Category Archives: musings

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?

Mathletics: 1+1=1.5

My daughter’s school recently ran a month-long trial of the “next generation in online Math learning platform” – Mathletics (

It’s a site which aims to augment maths teaching/practice for children from 4 to 13. Its ‘next generation’ label comes from the online and gaming aspects which “students love”. I sat down with my daughter to find out how she responded to it.

On logging in, the first thing she did was create an avatar, and choose a character to guide her through the site (so far so good). She then started work on two challenges set by the school: nothing new here – just a series of maths questions with an answer box (just as you might see on paper) – on a right answer, a tick; on a wrong answer, a cross: no feedback or hints on approaches. To complete the challenge, all ten questions have to be answered correctly; any errors, and the whole ten questions (same ones, in order) have to be attempted again.

As a result, she soon got frustrated and gave up on these challenges, then spent a good 30 minutes changing hair, backgrounds, colours etc. on her avatar (the avatar area takes tips from Moshi Monsters et al, and inherits something of the same engagement level). No maths learning here though.

The one redeeming ‘next generation’ feature is a live challenge mode, where you can play against other students from around the world. On starting, you are assigned three other competitors, and a countdown clock starts, as mental maths questions appear on screen: the aim being to answer more than your competitors in the time available. This certainly attracted both of us, but within seconds frustration was back, as all three of the competitors stormed ahead (easily beating our combined efforts): there is no obvious option to filter competitors to different age ranges or skill levels to provide a challenge, rather than an impossible task.

All in all, Mathletics is a poor example of gamification – applying apparently ‘motivating’ aspects of games and playful activities (in this case, the use of customisable avatars and competitive aspects with avatar-rewards) to what is essentially a very traditional try-and-repeat approach to teaching. The gaming aspects add nothing to the experience other than temporarily diverting (and non-learning) activities around the edges.

No Risk Strategy

Over the Christmas break I’ve been catching up with some of the games news from the latter end of 2011 – and Risk Legacy caught my eye, as it did when I first heard about the idea. Finally release just before Christmas in the US, this new version of Risk changes the nature of boardgames in a rather exciting way. Up until now, every time you open a boardgame the scene is set to zero: the board and pieces begin at the start just as they did in the previous game (unless you have small children who ‘modify’ the contents in their own unique way). But the designers of Risk Legacy played on the idea that – in reality – battles, feuds and alliances will be remembered by regular players each time a new game is played, and might therefore influence gameplay in a continuum, rather than a constant restart (there’s an interesting interview with the game’s designers in The Escapist).

Do not open envelopeThe new version of Risk therefore comes with stickers, special rules, secret pockets and other tricks which make permanent changes to the game. If you make  a choice between two cards, for example, the other card is destroyed. Literally (from the rulebook: “If a card is DESTROYED, it is removed from the game permanently. Rip it up. Throw it in the trash.”). Other changes affect the board or the rules permanently – and they come into play when certain conditions are met, such as ‘open the first time a faction is eliminated from the game’. Plus, deliciously intriguingly, one envelope secured to the box base labelled ‘Do not open. Ever’.

Winners in the game get to create special conditions in the following game (such as founding a new major city) whilst losers also carry certain conditions into their next game too. All of this means that the game becomes a campaign, rather than a  one-off scenario, where player actions affect not only the current game, but will have repercussions for future games too.

This innovative approach is not for everyone, of course – many players (particularly beginners) like boardgames precisely because they can write off a poor loss by starting a new game afresh, each game providing a fixed structure for developing a beginner’s gameplay: an essential time-honoured learning curve.  And some who like the aesthetics of board games will be appalled at the idea of destroying or defacing cards or boards – designer Lewis Pulsipher has attacked this aspect of Risk Legacy. It is also pretty obvious that you need regular players to get the most out of Risk Legacy – a game-loving family, or games group. But all this aside, the idea and possibilities are fascinating both for future boardgames, and for education.

The traditional method of learning a boardgame, outlined above, carries a number of similarities with the way we tend to teach courses in higher education: we tend to explain complex subject concepts in the same way each year to new students, and (particularly in practical subjects) rely on the students to practice those concepts with real-world examples or conditions: multiple case-studies or assignments giving students a new chance in each case to develop and consolidate their understanding. The problems with this approach tend to be at the start, when students with a range of background experience are taught key concepts in the same way and at the same level; differential understanding then leads through to poorer or greater application of the knowledge in later exercises or assignments.

Experiential education tries to solve this problem by designing the teaching and learning around students’ existing knowledge, so that each student is learning on their own trajectory: it is, however, difficult and time-consuming to achieve – particularly with large numbers of students. The approach used in Risk Legacy might, though, be of interest here: the idea that students carry knowledge and decisions between each learning module, case study or assignment – and the modules or assignments themselves actually change based on those ‘carried forward’ conditions. Educational methods such as ipsative assessment (see Hughes, Okumoto & Crawford 2010) already utilise this approach, but are not widespread and suffer from the same problems of scalability for large student numbers. Maybe more scalable approaches could be used which allow students to carry conditions and effects through a number of case studies or exercises though, leaving assessments largely unchanged but altering the conditions and learning paths each student takes to their goal. In effect, turning discrete learning scenarios into a longer-term learning campaign.

Cambridge International DL Conference

Madingley Hall

Every two years since 1983, Cambridge has played host to 90 people from literally every corner of the world – roughly half from developing countries. Drawn together by deep interests in delivering open and distance learning (ODL) to all areas of society, the participants spend three and half very full days listening, reflecting and (75%) discussing and challenging issues shared across institutions and continents.

Started by Alan Tate (now Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the Open University) and Roger Mills (now Research Associate at the Von Hugel Insitute, University of Cambridge) after they returned from a large and impersonal distance learning conference, with a mission to create a small, social, discussion-based event; the conference has remained much the same for all fourteen events. I attended for the first time two years ago, and played a much larger part this year, but like all other 89 attendees was saddened to hear that this would be the final conference. Alan, Roger and Ann Gaskell (Assistant Director, Teaching and Learner Support at the Open University) have put huge chunks of their working lives into the conference, and deserve a well-deserved rest.

Madingley Hall

Madingley Hall; a fine setting

Home Groups

What sets it apart from other conferences? The small numbers, the deeply engaged participants from all levels of institutions around the world, and the long discussion time between papers and workshops I’ve already mentioned; but for me the best part is the use of ‘home groups’ to explore and reflect on topics in much more detail within a small group. Timetabled daily for an hour after the main keynotes, these allow deeper and more contextual discussion on key topics for the group members, and are certainly where I have had my most valuable reflections and ideas. This year, I was invited to facilitate one of the home groups, and was rewarded with a fabulous group of people and some fascinating discussions and debates – which you can read on our Cloudworks page. I also got to know all 17 members of my group extremely well, and have forged many friendships.


Croquet on the lawns (one of the many challenging contrasts!)

Social Justice

This final conference was based around the theme of social justice, which was covered at various levels of depth in the keynotes, papers and home groups. The conference has always been one demanding open minds and guaranteed to shift your core beliefs and moral outlook; but this year’s theme created an even more challenging lens with which to take in and absorb worldwide contexts. We heard about the mind-boggling numbers UNISA (South Africa) has to deal with – 140,000 students on one course; 7,000 students registering each day at the start of session; only 17% of students with any access to the internet – about continuing inequality in the education of women in Nigeria, and how ODL is being used with difficulty to provide some empowerment; and many problems and issues surrounding cross-border delivery of courses, due to political/cultural differences. Those of us working in institutions in the developed world were left questioning why we presume to know what the people of distant countries need in terms of education (and charge them a fortune for the ‘solution’) when we barely know what the needs of our own local area are. Alan Davis (Vice-Chancellor at Empire State College, SUNY) provided an interesting take on the latter problem in his keynote which described the make-up of SUNY’s state-wide market and how the College provide student-staff co-created curricula to meet individual needs.

There were other incredible examples of how ODL has been applied in highly contextual ways, with creativity and sheer belief in social needs: most notably Mohammed Rezwan (Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha)’s floating school – a boat which responds to the problems caused by the annual Bangladesh flooding which leaves a third of the country under water (and rising, thanks to global warming) by collecting children from several waterside villages, and then converting the boat into a school with mobile internet access. As a reward for attending, the children are given charged solar lamps to take home and use overnight, before returning them for charging the following day: a very well thought-out approach which considered the very specific local context.

Indeed, the topic of context was raised throughout the conference – the simple, unquestionable fact that before providing education services to a particular social group or individual, you should know something of their context and their needs. Historically, and continuing today, are examples where exactly the opposite takes place: western providers market ODL courses to individuals in developing countries who might spend their entire savings or wages on them in the belief of quality and status – but at the detriment to local institutions who might offer a far more contextualised course and would keep the money and expertise within the local economy.


Course design game workshopI had a hand in providing another source of contrast from the serious, belief-shaking matters in much of the conference: two workshops which used fun and playfulness to achieve some equally serious outcomes. The first, with Patrick Kelly (Open University) and Deanna Douglas (Athabasca University) was based around the professional links we’d made at the previous conference, which have continued through regular video-conferences around shared topics of interest to this day; the workshop used a ‘speed dating’ activity to match up couples who shared common interests, and hopefully generated quite a few new friendships and links which will pervade as richly as ours. The second was based around my course design boardgame, and along with my colleagues Clifford Fyle and Nichola Hayes we guided participants through the design and purpose of the game (which aims to set a local context for ODL design, as described above) and generated much interested discussion.

I arrived back from the four days with pages and pages of notes, and a head full of thoughts. I’ve also felt my outlook on ODL, and my own institution’s use of it, shift – with a stronger focus on the need to think carefully about who we design for, and why. The sort of reflection and conceptual shifts all conferences should lead to, but very few do nowadays. Heartfelt thanks therefore go to Alan, Roger, Ann, and all the participants who were there sharing, discussing and reflecting with me. It’s such a shame there won’t be another chance to further challenge ourselves in two years; but the 14 Cambridge International conferences have left a great legacy.

Conference organisers

Alan Tait, Ann Gaskell and Roger Mills; with participants


Why is this *here*?! Context in games and education.

I’ve been thinking (and talking) about context a lot over the last year – specifically around its relevance to anything other than pure subject-based teaching and learning within a course. Induction, research skills, key skills, work-based learning, assessment, activities… use any of these within a course without designing them with the subject/course context in mind, and you’re setting yourself up for unengaged, poor performing and complaining students.

A nice example of why context is so important has come into my consciousness recently, from two games my household has been playing. To be more precise, my daughter has been playing Professor Layton and the Curious Village on her Nintendo DS, and I’ve been spending longer and longer snippets of free time with Broken Sword on my iPhone.

Both are narrative-based mystery games, and both contain a number of puzzles of varying difficulty (I’ve helped my daughter with some, she’s helped me with some of mine). Both, indeed, are pretty enjoyable to play. But Broken Sword is an excellent experience, whereas Professor Layton is only good. And it all comes down to the way the puzzles are integrated into the games.

Professor Layton screenshot

Nice puzzle, but what's it got to do with a secret village?

In Professor Layton (a mega-popular series amongst 10-30yolds) whilst some puzzles are part of the game narrative (looking for clues in a study indicating the escape route of a villain, for example), others are linked to the narrative but a little contrived (such as the railway porter trying to fill the carriage with a minimal number of scented roses which have set rules around the coverage of their scent), and several others eschew any pretence of being part of the narrative: a man on the street will stop you and say “I have this puzzle which has been foxing me – help me out!” – leading to a puzzle about colours or shapes. My daughter finds these annoying, wanting to get on with the story.

In Broken Sword, a beautiful port of an older game series, the puzzles are so cleverly woven into the engaging narrative, that you would be hard placed to list them out as individual puzzle instances on reflection. You might, for example, extract pieces of a torn photograph from a safe, place them on a table nearby and then start fitting them back together – all a very natural progression of narrative, but executed as a clever puzzle; in another case a heavily secured door has a series of sliding locks which need to be negotiated to be able to pull back the bolt; and there are countless other smaller problems to solve as you negotiate a particular location or mission (gathering water in a bar towel to be able to carry it out to a cavern and mix it with plaster of paris found elsewhere to take a cast of an impression made by pressing a key into sand, was one of my particular favourites).

Piecing together some evidence within the narrative

None of the above puzzles or approaches are ground-breaking or new of course (much like many methods used in teaching and learning), however, the way they are integrated into the narrative or context of the game varies dramatically, and the resulting game experience is far more engaging where the context is constant throughout. It’s no wonder that so many students complain of ‘wanting to get on with the subject’ when faced with another out-of-context skills session.

Points & prizes for core education elements

In the last few days I’ve come across multiple case studies where standard academic skills or issues have been overlain/augmented with game elements: those pillars of writing, referencing and  assessment.

Writing : 750 Words

Mainly aimed at (budding or struggling) authors, nonetheless this site would be useful for anyone having to write very long texts (of which academia abounds). In fact, it was recommended to me by a PhD student, @jennifermjones, who liked the fact that as well as providing space and encouragement (through points) to write 750 words each day, it also analyses themes and patterns within your writing over time. A simple space, simple points, with the addition of some variation with monthly challenges and ‘walls of shame’ or ‘amazingness’. I wonder whether the points, or the idea and well designed site, are more motivating, but it’s certainly a very interesting idea and useful tool.


…at the University of Michigan is a lovely little project which fits in well with the idea of using elements from the student’s projected context (ie. an effective subject researcher) and bringing out a competitive element within that familiar context. Using Zotero (an online reference manager/sharer), BiblioBouts encourages students to find new resources for a research theme, and then invite other students to rate them for academic suitability/relevance. Points are awarded for both rating/commenting on other students’ resources, and for scores given to their own resources. It will be interesting to see how this works in the coming year, as (much with my own Great History Conundrum) there is potential for students to develop as a community of practice together, gradually increasing their knowledge and skills within a valid research context.


This is an old chestnut, but worth adding here as it’s been doing the rounds again due to game-related conferences. Sheldon has the benefit of teaching game design to a class of game designers, but even so his approach is an interesting one: instead of grades, he assigns experience points and levels to his students. What has always interested me about this is the way that individual grades are far less important than the gradually increasing levels – which help to show students that essays and other assessment points are just elements (or side quests) within the greater aim (or campaign) of development  as experts in the subject.

Within the current debates around ‘gamification’ and the (often unrelated) application of points and gaming systems to real life situations, these three cases are fabulous examples of how game elements can be naturally combined with existing contexts, and strengthen existing elements of academic study.

Museum Label 2.0

For some time now I’ve been thinking about visitor interaction with museum objects, and the possibilities this offers for sparking reflection and conversation around a certain object and space (though any span of time).

This interest was fuelled by a (faltering) project to use QR codes within a local museum, and by my experience with museum objects as clues within Alternative Reality Games; this was juxtaposed against the plain, traditional object labels I was seeing in museums up and down the country during conference season.

The final spark was a conversation on Twitter with a couple of museum-friends from the British Museum about museum audiences and dumbing down/maintaining academic standards.

So, on the eve of Museums and the Web 2009, I present my first thoughts on an object label for the Web 2 generation. Notes follow the diagram. (0) is obviously the name of the object.

Museum Label 2.0

  1. Key facts (location, age, cultural link etc.) – standard on contemporary labels in most, but not all, cases
  2. Clear image of the item: helps to give visitors a sense of the whole item when the object itself is very small or very large. Also good for take-away options (see below)
  3. This section of the key facts is numerical, and standard across all objects. It serves a dual purpose as a top trumps-style game for children (see below)
  4. Timeline. This shows roughly where the object sits in relation to key events, to give a broad frame of reference.
  5. Quick information in large type: designed for young visitors, those with poor sight, those in a hurry, those with only passing interest, etc. Pictures accompany where useful.
  6. More information: expands on the Quick information, for those who want a little more detail.
  7. Further information: the full catalogue entry (or a reduced section of it) for those wanting a detailed description or who have an academic interest.
  8. More Info: the QR code and short web address both provide access to the main catalogue page on the museum’s web site. This could be augmented with audio visual or discussion options (see 9).
  9. Discuss: this is for visitors to provide their own comments or opinions on the object. They have the option to send an SMS message, send a message or start a realtime discussion via Twitter, or mention it on blogs, Facebook or other web2 platforms which support tags (the #bm_snake text). These comments/messages would be aggregated in real time to the info page (8) to allow other visitors past, present and future to read and comment on them.
  10. Braille title for the object, at low level and always in the bottom right corner.

This hypothetical label is clearly a little over the top, and packs a lot of ideas in. However, it’s not particlarly unclear, and with work and testing could form the basis of a very workable method of labelling objects for a wide audience, and encouraging engagement in contemporary ways (but largely new to museums).

As an additional option, copies of the labels could be provided as cards for visitors to take away – allowing them to look in detail, access the Info/Discuss options when they have a web connection at home, school or work, and use them in a trading/swapping game (see 3). Copies might be in stock next to popular/major items, but available to print on demand within the museum’s shop or at the exit to galleries (a small charge for the cards/printing would help offset the relabelling costs too).

Thanks for the above ideas go to:

  • The Cambridge Museums group, for inspiration on the top trumps-style game coming from their excellent collectable cards series.
  • Terhi Nurmikko, British Museum, for the idea of physical cards, and for feedback on the prototype.
  • The British Museum, for the excellent information available on the Turquoise serpent used in the example (note that some incorrect information has been added to the core record: see here for the full version).