In this post, the Teaching and Learning Centre’s Dr Ellis Saxey explores how games can be used to enhance learning in the classroom, sharing the example of how LSE Fellow Andrea Pia’s game ‘The Long Day of Young Peng’ has helped students see connections across course topics.
Games can be powerful learning tools. As simulations they can offer insights; as group experiences, they promote social learning; they can develop students’ reasoning and problem-solving skills.
One of the most interesting challenges in teaching with games is making sure the learning aims line up with the game mechanics. For example, it would be unhelpful to create a simulation of the Treaty of Versailles negotiations in which students can botch together a simple solution in half an hour. (This kind of conflict between gameplay and setting/content has been observed in games studies, and splendidly dubbed ‘ludonarrative dissonance’.)
Anthropology games could seem particularly susceptible to this mismatch. Anthropology and ethnographic work are exploratory, their findings ambiguous, and they require careful observation and genuine communication. Many games prioritise the opposite of this: they have objective rules, clear ‘win’ and ‘lose’ states, and they prioritise speed and competition.
Despite this, LSE Fellow Andrea Pia has created a game to use as a teaching tool – The Long Day of Young Peng – and in it has achieved a remarkable, mutually-supportive match between content and mechanics. (Andrea has worked with co-authors Marco De Mutiis, Digital Curator at Fotomuseum Winterthur and Tom Chambers of Random Quark; the game is being further developed, and is not currently available for the public to play.)
At the start of the game, the protagonist Peng is wandering around his rural Chinese village. ‘Peng’ is a fictional name given to a real individual that Pia met during his ethnographic fieldwork. Peng canvasses the opinion of family and neighbours, trying to decide whether (or when) to take the long bus journey to Beijing to seek work.
The game is built around text – Peng’s own thoughts, speech from other characters, and choices for further speech and actions. (Text adventures and interactive fiction have been undergoing a renaissance recently; if you’re unfamiliar with the form, it’s akin to a ‘choose your own adventure’ or Fighting Fantasy book.) The text adventure is an excellent format for demonstrating the extent of students’ understanding; students must actively weigh evidence, and make informed judgements, in order to progress. As Andrea argues, ‘the first-person mechanics confront students with questions about contemporary China that go beyond their ability to simply identify key words and concepts.’
The game not only tests students’ knowledge, but also immerses students in a culture and a situation. Much is hinted at or glimpsed. To get concrete information, players need to ask questions – of relatives, policemen, employers and strangers. The act of asking affects Peng’s relationships with them, and at times his security.
Peng’s migration involves a combination of necessity and agency, and this is mirrored by the balance between set pathways and choice ‘junctions’ which are fundamental to text adventures. Andrea planned this in part as a critique of disciplinary approaches: ‘The game pushes students to reflect about questions of individual agency, and the ways in which social scientific thought irremediably explains principal actors’ motives away via its analytical dissection of contextual variables.’ When I played, at times I was impatient to leave the village, but when I was finally offered the chance (‘it’s time to go’) selecting that choice felt risky and poignant.
Andrea has balanced the limited perspective of Peng through other game elements. Still photographs give rich detail: religious icons, ads on noticeboards, views of dry fields and migrant housing. In addition, at certain points extracts from field-notes are released, offering context – for instance, on rural water shortages caused by demand from the Olympics. The photos (including those in this post), and notes both come from Andreas’ fieldwork, conducted between 2007 and 2009.
Andrea’s planning extends beyond the game itself, and includes the use of the game in the seminar room. Students play in groups, as the need to make group decisions generates discussion and justification. One student commented in feedback: ‘One of the most important aspects of the game were the conversation it spurred in class, especially between western and Chinese students.’ Class discussion follows each section of gameplay, with Andrea quizzing students on their choices and connecting their experiences back to the course readings. Andrea has been their seminar tutor all year, and sees this as vital: ‘They need to trust you to believe the game is an addition to their learning.’
But however carefully the game was designed, Andrea was aware that students’ expectations of gaming might bring out unhelpful behaviours – for example, rushing through the game to the finish, to win. In the seminar I observed, students were worried that there were ’right’ answers among the choices, and some later student feedback confirmed this (‘me and my peers thought too much about making the choices, maybe because we all wanted to avoid the bad ending’). Two roles collide: the student’s desire to be correct reinforces the player’s desire to win. Andrea was able to clarify that there was no ‘right path’ through Peng’s day, and students happily settled into a more exploratory experience.
Overall, students were absorbed, at times frustrated by the consequences of their choices, and intrigued when they became involved in ambiguous scenarios. Student feedback has been highly positive: 27 of 31 student respondents agreed the game allowed them to see connections among the course’s different topics. Nearly all students agreed that the game made them empathise more with the life experience of migrants.
The students have been given one final opportunity to choose what happens to Peng. In the last gaming seminar, Andrea asked students to generate their own ideas of how the game should end (according to the game narrative they had played, and the readings for the course). Students then voted for their preferred endings, and Andrea will be working the three chosen endings into the final open access version of the game.
The Long Day of Young Peng has been written in Twine, an open source tool for creating text-based games. The game was developed using funding from an LTI IGNITE! grant. To find out more about LTI IGNITE! grants, including information on submitting an application for funding, visit the web page.