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Close Reading Through Interactive Storytelling

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students create games based on scenes or passages from a novel
Image Credit: 

Screen shot from ARIS website

Brief Assignment Overview: 

In this assignment, my students used a game-authoring platform called ARIS (Augmented Reality and Interactive Storytelling) to create augmented reality games based on scenes or passages from novels studied in our course.

Type of Assignment: 
Assignment Length: 
Pedagogical Goals - Rhetoric: 
Pedagogical Goals - Literature: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

Close reading, procedural rhetoric, digital literacy, and, in a general sense, a pragmatic appropriation (and demystification) of literary texts that imbues them with “real-world” relevance. 

Required Materials: 

A computer and iPhone for each group. In my class, about 6 students out of 18 had iPhones, which was plenty. But this is obviously something you would need to check on before moving forward.

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

Before continuing, I should explain what ARIS is and what I mean by “augmented reality game”:

ARIS is an open-source program created by a research group at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It’s sufficiently simple and user friendly for students to learn the basics by watching a couple of instructional YouTube videos and playing around with the program for about 15 minutes in class.

The augmented reality games ARIS allows you to create are location-based, interactive experiences played in real-world spaces using a free iPhone app (unfortunately, ARIS isn’t currently supported by other smart phones). Through GoogleMaps and GPS technology, ARIS enables you to create games by embedding virtual characters (complete with dialogue) and media (images, sound, videos, text) in real locations of your choice. Players must then physically move from location to location to access content – to speak to characters, to view media, to get the rest of the story, etc. And as designer you can use a simple system of requirements to structure game play (i.e., the player must have spoken to character x to meet character y or pick up object y). 

Working in groups of four, I instructed my students to select a scene and “translate” or “remediate” it into an augmented reality game. In the process, I encouraged them to play freely with the source text: Their goal was not to “accurately” or “authoritatively” interpret the passage, but to put it to some well-considered interpretive use. However, the games were supposed to make arguments (much like the theses of the close-reading-based papers my students had recently finished writing). I told them that the games should – by the rules of play and goal, by the selection of characters and media, by the specific language of dialogue scripts, etc. – encourage players to think about the chosen passages or scenes in a certain way. But that interpretation need not need be fully grounded in or supported by the details of the original passage.

As indicated in the assignment description below, I included some fairly specific requirements about the kinds of content that needed to be included in each game (number of characters, range of media, etc.). This was a response to the unusual nature of the assignment: I felt that a list of clearly defined tasks would make the project less intimidating without limiting creative range. For similar reasons, I gave my students three areas to particularly focus on when designing their games (and in their subsequent design justification essays):

1) The real world location selected for their game.

2) The types of media chosen for each part of their game.

3) The game challenge – i.e., what players have to do in the game. 

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

First, I assigned several ARIS how-to videos as homework. In the following class, I walked students through the creation of a simple dialogue script in the context of a separate, in-class group work assignment. In this mini-project, I had each group interpret a particularly ambiguous passage from a novel that we were discussing by adapting it into a straightforward, two-person theatrical script. I then showed them exactly how to plug this script into ARIS, and we shared each group’s work on an iPhone (projected on a doc cam). After the videos and this mini-project, my students were fairly comfortable using the program.

After the project finishes, I’ve set aside a class day for us to walk around campus and play each group’s game. I’m also following the project up with a more traditional writing assignment in which each student will explain and justify their group’s specific design decisions vis-à-vis their underlying interpretive thesis about the chosen passage. This essay will also give them a chance to reflect on and evaluate the project itself.

Instructions For Students: 

“In this project, you will select a passage or scene from one of the texts we have studied this semester. With the ARIS interface in mind, you will map, outline and “script” a game inspired by this scene (you have considerable latitude in your fidelity to the source). You will then select a real world location for your game and actually create an augmented reality experience for the rest of the class (and anyone else interested in playing).

We’ll go over the technical details together, but each game should meet the following requirements:

  1. At least 3 non-player characters or NPCs
  2. At least 3 “scripts” or dialog progressions.
  3. At least 3 additional objects (“plaques” or “items”).
  4. At least one video and at least one still image (but probably more).
  5. Some kind of challenge. In other words, the player has to do something.

 In this creative process, you’re team will need to make a number of rhetorical decisions. Questions might include:

  1. What real world space will be most effective for the kind of experience we want to create for players (so that they’ll see this scene the way we want them to, and so that they’ll have fun).
  2. How big should it be? How far should we make them walk?
  3. Should we use QR codes in addition to GPS locations?
  4. What media should we include (video, audio, still images, text, etc.), and for which “objects” (including “characters”) in the game?
  5. What sort of game challenge will both meet our rhetorical purposes and also be fun and engaging for players?

Evaluation Suggestions: 

This assignment will be graded on two levels: First, each group will be given a composite grade based on how well the three design criteria mentioned above (location, media, game goal) supported their interpretive thesis.  Second, each student will be graded on their reflective essays about the project. 

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

Despite a little initial anxiety, my students were genuinely excited about their games. And they came up with some really interesting ideas. For example, one group created a game based on Holden Caulfield’s fantasy about being a catcher in the rye. In their game, the player takes the role of Caulfield and has to move around the space “catching” characters that appear on their GoogleMap (including characters from other parts of the novel, such as Phoebe). But for every character the player saves, two more appear. Like Tetris, it’s an unwinnable game.

I was particularly impressed by how quickly this and other groups understood the connection between earlier assignments requiring them to make written arguments by emphasizing certain formal aspects of a text, and the idea of making a game as a kind of argument (through remediation) of a text with certain formal features of its own. Procedural rhetoric (although I never used the term in class) seems to make intuitive sense to them.   

Course Description: 

This section of Banned Books and Novel Ideas is a literature class that examines a range of censored texts that challenged political, religious, or social powers by “picturing” the status quo from a dangerous or outside perspective.

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