bewilderED: An Experiment in Using Non-Digital, Transmedia Story Telling & Mystery for Exercise Science Education.

For a long time I have been obsessed with ‘The Mysterious Package Company’ which can be found here: Mysterious Package Company.You can read more about the Mysterious package Company at their website or here. Their tag line ‘Stories you can Touch’, really caught me, and I was instantly interested to find out more about this idea of physical stories. Although a bit pricey, I ordered one of their bespoke story experiences for my partner (The Weeping Book) and waited. We were not disappointed. A month later, a nailed shut wooden crate arrived, addressed to my partner who had no idea what this was or that it had been ordered for him (something that the company suggests for an authentic feel). And then began our journey. I wont spoil the story or go into detail about what was inside the package, but what I will say is that the package managed to balance the art of theatre with beautifully made props alongside the powerful engagement factors of mystery and storytelling, in order to deliver an experience that was quite unlike anything Ive ever experienced before. We are still trying to work out the puzzles that are so wonderfully hidden within the story and props, and the experience has given us lots to talk about.

My mind instantly thought of the work that we had been doing on escapED and how these experiences played with very similar themes (puzzle solving, story, props and the feeling of being involved in something much larger). I also thought on the theories surrounding the use of object play and storytelling play for children, and realised that experimenting with this type of method might have some interesting findings and outcomes for adult play at the level of University education (an area where the ideas of play are desperately needed more!). The three main things that really stood out for me though with ‘The Weeping Book’ and made me sit up and think.. this is where we should be developing our ideas, were the following thoughts:

1. this idea that the experience arrived out of nowhere, my partner didn’t know if this was real or not and I found this really powerful. The not knowing felt like an ARG but with a greater pull. I began to think how could we harness this for education? It felt so powerful, and I was immediately hooked when the crate arrived without warning!

2. the experience seems to keep giving. The more you look into it, the deeper the rabbit hole goes. Puzzles that weren’t there before, suddenly emerge, or you think about something in a slightly different light and boom! Mind blown! It offered a longer experience that we could come back to at any point.

3. I never knew this idea of non-digital transmedia storytelling existed (id seen digital transmedia but never this idea of using real props), but I instantly fell in love with the idea. I felt that it brought together all of the elements of game design, narrative design and theatre that I have always loved. I felt like a child again, uncovering some big Enid Blyton mystery!

So bewilderED was born. A spin off of the escapED series, this was to be the educational version of ‘The Mysterious Package Company’, at least in my head!

So with much enthusiasm, I explained the premise of the project to a colleague of mine, Michael Duncan, Professor of Exercise Science at Coventry University. Luckily, he was also super excited about using this method with some of his Master’s students. He had already developed and was teaching a module that asked the students to look over a fake sports personalities information and data in order to come up with a sports conditioning recommendation for them. The students at the end of the module are asked to present their recommendations via a 15 minute presentation to a fake company who ‘commissioned’ the students to deliver this information. Since the structure was already there, we decided to adapt this module to fit with the bewilderED method so we could compare the data of the new version with the previous version.  

Following the main concept used by ‘The Mysterious Package Company’, the idea that things are delivered through the mail and randomly turn up somewhere from unknown sources, was something that I wanted to try and emulate as much as possible. We decided that the materials were going to be delivered to the students classroom, seemingly from different outside sources, over a 4 week period in the following setup.

Week 1: Introduction to the students of the module by Professor Duncan. To start the illusion that the students were going to be experiencing working with real companies and the element of mystery around the materials and companies involved, we had the students sign an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) that they would not discuss any personal information regarding what they would see and experience within the next few weeks.

Week 2: The first pack would arrive. Addressed to Mike, the contents held a letter from the British Martial Arts Institute (false company), with instructions detailing what they wanted the students to do (provide a recommendation via presentation) and a physiological assessment report with ‘data’ for the BMAI’s ‘client’.

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Page of Fake Report from BMAI

The pack also indicated that they would be shortly contacted by the BMAI’s sister company: Power Prime Labs.

Week 3:  The second pack to arrive was from the sister company ‘Power Prime Labs’. This company was responsible for providing the ‘client’ with supplements. A letter contained in the pack, detailed how they would like the ‘client’ to use the supplement ‘NITRO-Train’, and promised enhanced performance. Alongside this letter was a flyer for NITRO-Train and a sample pack of the NITRO-Train supplements (completely safe for the students to consume, made up by Professor Duncan).

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NITRO-Train Flyer found within Week 3s Pack

 Week 4: The third and final pack to be delivered, would be slightly different from the previous two packs. Contained in a plain envelope, a usb stick containing videos of a Muay Thai fight and an interview between a Trainer and a Muay Thai fighter. The videos and interview, would all contain information that alluded to the idea that the fighter was struggling with certain things; psychological issues, training issues, problems with supplements etc). Unlike the previous two packs that obviously came from corporations, this pack had underlying hints that it may have come from the fighter themselves. A cry for help almost.

Week 5: Students are asked to present their findings and overall recommendations to the BMAI company regarding their Muay Thai client. The students believe that a good presentation might land them a real job at this company.

Following the rundown of the packages each week from the different ‘sources’, it was hypothesised that the students should face some challenging ethical issues. They should believe that they are in with a chance of achieving a real job from the BMAI if they present a good client recommendation. However, based on the information they are given, they will need to make a choice about whether they report that the client shouldn’t necessarily take Power Prime Labs supplements (BMAI’s sister company) based on the final packs information.

How the students present their information, and how they’ve thought about the overall welfare of the ‘client’ will all lead to their final grade from the module. The narrative of the ‘client’ and their relationship to the companies, BMAI and Power Prime Labs, provided through the packs is vague and shrouded in mystery enough to allow the students to make their own conclusions as to what they believe the real motivations of each fictional player  in this module is. Used alongside the element of props that they can use, feel and believe are real artefacts, a level of believability was hopefully added to the whole performance.

Currently we are in Week 3 of the experiment. Reports so far have indicated that students have shown assertiveness in leadership in their groups and are inquisitive to the packages that are being ‘delivered’. The students have also tried the ‘NITRO-Train supplements, with some reporting that they feel an increase in their performance (these supplements are placebo pills with no effects).

Following the end of the module, our plan is to run a focus group at the end of the project to report on overall student opinions and feedback. We are planning to focus on various areas such as motivation, engagement, power of mystery, the use of story, use of props and the illusion of reality. I am really looking forward to seeing whether this method of delivering a module, actually encouraged active participation within the students and if so, what were the elements that they found to be the most powerful in their learning experience. Once we have the data we are planning to publish this further, and if we find successful results, we are planning to adapt this method further for other subject areas as well as other ares of Exercise Science.

 

 

Developing Interactive Fiction with Learning Objectives for Fostering Player Choice & Ownership in Education.

*** Link to Google Drive Folder: Free resources for structure of your own IF – https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B5n4fpxFh7ENZ3RnTF9kQWpoaVE

Under CC license – use and modify for own purposes but credit ‘Samantha Clarke, Disruptive media Learning Lab, Coventry University’ for origins.***

Most people are familiar with the paradigm of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books, but for those who are not familiar, wiki defines these books as:

“Choose Your Own Adventure is a series of children’s game books where each story is written from a second-person point of view, with the reader assuming the role of the protagonist and making choices that determine the main character’s actions and the plot’s outcome.

The player is asked to choose a path that they wish to take at key moments in the story or asked to roll a die/other random generator to select a path, allowing for the player to experience an individual route through a non-linear branching storyline. The player often feels more of an emotional connection to this process because they have had some influence on the outcome of narrative and therefore feel a sense of ownership over the choices they have made within the process. Tom Kuhlmann’s “3C model” to construct scenarios or interactive e-learning in his Rapid E-Learning Blog describes a 3C process in order to create digital-based, interactive choose your own adventures. The 3C’s are as follows:

Challenge: Pose the challenge to the player/reader. What are the problems they face and how is the emotion conveyed/fostered?

Choices: What are the choices available to the player/reader to deal with the challenge that has been posed?

Consequences: Your player/reader has selected a choice, what is the outcome from the choice they made? Are they better or worse off? Has it opened up the story further?

This is a great model in order to remember the basic principles of creating choose your own adventures and adequately describes the mechanics process at the fundamental level. Of course when you talk about interaction fiction and branched scenarios, inspiring connection and emotion from your players is a little more complex and requires a flair for creative writing.

There are some really great examples out there of digital choose your owns and interactive fictions for both entertainment (Trapped in Time (Simon Christiansen, PDF), Hadean Lands (Andrew Plotkin, Glulx), and education (look at work from Dr. Zorn who is based in York University). And whilst I am all for digital versions of choose your owns and IFs, I personally am more interested in developing physical books (such as the FF book series by Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone) and props for this type of experience. Why? Well I believe allowing your players to play through a physical experience of something, allows for another level of emotional connection. Through the use of props, I believe you can create a really great haptic experience that stimulates the senses and enhances the storyline of the adventure. The element of mystery and intrigue can be embedded into these props to add puzzle-solving elements, and due to a physical space being adopted, these experiences could be made for multiplayer purposes, allowing for collaborative learning. In this area, I have recently been inspired by the work of Gisken Day and her experiences that use props to spur conversation and reflection. You can connect with her and her work here: Gisken Day.

So, in a bid to start experimenting in this area of using physical choose your owns for higher education/learning, I set about making a prototype in which we could plan a layout, structure and mechanics of a choose your own in which we could then adapt for various learning objectives at a later date.

I set about creating a story or fan fiction as it were, that was based loosely on a Stephen King novel. The story itself I felt was fairly easy to write, however it took me a long time (longer than anticipated) to figure out the structure.

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As seen in the photo, it was very much trial and error to create the structure without any software (there are many out there such as Chatmapper), which to be honest would have helped if I had had the foresight to use (yes thats a paintbrush linking two paths!).  But essentially the structure ended up becoming the following formula:

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In this formula, players are presented with a starting piece of the story and given a challenge. They are offered a choice of either path A or B. Once they select a path of either A or B, they are presented with the consequences of their actions and another series of choices depending on the path taken, path A provides the choices A1, A2 or A3 and path B provides the choices B1, B2 or B3. Moving forward from here, the players, depending on the choice they pick, for an example lets say they chose to follow path A and then chose the path A1, are presented once again with the consequences of their actions and then a final ending choice of either eA1.1, eA1.2 or eA1.3. This was the basic structure that I settled on, as this could be expanded or condensed depending on the needs of the story/learning objectives. Within this structure each path way could contain a valuable learning objective for a player to explore or the whole experience could be used as part of a reflective exercise to show different outcomes of real-life scenarios (nursing/medicine/crisis management/business management etc.)

Once this structure was in place, I wanted to explore interesting ways in which players would be able to get from path to path. I settled on two options to play through the experience, offering the player/facilitator options to suit their needs.

The first option is the traditional, allow the player to choose which option they feel they would do in that situation. This allows for a fully player-led experience with the motivations and engagement properties that player choice and ownership offer.

The second option was to use Tangram geometric puzzles and a timing system to choose the paths for the player to follow. Based on the time it took for the player to complete the puzzle, this would lead to a designated path. This idea meant that time could be the factor that affected the outcomes, based on how quickly or slowly the player took equalled how long the player took in the game to respond to something that was happening. In this option, it was determined that different types of puzzles could be used in place of Tangrams depending on the depth of connection with the story and whether the puzzles themselves could be a deeper level of understanding for the story (uncovering extra materials).

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Once this main structure was put together, I harnessed the power of help from my colleagues at the DMLL (Rebecca Morris and Olly Wood) to start constructing the real prototype that could be used to show how the experience worked.

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Above shows Becky creating the system for the prototype and the layering of each of the paths for the physical experience, and below is the final experience compiled together into a folder.

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As previously stated, I am really interested in how props and theatrics enhance the experience of the story and whether they foster a greater emotional engagement in the overall narrative. In each path that held the main branching storylines, physical props (made by Olly Wood) such as maps, shopping lists, photos etc were added with the exert of story. My plans are to include in a future evaluation of the experience whether or not props increase emotion/attachment to the narrative/experience to determine whether they have any meaningful affect on the players for future development.

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Whats Next?

Now we have a fully completed prototype, our first exercise into adapting this for educational purposes, is to target the dry area of Research Methods. Currently we are assessing and developing learning objectives in which we can build into a structure that follows the prototype experience. Once this is completed, we hope to trial this with both undergrads and masters students within both Coventry and Salford Universities.

Further work to be considered that I would like to follow up on with this type of experience, is to develop a few different types of puzzles that could be integrated in place of the Tangrams which could have a deeper meaning/ uncovering of additional paths.

Would you like the format that we used to develop your own?

If you would like a template of the format that we used to construct the prototype then I am happy to provide you this for free, just send me a pm/email. All I ask is that you credit myself and the Disruptive Media Learning Lab, Coventry University, if you use the template in any experiences you create yourself.