitting games by the end of the day.

Participants playing card game

Participants playing the conference game

A detailed writeup of the event will soon appear on the CDE site, but in the meantime there’s a great Storify narrative which gives a good sense of the day by Katie Piatt, and pictures on Flickr.


#SenateSecrets at FOTE 14

Last Friday (3/10/14) I and my games and learning colleague Katie Piatt spent a day running a conference engagement game for FOTE14. Read all about it in Katie’s marvelous storified tale of the day:


ALT-GLSIG July 2014: Manchester

For this latest gathering of ALT-GLSIG (the Games and Learning Special Interest Group, hosted by the Association for Learning Technology and chaired by myself and Nicola Whitton), we returned to Manchester. This time, a little further down the road at the University of Manchester’s excellent Alan Gilbert Learning Commons building: an extremely well thought-out and provisioned study/learning space for students next to the main library.

A small corner of the Learning Commons

A small corner of the Learning Commons

These regular SIG meetings are a chance for members to meet and share practice, play games, share ideas and collaborate on projects and writing; but we also like to include the local context: incorporating themes or groups from the host university. Rosie Jones, Commons Manager and long-term SIG member, was our accommodating host, and had invited colleagues from the university along to present and join in with the meeting, which added value to an already packed programme.

Curate-a-fact in full flowWe kicked off on Thursday lunchtime, with 14 members new and old: to get everyone straight into the spirit we played a quick game of Curate-a-fact (the winning group coming up with the intriguing history of ‘Llama Nut Ball’), and ‘people bingo’ (where we each had a list of traits, and had to find people with matches for each): two great ways to get everyone to find out random facts about each other, and start the proceedings in a playful way.

Our first session proper was a discussion about conference games: using games to help attendees network, and engage with the conference themes. This contributed to planning for the FOTE 2014 conference, which members of the SIG were invited to create a game for within the atmospheric surroundings of Senate House. More of this in a later post.

The first of our guest speakers, David Jackson (Manchester Metropolitan University) introduced us to Storyjacker in both digital and paper versions: a fun group writing activity which helps people to collaborate together on a narrative. We had great fun, and generated some impressive prose; with the paper and digital versions offering different experiences. Our second guest speakers were Jonathan Slater and Glenn Painter (NHS Nottingham) who wheeled in an intriguing set of giant boards. Ten minutes later, we were walking through a journey into the minds of recovering therapy patients, played out through a giant game board. It was a great example of how playful experiences can help to bring people together, and open them up to ideas and discussions they might otherwise find difficult.

Picture of painted boards

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy through a board game

Continuing the discussion and games into the evening, we finished by playing the brash but hilarious/cringeworthy Cards against Humanity over a meal in a local hostelry. The Friday began with Katie Piatt asking us to solve the STEM quiz she had devised for a Sussex childrens’ science fair, which was great fun and resulted in puzzle designs for future events. Rosie and her Learning Commons colleague Jade Kelsall then provided us with a challenge: we had to design games to help students engage with eLearning resources. To add further competition, good designs were awarded cubes of plasticine – which were added to growing tall sculptures (the highest structure at the end was awarded a highly detailed plasticine dinosaur: the perfect prize?). It was an excellent, fast and creative way to generate ideas – resulting in some great approaches.

A conference planning session was next up: there is a dearth of conferences covering adult learning games and play (or, indeed, any learning games) for both researchers and practitioners in Europe, and so we brainstormed the possibility of a focussed conference in 2015. A working party, and plenty of playful ideas for structure, themes and other events emerged. Watch this space.

The event finished with a round up of SIG news, and we headed off around midday, to arrive home in time for tea.

All attendees, both existing SIG members and new / invited guests, said how much they had gained from the event – and as ever we were bowled over by everyone’s enthusiasm, creativity and examples of their own, local work. Our next meeting is in November at the University of Hull, where we expect something completely different, yet just as playful.

If you are interested in the work of the ALT-GLSIG, sign up to our group at:




International Reflections: HETL 2014

Alaskan mountains reflected in lake

It’s not often one gets a chance to visit far-flung parts of the world for work when you’re in higher education;  so as part of the development funds I received for my National Teaching Fellowship, I decided to earmark a couple of international conferences. The Higher Education Teaching and Learning conference was the first of these: organised by the US-based HETL Portal, this year’s conference was taking place in Anchorage, Alaska.

Bear statue on shopfront, AnchorageTwo things were immediately attractive: the location (I’d never visited Alaska but am a big fan of mountains, snow and lakes – and Northern Exposure*), but more importantly, that very location meant that it was attracting participants from every continent: access being easy for Asia and Australasia as much as North and South America. What better chance to get an overview of current issues in higher education across the world?

And so it proved. The attendees were a fascinating mix of senior learning and teaching staff (pro-VCs and equivalent) with innovative and highly engaged ‘regular’ teachers: so whilst one of the spacious, discursive sessions might present 3-4 fascinating case studies of innovative teaching; the next would feature a prolonged discussion around organisational strategy: a perfect professional development experience, on all levels.

Highlights were many, and aided by the edict that there could be no powerpoint (or digital) materials: it was voice and handouts only. This shifted many sessions into very thoughtful narratives or interactive events; with a handful spoiling this by discovering a rogue projector and reverting to reading off their slides. Those who thought about this ‘limitation’, though, delivered. Colin Potts (Georgia Tech., USA) started the conference with a bang by calling HE a ‘blip’ on the lifelong learning landscape: noting that this is the first generation who can’t say “I don’t know” (Google being constantly to hand), and that students are forced by HE to study a narrow subject path, when they are naturally more widely interested. John Doherty and Walter Nolan (Northern Arizona, USA) then guided us in a lively and discursive workshop around engaging colleagues in creative curriculum  design: a conversation from which led to a more relaxed discussion of institution-level curriculum planning with Frank Coton (Vice-Principle Learning & Teaching at Glasgow) over a beer and looking out at the Alaskan mountains from the venue’s 15th-floor “chart room”.

Anchorage street with mountains in distance

A view of snowy mountains in every direction

The following day saw a number of examples of the use of video to engage and support students – in ‘flipped classroom’ approaches and as co-created artefacts for peer support. I presented as part of a session focussed on games-based learning, which drew a large group and resulted in an excellent discussion after the four different, but all interesting, papers (aided, perhaps, by my imported Cadbury’s prizes). iPad use featured heavily in other sessions: my research colleague Claire Hamshire (Manchester Metropolitan) describing her use of iPads for medical teaching; Carrie Moore and Vicki Stieha (Boise State, USA) assigning group roles to students using iPads in a research exercise – and finding that students, when given a clear role, self-policed the group much more effectively; and Kriya Dunlap (Alaska Fairbanks) gave out iPads to his students with initial guidance, but then left them to work out the most effective use for their studies – they ended up co-publishing a paper together on the processes. This latter example is a similar approach to that we’re using with our Medicine first years, to similar positive effect.

A session on institutional change for learning technologies featured some fabulous methods and approaches, such as providing video booths for students to drop in and voice their needs and frustrations (e.g.. “I want my timetable on my smartphone”): which the senior management were so affected by that they implemented a major overhaul of all institutional systems – and staff development plans – to focus on student needs (Brian Webster, Edinburgh Napier). Frederic Fovet (McGill, Canada) described his institution’s application of Universal Design for Learning (UDF) which designs curricula from an inclusive base (so that the whole curriculum is naturally accessible to all). Another fascinating paper came from Jeffrey Schnepp (Bowling Green State, USA) and Christian Rogers (Indiana/Purdue, USA) who used a Professor Layton style method of trading hints for points in end of year exams: students could opt to trade a percentage of the available mark for a hint about the question, on a question by question basis. Their trial is ongoing, but initial results showed a small increase in the average grade, with around 70% of students opting for at least one hint.

There were too many other interesting sessions, discussions and informal chats to mention: in many ways it was a never-ending wave of engaging topics. Conversations went on long into the night, too, courtesy of the midnight sun (the sky looked as if it was noon, around 11pm) and some very good Anchorage restaurants: and even after the conference finished we were still discussing the topics over coffee (finishing with a fascinating chat to David Giles – Flinders, Australia – about focussing on playfulness and the ability to fail, in learning design).

To get the best flights, I was left with a day and half after the conference to explore some of the fantastic scenery around Alaska, and joined Claire and others on a jaw-droppingly-beautiful train journey down to the port at Seward, where we boarded a boat to view whales and other sea life. The following day, we hiked up one of Anchorages smaller mountains, Flattop Mountain, which was still quite a serious climb, rewarded with snow to trample at the top.

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Altogether, HETL 2014 and Alaska made for an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience: a fabulous conference, fascinating people, and stunning place. I feel both privileged and humbled to have been part of it.

*Northern Exposure, it turns out, was actually filmed in New York state; and contrary to the strap line, I saw no moose on any corner.

Counterplay 2014: Make People Play

I’ve been in touch with Mathias Poulsen, applied games evangelist working in Denmark, for several years: we have a shared interest in authentic contexts within games for learning. And so it was without any hesitation that I accepted an invitation from him to speak at a new conference he was organising based around the central idea of playfulness.

Counterplay a festival of play and games – brought together three aspects: playful learning, playful culture and playful business. More importantly, the sense of play extended to the whole event, with the fascinating cultural spaces in beautiful Aarhus used to great effect.

The 360° rainbow roof of Aarhus's ARoS art museum

The 360° rainbow roof of Aarhus’s ARoS art museum

Starting in Aarhus’s forward-thinking main library (games consoles and playful areas mix with the shelves of books), Mathias opened the conference by describing his aims in creating it, and then we were straight into an excellent opening keynote from Thomas Vigild (Head of Vallekilde Game Academy, Copenhagen) which looked back at classic definitions of play and linked them to modern examples in games and experiences, with a good sense of humour. The theme which I found most interesting was pausing within play: allowing us to reflect on our actions, think about what might be next, and strategise.

Splitting into the three tracks then, I caught a talk by Santeri Koivisto (Teacher Gaming LCC, creators of Minecraft Edu) who explained how they help teachers across the world to utilise Minecraft and now Kerbal in helping students to create landscapes, structures and stories for themselves. I switched to the culture track then, to hear Steen Nielsen – the Gaming Librarian from the Aarhus Library – talk about their plans for a new library building currently being built on the waterside. The interior has been designed around the ideas of children and adults playing, with media and traditional play spaces built in to the structure. Steen also described the kind of activities they run within the current library: from board game evenings to mini alternate reality games.

After lunch Kirsten Campbell Hughes from London’s EduGamesHub described the trials and benefits of creating and running the LEGup meetings. Mathias then hosted the first of three ‘open space’ discussions – two of which I participated in. The first asked how we could promote a culture of playfulness, and produced some great examples of small playful aspects from around the group (such as slow ninja fights for groups, or juggling to focus the mind). The second, the following day, split into various groups – and mine held a deep and engaging discussion about how we could introduce play and games into more schools and universities (create playful examples within teacher training or staff development days; and provide teachers with a few simple but powerful games to engage students in difficult skills like group work, reflection, problem solving etc.).

Godspanen cultural area

Godsbanen cultural area

At the end of the main talks we headed over to Godsbanen – where a Spilbar had been set up (game bar) in one of the warehouses. The area is a reclaimed space for artists, designers etc., and the warehouse housed a number of collaborative multiplayer games on consoles, kinects, and card games. I had great fun playing the unreleased Joust with the Kinect. More card games were played throughout the delicious meal, and we ended up finishing the night in (of all places) a Sherlock Holmes theme pub, complete with slightly creepy waxwork models and a displaced, thematically, karaoke bar.

There were play spaces within the main conference, and on the second day I spent some time watching and playing with beat blocks, music tiles and the utterly fun/frantic modular floor tiles from Playware. The sessions started with Phil Stuart showing examples of well-designed digital games; Harald Warmelink describing his PhD study linking online gaming/gamers to playful aspects of the  work environment; and Jean-Baptiste Huynh (the man behind Dragon Box) describing his national Norway Algebra Challenge – the success of which, and interesting model, came from a co-ordinated staged launch across the country with students battling against each other (modelled on the MOOC concept – learning small chunks at the same time). I then shared my thoughts about using simple contextual games to create authentic learning experiences – including some interactive Lego modelling – before Henrike Lode (designer of the excellent Machineers learning game, which I first saw a few years ago when Henrike was just graduating) gave an impassioned speech about killing off ‘edutainment’ and bad gamification, and gave us four examples of games where both the game and the learning had been designed properly together, to maximum effect for each.

I must make a quick mention here of the fabulous group of people at the conference, which provided for some fascinating discussion and shared learning across the two days and evenings. Special mention has to go to Zuraida Buter, playful curator of many things including the Global Game Jams, and Mathias, Henrike, Santeri, Thomas and Tobias mentioned elsewhere here: who made my trip much more valuable with their insights and long discussions over coffees and Danish beer.

Closing slide from Miguel Sicart: make people play

Closing slide from Miguel Sicart: make people play

The conference was wrapped up in perfect style: firstly with an experiential look at how Tobias Staaby uses zombie games (The Walking Dead and Last of Us) to teach complex psychological and ethical concepts to his classes (stopping for group discussion/voting at key decision points in the narrative). Miguel Sicart then provocatively claimed that games should die: but went on to make the clever observation that play and playfulness are what we need to aim for. A game may help people to become playful (although equally, so could objects or other people), but ultimately the game will be forgotten, whereas a sense of play can pervade and live on, through other experiences. It was a rousing call to arms – and finished the conference on a perfect slide:

make people play

Congratulations to Mathias for a truly excellent and immersive first conference: a playful format, playful topics, playful participants from diverse sectors, and a game which is set to play for many more rounds yet.

Hint Hunt

I’m just returning from a day in London with my games and learning colleagues – Katie Piatt, Simon Brookes and Nic Whitton. Katie had found out about an intriguing centre called Hint Hunt near Euston, which has two themed ‘puzzle’ rooms for 3-5 people to tackle. For those who can remember the Crystal Maze or Treasure Hunt, being locked in an area and having to solve puzzles to escape may re-awaken some memory cells and give you an idea of the challenge.

I don’t want to reveal any secrets about the room we entered (John Munroe’s room) but I’d like to share a few thoughts about the day.

We were given a brief intro from the very friendly organisers, and told about the aim: to escape the room within one hour. Then we were inside, the door locked, and a very plain looking study room in front of us. Plain, that is, until we started looking deeper: pictures, books, desks all started to reveal some intriguing information…

The successful team

The successful team

For the next hour we were completely immersed. Whilst Simon grappled with a wooden box, Katie was flicking through books with strange symbols, Nic writing down code words and numbers we were finding, as I scrabbled under furniture for hidden objects. Just when we felt we’d hit a brick wall or a red herring, a bell would sound, and a quick message appear from our omnipresent hosts – leading us gently to another corner of the room.

There were many surprises in the hour, which I can’t reveal here, and some truly outstanding puzzles which required all of our combined efforts. At times we overworked the problems – looking for deeper meaning in the effective, but slightly underused, narrative (and this was our only complaint, reflecting afterwards: the narrative could have been more embedded in the puzzles – whereas actually we didn’t need to engage with it too much to solve the room).

We managed to escape with 3 minutes and 2 seconds to spare – a little more than the record time of 7 minutes, but not too bad: and certainly felt extremely proud at our achievement.

Reflecting afterwards, we wondered about the use of such a situated puzzle in learning and teaching. The benefits for team/group work are obvious – we had to work extremely well as a team to solve the range of puzzles scattered across the room – but we also wondered about the strength of narrative for discipline areas (research methods, or chemistry/physics/history) for student and staff group training. In particular, we discussed the possibility of using a standard classroom or lecture theatre as a stage for a puzzle scenario (using standard objects in those rooms).

All in all, a fantastic experience. We’ll be back to try the second, slightly harder Zen room; but also thinking about ways to use such an approach in our own teaching. Wait a minute… just press on that drawer there…