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Re: [ICTs in English] ICTs in English Weekly update - Deeper Student Understandings of Themes

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  • From: edwin mcrae <edwinmcrae AT>
  • To: ictenglish AT
  • Subject: Re: [ICTs in English] ICTs in English Weekly update - Deeper Student Understandings of Themes
  • Date: Thu, 24 May 2012 13:21:26 +1200

Excellent thoughts here, Hamish...and edgier than what I've tried out so far.  Kudos to you!
I'm completely there with you regarding the power of EXPERIENCING themes rather than exploring them at a distance, as you do as a novel reader.  For the Survival theme I'd suggest Against All Odds and the Curfew Game.  Both are free and online.  The first has the player attempt to survive political persecution and the challenge of being a refugee.  The second has the player survive in a totalitarian version of England.  I'll add them to your list, Hamish, and anything else that springs to mind.

Oh, and how would you feel if I reposted your update to TheFictionEngine (after a quick/light edit)?


On Wed, May 23, 2012 at 4:50 PM, Hamish Chalmers <hchalmers AT> wrote:
Hi everyone,

While I’m certainly not wanting to turn every weekly update into the diary of a computer game fiend, I felt the amount of discussion sparked these past weeks on games might make it worthwhile. It was great to see one a community member put himself out there in the public and educational spotlight. Thanks Edwin!

The other reason I’ve been considering another look at games was an experience I had with a couple of students this week around games-based understandings of themes. After teaching The Hunger Games for a novel study a couple of years in a row, I was a bit surprised at how many students had difficulties with understanding the ideas around survival, specifically how much people will compromise their moral standards and values to maintain it. During the study of the novel, many of my students still seemed to find the question a bit confusing and tended to give simplistic answers when queried on it.

Yesterday, I bailed up a couple of students who I’d put onto DayZ, a zombie apocalypse mod for Arma 2. In  a-small-as-possible nutshell, Arma 2 is a military combat simulator (ie: a more realistic first person shooter in a very large outdoor environment) and DayZ is a mod built on the Arma 2 game engine where players do their best to survive as long as possible in a zombie apocalypse scenario. Unlike many games that studio bosses are willing to put money into (it was programmed by a New Zealand game developer in his spare time) It has no levels, no character development and no clear goal, other than surviving for as long as possible and doing whatever it takes (typically running from zombies and fighting and looting other players) to survive.

As you might be trying hard to figure out what this has to do with English at this point and also possibly considering Edwin’s comments last week on the educational value of first person shooters, I’ll endeavour to get to the point. Up until now, if I’d queried either student on the theme of survival and how much people are willing to compromise for it, they not have had much to say on the topic. Even though one of them had studied The Hunger Games the previous year, their learning on the issues around survival were minimal. Since being personally involved in the acts of survival necessary while playing the DayZ mod however - scavenging items, fighting off hordes of zombies and working with (or more commonly fighting with) other players for scarce resources - their understanding of how much people will compromise to survive is much deeper and much more embedded. Rather than developing their understanding from events and characters depicted in a text they have no control over, instead they have personal involvement in multiple situations to draw from and are able to consider their own behaviour and the behaviour of others in these contexts. They haven’t just been shown survival, they’re been directly involved in it.

The awesome thing about these kinds of understandings for students is that you don’t necessarily need to design a games-based course to take advantage of it. While both students are now working on creative writing drafts built around their understanding of themes in this game, other students in the same class might well be able to draw on understandings gleaned from different games. The depth of understanding in this case was aided by the multiplayer element of DayZ - they were competing with other real people (in the case of bandits and other survivors) whereas in single player games, the thematic connections tend to be more scripted.

Regardless of this however, students have a wealth of prior knowledge around human behaviour and issues that we (and they) may not be aware of. Rather than just giving such students a generic task to develop their writing, I’m keen to work on developing a task to link into exactly these kinds of prior knowledge. Obviously they’ll get similar understandings from film and novel studies but I’d argue that the depth of the connections gained from personal involvement in game-based themes could be greater. A creative writing task (or any creative meaning task) that identifies game-based prior knowledge of themes and uses this to form the central ideas for a student’s own text could be totally awesome.

On a final note, the way I managed to get the students interested in the creative writing potential of their experiences was pretty cool. I provided them with a piece of creative writing crafted by someone else I game with. There had been a rift developing in our wee gaming community about whether the act of killing other survivors in-game was OK or not, players typically spend hours collecting gear and lose it all when their characters die. In response to this, one of the group members had written a none-too-shabby account (slightly dramatised) of our group’s raging moral debate and eventual in-game split to entertain the others. Not only was this a great example of the conflicts around survival, it was also an example of an adult using creative writing as a means of _expression_. Great stuff I say, even if very nerdy. Also another point against the argument that creative writing is only useful to students who want to become authors.

In terms (hopefully) of helpful stuff for teachers, I’ve put my money where my mouth is and started a google doc with a list of games that have strong links to themes and some brief notes explaining them. I’ll keep adding to this as I remember games I’ve played with strong themes - on an initial search google didn’t turn up much here. I’d love people to have a go at adding to this resource and devising other uses for it. It’s only the beginning of something we could reference when attempting to tap into the prior knowledge of our students but with some community spirit could be a useful one. And of course, feel free to share it with as many interested parties as you can.

On the list this week, we’ve had discussion around literacy programmes, collecting feedback from students, continued discussion on computer games, a PD opportunity on school libraries and an update on the digital citizenship project. Keep them coming, there’s been some great reading this week!

Hamish Chalmers
Facilitator: ICTs in English

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