August 23, 2010

Thinking out of the (x)Box: Gaming to expand horizons in creative writing

Originally shared October 11, 2007. Updated August 22nd, 2010.

As a high school French teacher I found the Sims one commercial game that had both the interest of the students and something that directly helped instruct the content I wanted. Since the early 2000s the quality of commercial off-the-shelf games (COTS games) has risen to match the values of feature films.

Most people's perceptions of games and gaming have more to do with the arcade or shoot-em-ups that they experienced when they were teens. How wrong (happily) could they be.

Certain games are incredibly effective at generating more expanded horizons in students imaginations when they are writing and speaking creatively or transactionally. But play itself is not easy to define. In school we have "play time", which must be both different and more fun than any other time in school. If you hear this three times a day over 13 years of schooling what happens to your notion of work and play? It can't be good.

The opposite of play is not work. The opposite of play is depression.

Jane McGonigal is probably the leading expert in what games offer. She suggests that it's arguably not what most educators think. 'Fun' is but one element that many, but not all, games inspire in us. For learning this is great. 'Fun' gets you the same effect as in this video - you grab attention in the short term, you might even change behaviour. For a while:

'Engagement' is something different. Toledano's pictures of engagement show all sorts of emotions and experiences: fun, fear, angst, perplexity.

I delve into the difference between engagement and fun, and how the former makes video games particularly powerful for learning, in another post just on that.

I've opened some training sessions by looking at something from which is relatively easy to draw the educational link: the arithmetic and literacy challenges in the Nintendo DS game Dr Kawashima's Game Training. LTS's Derek Robertson has undertaken some small-scale case study work which revealed, in this example at least, some increase in attainment, but, more importantly, a great motivation on the part of students to undertake mathematics drills using the game. The interviews with teachers and students help us see where the game added a certain value, and in late summer 2008 this research is being scaled up to 500 DS users.

"New Contexts for learning"

The educational links have to be sought out, though, when the game is not quite so obviously related to curriculum. This is a skill and confidence teachers have to generate by playing games, or at least spectating their children's efforts and discussing the potential with them. Take Nintendogs as an example. In one Aberdeenshire school we have seen how a game about putting virtual dogs through competitions can generate multiple contexts for learning and activities, from running a business to art and design work.

This is what Derek Robertson, heading up the Scottish Centre for Gaming and Learning, refers to as seeking out fresh contexts for learning.

Another popular Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) game, Guitar Hero, has been used in hugely varied ways by clusters of primary schools and their local secondary school in Musselburgh, Scotland. Depute Head Ollie Bray explains the background to the project, the planning that had to take place and some of the activities that prepared primary school students for a day of collaborative Guitar Hero action in the secondary school at the end of the school year to get secondary mentors and their new primary school friends to get to know each other. Activities included designing guitars, learning how to DJ, designing CD cases, writing fictional band member descriptions and life stories, finding out about suitable locations for a world tour using Wikipedia, tourist websites and Google Earth, planning and costing said tour, and, of course, learning how to play a real guitar.

This example, like the others before it, have been inspired by the work of Learning and Teaching Scotland's Consolarium.

We also need to consider the kinds of skills games can help students learn before jumping in. Marc Prensky's breakdown of the stages of learning in a game are useful for starters. Most teachers would see the 'how' in playing as the main activity in a game, but moving into the moral dilemmas and complexity of decision-making in more long-term "no endgame in sight" games like Sim City or Rollercoaster Tycoon, we can see that very quickly students are moving into the areas of when, where and, ultimately, 'whether and if' type decisions.

To see where this might head in the very near future, it's worth bearing with Sim City creator Will Wright as he takes us exploring his forthcoming PC and console game Spore:

Expanding the horizons of our imaginations
The environments within Spore are far more graphically advanced and appealing, far more personalisable than anything that has gone before it. While we wait for Spore to hit the shelves, though, we can still get that buzz and expansion of our imaginations by touring around Myst, Samorost 2 or Haluz. Taking Myst first, a $20 game that has been around for 10 years now, we have ample resource on the web already to see how it could be exploited to bring students' use of language up a bar or two.

Maintaining rigour and engagement
Tim Rylands is by far the Myst Master, using the dreamy and occasionally spooky landscapes in Myst III in particular to get students loving creative writing - and improving attainment as a result. LTS has also carried out a Myst case study to show how replicable this way of teaching can be. Viewing Tim at work you'll notice that although the method appears spanking new, the pedagogical background is as firm as it's ever been. I love the use of realia to help students find out what sand really feels like, for example. You'll also notice writing being modeled around extensive use of adjective and adverb, effective punctuation using the punctuation pyramid to differentiate and escalate grammar use:

. ?
. ? , !
. ?, ! ’ “”
- . ? , ! ’ “” : ; ()

He sits with the children in the class, with one computer, a wireless keyboard and mouse meaning he's not bolted to the front stage. He praises students by repeating, affirming their work. Students write, write, write, all the time engaged with the task in hand. The result is the kind of writing from young children that is well beyond their (apparent) years. And even with our youngest learners, these ones just seven years old, we can use paired writing to achieve equally magical results. The trick is not the technology, but the support it provides to a great teacher intent on getting kids exploring the wonderful world of words. was a wonderful tool introduced to me here in New Zealand just minutes before the workshop in Auckland, which will provide more independent learners with a means of seeing the connections between the basic vocabulary they already have and the new words they don't know exist yet.

We can analyse students' writing afterwards, seeing which words they are overusing or if they could make their text more powerful (by taking a deluge of continuous presents into the active (e.g. the clock chimes, instead of "the clock is chiming") by copying and pasting their text into

The kind of tasks you can do with these games, though, is not limited purely to 'creative' writing in the fantasy-land way:

  • journalistic accounts of what has happened (past tense)
  • descriptive tourist brochure of the place you are
  • "What happens next?" cliffhanger writing
  • poetry or haiku (this could even be done through Twitter, as I described here).
  • writing a transactional piece of writing (a cheat sheet or walkthrough)

And the writing needn't be done individually: group and collaborative writing is possible, too, either using the technology of Google Docs and wikis for some virtual collaboration, or using large A3 paper, rectangle drawn to create a large margin in which up to four students write a little before spinning the paper to add to their friends' texts.

Other ideas to help structure writing might be found in books that have spawned from Raymond Quéneau's original "Exercices de style". The notable visual literacy offspring from this masterpiece would be Matt Madsen's 99 ways to tell a story, some of whose pages you can preview on the web. You might also think of taking the writing into a new format, copying some of the ideas in Penguin's We Tell Stories series by incorporating place into writing using Google Maps, for example.

'Free' writing
Buying Myst or a bunch of Nintendo DSes (for which Myst was launched in November 2007) might still be too much of an investment for a teacher just wanting to dip their toes in the water. In terms of Dr Kawashima-like games, plump for Tutpup, a free online mathematics and literacy gaming platform that keeps children's identities safe and provides email reports for parents or teachers. In terms of Myst-like creative work, there are some flash-based free games on the web which provide equally mysterious imagination food.

Samorost is available in two versions. Samorost 1 is great fun, although the opening scene with a hooka-smoking hippy may push some teachers away. Samorost 2 is a great game for all ages when it comes to dreamy landscapes on which to base some creative writing. When I blogged about it last session Kim picked up on it and almost instantaneously jumped into creating some amazing teaching and learning opportunities in her classroom. Thankfully, she's blogged about the process and her thoughts on using the game as a stimulus for creative writing. I don't want to copy and paste her thoughts, so take a look for yourself at this great teacher's work, in particular:

I think I know the answer to the last question, and it's the answer with so much of this technology. It's not that the technology is particular cool, funky, well-made or educationally sound. It's that the teacher's style of teaching and learning has almost undoubtedly changed. We've been seeing it since, too, with Ant's students with additional support needs.

Here, in this last example, we witness Kim going from the unknown into the deeper unknown. Living on the edge, not sure how it will pan out, being on the same level of anticipation and discovery as the kids in this new emerging world, means that her practice is also constantly emerging. And that, as I have said [too] often, is a central key to us doing better.

Are you using games or game-making to expand the imaginations of yourself or your students? Are you talking about it on your blog or wiki, or even sharing your students' work? I'd love to know about it.



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I love the phrase "going from the unknown into the deeper unknown". This openness to curiosity is one of the great things about working or playing with kids but it seems that it is something that we lose as adults (though our interest in games and gaming may indicate a rekindled desire). Some great links and food for thought here, thanks.

great blog and thought provoking stuff.

However, I would question one assumption at the heart of your entry - that games have to be bought. I'd suggest that they don't. With a little bit of technical know-how and some guidance from learning theorists (such as Prensky and Gee) teachers can, if they're willing to put in the time, create web-based games using some basic 2.0 services like Flickr, Google Earth and free blogging softwares like Vox and even more primitive ones like that found at Eduspaces.

In addition to being free, using such a diverse range of services encourages the acquisition of some IT skills, encourages free exploration of online materials (hell, you can even get them to post their findings in a wiki) and hits all the cross-curricular buttons that tend to set high-falutin' educators all a twitter.

The Wii and DSlite may be the mutts nuts, but they do have an overhead. Assuming that you can provide every child with a machine with broadband, many excellent games can be devised without having to give Nintendo/Sony any more money. And besides, they should be giving 50% discounts to educational organisations. But that's a whole other story...

Hi Damien,

I've written tons of other posts about using Flickr to create flight of fantasy games, or using blogs and 'hidden' comments to encourage creative writing games. Alternate Reality Games, which I've written about less but read about a lot and enjoy playing myself, use free everyday objects.

My games category might be interest here:

and also my bookmarks:

Cheers Ewan. I'll check those out.

I use to play Runescape everyday for hours and I felt in my own little world while doing so. Now when I look back on it, it seems like a waste of time although I also think it has helped to gain leadership attributes among others. I've since lost interest in games and now focus more on offering the games to people.


I used to play Final Fantasy as i can learn and understand english. Now I am quite good in english just still bad in grammar.

The things I take in from the discussion of games are:

First that they are called games. If we want children to think out of the box we need to encourage them to take a trip into a new environment where new rules, that do not have negative connotations, apply.

When I teach Flash I always demonstrate at the beginning of the session with some wild off the wall ideas - a walker's head falls off and he quickly kicks it back up onto his shoulders. This relays the message that all ideas no matter how ridiculous are OK and in fact desirable in this session.

Secondly, I wonder whether the structure of any game is too restrictive for the student that is already thinking in a risk-taking way.

By having open ended projects, I was able to encourage the one in one hundred by talking with them while the others got on with the mundane.

In one case while the rest of the students (age 9) where happily designing butterflies that flitted from flower to flower, one rebel decided he wanted one of his flowers to gobble up the butterfly when it landed!

I was able to show him how he could achieve this so he created a flower where the petals were actually teeth.

How does one enable this kind of totally outrageous thinking from a structured game.

I start from a very simple structure and enable the minds to take a leap away in new , totally unpredictable directions. The teacher needs to encourage this adventurous thinking by not defining too closely the end-product of the lesson. it needs to be :

"Take this idea and run with it"

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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