Stories, Games, and Learning through Play: The Affordances of Game Narrative for Education

Stories, Games, and Learning through Play: The Affordances of Game Narrative for Education

Stephen T. Slota (University of Connecticut, USA) and Michael F. Young (University of Connecticut, USA)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 26
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0513-6.ch014
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Stories are the mechanism through which humans construct reality and make sense of the world around them. Yet, literature on the effects of narrative in game-based and other learning environments is quite variable, and the relevance of narrative to the learning sciences is not well-researched. Identifying precisely how narrative intertwines with human experience of the lived-in world requires the application of a situated cognition framework to understand user-content-context interactions as dynamic and co-determined. This chapter uses examples drawn from a narrative-structured, game-based learning program to accomplish that goal, discussing in-context, on-the-fly dialogic interactions between narrative “producers” and “recipients.” While there is still much to learn, the leveraging of narrative to help recipients grapple with complex social, cultural, and intellectual issues may be one of the most important—and overlooked—means of inducing game-to-real world transfer.
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Stories may well be the primary mechanism through which humans construct reality and make sense of the world (Bruner, 2004). Yet, research aimed at reviewing and analyzing the influence of narrative in formal and informal learning environments is quite variable, and despite thousands of years of oral storytelling tradition across many world cultures, the relevance of narrative to theories of learning is not well understood or researched. Taking into account Clark, Tanner-Smith, and Killingsworth’s (2015) meta-analytical findings of the value-added aspects of games for learning, the issue appears to be just as prevalent in computer and game literature as other multimedia sub-categories, if not more so.

Consequently, this chapter is aimed at reconciling what is assumed with what is known about the psychological underpinning of narrative, both in general and in game environments, specifically. Through the use of examples drawn from our particular narrative-structured, game-based instructional program, Project TECHNOLOGIA, we address three major questions regarding narrative as part of teaching and learning:

  • 1.

    How can narrative be optimally characterized with regard to impact on learning?

  • 2.

    What are the specific affordances of storytelling and narrative structure for supporting classroom learning?

  • 3.

    What is the relationship between narrative, co-authorship, and learning?

We know that humans disseminate knowledge, encourage investigation, and promote creative acts through the stories they share, so isolating and defining the connection between story producers (i.e., those who create narratives in games and other media) and recipients (i.e., those who read, analyze, and discuss narratives in games and other media) should help us improve game and instructional design writ large. To that end, we present a situated view to further our narrative framework and describe the potential of narrative application for shaping understanding, goal adoption, and transfer from game and gamified classroom environments to applied, real world settings.



For decades, cognitive scientists have suggested that thinking and learning are representational, symbol-driven processes attributed to an internal mind and recorded by synaptic neurochemical brain exchanges (e.g., Miller, 2003; Vera and Simon, 1993). However, given the extent to which experience with the lived-in world affects goal adoption and behavior, the leap from a biologically and chemically-driven explanation of thought (e.g., Skinnerian behaviorism) to the deeply philosophical concept of a mind (e.g., Descartes) is quite broad. To compare the brain to computer hardware (e.g., making use of internal symbols and representations via schematic cataloging) set in a disembodied, intangible mind dilutes the granular, individualized interactions of particular people within particular contexts acting on particular life experiences (Dreyfus, 1992; Varela, Thompson, & Rosch, 1991). As a result, we suggest that it would be beneficial to conduct future learning science research with an eye toward the influence of individual life-worlds on perception and action (i.e., situated cognition; see Barab & Roth, 2006; Young, 2004).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Game Ecosystem: Games researchers must consider all interactions that emerge from gameplay, not simply those that occur within the boundary constraints of the game as conceived by the game’s designers. These include “meta-game” interactions (e.g., cheat, hint, player community forums) where games are discussed and strategies/play are analyzed outside the game. Peripheral contexts may hold equal or more value than games themselves as they draw on player reflection, analysis, and collaboration.

Fun: An emotional response that is orthogonal to play. Work tasks can be experienced as fun, and play can be experienced as un-fun (e.g., losing, playing a game for professional gain or high stakes competition).

Player-Game Interaction: The experience of gameplay that leads to student learning outcomes (SLOs) is co-determined by the player’s goals and intentions for play, and the affordances of a game serve as parameters for engagement as established by the game designers. Gameplay experiences are not always the experiences intended by the designers or those using the game instructionally since players can use game elements in unexpected and/or unintended ways (e.g., modding, hacking, trolling), some of which may have instructional value.

Affordances: The possibilities for action in the environment as co-defined by an organism’s perceptual detection systems (e.g., sight, smell, taste, hearing, proprioception) and mediated by the organism’s existing and emerging goals.

Game: A tool with design goals (e.g., boss fights, winning) that requires interaction with an environment—virtual or real—and can include simulated elements of reality (e.g., gravity, momentum) but is not limited by parameters of the real world. Games are governed by rulesets (both designed and emergent), take full advantage of imagination and creativity, often include scoring criteria and/or measurable win/loss outcomes (e.g., competitive among multiple players, collaborative with all players working to beat the game, an individual competing against the game or herself), and are explicitly directed toward playfulness .

Simulation: A goal-driven tool that requires interaction with an environment—virtual or real—and often shares some mechanics with games (e.g., points, missions, timers) but is explicitly designed to veridically emulate some real-world interaction, process, situation, or phenomenon (e.g., flight simulator, medical simulator). While simulations are also governed by designed and emergent rulesets, play is attenuated in order to represent the target interaction, process, situation, or phenomenon as accurately as possible . Naturally, the “real world” aspects of simulations add much to their educational affordances, but they are explicitly avoided in this chapter as a means of distinguishing them from games.

Situated Cognition: An approach to knowing and learning that draws from a variety of academic disciplines and whose shared approach describes knowing and learning as an inherently social interaction with the world including other people. It has roots in the epistemology of rationalism and models from the hard sciences that help to explain the cognitive science of thinking and learning rather than expanding on abstract models borrowed from information processing theory and traditional computer science.

Play: A behavior that is not always fun but involves thinking (i.e., cognition), strategy, rules, and often imagination and creativity in the context of a game setting and mechanics (e.g., scores, timed responses, competition).

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