Thursday, May 29, 2014

Gamification Series Part 12: Narrative & Avatars

Speaking at GIE13 last summer, Professor Lee Sheldon made a fascinating point that I had never really considered.  

It it is not necessarily the graphics or technology that make a "good" game.  Instead, it is the ability to create a story that engages and enables players to become emotionally invested in the overarching narrative.  (paraphrased)

How can this concept be applied in a classroom?  One example is a project that Sheldon continues to develop at the Emergent Reality Lab at Rensselaer.  He described how RPI students are taught Mandarin and Chinese culture by playing a live-action role playing game.  From what I recall from his lecture, the back story involves students who are brought into custody in a Chinese airport and are being interrogated by authorities (role played by native Mandarin speakers at RPI).  Another new project by Sheldon is call These Far Hills, "a game that teaches engineering by following the adventures of an extended Irish family emigrating to Mars." Source

If this all sounds a bit wild to you, it did to me as well.  After considering this for a while, it did start to make sense that developing a narrative for the course could create a greater sense of purpose for students progressing through our gamified World History class.  With a few weeks to go in the summer of 2013, I decided to give it a shot and dove in.

Step 1: Narrative - "The Blueprint"

I decided to create a narrative that would attempt to tie in all of the major historical eras in the curriculum.  No easy task.  Ultimately, I went with a post-apocalyptic theme that required students to enter a virtual world in order to study the achievements and mistakes of historical civilizations.  The goal was then to develop a Blueprint for future societies based upon what was learned through study of these eras.  Here is a copy of the complete BLUEPRINT narrative.

After students completed all of the missions for each scenario, as part of the narrative, they needed to Report to Mission Control.  This assignment helped students reflect upon the era while also staying true to the narrative by considering how they could use their newly acquired knowledge to develop THE BLUEPRINT.

Step 2:  Avatars

Part of the story line is that a team of experts from different facets of society have been chosen to work in teams and embark upon this journey.  I therefore had students create avatars based upon certain classes of people.  Each avatar class has designated skills and expertise, but students then created their own back story for their avatar.  The classes included General, Judge, Senator, Professor, Business Leader, Artist, Scientist, and Citizen. Students could also create a new class if approved.  Complete Avatar Class List Here.


  • Try to develop a narrative that is broad enough to have appeal for the most students, yet not so vague that it is meaningless.  
  • Give students flexibility regarding their avatar and how it will play out in the story.  
  • Although there was enthusiasm to start, make sure to keep tying in the narrative and avatars.  If these components are not included and referred to regularly, many students will lose interest.   I made this mistake by Quarter 3 and had a difficult time getting traction moving forward. 
  • Consider making the narrative/avatar component optional.  For instance, if a student wants to progress through each scenario yet is disinterested in the back story, I would allow it (as I did this year).
  • Have fun with it, be creative, and include the students in the process!


Complete Gamification Series