If you’d like to read about the implementation of the video game Gone Home in a high school English class, start here. To find out how to turn your class into an alternate reality game, start here for an overview, and or start here for the first post on the The Ward Game.
Voluntary Participation and the Rabbit Hole
Before breaking the game down to its basic building blocks, it would be useful to review the first day of play, when the students are first drawn into the dystopic world of the asylum that was formerly their school. The intention of this first session is to interrupt the reality of routine classroom life and establish the new world of the game; the moment where the everyday is ruptured and players enter the magic circle of the game. In alternate reality games, this is called “the rabbit hole”. Also, prior to launch, students were told that the final month of school in English would be delivered as a game. I didn’t give them too many details and painted the experience in broad strokes, but they were given the option to not play and carry out a parallel independent study project instead. I offered this option because, as Jane McGonigal reminds us in her bestselling book Reality is Broken, participation in a game should be voluntary. Of the 70 odd players in my classes, two decided it wasn’t for them. Players were also permited to leave the game at any time.
The description of the first session will skim over some game mechanics like points, mini-games, bonus envelopes, etc. All of these concepts and many others will be explained in more detail in subsequent posts, but for the sake of narrative cohesion and not getting weighed down by details, I only refer to them them briefly here.
Session One: Admissions
On the first day of play, students arrived to class to find me, their English teacher, in a white lab coat bearing a cartoonish oversized “Dr. Spivey” nametag. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dr. Spivey is Big Nurse Ratched’s docile assistant, fearfully following her orders and pushing her agenda. In the game, Spivey is the frontline operative who manages day-to-day operations of the ward.
As Spivey, I was curt, officious and edged with a slightly menacing tone as I ordered the newly arrived and slightly confused students to sit down and listen carefully. In a Soviet era echo of “comrade”, I addressed the players as patients: “Welcome, patients” and individually I referred to them as “Patient Smith” or “Patient Patel”, a practice I would maintain throughout the game. Once they’d settled in, I introduced myself, welcomed them to the ward and reviewed some basic expectations and regulations, as well as the session’s (no longer called “class”) agenda. I explained that they would strive to earn up to 100 points on the Mental Metric Scale, which would then translate into 10% of their English grade. They had 30 days to achieve the highest score possible, and if they reached the 100 points before the end of their stay at the ward, they’d be discharged or released early, at which point they were free to use their time as they saw fit. They were visibly enticed at the prospect of an early release.
I projected the online class agenda from our school’s LMS to show that it had been modified and renamed The Bulletin Board. Inspired by Nurse Ratched’s ward bulletin board in the novel, the redesigned LMS served a similar function to its predecessor, but with a decidedly clinical flavor. Session agendas, rule updates and new elements to the game were posted here. Since the page was visible to other members of the school community, most of the links on the Bulletin Board were password protected to prevent prying eyes from accessing sensitive ward information. Players were provided with passwords on a need to know basis.
Next, I introduced the Big Nurse by projecting her welcome video prominently on the classroom screen. What began as an unusual class took a sharp turn for the bizarre. The Big Nurse was clearly their teacher in drag, with a five o’clock shadow, misapplied lipstick, a cartoony nurse’s costume and shades that only added to the creepiness. Her voice was electronically altered using GarageBand, and the video was produced to look like a grainy and washed out propaganda reel a la Big Brother. The video was received with a combination of bewilderment, bafflement and nervous laughter. It’s worth adding that a talented student who was sworn to secrecy produced all the original Big Nurse videos. This is just one example of how students not only participated in the game, but also had many creative opportunities to help contribute to the design and delivery of the experience.
The Big Nurse never appeared in person but communicated through social media, email, text messages and the occasional propaganda video from her secret nurse’s station. My design goal was to make her seem more daunting, mysterious and powerful, but keeping her behind a wall of media also made it easier to portray multiple characters in a single game. Following a brief introduction to her course of treatment and institutional philosophies, the Big Nurse asked that patients follow her on Twitter for an easy 5 points. The role of social media in the game will be discussed in greater detail in a later post.
Following the video, I distributed bright pink forms with the Big Nurse’s blue logo printed on the top right hand corner. Employing a common fascist propaganda strategy, I branded the game with the Big Nurse’s logo on every possible document, artifact, social media site and video. The pink sheet was a Ward Policy admission contract that, when signed, “committed” patients to the ward for 30 days. I playfully blended the language of a medical release form with the user agreements that players must accept prior to installing a video game. The document set out the basic rules, but I wrote them in an ambiguous and porous way to allow for changes and alterations to be made on the fly. The Ward Game is a perpetual work in progress.
Once contracts were signed and returned,players were instructed to create lockers and journals. The “lockers” were Google Sites pages and the “journals” were online blogs. The lockers were used to house a miscellany of player generated data: records of completed missions, images of artifacts, personal point tallies, achievements and any other important items or documents that they picked up during their stay on the ward. Throughout the game, players were prompted to write brief, directed entries in their journals. Locker URLs were sent to the Big Nurse, who tracked them from a master page. I reminded them that the Big Nurse could enter any player’s locker at will and read the journals whenever she liked. Furthermore, I warned them to keep their lockers secure, as some of their classmates may succumb to the temptation of gaining unlawful entry for reasons yet to be disclosed. Murmurs percolated as they wondered what would cause them to break into each others lockers. This never actually happened, but I learned that seeding misleading tidbits kept them on their toes and added to the atmosphere of the game. I also reminded them that they could be subjected to arbitrary locker checks, and if anything was found to be missing or incomplete, points would be lost. Alternately, points were earned if their lockers were in order and up-to-date. Locker checks were determined by randomly picking cards from a deck marked with each player’s name.
Players were then asked to take out their “Authorized Editions” – the exact required edition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I took each book in turn and placed a sticker on the front cover printed with the patient’s name, a unique serial number and the Big Nurse logo. They were told that they must have the Authorized Edition with them for every session, and a failure to produce it upon request would lead to punitive measures, including the possible loss of points. The patients were thus numbered and serialized, all uniformly reading the exact same edition of the book. Seeing as they have to buy their own books, this had never happened before. It was usually a mixed bag of eclectic editions and PDFs.
I ended the first session with a few quick rounds of a mini-game called Admissions Interview. I shuffled a standard deck of cards (each bearing a player’s name), drew a card and read the name aloud. The selected player could accept or decline to be interviewed. If they accepted, they were asked three content questions about the novel taken from their assigned reading. If the player responded to two out of three questions correctly, they received a sealed envelope with a bonus inside – more will be explained about bonus envelopes in a later post. This type of mini-game puts the novel’s content at play, and creates an atmosphere of game show excitement when recalling details from the reading.
My final warning before dismissal was that they could not discuss any aspect of the game outside of their ward (class) unless it was with a fellow ward mates. What happens in the ward, stays in the ward. To ensure the observance of this rule, the Big Nurse rewards players who send proof of any “unauthorized discussions”. Players caught discussing the game out of turn risked point deductions. Any incriminating evidence (Facebook and smartphone screenshots, audio recordings, etc.) had to be sent to an email address called The Log Book, where the Big Nurse would review it and act accordingly.
With a few minor variations, this session was repeated for each participating class/ward.
Surveillance and Espionage: The Big Nurse is Watching
Mirroring the atmosphere of Nurse Ratched’s ward in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Ward Game was enveloped in a cloud of secrecy and low-level paranoia. In the novel, Nurse Ratched keeps a log book at her station where patients are encouraged to document any transgressions by their fellow inmates. Similarly, all evidence of unauthorized discussions in the game were sent to an email address also called the log book.
It’s not hard to imagine why this was one of the most exciting and problematic elements of the game. On the positive side, it is a faithful and immersive embodiment of the novel that discourages outside discussions, lending it intrigue and mystery. Inversely, it seeded mistrust between players. To soften the blow, first time perps were sent an initial warning from the Big Nurse, and only repeat offenders were actually docked points, which only happened on a handful of occasions. In the end, no disputes arose, and players had fun trying to catch each other out.
Loose lips sink ships – A warning from the Big Nurse.
This mechanic is timely and relevant when viewed as a critique of the rise of surveillance in the digital age. Will low-level paranoia become a norm in a society where, at any point, individual, corporate and government entities record our data and activities? Is it time for schools to start taking surveillance literacy and digital citizenship more seriously? Experiencing the perils of the invisible eyes and ears of the digital world in a low-stakes simulation might be a good way to create awareness.
Role of Role-Play in Play
Whether assuming the role of the Big Nurse, Dr. Spivey, or another in the cast of non-player characters (NPCs) who communicate with players by video, email or social media, role-play was an important aspect of the game. I had six lab coats and name tags handy, so that if other teachers or observers entered my class, they could also assume the role of a clinician from the novel.
Players themselves, however, were normally not required to role-play. Most of my students would not be keen to stay in character or assume an artificial persona for a sustained period of time, or at all. They were addressed as patients, but were not asked to act like them. There were some missions that players could choose that required that they act like a character in the novel but, for the most part, they merely acted as themselves. I felt this created more buy-in and deeper immersion as their true, unmitigated selves were subjected to the dystopian asylum’s mock tyranny, and their responses and actions would thus be genuine and unscripted. Ultimately it was a statement on how the lives of students had a great deal in common with that of the patients in the novel.
- Participation in the game should, ideally, be voluntary. Those that do not want to participate can be assigned a more traditional independent study project. I’ve also sometimes enlisted non-players to help run the game.
- When possible, a game’s form should reflect its content.
- Existing classroom tools like an LMS (learning management system) or an internal email client can be repurposed for a game.
- Teachers can assume multiple roles through in-class acting, videos, social media, phony email accounts, etc. To that end, you can find a master list of useful resources here.
- Secrets, password protected content and interdictions can produce engagement and interest as they engender curiosity and mystery.
- A deck of cards, with each card bearing a players name is a cheap and useful randomization tool.
The Ward Game Part III: Game Mechanics and the Two Faces of Motivation
“The Ward Game Part II: Admissions, Surveillance, Passwords and Role-Play” is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Collectively, the posts on The Ward Game will appear as a chapter in the upcoming Teacher Pioneers: Visions from the Edge of the Map, which you will be able to download for free.