Review_icn Curator Review: Plague World: A Modern Prometheus

By jpgee

This worked example is about transformational play, and how Barab and his colleagues have used the notion of transformational play to guide the design of a curriculum for teaching middle schools students about persuasive writing. Central to the notion of transformational play is the idea that educators can use videogames to build transactive curriculum in which the player is positioned with dramatic agency in a story where he or she must engage academic content to transform a game-based storyline. In this way, according to their theory, curricular games have the potential to position players with intentionality, content with legitimacy, and context with legitimacy. This theory has been used to motivate and interpret the impact of various curricular designs on their Quest Atlantis project.

My rating here is less of a formal critique or the particular instantiation of the theory being presented here. Instead, this review is based on a series of comments I previously made that have now been integrated into the actual worked example. The reader is encouraged to explore the worked example itself to gain better understand the ideas that this worked example provoked in me. I will sample from those comments here, not as a replacement for those comments, but as a simplified distilling in order to rate this example, and hopefully to entice the reader to explore the example further. My curation of this example engages the work by sharing a perspective on each of the three types of positioning that the author’s discuss;  beginning with positioning of person, then positioning of content, and closing with positioning of context.

In terms of person, games are forms of simulations, but they differ from the sorts of simulations scientists use because the gamer is in the simulation and must solve problems within the simulation from a particular perspective. The gamer forms a 'projective identity'. One part of this identity is the project that the game designers give the player--here the mother's letter begins to set that project. This is something the gamer inherits. But another part of a projective identity is the way in which the gamer can project his or her own goals, desires, styles, and projects onto his or her avatar and the game world. The goal--and a good deal of the deep pleasure--of the gamer is to meld these two, the designer's project and the gamer's projections, in such a way that the gamer feels ownership of the designer's goals and his or her own projects both.

In terms of this curricular game, my interest is in the game as context for exploring ethical decision-making. However, I am not clear what the 'science issues' are in the child’s letter and how the content of persuasive writing comes to form a meaningful part of game play. It is clear that the child is playing with some deep issues that could easily serve as a basis for a discussion of underlying moral principles and how context specific and 'relative' they are or are not. At the same time, it is also clear he is building a major case that the doctor is neither moral nor 'trustworthy'. How does this play into the game? Does the child have the opportunity to confront or disown the doctor or will that break the logic of the game world? Can the child stop doing what the doctor asks and still finish the game in a satisfying way? The child is discovering deep moral principles by following the dictates of a doctor who he now sees as morally wrong. The significant question is how does this tension play out with the child and within the game as a whole? When does the game break? If choosing to break one's promise to the doctor ends the game, then how do we tell the difference between an ethical choice and the child simply making a choice (i.e., keep the promise) that seems to fit with the 'logic' of the game and seeing it to the end? This is a dilemma in game based learning of this 'digital story telling' type.

The ‘Letter from Mom” shared in this example  (linked from the overview page) sets up the player in a tension-filled perspective in dealing with ethics. The mother--a figure to be trusted and respected--gives the player evidence that Victor may not be 'good' (and the game will give more such evidence) but suggests ultimately the player should trust him and, indeed, "repay him" for saving the player's life. This means that evidence in this game in regard to Victor--and ethical dilemmas involving Victor--will never be seen from a "neutral perspective" (in the distanced way a scientist can look at his or her simulations of an atom, say), but caught in the situated, context specific tension between "mother" and the doctor's own behavior. This is important motivationally, but I wonder how the gameplay engages the trope of persuasive writing and the ways emotion (pathos) is treated as a legitimate form of evidence compared to more logical (logos) forms of evidence. While the legitimacy page provided an example of how evidence is incorporated into the game play metric, I was left unclear about the metric’s bias for certain types of evidence.

This example, however, illuminates how the game sets up in the player the contrast of a social/cultural sense of morality ("bad things") with what must be a "personal/individual" sense of morality ("what I have been doing is right"). Of course, this immediately raises the old issue of the role of context in ethical judgments and how context specific ethical principles are. We are now deep on the realm of philosophy. It gets to be very clear at this point that the thing we need to build and concentrate on is the 'learning system' (mentorship, dialogue, reflection inside and outside the game) and not just the 'game', which resides within the learning system. The design principles of the learning system as a whole always need to be discussed, not just the game. But by moving this to school, we risk that the teacher fills out the learning system in any way she likes and thus undoes the design of the game and its potentials within a good learning system. Or, it is quite possible that the interesting ethical dilemma illuminated on the context page will become undermined or buried in the political smoothing that the teacher might do as he or she makes the game more appropriate for his or her classroom. Hopefully QA comes with a 'strategy guide' for building a good classroom learning system around the game.

In the end, I have approached this review as an opportunity for thinking ‘out loud’ around ideas that exploring this example evoked. This is because, in part, what counts as quality in a worked example is a point of contention that our community must engage and I for one do not want to be responsible for shutting down the conversation before the work had a chance to take on a different form—imagine if each YouTube video or Facebook page was only published if it was held to a certain type of scholarly criteria? Therefore, even while I view this space as prompting a scholarly form of discourse, I am reluctant to become overly engaged in a critical analysis of this example in that such reviews might not be the most effective at building an invitational form of scholarship that facilitates risk taking and innovation. So, for example, while I might have done more detailed analytical work around the validity of claims or the reliability of interpretations, I have left those to the community as they engage this work or other instantiations appearing in journals. I care much more about how this form of presentation stimulated dialogue, illuminated tensions, transformed perspective than I do about some standardized criteria of scholarly quality.

Clearly, this work is of high quality and significance. As such, I have focused on its meaning and, in particular, its meaning for me and for the kinds of issues that are relevant in my own work. I encourage the community to continue to challenge and encourage the authors, and expect to see those in other comments and ratings of this work.