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.

 

 

escapED: how to design interactive, live-action, game-based learning.

It’s been a while since my last post (sorry!) due to several work/life distractions. One of those distractions is what I’d like to share with you today; escapED. What is escapED I hear you cry? Well this is a new programme that we’ve been developing here at the Disruptive Media Learning Lab, to become a part of the Game Changers initiative. We’ve been working hard to get a prototype session up and running ready for next weeks; Coventry University, EEC Innovation Day for staff development.

So how does it work? Well, escapED is a programme to primarily aid the design and development of interactive, live-action, game-based learning (GBL) experiences. escapED has been adapted from traditional Escape Rooms and Live-action gaming experiences (think Crystal Maze and Knightmare and you’ve got the general idea) and has been given an educational twist. The beauty of escapED is that it can tick several boxes that other game-based learning applications cant and have struggled with before. I will say now that escapED will not be for everybody and will certainly not provide all of the answers for playful learning, however, I believe that this may be the start of a closer look at how we can bring GBL quickly and easily into higher/further educational establishments to provide more enjoyable and interactive learning experiences. Here are 11 reasons for believing this:

  1. It appeals to a wide audience (data indicates equal participation from both genders and a wide age range within traditional Escape Rooms play).
  2. It can be adapted to almost any subject through using puzzles and riddles to achieve desired learning outcomes. Want to create an interactive induction day for your students? No problem! Want to create a learning experience entered on engineering challenges? No problem! … you get the idea.
  3. It can help support Flipped and Disruptive learning techniques. Puzzles can become part of the experience of student-led learning.
  4. escapED can be designed to be multi-disciplinary and provide cross-collaboration opportunities, allowing staff and students to come together and put their skills to the test through a live-action experience.
  5. escapED can be made quickly and can be easily changed to reflect the needs of the learners. No programming necessary!
  6. Students and staff can make their own experiences to challenge their peers as part of the learning process.
  7. Players can develop their soft skills such as communication and collaboration as part of the experience.
  8. The only limit is the creativity behind the design and development of the experience. Themes, puzzles, props, actors… the list can go on depending on how low-key or detailed you want to make your experience.
  9. It doesn’t take as much time as you think! I won’t lie, there is an additional effort to creating these experiences, however, I believe the extra effort is worth the end result. Read from a powerpoint vs engaging with an object and real people to solve a problem… I know which option I would choose.
  10. People will be talking about it for ages. Did you get this puzzle? What was this about? How did you..? Seriously, in just one days worth of testing, the groups used for testing were buzzing long after the event discussing puzzles and riddles.
  11. Finally, its super fun! I mean really, REALLY fun. The DMLL is talking about visiting a traditional entertainment Escape Room in Birmingham for ‘Team Building’ and I can’t wait. Imagine engaging your students/staff so much that they “can’t wait” to take part in your next session.

Now I could go on about the benefits of adopting escapED as a paradigm for creating live-action game-based learning, but that is for you guys to determine yourselves. I shall be updating and writing about how the prototype goes after next week and will hopefully have some more concrete evidence to support escapED after the training event.

But before that, I would like to present the escapED framework that was developed to help create the prototype experience.

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escapED Framework – Samantha Clarke & Sylvester Arnab. 2016

As you can see, the framework is split into 6 main categories:

  1. Participants
  2. Objectives
  3. Theme
  4. Puzzles
  5. Equipment
  6. Evaluation

Within each section is presented some core themes that you may wish to explore/develop upon for creating your own live-action game-based learning experience. Let us break down the elements and discuss what each section means and why you should consider each sub-heading before development.

  1. Participants
  • User Type: Consider your intended players/users (Please see User Identity for a more detailed explanation. But the basic premise of this step is that staff may have different needs/expectations than students (learning objectives). Age and backgrounds can influence your decisions in making the game. Example: Media staff and students may be put off from lots of maths based questions (this actually happened during testing this week!). Use your initiative and make sure you consider your players to create truly enjoyable experiences.
  • Time: How long do you want your experience to take? Do you want a quick session to run no longer than 15 minutes or something that is more complex that could span hours, days, weeks…. etc. Setting this straight at the beginning will allow you to judge just how many/how complex your puzzles should be. There is no point in designing the next ‘DaVinci Code’ if you are only setting aside 15 minutes for the experience.
  • Difficulty: This is where consideration of your intended users should play a part. You might want to scale the difficulty of puzzles for different levels of players such as college students, undergrads, post grads, doctorates and staff. Alternatively you could create a series of experiences and label the difficulty as easy, medium, hard and super duper extreme mode, and allow your players to pick and choose what they would like to try (Im a fan of this approach as it gives the players some control of their experience).
  • Mode: mode = how is the room/experience supposed to be …well…experienced (like a time or a competitive mode in video games). Some suggestions for this as follows:

– Cooperation based: Players work together to solve/escape the experience.

-Competitive based: Players compete to be the first to figure out the objectives.

My modes are named as follows;

  1. Mode 1 – All by Myself: A personal experience, self-directed motivation for beating the experience.
  2. Mode 2 – Stand By Me (SK anyone?): Team-based experience which can either be a co-op or competitive session (multiple teams competing for best time/against each other).
  3. Mode 3 – Flipped Out: This mode brings in flipped and disruptive learning techniques to enhance the players experience. Example: Players can be given materials to review before coming to engage in the experience. Clues and hints to solving the puzzles can be hidden in these materials.
  4. Mode 4 – Whats in the box John?! (please tell me someone gets that reference): A single box/crate/briefcase can be used instead of a full blown room for recreating escapED as a table-top exercise.

Although I’ve given a short selection of modes, you can make up as many different modes as you like to fit your needs.

  • Scale: How many people are you planning to cater for with your experience? Its best to start off small but if you are feeling confident then there is nothing stopping you from creating experiences for 60+ people. However, a consideration of intended room size and area needs to be addressed at this stage.

2. Objectives

  • Learning Objectives: Just like any other lesson plan or learning experience, escapED requires some thought concerning what are the learning objectives that you are trying to achieve with the session? These objectives can be worked into the theme, its puzzles and mode to help structure the learning plan. Creating tangible learning objectives allows you to evaluate your players learning experience, learning achievements and iteratively re-design if needed at a later date.
  • Solo/Multi-Disciplanary: Will your experience be created to solve one fields discipline or multiple fields? Personally, i love the idea of bring in University students and staff in from a range of subjects and asking them to work together to solve the room. Puzzles could be designed to appeal to a wide range of types and backgrounds.
  • Soft Skills: Interactive live-action games are by their very nature, great for helping develop those soft skills such as communication and leadership. How will you challenge your players to develop these in your experience? In our prototype session we have the players split into two rooms with their only communication being Skype. Hilarious to watch and interesting to see how they communicate their rooms and puzzles to each other.
  • Problem Solving: What types of problem solving challenges are going to make the experience interesting to your players? Remember that all learners are different and therefore will enjoy a range of different challenges.

3. Theme

  • Escape Mode: As traditional entertainment escape room theme; get out of the locked room in a set time.
  • Mystery Mode: Solve the mystery in a set time.
  • Narrative Design: Whats the story morning glory? Er.. I mean, what is your experience all about? Is it Zombies? Sherlock Holmes? Crazed Tibetan Monks turned into Ninja Monkeys? Any theme that you choose needs to have a compelling story. Good story telling = happy, engaged players who want to know more about your experience.
  • Stand alone/Nested: Is your experience a one off session or part of a larger, nested experience that can run across months or a year? Nested experiences give a great opportunity to allow people to feel like they are working towards something greater but present a few challenges like maintaining player engagement across the time planned.

4. Puzzles

  • Puzzle Design: The challenging but fun aspect of creating your experience. Puzzles and riddles make your experience interesting and are ultimately what these experiences are about.
  • Reflect Learning Objectives: Refer to your learning objectives and theme to ensure that puzzles reflect the overall goals of the session.
  • Instructions/Manuals: Good experiences have clear, set instructions and rules. This is a good time to make a note of anything you don’t want your players to touch or to explain the nuances of your session. Integrating this with your theme can help to set the backstory of your experience. Do the players require extra instructions whilst playing? If so think about additional ‘manuals’ that can be made up to look like game props.
  • Clues/Hints: Everyone gets stuck once in a while, and good Escape Rooms are notoriously hard. Think about how you are going to give clues in the rooms (if at all) and how you would deliver hints whilst outside/away from the players. Playing a character can help so as not to break player immersion/fantasy. Hints can also be delivered directly via computer/phone to the players if needed.

5. Equipment

  • Location/Space Design: Location, location, location! It really does make an experience, especially if you are expecting to trap people together for a set about of time. Ensure there is enough space and it is comfortable to move around. It really goes without saying but i will anyway..don’t put your players anywhere, where there is a high possibility of them getting hurt and be conscious of your players well being. Other than that, make your environment as realistic as possible within your means. This will help foster player engagement and belief of your intended theme.
  • Physical Props: Puzzle props, red-herrings + general environment items, these are thing that you will need to make a compelling and workable experience. Imagine your experience is the same as a play, you’ve chosen your stage and now you need to dress it. Be wary of players who will try anything to complete your experience. (I’ve read one company had to use odd shaped screws to stop players from dismantling their game rooms!).
  • Technical Props: If you are thinking of using technology to enhance your experience then great! Computers, VR, Augmented Reality, GPS and location-based identification, can all really bring something to these experiences. The downside is that as with all technology, you run the risk of things going wrong/crashing/general not wanting to work/player unfamiliarity. Proceed with caution and ensure lots of testing with these elements, but when they work, get ready to see happy players.
  • Actors: This really is where I think cross-disciplinary works well. Imagine getting on board your University’s/College’s  drama department and letting them help create your experience. Need a zombie or a dying victim? Perhaps a hostage? Either way, having real-life actors helps concrete the experience further as believable. Actors can also be used as timer indicators or can give out hints if they see the players are getting stuck.

6. Evaluation

  • Testing: Now that you hopefully have all of your elements ready to create your game, spend some time testing with others before going live. You will most likely find (as I did) that I had created puzzles that were too hard to solve in the time that was intended. There were other puzzles that just made no sense and could only be known through testing. This gives you time to get feedback from testers and re-design what is needed before allowing the intended players to experience your session.
  • Reflection: You’ve now allowed your intended players to experience your session and it’s the moment of truth. Did they learn anything from your session? If so what? and more importantly did they have fun? What was the most interesting thing? What worked? What didn’t? How would they make it better? Talk about the learning objectives and did they feel that they achieved them? A focus group session/feedback sheet may be useful to help gather information.
  • Evaluate Learning Objectives: Here is the time to make a more formal evaluation of the learning objectives that you may have set for your experience. This can be done via your own preferred methods.
  • Adjust: Use the feedback to provide informed decisions on how to adjust your experience if so needed. This is a good opportunity to use iterative design and developing or action-led development to help refine your experiences.
  • Re-set: If you are running multiple sessions back to back, make sure you develop a re-set sheet. A re-set sheet is a list of all puzzles/riddles and intractable objectives within your experience that need to be checked over to ensure they are in the correct state before the next group. I can imagine nothing more frustrating than getting half-way through an experience to find something broken.

And there you have it, a very long and much over due post! As previously mentioned, I plan on updating next week after our first prototype session with some of the staff at Coventry Uni, ECC department.

Signing off.