What’s in a story?
Essentially everyone old enough to process language knows the basics of story and storytelling. We know that stories usually have characters, a setting, a plot, a conflict, and a theme. Together, these make up the narrative. But when does story become narrative learning, and why is it important?
Narratives learning is one of our first and most dominant forms of teaching. The stories people have told for generations beyond counting have passed down wisdom that preserved culture kept people alive. From tribal stories warning against eating poisonous foods to Greek mythology using heroes to teach cultural virtues, narratives have always conveyed cultural knowledge.
Stories connect us to experience and allow us to live out the lessons of a story through its characters. Of course, I can tell you that lying can harm your credibility. But, the story of the boy who cried wolf contextualizes that harm in a way that helps us understand the concrete consequences, not just the abstract ones. Beyond simple consequence, narratives can also teach empathy, making them an important tool for social education (Ruggiero, 2013).
Narrative Learning in Stories
Stories are always teaching, whether we intend them to or not. We don’t have a switch in our brain that allows us to turn on and off learning, so we can’t just not learn. Even when we aren’t explicitly setting out to learn, we pick up lessons from narratives. Narrative learning is happening even when the story isn’t told out loud. When a game has a plot and characters, players can experience narrative learning just as easily as if the plot were written in a book. In fact, in a game, the player can learn, even when the narrative is implied. Super Mario Bros. is a perfect example of this. The story of saving the princess is hardly ever mentioned, and yet every player understands that the game is a hero’s journey.
Simply put, players learn from narratives in games, whether we intend them to or not. So, how can we use these games and stories as narrative learning tools?
NARRATIVES IN GAMES
What exactly does it mean for a game to have a narrative?
The answer is pretty exciting, because it is tied directly to what it means to play a game. If you asked a player what they do in any given game, the answer would almost always be some version of moving the story forward through play.
In a game, the story and the player have a beautiful and unique relationship. Unlike book or a movie, a game can’t just play itself. In order for the story to move forward, the player has to take control and make that happen.
Certainly, if you walk away in the middle of a shootout in Red Dead Redemption, the story will continue just long enough for you to die, but then it ends. Without the player pressing the restart button, walking forward in Mario, taking turns in Civilization, or interacting with NPCs in Neverwinter Nights, nothing happens.
Narrative learning vs procedural learning
It’s worth noting that there is a big difference between narrative learning and procedural learning in games.
Procedural learning is how we learn through mechanics. That can mean anything from skill and drill educational games to complex systems that challenge us to understand everything from current events to environmental impacts.
Dr. Ian Bogost, author of How to Do Things with Videogames, was one of the first proponents of teaching through procedural learning. He believed that we should strive to understand games primarily through their mechanics.
If you want to learn more about procedural learning in games, check out the page on procedural rhetoric and procedural learning.
FRMEWORK FOR NARRATIVE LEARNING IN GAMES
There are many ways to approach teaching with game narratives. We hope to build a full list of those ways one day. For now, though, we present these four approaches as jumping off points for understanding how you can either research or use game-based narrative learning in your class.
Audience – Discussion / Classical
The traditional approach to narrative learning is just as applicable to games as it is to written literature. In this approach, the learner reads a book and discusses the content with the group, looking to learn through discussion what the narrative really means.
There is certainly nothing wrong with this approach. It has been the primary literature education approach for generations, after all.
However, this approach doesn’t necessarily capitalize on the affordances of games. In this method, the player takes on the role of an audience member, much like a reader. They become passive in the learning process rather than active in the co-creation of the narrative.
Goal – Obstruction – Means
You may recognize these three words as the core elements of gameplay. Players have a goal. The game obstructs that goal, but provides means to overcome obstructions. The act of employing those means becomes play.
But, what does this have to do with narrative learning?
Stories contain conflict. That is one of the primary elements of narrative. The conflict created by the player’s goals and the obstructions presented by the game result in a story. Sometimes that story is very obvious and explicit, sometimes it is implicit, and sometimes the story is one the player tells in their own mind. Regardless, players learn from this conflict, because they, as the player, are engaged in problem-based learning.
This approach is very closely tied to the idea of procedural learning discussed above. And, if you are looking to employ it in your classroom, you would probably benefit from checking out the procedural learning page.
Roleplay is one of the more explored aspects of narrative in games. In fact, we have our own entry on roleplay in the NASAGA blog. And even that entry only begins to explore the possibilities.
For the purposes of narrative learning, games and roleplay are support learning in ways that no other medium can. Rather than being an audience member, the player takes on the role of a character within the story, providing a vehicle for simulated experience. Experiential learning, or learning by doing, is one of the key affordances of games, and it is just as applicable to narrative learning.
There is no limit to how you can use roleplay through games to teach in your classroom. Teachers have used Assassin’s Creed to teach lessons on history, Civilizations to explore the impact of individuals on politics, and much much more.
Transformational Play Framework
By far the most fleshed out framework for understanding narrative learning in games was created by Sasha Barab, one of the creators behind Quest Atlantis.
His framework, Transformational Play, is a tool for educators and researchers alike to both design and understand education in game stories. Our blog has an entire article on the framework, but we’ll cover the basics here.
Transformational play is rooted in providing players agency. Barab posits that a player’s ability to change the story of the game is key to their learning. According to this theory, designers and educators should design games that use the content (the educational goal of the game) as the primary tool for the player to interact with the story. They can use the tool, history knowledge for example, to interact with the game. By employing that knowledge well (or poorly) they change the game world.
The goal of this framework is to let players explore the skills they may need and the consequences of using them. You can read more about the Transformational Framework here.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON NARRATIVE LEARNING
Narrative learning in games is a powerful tool, but one we have to be very careful with. Players, just like viewers of a movie or readers of a book, interpret a story in their own way. 100 people can read the same book and walk away with 100 different messages.
Our goal as games-based educators is not to just let the game story teach what it will!
Instead, we should always ask ourselves what we think the game is teaching through its narrative. Then, we should make sure we have that conversation with students to ensure they can explore their own interpretation in a productive way.
About the Author
Clayton Whittle is a Ph.D. candidate at Pennsylvania State University, focusing on games for social impact research. He serves on the board of NASAGA and handles the blog.
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Ruggiero, D. N. (2013). The Compass Rose of Social Impact Games. International Journal of Computer and Electrical Engineering, 5(6), 597–601. https://doi.org/10.7763/ijcee.2013.v5.780