Dispatch from the Digital Frontier: Games as Meaning Makers

Written By

Anne Derryberry

September 28, 2010

History was always a perplexing subject for me in college. The texts were dry and the lectures weren’t much better. I could never get a sense of what life was really like for the people who lived the events we discussed. Since I could establish no “human connection,” history seemed more like a series of sometimes-disjointed facts than a chronicle of the interrelated lives and significant events from a particular time and place in the past.

Steve Tilson’s students don’t share my confusion. Tilson, who teaches history at Winona State University, loves his subject and knows how to bring it alive for his students. In fact, Tilson has received a 5/5 overall rating on RateMyProfessors.com because of his ability to connect his students with the history they are studying. How does he do this? By telling stories instead of giving lectures, complete with accents, anecdotes, and asides that breathe life and accessibility into subject matter, Tilson’s students actually find his class “fun to attend,” according to one reviewer.

Everybody tells stories. We tell each other stories to relay information about a day’s activities, we repeat stories we’ve heard from others as a form of gossip and entertainment, we tell our kids stories to share our experience and shape theirs, we make up stories to entertain each other and to put our children to sleep. Stories, it seems, are a fundamental form of human communication.

Stories, especially serial stories that build on each other, are a great method for helping learners understand how concepts apply to the real world. The examples and non-examples that you can model within a story provide context for application and interpretation; stories often contain emotion, which serves to attach the learner to the content in question. For these reasons, stories can help us understand, interpret, and make meaning out of otherwise inaccessible information.

The journalism community, interestingly, is beginning to consider the value of storytelling in the news business. In an industry devoted to the facts and nothing but the facts, and despite the reference to news items as “stories,” storytelling has a tinge of the fanciful in the minds of many journalists. But news consumers in the 21st century are tough customers with many pulls on their attention. Some say that maybe rethinking the balance between reporting and storytelling is in order .

Games are a form of storytelling, as well. Indeed, as I have written previously, “[e]very game has a backstory, or a story upon which it is based, and a story line that it follows, even if inferred. The story line is not the game play itself, but rather the rationale for the game play.” (Derryberry, A. Serious Games: Online Games for Learning. San Jose, CA: Adobe Systems Incorporated, 2007.)

Because games have a stated goal and rules of play to guide players to that goal, well-designed games yield meaningful play, defined as that which “occurs when the relationships between actions and outcomes in a game are both discernable and integrated into the larger context of the game.” (Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E., Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, Mass., and London, England: The MIT Press, 2004.) When game design focuses on learning outcomes, then, while preserving playfulness, serious learning is possible.

We construct games out of a series of choices each player must make. The outcomes from one series of choices may, likely will, differ from the outcomes resulting from other choices. By replaying a game or game sequence using different choice patterns, players can alter the game or the game’s results. In other words, players can observe the impact each individual choice has, and can experience the effects of their decisions. When the game’s story ties to real events, players can alter internal events to explore how they might have averted a disaster, for example, or why an action taken at an earlier or later moment would create a different result.

Just as stories help us discover meaning in life’s events, so, too, can games. Stories, however, are linear; games are not. We tell stories one at a time, by one person at a time, and they have one ending. Games can interweave stories, games ask the player(s) and the designer to collude on the telling of the story, and games can have many possible outcomes.

The purpose of journalism is “to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society,” according to the Committee of Concerned Journalists. News games might just be the 21st century venue for telling, interpreting, and using the news to that very end.

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