Narrative Engagement: Games as Mnemonic Devices for Process Learning

Jay Laird, Ann McDonald

Over the past seven years, we have worked on game projects in a variety of educational contexts. In all of these games, however, one question has always loomed above the others: How do we get our audiences to apply the implicit knowledge acquired in games as explicit knowledge in the real world? Our work demonstrates that the answer is a clear narrative, but not always narrative in the sense of a story told from beginning to end; it is more a process than a product. Much as Gomes outlined in “The design of narrative as an immersive simulation,” we define narrative loosely as agency and kinesthetic action — ranging from the user taking on an abstract role suggested by titling and limited controls to the user taking on a specific character role in literally depicted role-playing simulations.

Does the narrative have an approachable point-of-view that can be integrated into the player’s worldview? Can it be conveyed as an individual understanding of imaginary systems? Does the player “believe” the storyline and can the player take action on this belief? Addressing these issues is vital if narrative is to lead to engagement. In a game, when the player “buys in” to the narrative and willingly assumes the role, however abstract, this acceptance leads to agency, which leads to experimentation and a testing of the limits of the game’s meaning and structure. This in turn leads to mastery, pleasure, and implicit knowledge, driving the player to customize her own narrative, resulting in owned learning. Once the player has taken ownership of the learning within the game, it can be converted to explicit knowledge as it is applied to real-world problems.

We use all aspects of game design, from the writing to the graphic style and interface design to the game logic, to clearly communicate narrative intent. We will show examples from a wide variety of applications, from “learning toys” for the Boston Symphony Orchestra to a mini SimCity-style game for the New England Aquarium to a 3D immersive predator-prey arcade game for the Northeastern University Categorization and Reasoning Lab. In developing each of these games, we have further advanced our thesis that narrative structure is key to user engagement. In several of these projects, including the aforementioned 3D arcade game, a board game for Northeastern University College of Engineering, and a platformer arcade game for the Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing, formal assessments of learning outcomes have been and are being performed to better inform our efforts to educate, not just entertain, students through games. The initial results of these assessment efforts will also be shared.

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