A Dark Room began life as a game for web browsers. You can still play it that way. You know what? You should. Remarkably – it is free to play via your web browser.
I didn’t encounter the game online though. Someone recommended the app version to me and I bought it.
It cost me £1.99.
I’m playing it for a second time right now. Trying not to build any huts this time… Once you complete the game some lovely features unlock, including the developers’ commentaries. These are incredibly beautiful insights to what is an incredibly beautiful game.
Last week I wrote about how we need failure to learn, and how fewer experiences of what I would deem safe failure is resulting in lower resilience and higher levels of anxiety.
It’s all very well for me to say this stuff, but there is the small issue of what we do about it…
Hence this blog – an attempt to share a few ideas about what we might do about it.
Where possible, I try to embed opportunities for my students to get things wrong. Please understand, this is not some diabolical plan to trip them up only to then swoop in and prove my superior intelligence…
One: I do not have superior intelligence. Ask my friends. And if you don’t believe them, look at this picture of me:
Two: Creating opportunities for failure is not about tripping your students up, it’s about letting them figure stuff out by having a go.
So… how might you embed failure into learning? I think the best way to try and break this down, is to give a couple of examples from my practise. All of this comes with the disclaimer that I do not hold the definitive answers… this is just the way that I’ve tried to work stuff out…
Example One: writing an essay
I had a group of students who struggled to get their heads around essay writing. They never gave themselves enough time to think, read and plan. They would put it off because they were afraid of not understanding the reading and of failing.
So I made a five-stage essay development ‘game’.
Participation was voluntary. Those students that decided to play, received a weekly quest card relating to the essay title that they were working towards.
The quests started small: find two definitions of [insert here]; and got more challenging: find a theorist that disagrees with all the things you’ve previously written…
They had to write up their findings in a weekly blog, which I would read and comment upon.
This approach meant that they could explore the ideas and really unpack the essay title. They could go off on tangents and it was fine, because this wasn’t the essay – it was the work towards the essay. In other words, they could make mistakes without these costing them marks. There is something about flow and levelling up in this approach too – but that might be the next blog…
I found that students following this approach did better in their essays than usual. And this is not down to my bias – I have always been careful to moderate these assignments (meaning that one of my colleagues also reads the work to ensure objectivity and fairness).
Example Two: playing an Alternate Reality Game
Alternate Reality Games are great; I’ve used them a fair bit now, which you can see in this previous post.
But for this example I am thinking of a different game – one that I made for students studying the digital world.
In it, the students are tasked with developing work for a digital timeline that I built. (The phrase ‘digital timeline’ sounds fancy but it’s really easy to make. I use the excellent Knightlab.)
Having contributed to the timeline, an A.I character steals their work and shuts the timeline down. The students have to engage with A.I. through:
researching more to satisfy A.I.’s criticisms;
engaging in online debate;
preparing further materials to supplement the earlier work.
In essence, they end up having done more work than entailed in the average essay, but it’s spread over a few weeks and presented as a series of conversations. Taking on the A.I. character allows me to be more critical without the students feeling threatened. They are free to, effectively, get more ‘wrong’ before they get a lot right.
It is not necessary to build an ARG to embed opportunity to get things wrong – but if you’re interested in ARGs in education then check out what I’ve said about them in the past, and watch this space for an upcoming blog about making ARGs…
Making space for failure means making space for play. If you’re playing, then it’s ok to get things wrong. And if you’re playing then you are getting to deeply know in a way that feels safe. Play is fun. But interestingly, play is not easy.
Contrary to popular opinion, games are fun because they’re difficult. Not because they’re easy. In fact, easy games are boring. We do not need to make education easy. We need to find where it’s hard, and celebrate that. Games do not shy away from making the player work hard. They just support the player to develop the skills they will need to succeed.
I think that this is at least some of what we need when we’re teaching: good support and structure, with space to fail and lots of challenge.
In the next blog in this series (yep, it’s becoming a series – check me), I will discuss how increasing the challenge leads to greater engagement in learning. If I can ram it in, then I may also talk about making ARGs… or that might be a blog all of its very own…
If you mention the word ‘game’ in casual conversation, most folk will initially think of video games. Some might think about board games or chess. Some others might think of sports. Or you might think of games you played when you were a child, like Mission Impossible. Which, come to think of it, I still play. Particularly when food-shopping. Because, you know, food shopping is boring and playing Mission Impossible with your toddler, while your spouse pretends not to know you, is much more fun. I digress…
The word ‘game’ carries with it a lot of associations besides how we might define it. What are the first three words that pop into your head when you think ‘game’?
For me it’s: fun, play and flow.
Others might feel that games are what we do when the serious and important stuff is done (a bit like the creative, artsy things). I think that, if we’re honest, even those of us who love games still associate them with childishness.
And because of that it’s easy for us to dismiss them. So when a game comes along that has real impact, and everyone – or certainly lots of young people (it seems to bother us more if it’s young people) – are playing it, our go-to-feeling appears to be worry. We ask why. Why are they playing thatgame all of the time? Right now that game is Fortnite. But this piece isn’t about Fortnite. It’s about the conversation behind Fortnite.
It’s to do with our assumptions about games, and our associations with them.
You see, I think that in our heads when something is associated with childishness or childhood, two things happen:
We dismiss it – if it’s childish it’s not worth our attention;
We romanticise it – if it evokes childhood then it must convey innocence and, indeed, be innocent.
So something odd happens when a game captures our attention because it is just… wonderful. I’ll go so far as to say, when it is art. Because games, like any creative medium, can be art. And there are some truly amazing pieces of art out there that you can play. When this happens we can’t quite believe it. We seem to find it hard to articulate that a game has moved us so deeply. How can this… this… childish thing make anyone feel deeply?
And something really odd happens when a game (which is associated with childhood and therefore evokes concepts of innocence), is not innocent. When young people play that game, something must be wrong, because at some level we feel that anything undermining the concept of childhood innocence is inherently threatening. That’s why children in horror are always creepy. And, come to think of it, it’s the same reaction that people had to the video nasties of the 1980s.
So, what are we really talking about when we talk about games?
Well, I’ll go out on a limb here, but I think we’re talking about all of the above. We’re talking about our fears and our hopes. And those are pretty emotive topics. But if we put all of that aside for a moment, let’s just try and look at the thing without prejudice.
Games are a creative medium. Maybe we need to call games something else to get away from all that other stuff, but that’s not a job for this blog.
When we talk about games, we’re talking about something interactive. We’re talking about something that engages people in ways that other media doesn’t. The fact that games do this, does not make them superior to other art forms. Nor does it make them inferior. It makes them unique. We can’t really compare a game with a book or a film. We just can’t and we should stop trying. A game is a game is a game. And we need to start taking games seriously.
I completed ‘thomas was alone’ a while ago now. I intended to write a blog at the time, I even began one, but then work and, well, work took over and I had no time for anything else.
It is, I think, a profound game. You can tell that it’s profound because it leads you to care about a red rectangle. Truly. You care about the fate of a little red rectangle called Thomas.
This game is genius.
It makes you care through the music, the sound effects, the aesthetic, the clever use of short sentences that give it a jackanory story-time feeling, and the bigger narrative about free-will and self-awareness. Oh, and the narrator. The narrator is wonderful. Not to mention the gameplay itself – lovely, rich puzzles and individually-realised characters:
Thomas is curious and happy and kind;
Chris is grumpy;
Claire thinks she is a superhero…
The list goes on.
They all face challenges that they need to overcome – usually by enlisting help from everyone else in the group – and, crucially, they all learn something. There is character development.
No mean feat for such a small game.
But what makes it profound? Well, it reminds me of one of my favourite things about us humans, and that is our capacity for empathy. If we can emote with a red rectangle, then surely that tells us something about human nature? Often, we talk about human nature in survivalist terms: us versus them. And this kind of rhetoric seems to be more and more pervasive in current political landscapes around the world. But the us versus them narrative is not, at the heart of it, human nature. Not really. Not if we can empathise with characters like these:
The secret about human nature, is that we are creatures of empathy. We are so empathetic, that in order to make the us versus them narrative ‘ok’, we have to engage in elaborate language systems and propaganda to vilify others and make them seem less than human. We have to be repeatedly lied to about others, before we begin to let go of our empathy. And I know this is true, because we are so empathetic that we are able to care about a red rectangle bouncing about on a screen.
And this gives me hope. This game gives me hope.
It is simply beautiful. And if you haven’t already played it – go on, give it a go. It will delight you, it will show you something of what a game really can be, and it will show you what people really can be.