Exploring the innovative ways technology and game mechanics can be used to enhance education and learning, Game Research and Immersive Design (GRID) at Rutgers University creates various custom games and virtual experiences for online learning across the institution. As part of the Teaching and Learning with Technology game department, GRID works with members across the Rutgers community to build games, immersive technologies, and engaging experiences that can be accessed directly from the university’s main learning management system, Canvas. In a recent collaboration with Edge, GRID developed an education game design project for the School of Social Work where the player can alter the outcome of the story by making choices along the way.
Educating through Storytelling
Michael Gradin, or Maka, Assistant Director of GRID at Rutgers Division of Continuing Studies, helped head up this project and brought over 20 years of knowledge in game development, IT support, and education to the development of this learning object. “I’ve always been interested in the intersection between playing and learning, and have worked at a couple of EdTech startups, as well as working as a game designer and developer for a local game design studio, Quixotic Games, which has thirty published board games,” shares Maka. “Most narrative-type games are linear, where you start at the beginning, get to the middle, and end with a conclusion. We set out to create a branching story game, where the learner can make choices for the character along the way that affect the game’s output or ending. There are three main stories, each requiring an initial choice by the user. Then each of those choices has a new branch extending from there, where each story has the possibility of nine different endings.”
The learning object presents the user with a conflict where he or she must choose either side. “While these games are often used to tell many kinds of stories in entertainment, most of those I’ve seen used in education have been designed to help build empathy for the people students will face in their eventual careers,” shares Maka. “The purpose here is to build empathy for the main character featured in each of the three initial stories. For example, when confronted with the idea of someone in an abusive situation or relationship, some student’s instincts may be to blame the victim because ‘they should just leave.’ Or as a nurse or social worker, understanding why a person might be struggling with their health instead of seeing them as a symptom that just needs to be ‘fixed’ allows that person to be more compassionate and effective in their role. Stories like these are designed to help the learners understand why people might find themselves in undesirable situations and how even when they make choices to try to improve their lives, they don’t always work out. By showing these scenarios, we help students build empathy for the people in these types of situations.”
“With stories like these, it is very easy to get confused about what has happened in the story so far,” explains Maka. “I help keep track of the branches and after editing and converting their work, I hand over those notes to Aaron who builds the information into an interactive story using Articulate Storyline. Aaron also helped design the scenes and scenarios that meet certain minimum art requirements and met the approval of all stakeholders.” Yorchak adds, “As development has progressed, some content revisions were necessary to address challenges in the storytelling process, such as realism and sensitivity to stereotypes and difficult content. As a collaborative partner, Edge will work with an organization to customize a solution to fit their needs, not try to force a cookie-cutter idea to work.”
— Michael Gradin, or Maka
Assistant Director of GRID
Rutgers Division of Continuing Studies
Learning Object Development
Prior to development, the stakeholders at Rutgers had a rough concept for this learning object, but lacked the resources needed to achieve the project’s goals. “GRID is a very small unit and we did not have the bandwidth to work on this project during the timeframe the clients were requesting,” explains Maka. “Our parent unit, Teaching and Learning with Technology, had already met with Edge to discuss the possibility of helping with other projects, so we reached out to them to see if they could take this project on as well.” Aaron Yorchak, an instructional designer and technologist at Edge, teamed up with Maka to help get the project to the finish line.
Upon joining the project, Yorchak received a rough outline of the script for each scene, the goals of the project, and what the learning object was set out to accomplish. “I took the initial script and built out a skeleton where I have a number of slide placeholders for each scene in the story,” explains Yorchak. “I would drop in the textual parts from the script, and once that skeleton was in place, I would start from the beginning to review each scene and determine what images will help illustrate each scenario, including the scene, number of characters, and the actions depicted by the characters. I would then share a prototype version with Maka and the stakeholders so they could see each story in action and identify any issues with the script that needed to be revised. Maka is an excellent conduit between Edge and the stakeholders, helping communicate our needs to them and helping us understand what the stakeholders’ goals and expectations are as we move through the project.”
Working closely with stakeholders, Maka helped structure their story and keep track of each separate path. “With stories like these, it is very easy to get confused about what has happened in the story so far,” explains Maka. “I help keep track of the branches and after editing and converting their work, I hand over those notes to Aaron who builds the information into an interactive story using Articulate Storyline. Aaron also helped design the scenes and scenarios that meet certain minimum art requirements and met the approval of all stakeholders.” Yorchak adds, “As development has progressed, some content revisions were necessary to address challenges in the storytelling process, such as realism and sensitivity to stereotypes and difficult content. As a collaborative partner, Edge will work with an organization to customize a solution to fit their needs, not try to force a cookie-cutter idea to work.”
Partnering for Success
As the project enters its final stages and reaches deployment, Maka says he gained important insight into the process and which steps could be improved upon in the future. “Now that I’ve had the experience of working with Edge and the stakeholders, the only thing I would do differently is to ask Aaron to build out the text of all the stories first, before asking him to work on graphics and settings. This would have allowed the stakeholders to see the flow of the stories and review the text more easily and earlier in the process. As far as teaming up with Aaron and Edge’s Associate Vice President & Chief Digital Learning Office, Josh Gaul, they have been very professional and it’s been a pleasure working with them on this project. Aaron is not only building the story, but has been working with me to make the editing and review process smoother for the stakeholders.”
In reflecting upon this project that is near completion, Yorchak says this experience is another great example of Edge’s commitment to member institutions and helping them achieve their goals. “We’re very proud of the work we’ve accomplished with Maka and GRID and building an innovative game that helps increase engagement and enhances the learner experience. Edge prides itself on adapting to the needs of the individual organization and offering our combined expertise and experience to turn an institution’s ideas into reality.”
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