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 the first post and for an overview of the The Ward Game start here.
How Video Games Teach how to Teach
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest depicts a highly regimented asylum where patients are intimidated, drugged and subdued into a socially viable template of “normality”. The patients who are unable to meet the demands of the call to uniformity are deemed unfit and condemned to a life in the asylum. When the unruly protagonist Randal McMurphy arrives to the ward, his irrepressible and larger than life personality acts as a catalyst for the other patients. He teaches them to stand up for themselves and to embrace their individual quirks and eccentricities.
Like Kesey’s asylum, a one-size-fits-all education demands that students bend to an imperturbable system that rarely accommodates individual needs and dispositions. Standardized tests, anyone? Educators are keenly aware of this problem, and the knowledge and will to apply differentiated instruction are most certainly there, but the challenge is Sisyphean. A deeply adaptive curriculum requires more time, resources and energy than is humanly possible for a single teacher, especially when confronted with an overwhelming number of students who change from year to year. However, a solution may lie in what some might consider the unlikeliest of places: video games. Think of them as a type of McMurphy: irreverant, sometimes violent, anti-authoritarian, playful, dynamic and, of course, fun.
Education has much to learn from video games. They are incredible teaching tools because they let players progress at their own rate and assist them to play at the optimal limit of their ability, recalling Vygotsky’s famous zone of proximal development. Players typically begin by performing simple tasks that gradually increase in difficulty, and progress is only made once the requisite skills are mastered. Success is achieved by persisting through failure, and gamers are motivated play (work?) very hard as they learn complex mechanics and evolve into performing very sophisticated and demanding activities. Just watch a tough World of Warcraft raid and you’ll see what I mean. If you want to learn more about how video games can benefit education, a good place to start with Dr. James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.
Video game developers know better than anyone that customization and personalized gameplay experiences are key to engagement. A common tactic to foster individuation in games is to offer choice: whether selecting an avatar’s class or hairstyle, following a unique skill tree, or simply ranging freely in an open world where missions and quests can be accepted or ignored. Players are motivated to proceed and persist because they enjoy the freedom and agency that lets the game evolve according to their unique profile. Imagine the transformative possibilities if the design resources that go into creating high-caliber video game software were harnessed for the purposes of education. The right software could help keep track and respond to individual profiles, create rapid feedback loops and genuinely help adapt the curriculum to the individual, while the teacher can bring the warmth, personality and care that machines will (hopefully) never replace. And it will be fun.
The Quest to Prescribe Secret Missions
My driving force for creating The Ward Game was the idea of turning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest into a video game that would be played in real life. As I discuss in the last post, I did this by applying video game mechanics to real world play, and the single most important mechanic in the game is the mission or quest system. Many popular video games ranging from Skyrim to Grand Theft Auto use missions and quests to deliver their stories and incentivize players to carry out a variety of tasks. Missions are usually optional, and can vary in style, depth, execution and content. They are key to player engagement because they offer attractive rewards for completion and players can choose to carry out the ones that interest them, thus affording flexibility and an individuated experience. Also, the quest is at the heart of all heroic enterprises and the fundamental substratum in Joseph Campbell’s archetypal hero’s journey, a narrative structure that underpins so many films, books and stories.
From the inception of The Ward Game in 2012, I used an ever evolving video game-inspired mission system that lets players progress through their course of treatment in highly individuated ways. To preserve the clinical atmosphere of the novel, I renamed missions prescriptions. Prescriptions are the game’s primary engine of productivity, recruiting players to produce artifacts, carry out tasks, and help build, organize, and document the game. Over the years I deployed prescriptions in a variety of ways, making adjustments to optimize each player’s experience with the goal of letting them manage their own schedules and self-selected tasks with much greater flexibility and independence than the traditional classroom regime of assembly-line homework and assignments.
In the latest iteration of the system, a player requests a prescription by contacting the Big Nurse by email during her office hours, which are usually 7:00AM – 7:00PM on all days that end with “y”. They must specify their area of interest (law, medicine, engineering, music, creative writing, visual art, etc.) or simply write “random”. Regardless of the category, every mission somehow ties to the novel. For example, the law missions all look at legal issues related to aboriginal land claims or mental health – both central to the story. Shortly after the request, they receive an email with a task in the desired category. It will include an outline of the prescription, the time limit for completion, an attached rubric describing the minimum standards that must be met in order to earn the reward and any other pertinent information. Once they receive the prescription they have an hour to accept it or reject it, and they are not allowed to discuss their mission with anybody other than the Big Nurse, Dr. Spivey or any relevant collaborators.
If the prescription is rejected, another can be requested in the same or in a new one. If accepted, the task must be completed within the stated deadline or the prescription is considered failed and points are deducted. There are bonus cards in circulation that grant prescription extensions. Every prescription has its unique reward schedule that might include points, envelopes, in-game currency, and/or the option to complete further related prescriptions. Generally, prescriptions are completed individually, but some are collaborative. I half expected some players to continually reject the prescriptions to sound the depth of the system, but this has never happened. They usually take the first or second one offered, and the most I’ve ever had rejected is three. I like to think that they do this because they are actually enthused by what is being proposed and don’t want to risk losing the opportunity.
It’s also crucial to note that when the prescription is completed, the reward is absolute. The product or outcome isn’t “marked” in any traditional sense, where points are deducted for deficiencies. The attached rubric describes minimum standards that must be met, and if they are not, the item is returned to the player with a time limit to to fix it up until they get it right. In this way, like video games, the goal is mastery. I understand that this may not work in all schools and with all age groups. My students are high school seniors in their final month of school and the tasks are more a function of effort than ability, especially since they have the option to turn down the prescriptions that don’t appeal to them. In the two years I’ve run the prescription system in this way, I’ve only had to send back a handful of items to be improved and much of what they produce is the best work they’ve done all year…at the height of senioritis, no less!
Prescription Types and Examples
Thus far, I have accumulated over 100 prescriptions in a variety of categories. In what follows, I provide an overview of general types of prescription and provide some examples of how they look. I also include some samples of student work generated from the prescriptions.
Creative Production Prescriptions
Creative production prescriptions require players to respond creatively to the novel in the categories of creative writing, music, videos, fine art, and performance. All tasks are related to the novel, and usually align with the section of the novel being read when the mission was issued. Many of these prescriptions also involve opportunities for blind collaboration (see below).
Blind Collaboration Prescriptions
Blind Collaboration prescriptions are a subset of creative production prescriptions and lead to players unwittingly working collaboratively. For example, one player was asked to create a floor plan of the ward based on the description in the novel. A second player accepted a task to write a song about Chief Bromden. Finally, a third was asked to build a Minecraft structure based on the floor plan and to create a video tour of the facilities with the song about Chief Bromden as the soundtrack. You can experience the spectacular results below. The players were not told the origin of their source material, which was possible because prescriptions are secret and cannot be discussed.
The floor plan brought to life on Minecraft.
Needless to say, it was incredibly exciting for the two players who created the floor plan and song to unexpectedly see their work come to life in the Minecraft video.
Research and Synthesis Prescriptions
Research and synthesis prescriptions require players to investigate specific topics, usually related to medicine, law and mental-health issues. These might vary from finding out the name and purpose of certain types of pharmaceuticals to looking into laws pertaining to the treatment of patients in modern mental health facilities. Depending on time constraints and relevance, the results of these prescriptions were sometimes presented and shared with their fellow ward members.
Over the years, The Ward Game has included art shows, basketball tournaments, rallies, flash mobs, game show events and excursions. Organization prescriptions often enlist players to help organize these events. They are almost always a reflection of occurrences or themes in the story, such as the basketball game between the ward orderlies and the patients, or the infamous fishing trip.
These missions help document the game as it was played. While I am busy running the game, these missions enlist students to film, photograph, and record a variety of events. The items and artifacts generated by the creative prescriptions and other undertakings also become part of the game’s documentation.
Much like the documentation prescriptions, the game-building family of prescriptions enlists players to contribute to the growth and development of the game. For example, these include designing the in-game economy, writing a speech for a Big Nurse video, designing propaganda posters, authoring missions, planting QR codes and devising corresponding clues, producing images and videos that would become part of a larger treasure hunt, and so forth. These prescriptions grew from my feeling overwhelmed and outsourcing tasks to keep the game rich, engaging, and varied. One of the reasons the game has so many prescriptions is that once a player has completed all the prescriptions in a category they are sent a Mission Possible prescription that offers them the chance to create a new prescription in the same category.
As in the case of blind collaborations, players often did not realize that their prescriptions were part of a greater project or that they were contributing to the design and construction of the game.
During some regularly scheduled sessions, players have the option to undertake individual, small-group, and large-group ward prescriptions. Individual activities vary from finding a quiet place to catch up on reading the novel to creating an infographic on some aspect of the story. Small ward missions for two to three participants might involve creating a one-page comic or poster. Large ward missions for four to eight participants include making short films or a trading-card set based on characters in the novel. Larger ward missions have an assigned project manager who coordinates the group. All of these missions have to be completed within one hour. It was astonishing and impressive to see what players could produce while laboring under the pressure of a countdown timer, a mechanic common to many board games, video games, and game shows.
Some prescriptions were chains, meaning that the completion of one task unlocks the option to complete another thematically relevant prescription. A good example is a prescription that requires players to carry out basic research in the area of psychiatric pharmaceuticals. A chain of subsequent missions eventually leads them on a self-directed visit to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and the completion of relevant tasks related to their tour. This is an important event, as the players are exposed to the reality of treating mental illness in a modern institutional setting, which they could compare and contrast with how it was being depicted in the novel.
Games, Choice, and Differentiated Instruction
I like to think of The Ward Game as both art and science, a site for artistry and experimentation that creates a Janus-faced microcosm that simultaneously looks to education’s past and future. Guided by a central theme in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Ward Game celebrates the individual and strives to cater to each player’s unique personality. On the narrative surface the game satirically implements the Big Nurse’s oppressive and unyielding regime but, in terms of functional gameplay,
the prescription system is one way that players enjoy the freedom to choose their own learning paths. It also implements an interdisciplinary approach that transcends the hard boundaries that tend to exist between subjects. Judging by the quality, quantity and level of student engagement, I’m confident that this type of system points to a genuine and viable path for differentiated instruction.
It’s important to add that I don’t have dedicated software and my implementation of the system is largely artisanal. I use our school’s First Class email suite, and undertake the full time job of monitoring and responding to my students. There are a number of companies like Rezzly that offer quest-based learning software for schools and classrooms (I list more such options in this post), but what’s available on the market doesn’t quite fit the unique needs of The Ward Game. Also, I take a strange artistic pleasure in undertaking an almost factory-like job of managing prescriptions to imperfectly carry out a digital age dynamic that could be much better implemented with the right software. I have no doubt that in the near future, personalized learning management systems married to powerful AI will dramatically improve the educational experience, but I fear a trade-off where other issues will emerge such as data gathering, predictive analytics, and social engineering.
Even without software to optimize individuation and accelerate feedback, no two players in The Ward Game have had the same experience, and each played to their strengths and interests. This may explain why some of my most unmotivated students became the game’s most productive players. They were released from a restrictive system that didn’t gel with them and were given the freedom to play and express the best version of themselves. In my opinion, this is by far the game’s greatest lesson and success.
However, there is such a thing as too much choice. Whether in a game, or any other type of pedagogical system, granting choice is an important strategy to help cultivate engagement and solicit the best an individual has to offer. While students will likely make choices that reinforce their strengths and interests, which is good, this could easily become indulgent and limit their exposure to new skills and knowledge they may not choose to explore. Ideally, a well-designed system balances choice with exposure to unfamiliar areas that learners may not pursue by their own volition. Ultimately, a balance must be struck between guided learning and choice in the quest to implement genuinely differentiated instruction.
- Video games can teach educators how to differentiate instructions and customize learning.
- Missions, quests and challenges can let students choose their learning paths and take greater ownership and responsibility of how they carry out their work. Working in this way is also more fun and engaging.
- There are multiple ways to structure missions and challenges, and they can include diverse content and outcomes.
- Giving students choice is crucial, but it is also important to expose them to material they would not otherwise explore.
- A video game inspired mission system can create a genuinely interdisciplinary experience.
The Ward Game Part V: Games within Games
“The Ward Game Part IV: Customizing Student Learning by Prescribing Secret Mission” 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.