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If you’d like to read about the implementation of the video game Gone Home in a high school English class, start here. If you want to know how to turn your class into an alternate reality game, start here for an overview, or keep reading to find out more about The Ward Game.
The Ward Game: A Brief Introduction
The last two posts provided an overview and examples of alternate reality games in education, and also offered up a ton of free resources to help you create your own game, run your class as a game or undertake a class transmedia project. The next six posts will be devoted to unpacking The Ward Game, an elaborate 30-day pervasive game that aims to teach Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to high school seniors. Feel free to plunder the site for your own projects, as many of the game’s components are modular and can be repurposed for other games and learning environments.
The Ward Game is a subversive hack that challenges problematic aspects of our often oppressive industrial education system. It can be seen as a type of diagnostic probe that explores how a complete change to the learning environment and a return to play, creativity and freedom can alter the landscape of how we teach and learn. Participating in the game changed my life, the lives of some of my students and also caused me to interpret One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in a completely new light: the patients in the novel are “cured” with games, play and embodied real-world experiences. Read it and you’ll see.
Two former students created the video below, which provides a great overview and a sense of the tone and mood of the game. Without further ado, I give you The Ward Game.
Genesis: A Strange Vision
The Ward Game was born of despair late one night while I tried to work out how to introduce One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to my senior high school English class. My graduating students were in the throes of senioritis, an annual descent into lethargy after university acceptances are sorted. Graduation was around the corner, spring was in the air and my charges were deeply committed to do the bare minimum with as little effort as possible. I had to introduce the novel in a climate of utter disengagement, but I felt the book was too good and the message too important to let fall by the wayside. What could I do to fire up their hearts and minds when they already had one foot out the door? How could I connect them to the world of Kesey’s asylum while most of them wouldn’t even bother reading the novel with prom and freedom so tantalizingly close?
I knew that my best chance at engaging them was to devise some kind of creative approach, but nothing came to me. It was late, I was tired, frustrated, and my ideas all felt flat and recycled. I was about to pack it in for the night, when I was struck by a comic image, likely induced by sleep deprivation. I saw myself sitting behind my desk at school, tapping at my laptop, wearing an oversized cartoony nurse’s cap with a big, bright red cross. Weirdly enough, that image sparked a flow of ideas that led to the creation of The Ward Game. My English classes would become the psychiatric ward from Ken Kesey’s classic novel, and my students would be transformed into patients, playfully subjected to the mock-tyranny of a behaviorist regime. The game would be theatrical, ironic, satirical, unpredictable, oblique, self-reflexive and, ideally, unforgettable. It would be a video game played in the real world. And maybe (just maybe!) it could lead to a cure for the scourge of senioritis and, even more ambitiously, point to a remedy for the most damaging aspects of modern education. I know – I’m quite literally talking a big game here – but I hope you stay with me and find some value in this project. I welcome your comments and thoughts throughout.
Escaping the School Asylum
It’s unnerving to consider how much a school can resemble an asylum. Both institutions strive to improve minds with the aim of producing functional members of society. Students and patients are extracted from the currency of daily life, institutionalized (often against their will), and subjected to a rigid diet of rules and schedules. They are placed in the care of authoritative specialists who keep records and reports on their charges, and failures to meet specific behavioral objectives are corrected with medication, coercion and punitive measures. This analogy is clearly reductionist and oversimplified, but it carries an air of truth, partially because asylums and schools (we may as well add prisons) share common industrial roots. They function as assembly line systems that aim to mass-produce a more or less uniform product. That product being a cured mental patient, a reformed prisoner and an educated student, all milled and buffed to contribute to the smooth operation of the social machine.
In his depiction of the mental hospital in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey specifically attacked the very industrial elements and behaviorist strategies that still linger in schools today. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to blur the lines between reality and fiction and graft a game inspired by the novel’s mental ward to my school setting. It worked particularly well with my school, as I teach all-boys who wear uniforms, and the patients in Cuckoo’s Nest are also all male and uniformed. The game was played during the final 30 days of school so their imminent graduation and release from high school paralleled their release from the asylum. This happy coincidence of art and life caused my students to reflect on how deeply the novel and its central themes connected to their own lives and institutional experiences.
I strove to design the game in such a way as to preserve the novel’s oppressive atmosphere and narrative arc but also, paradoxically, bestow my students with the freedom and agency to play as they saw fit. As patients, they were immersed in a pseudo-Orwellian asylum world run by the ever-vigilant and controlling Big Nurse who encouraged them to spy on each other and maintain concentric rings of secrecy. However, while committed, they undertook self-selected tasks, played games, carried out personalized activities and missions and created artifacts to gain points and work towards their release. Gameplay was carried out on laptops and mobile devices combined with real life activities and events. I’m not a programmer, and had no dedicated software, so I cannibalized everything from our school’s internal mail system to freely available online software to meet the game’s requirements.
The Ward Game is a transgression and a reprogramming of the traditional education system. It’s a Frankenstein-like installation piece co-created by my students and I that critiques some problematic aspects of schools as it explores and proposes some alternatives. It asks big and uncomfortable questions, and many aspects of the game are risky, disruptive, and messy. I teach in a unique setting and the game was played at a time of year where I felt empowered and supported to push boundaries, and I trusted my students to approach the game in the playful spirit with which it was cast. The game has now been run three times and all iterations went largely without incident, but I would not recommend transplanting the game wholesale to another school. Like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Ward Game challenges mass production, scale, and a one-size-fits-all approach to education – what I like to call McEducation. Rather than a product to be exactly duplicated, I share my experience as a model with the hope of inspiring other educators to see what is possible in their milieu. Many aspects of the experience can be taken and used independently of the game. Teachers can channel their inner artist and designer to create their own games that correspond to their unique personalities, subject areas and school cultures.
In the posts that follow, I’ll outline gameplay specifics, but also frame the experience within a larger context of how The Ward Game and the novel that inspired it point to the possibility of what learning can become in the 21st Century.
The Epic Battle for Chief Broom’s Soul
Before delving into the game, I’ll quickly recap the story on which it is based, particularly the themes that have a direct import on education. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest recounts the tale of a group of patients in an Oregon psychiatric hospital who suffer under the iron rule of the tyrannical Big Nurse. The story lives in the collective pop culture consciousness primarily due to Milos Forman’s 1975 Academy Award winning adaptation starring Jack Nicholson as the rebel patient and bon vivant, Randal Patrick McMurphy – The Big Nurse’s arch-nemesis. The novel still appears on some high school and college reading lists, but has been largely eclipsed by the immense success of the iconic film. Like so many adaptations, the movie is a significant departure from Kesey’s novel. One key difference is that Chief Broom Bromden, the self-effacing schizophrenic aboriginal war vet who is the narrator and protagonist, only gets a small part in the film. Kesey was so upset that Bromden’s character was sidelined to a supporting role that he successfully sued the film’s producers. Again, art reflects life, as the novel’s main plotline is that the rebel McMurphy helps recover Chief Bromden from social marginalization and invisibility.
Chief Bromden is a child of nature who grew up freely hunting and fishing wild salmon on his people’s reserve, but has now succumbed to the machine of war, government and, most recently, The Big Nurse’s ward. He is prone to hallucinations, and sees the machines of industry everywhere, a paranoia that leads him to believe that his life is controlled by a powerful shadow organization called The Combine. In simplest terms, Bromden’s spirit and individuality have been crushed by a factory society that seeks to impose uniformity and conformity. He exists in a tragic state of death-in-life, feigning deafness, refusing to speak, hiding in corners and generally hoping not to be noticed. Bromden can represent all those who have been robbed of self-esteem and self-confidence for their inability or unwillingness to conform to the prevailing system. In terms of education, Bromden is the Chief of the lost tribe of learners who have been disregarded, demoted, drugged, coerced and discarded because they did not subscribe to assembly-line schedules, conveyer-belt rows, quality assurance tests, performance evaluations and top-down authority. Look around you, look inside – you may find Bromden there.
Kesey’s novel is an epic clash for Bromden’s soul, an extreme depiction of a battle that takes place in almost every classroom in the world. On one shoulder sits the proverbial devil: The Big Nurse, whose smooth beauty and angelic white uniform speaks of icy sterility. She sees all, controls everything and exacts a punishing course of treatment that relies on humiliation, coercion and medication to scrub her defective patients of their unique personalities. She embodies the industrial machine reducing human nature to a state of malleable docility. Her methods of discipline and punishment have left Bromden in the broken state in which we meet him. She is an extreme – an archetype that distills and exemplifies the most destructive elements of McEducation.
On Bromden’s other shoulders we have his angel, the devilish rebel R.P. McMurphy who resists and challenges authority and conformity at every turn. He’s a convicted felon, a con man, a gambler and a scam artist. But don’t let that fool you – he also has the makings of a passionate and inspiring teacher – a resourceful and creative critical thinker who favours expression over repression, celebrates individuality, takes risks, embraces failure and cures the patients with a curriculum of games, motivational speeches, embodied learning experiences, collaboration and friendly competition. Ultimately, his unorthodox techniques save Bromden from the machine and help return the Chief to his natural state, allowing him to reclaim the rivers and pastures of his youth and recover his true identity and self-worth.
The clash between The Big Nurse and McMurphy’s respective approaches to cure Bromden are the collision between our industrial present and the emerging digital future in education. The beauty of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as the narrative source of The Ward Game is that the players not only embody the events of the novel, but also temporarily inhabit and reflect on a concentrated microcosm of the education system and society that has shaped them.
“The Ward Game: How McMurphy, McLuhan and MacGyver Might Help Free Us from McEducation” 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.