Prologue: From Gamer to Gamer Teacher
In this first post, I’ll explore what inspired me to use games in my classrooms
I became an educator because I had several excellent teachers who showed me that learning, despite my adolescent certainty at times, is not a harsh but effective medicine one has to swallow painfully, but a joyful, powerful experience that can – and should – guide your life. If as a student I had a few lessons every year that really inspired me, surely I could, over time, design an entire year long curriculum that captured that joy from beginning to end. This was my personal starting point as a teacher. As a lifelong gamer, I long ago recognized how much intellectual prowess, resilience, and critical thinking games can demand from their players. I spent hours learning complex systems for games like Magic: the Gathering, honing my ability to think and adapt on the fly in video games like Starcraft, and creating my own fictional worlds for role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Even before I taught my first lesson, games clearly seemed like the ideal vehicle to create a dynamic, engaging classroom experience that would get my students excited about learning.
I was even more confident games had learning potential because I had a few teachers growing up who used games in their classrooms with great success. My 9th grade English teacher (who directly inspired me to become an educator) used his love of role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons to help us dive deeper into our reading of Homer’s Iliad. He assigned every student a character from the epic and laid out the rules for what was essentially a collaborative creative writing exercise in which we created a crowdsourced version of The Iliad. By reading deeply into The Iliad, including chapters we skipped as a class or outside mythological sources, you could acquire information about your character and use that to try to shape the emerging class narrative with your own submissions. You could “upgrade” your character using your research: give them a legendary weapon, a superhuman ability, a divine ally, etc as long as it was supported by an existing mythological source. It was instantly one of the most enjoyable classroom experiences I ever had despite its relatively simple design. That was an incredibly impactful moment for me as a student: for one of the first times, I felt like my classroom was responding to not only my passions, but how I uniquely learned.
That memory rattled around the back of my mind during my first few years of teaching, but it wasn’t until I played Funcom’s Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) The Secret World that I was able to take this vague impulse for classroom gaming into a real executable unit. The Secret World places thousands of players all within the same online virtual environment where they can play, interact, and battle against each other as agents of clandestine organizations (e.g. The Illuminati or The Templars) and interact in a game universe full of supernatural dangers and conspiracy theories come to life.
What attracted me to the The Secret World was what they call “Investigation Missions”. I read an early review that lauded them as deep and interesting puzzle solving experiences, a large departure from the usual fare in MMORPGs which are infamous for including dull, repetitive tasks whose completion is often referred to as “grinding”, since they are necessary for improving one’s character, but are generally considered boring in their own right. Much like the “busy work” – worksheets, textbook comprehension questions, etc. – that is present in so many classrooms, even the gaming world is not immune to getting mired in mindless mechanics whose only value is killing time.
The Investigation Missions in The Secret World required the player to not only use the information and events contained within the game but also the built-in Google browser to search the Internet for the right information and clues to solve the puzzle at hand. A few hours into the game I realized what they had done was include ARG style puzzles and weaved them into the virtual landscape of their game. The confluence of these two types of games clarified the elements I needed to harness to make my own game: the portability of cross-media ARG puzzles, the immersive effect of using real world information in a fictional game world, and the timeless Siren song of puzzle solving. I was spending hours researching arcane topics, decoding ciphers, and sweating over riddles – just to play a game. I also realized that the game engine itself was not integral to the experience…I could make these puzzles! Dolus, the master thief who has stolen the journal of Odysseus, was born.
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