Hap Aziz, a doctoral researcher in the use of interactive fiction for education, is creating an educational game about Colonial Williamsburg. The Historical Williamsburg Living Narrative is currently gathering funding through Kickstarter.
Hap was good enough to talk to me about his approach to the educational aspects of the project: why he chose this particular period, the teaching aims of the game, how it relates to other IF he’s encountered, and his wishlist of IF tools for educational gaming.
ES: Why did you pick Williamsburg as your first subject?
Hap: There are several reasons I decided to go with Williamsburg the first time out. The first is my own childhood connection; it was regular a family vacation spot during my childhood years, and then in late high school and early college, I went several times with my best friend who also shared a fondness for the city. Now as a father I have taken my family there several times over the past few years, carrying on the tradition.
But what makes it so attractive to me as a game environment setting is the almost isolated aspect of its geography. The historical part of the city is “set apart” from the entirety of modern Williamsburg, and the majority of the historical part has been faithfully restored to its 18th century splendor. Because so many of the buildings are open to the public, building accurate maps of the various locations down to every detail of appearance should be a fairly straightforward process. When I considered that aspect of the city, it clicked for me that Williamsburg is an ideal location for an Interactive Fiction period piece based on actual history.
ES: What age/grade range of students do you imagine as the primary audience for this project?
Hap: I see the game being something of value for students studying civics content that typically falls around the freshman or sophomore years of high school. Younger students may enjoy exploring the physical layout of the city, but they may not be able to appreciate the narrative aspects of the movement toward American independence.
ES: What sorts of goals are you giving the player? Do you see this primarily as a game, or primarily as a teaching experience?
Hap: Originally I had envisioned the project as being primarily a teaching experience based on exploration and discovery, but I realized that without a plot line for engagement (recalling Seymour Papert’s essay “Does Easy Do It?”), it would have limited appeal. So I envisioned a two-phased approach, in which the result of the first phase would be a teaching experience with a good game play foundation. In the second phase, I would add an additional plot line separate from the historical time line, allowing students or game players to focus on the aspect of most interest to them.
ES: What objectives do you have about the kinds of things students will learn about history? Names, dates and facts? Interpretive strategies? Research skills? Something else?
Hap: One of the fascinating things to me about the events surrounding American independence is that there was so much disagreement and debate regarding whether or not the colonies should dissolve their bonds with England. Much like today, the political landscape in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War was extremely polarized, and passions were strong on both sides. So while there will be a good helping of names, dates, and other historical facts to provide time line sign posts, the main objective is to provide a context for the richness of the arguments on all sides regarding independence so that students will be able struggle with the issues and use their own reasoning to decide for or against separation from England. In fact, one of the key moments of the game (first phase), will have the player participate in the vote for or against independence.
ES: How will the game or supporting materials allow teachers to assess student learning?
Hap: I will be providing a set of assessment materials that will help teachers frame multiple choice or essay tests either around factual data or interpretation or the events that occurred (e.g., “The day of humiliation, prayer, and fasting was organized in support of which colony?” or “What was Lord Dunmore’s intent in offering freedom to the slaves?”).
ES: One of the things I really liked about The Chinese Room (an educational puzzle game about various philosophical topics) was the way it introduced concepts and then made the player prove familiarity with them before moving forward. Voices of Spoon River did something similar at least some of the time, though I felt some of the puzzles weren’t really about literary interpretation.
Do you envision doing something like this where the student player needs to demonstrate comprehension to make progress and finish the game, or do you see it more as a purely immersive experience?
Hap: I love the idea of having students demonstrate comprehension before moving forward, but I’m concerned with the time frame of development. So at this point, my first phase development will likely focus on the immersiveness of the experience, and a subsequent release will add comprehension puzzles. I will be soliciting feedback after the initial release from educators regarding the types of puzzles that would be most effective in this regard. I could be surprised by the Kickstarter effort and end up with funding that greatly exceeds my goal, in which case I may be able to add developers to the project and implement those puzzles sooner rather than later. However, I’m not planning on that.
At some point in the future I would like to be able to add reporting metrics that show the areas of the game in which the students spent the most (or the least) amount of time, where they had conversations with NPCs, and what events they witnessed as a part of their game play experience.
ES: That’s an interesting point, and the desire for those types of assessment tools is something I’ve occasionally heard put forward by other teachers. Have you looked at all into hooking into the functionality of Parchment, which can keep track of player transcripts online, and maybe doing something with extending that?
Hap: I’m intrigued by the extensibility of Parchment, and I’m curious enough to want to know if I could use Parchment to develop a dashboard of sorts that provides user statistics for the game in order to give teachers some indication as to what’s happening inside the play environment. I could see utility in saving transcripts especially for assignments that might involve having students engage NPCs and “mine” for specific information.
Another possibility that I like is to use Parchment as the framework for a collaborative version of the game. Players could engage other players as well as NPCs, but from an assessment standpoint imagine a mechanism whereby teachers could actually get inside the game and observe what their students are doing or even interacting with the students as part of the assessment process. This sends my thoughts down the path of an IF version of the movie The Matrix.
ES: Are there extensions or tools (for assessment or for other purposes) that you wish existed that would make it easier to build educational IF or make IF more accessible to teachers?
Hap: Oh, yes, certainly. I think that one of the great challenges to bringing more gaming into the classroom is the fact that there is such a high barrier to creation in terms of time and expense resources. Teachers need tools that will allow them to create content quickly and inexpensively so that the results can be integrated into the curriculum on an as-needed basis. Few tools allow that now (especially with a low threshold of technology experience on the part of the teachers). Inform 7 is one of the most accessible tools in my opinion, but I’d love to see a GUI front end in which the physical layout of a game, including inventory items, can be laid out in a graphical way, drag and drop. The initial environment set up could go so quickly, and the process of designing the map would actually result in an executable version of the game world.
In terms of assessment, I’d like to see a way of (more) easily mapping in-game puzzles back to particular assignment grades. So for example, if a student were unable to solve the “Hidden Chamber Door” puzzle in a game, a grade might be able to be assigned based on the complexity of the puzzle, the closeness to the solution reached by the student, and so on. This, however, would require a game environment in which none of the puzzles were linearly dependent on any other puzzle.
ES: Will the results be suitable for self-teaching and/or homeschooled students?
Hap: Yes, I think so (it’s certainly one of my hopes for the game). If the students are aware of the assessment materials before beginning the game so that they may frame their thinking during play, that will enhance the game’s effectiveness as a teaching tool. However, as long as they follow through with the first phase plot, there will be value in terms of realized educational outcomes. I see the home schooling market as a very good potential audience for the game, using it as supplemental material to a solid American history lesson plan.
ES: You mention you’re planning to show the students the “events leading up to the Declaration of Independence” — is this something you’re planning to implement as a plot line in the story?
Hap: The first phase version of the plot will place players in the role of a representative in the Virginia House of Burgesses in the early 1770s, and the game will follow a timeline leading up to July 4, 1776. The key events that occurred in Williamsburg during that period of time, as well as numerous minor events in Williamsburg and news of events from the other colonies will play out with historical fidelity.
Throughout, players will witness and be able to participate in many of the events while interacting with NPCs that provide their interpretation of the significance of everything that goes on. One of the key moments of the game involves players being able to cast their vote regarding the motion for independence (and this is one of the areas in which there could be some deviation from historical accuracy). The depth to which the player wants to become involved with the events of they day will be a matter of preference (and possibly one of assigned requirements).
After having done a fair amount of research already regarding the history of the Revolutionary War and of Williamsburg in particular, I feel strongly that the narrative around the actual occurrences is compelling on its own, and will provide a wonderful foundation for an engaging story line.
ES: When you say there might be some deviation from historical accuracy, does that mean you’re going to let the student divert the course of history and explore what might have happened if some linchpin events had gone differently? I can see that potentially being both really appealing and a huge amount of work.
Hap: Certainly in the first release version, I’m going to tightly control the historical aspects, and there won’t be any outcomes different than what actually occurred, other than the actual vote and the name of the player character. Since I don’t want the player to simply walk through the life of one of the citizens of Virginia, the character played will be entirely fictional, though in keeping with appropriate historical characteristics. However, a pivotal moment in the game will come during the vote of May 15, 1776, in Williamsburg that instructed the delegation at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to vote for independence. Historically, that vote in Williamsburg was unanimous. But since the player has a choice to vote either way, the game outcome could possibly be one short of unanimous.
The “what-if” aspects are very interesting to consider, though, and if possible, I could see working in what-if outcomes in the possible conversations that the player might have with NPCs. So what the actual outcome of other events would not change, the player could still appreciate the impact of different courses of action. (“What if we don’t have our day of humiliation, prayer, and fasting?” the player asks. The random merchant in the tavern responds, “Why, we must support our sister colony to the north in this way! If the Crown feels the ability to trample on our freedoms unrestrained imagine the potential for even further curtailment of our ability to trade equitably…” and on and on.)
ES: Are there other works of IF that you see as examples of the kind of educational experience you want to offer, or is this project really distinct from things you’ve seen before?
Hap: Interestingly, the answer to this question comes back to you to some degree. There was an early version of a game I played called Major Charles Boulton and the Northwest Rebellion Interactive Historical Fiction by Shawn Graham that started my mind working in the direction of using IF as a classroom resource. I read an article some time ago in which he stated that he wanted to have his NPCs behave as more than sophisticated chatterbots, and that your title Galatea was a model for him.
Another game that I enjoyed, especially from the historical perspective was 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery by Peter Nepstad. The game is pretty impressive in scope and attention to detail, and there is great enjoyment in the exploration of the environment. But I’m hoping that after the addition of my second phase of content (interweaving a second plot line through the historical setting and original objectives) will bring something unique to the marketplace.
ES: One of the things that really deepened the sense of setting in “1893” was Peter Nepstad’s use of period photographs. Do you also plan to have illustrations? Supporting maps?
Hap: While the game itself will be a traditional text-only IF title, I will be providing supplementary photographs as well as a basic map of 18th century Williamsburg stretching from the Governor’s Palace to the Capitol Building. In addition, since a large part of my research materials will be publications from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, I will likely provide a list of those materials for educators and other interested parties to obtain copies for their own use.
ES: Your production schedule looks quite ambitious, and you’ve mentioned you’re looking for collaborators to help you write NPC content. How are you planning to coordinate this process? Will your collaborators be working from outlines of the educational content you want included, or will they also be researching and producing their own content?
Hap: This is part of the process that I plan on settling during the remainder of the Kickstarter funding period. In terms of research and the development of educational content, I’ll be doing the majority of that directly or working very closely with a small team of people who are familiar with my vision for the game (which might just come down to my lovely wife helping here). For collaborators on NPC behavior and interaction, I may recruit from a pool of game design degree students and graduates that have experience in Inform 7. I’ve built game design courses and programs for several colleges, and I’ve taught game design for quite a few years. As a result, I have a fairly extensive network of eager freelancers that might be willing to contribute their time and talents to the project.
ES: What are you hoping will come out of this in the long term?
Hap: Ultimately, if I see some moderate interest in this game, I’d like to expand the idea to other historical locations such as St. Augustine, Florida, Charleston, South Carolina, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and so on. Some places may be better suited to specific events and tighter timelines (such as Gettysburg), while other locations might have several events spread over centuries from which to choose.
My attention is on the Williamsburg project now, though, and my hope is that I will be able to do justice to the historical story that’s already there to be told.