Project Reflection: Culture at Home

"Culture at Home" Homepage

On paper, I feel like my plan to integrate pseudo-social interaction into the homeschool class I tutor was sound. While uploading the student’s essay onto a WordPress blog was relatively straightforward, using an integrated custom Google Map added a bit of flavor to what otherwise would have been a dull educational resource. When I first pitched my idea to the parents, they seemed generally interested; I took this as evidence that what I was creating would succeed—it did not. Unfortunately, some parents become wary of posting their child’s work on the blog itself. I don’t believe this has to do with it being on the Internet per se; rather, I believe they were self-conscious about their peers seeing the work of their kids. It’s hard to get annoyed by this—obviously they have their child’s best interest at heart. However, it was rather fascinating to see how enthusiasm for a concept can wane when it becomes a reality.

The student’s didn’t seem that enthusiastic about their role in the blog either. Since there isn’t much social interaction regarding their respective essays, I assumed that they would be naturally interested in seeing the work of their peers. Unfortunately, this proved to be false. Someone pointed out to me that getting people to leave “natural” comments in a public, online space is incredibly difficult. If you force people to do so—in this case, by making it a graded assignment—the comments become contrived. However, if you adopt my chosen approach of “wait-and-see,” you end up with nothing. It’s a difficult conundrum to crack.

All in all, this was still a great experience. Beyond the obvious benefit I’m now rather familiar with WordPress, I also learned that while feedback from your users is incredibly important, it’s by no means proof that your concept is faultless. In someway, I’m sure this knowledge will prove fruitful moving forward.

Link to blog


Show and Tell: Gaming the Past

With the topic of historical video games in mind, I happened to come across a pretty cool text called Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary History by Jeremiah McCall. In his text, McCall—a high school history teacher in Cincinnati—attempts to lay out a “game plan” of sorts when it comes to using video games as historical teaching aids. While I didn’t read the text in its entirety (the Kindle edition was thirty bucks) I was able to find a free preview of the first thirty pages on the publishers website.

McCall’s rationale and methodology are pretty cool—and from my perspective—seem pretty intuitive. McCall argues that the traditional, non-interactive method of teaching history breeds a sort of “intellectual passivity” in students (9). Rather than sticking with what he believes is an outmoded method of educating 21st century students, McCall proposes that history classrooms use “historical simulation” games. Now the games that McCall cites weren’t initially designed with educational use in mind; rather McCall proposes an educational repurposing of preexisting titles. One of McCall’s more prominent examples is Civilization and how it can teach students the realities of various forms of governments and their “real world” consequences. That’s not to say that McCall thinks Civilization could replace a well-taught high school civics course—he just believes that interaction begets cognition. For McCall, video games are simply another tool in an educator’s tool belt. With 2042 hack, one can make the game a lot more fun.

As a flipped through the first thirty pages of McCall’s text, I was struck by how perfectly it seemed it fit in with the general theme of this course. Throughout this semester—time and time again—we’ve discussed how useful digital resources can be when it comes to education. It’s great to see—to paraphrase one review—that McCall has created a “handbook” elucidating how an educator can implement these practices. While only in its infancy now, it  really seems like it’s only a matter of time before video games become a staple of classrooms across the country—and that’s pretty exciting.

Mystery House and the Evolution of the Narrative

Welcome to the Mystery House

The other Kirschbaum posts did a good job outlining Kirschbaum’s process of exploring Mystery House as well as explaining how it’s representation of formal materiality, so I figured I’d explore some other aspects of what make Mystery House fascinating. While Kirschbaum seems intrigued with the idea of Mystery House as an allographic document, I was interested by what the game says about the evolution and differences of various narrative forms.

Up until the creation of video games, narratives have been largely linear experiences. That’s not to say that the content of the narratives themselves are linear—we’re all familiar with the concept of flashbacks in stories—but the “reader” or “viewer” has always lacked agency in regard to how a story is told. When we’re reading a book, we can skip chapters or read them out of order if we so desire, but then we’re not experiencing the narrative the way the author intended. If we’re listening to the radio, watching a film in a theater, or viewing a dramatic performance of some sorts, we lack agency to an even greater degree—we simply sit there and watch the narrative unfold.

Video games are defined by user agency. When you play Pac-Man, you have the choice to go left, right, up down, to eat a power pellet, to eat a fruit, etc. The events that unfold during a session of Pac-Man reside solely in the hands of whoever is playing. But with games like Pac-Man, there’s no larger narrative. I wasn’t aware of this before I did a little research, but apparently you can’t beat Pac-Man; eventually you can only get so far before the game simply resets. The ultimate “story” of Pac-Man himself—whatever that is—ultimately goes unfulfilled. In this sense, Pac-Man is purely a game—it doesn’t possess the elements required for it to be a true narrative.

This is why Mystery House is fascinating. At its core, Mystery House is a narrative—its ultimate goal is to impart a story to the reader, or in the case, the user. The elements that make Mystery House a game are actually quite dull; typing in “GO UP” and “TAKE CANDLE” is fairly boring considering the game doesn’t require immediate action on the part of the user—it doesn’t test your reflexes like Pac-Man does. Mystery House does have its shares of puzzles, but, as Kirschbaum points out, they’re quite simplistic. The story of Mystery House is rather dull as well—it’s nothing more than an Agatha Christie knock off. In fact, when you break down Mystery House on paper, it doesn’t seem to be very compelling. But taken together, Mystery House becomes greater than the sum of its parts. It’s incredibly dated, but it serves as the perfect example for why video games have created an entirely new way to experience narratives. When you play Mystery House, it’s up to you how the story unfolds, or if you even get to experience the ending at all. You can’t “lose” when you read a book or watch a movie. If I were reading Catch-22, I wouldn’t have the ability to direct Yossarian’s course of action—but I can control the actions of the protagonist in Mystery House. I can’t change the ending, true, but ultimately I do control how I arrive there. This, in itself, is a seemingly unparallel quality when directly contrasted with other narratives.

But not quite.

As I’ve mentioned, you can’t control how a book, film, or drama is told. There are some exceptions, including those “Chose Your Own Adventure!” books we had as kids, but even then the reader is only experiencing a sort of simulated, artificial agency. Fascinatingly, the one narrative form that video games have most in common with is oral storytelling. Think about it: they both have an ultimate “Storyteller.” In the case of oral narratives, it’s the person telling the story—in video games, it’s the computer and the disk the game resides on. When you’re playing Mystery House, you’re told of the various environments and objects you encounter, but it’s up to you how you engage and interact with them. This quality is shared with oral narratives as well; when someone is telling you a story about going to the grocery store, you can ask them what store they were at, what time of day they went, what day of the week, etc. When you directly engage with an oral storyteller, you’re filling out the narrative and, in many cases, even pushing the story in new directions. Much like Mystery House, an orally told story has an ultimate, defined ending that you can’t change, but you have some control over how you arrive at said ending. Perhaps this is why video games have exploded in popularity over such a relative short time (~30 years) when compared to the growth of other narratives—they mimic the oldest, and most familiar form of story telling.

I think this is why something as mundane as Mystery House fascinates Kirschbaum. The ultimate goal of literary theory is to explore how the stories we tell define who we are—Kirschbaum is simply trying to push this study into unexplored territory.

Digital Project Proposal

I work for a small education program that focuses on taking groups of home-schooled children out to various historical sites and museums in the DC area. During these trips, the students usually have a writing prompt and must right a few paragraphs about their experiences and their observations. The program itself is fantastic; getting these kids out and about is always fun for both the students and the educations. Unfortunately, while I get read and enjoy the student’s short essays, there’s really no interaction between the kids themselves. Sure they talk to each other and generally socialize while we’re out, but since there is no true classroom environment, they don’t get to experience each other’s writings. It’s a shame that these kids are interacting and engaging in history, yet have no outlet to share their writings.

This isn’t just an issue for home-schooled children; kids in the traditional school system don’t have an audience beyond their classroom. When you went on a fieldtrip to the Lincoln Memorial as a kid, you were in awe, right? Wouldn’t it have been cool if you could have shared this experience with peers beyond your classmates? That’s why I want to create a resource that will allow students to share and discuss their experiences with history and historical sites in an online environment. When kids are in a classroom or talking to a teacher, they’re always under the pressure to be “right.” Why not give them the ability to engage each other in a more relaxed environment?

I’ll be Google Maps as a starting point. I like the idea of allowing the kids to add annotations (such as their brief essay about a specific historical site, their experiences, etc) to a map of DC, but at the same time I want to allow for dialog as well. If I were to link to this annotated map on a WordPress blog, the students could use the commenting feature to discuss the essay or experience at hand. By using an annotated Google Map in conjunction with the blog, there will be both a centralized community as well as an interactive visual component.

Right out of the gate, I’ll have an audience in the home-schooled kids I work with on a weekly basis. However, I mean for this resource to be available to all students and educations interested—education both traditionally and at home. High school aged students will most likely be my targeted audience demographic wise.

Brown’s Communicating Design: Design Briefs, Competitive Reviews, and Usability Testing

In Dan Brown’s Communicating Design: Developing Website Documentation for Design and Planning, he outlines three documents that play key roles in the planning process of any design initiative: design briefs, competitive reviews, and usability test plans. While these three distinct documents each serve different purposes, they all share a common goal of presenting their information in a clear and concise manner.

In the ninth chapter of his text, Brown describes a design brief as “a document describing the design problem and establishing a foundation of objectives, principles, and requirements.” Basically, design briefs are meant to start as both a project’s starting point and as a road map of sorts. Brown constantly harps on the fact that the best design briefs are relevant throughout the duration of a project. It’s incredibly easy to write a brief that will become outdated; thus, it becomes key to keep design briefs practical. A practical design brief that hits on the relevant design problems, supports statements with apt examples, articulates the logic behind various design decisions, and clearly delineates the projects boundaries will remain relevant for the projects entirety.

Brown then goes onto discuss the process of putting together a competitive review. In the words of Brown, a competitive review is a document created with the goal of “comparing one or more websites to a set of criteria or design principles to illustrate or validate those principles.” Basically, it’s a way to see how various design choices stack up against the competition. While Brown also notes that competitive reviews are a helpful when seeking design inspiration, they shouldn’t be the primary source for creative ideas. Rather, a useful competitive review clearly states what design elements are being gleaned from the various sites and how they pertain to the project at hand.

The final documents that Brown discusses are usability plans and usability reports. Over the course of any project, it becomes necessary to give real people hands on experience with whatever is being designed. Obviously you don’t just give a roomful of people access to whatever’s being designed and tell them to have it; strict scenarios and criteria for testing must be established. This is where usability plans come in. Simply described by Brown as “a document describing the objectives and approach for conducting a usability test,” a usability plan asks three core questions:

  1. “What do we want out of this test?”
  2. “How will we conduct the test?”
  3. “What will we ask users during the test?”

After creating a usability plan and administering the usability test itself, it comes time for the usability report. This is where the data from the usability test is compiled and succinctly presented. The ultimate goal of the usability report is to key in on the most important information and forge a “plan of attack,” as Brown puts it. From here, the project can move forward with the goal of correcting any issues that became evident during the usability test.