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This examples overviews what we mean by playable fictions, providing four example designs from our own work that illustrate how games can be used to allow individuals to engage in immersive, interactive, fictional stories designed to teach important life lessons.

Playable Fictions

Digital television, the Internet,, mobile phones, and ubiquitous computing are creating novel ways to play; to communicate; to learn; and to explore ideas, roles, and identities. Advanced technologies are simultaneously expanding and shrinking the world in which we live. It is a time of globalization, a term that for some means economic interdependence, access to cultural diversity, and virtual connectedness, but for others means hybridization, cultural assimilation, economic imperialism, worker exploitation, and physical isolation. While there have always been powerful technologies for sharing information, we believe that videogames   are especially powerful in that they can be used to foster a state of engagement that involves projection into a of a character who engaged in a partly fictional problem context must develop and apply particular understandings to make sense of and, ultimately, transform the context. It is one’s projection into such an experiential state that prompted us to refer to the spaces we design as Playable Fictions .

We believe that videogames and the communities that form around them provide new possibilities for engaged citizenship and learning: people use electronic social networks and online videogames to create virtual worlds to have fun, to collaborate, to establish friendships around the globe, to earn real-life incomes, and even to get married. However, while designers have developed profoundly entertaining products that engage people worldwide, our design team aspires to leverage videogame methodologies and technologies to enlighten people to problematic struggles, political debates, ethical questions, or even mathematical and scientific understandings. More than sugar-coating content to coerce individuals into caring about important ideas, games can establish worlds where children are transformed into empowered scientists, doctors, reporters and mathematicians who have to understand disciplinary content and complex ideas to accomplish desired ends (see Transformational Play Article).

The games we design offer something new to learners; unlike any other form of instruction, these games offer entire worlds in which learners are   central, important participants; a place where the actions of a ten-year old can have significant impact on the world; and a place in which what you know is directly related to what you are able to do and ultimately who you become. In this worked example, we share four playable fictions we have designed, discussing the challenges in realizing this work in practice:

  1. River of Justice, a game about the atrocities taking place in Uganda (not for the light of heart), 
  2. Mesa Verde National Park, a game where the player aids a Hopi girl who searches for her own identity, 
  3. Drakos Dilemma, a game about ethics and genetics and involves developing an understanding of the laws of genetic inheritance, and 
  4. Drama Burden, a game that centers on a bullying in relation to a destructive high school rumor.

Individuals who play these games become protagonists who use the evolving understandings to first make sense of a situation and then make choices that actually   transform the play space and the player—they are able to seehow that space changed because of their own efforts. The explicit focus of our work is to use videogame technologies and design methodologies to help individuals understand academic content, important world issues, and especially themselves. This might involve seeing how failing to leave a proper buffer zone around a river can result in dead fish, or struggling to decide whether a plot of land is best used as for a homeless shelter or a park for an entire town, or whether one should require justice to bring about peace in a warlord country. We believe that significant world issues can be meaningfully captured, narratively enriched, made more accessible, and shared across cultures and distances through advanced online gaming technologies and methodologies.

Games have the potential to establish immersive worlds in which the player is both reader and author. The play spaces that we have designed foster this sense of agency but explicitly layer in educational tasks, reflective moments, social interactions, and pedagogical scaffolds to support meaningful learning about significant issues. Such work combines literary techniques, game principles, and academic pedagogy in order to achieve narrative structure, immersive experience, academic utility, and meaningful play. It is our conviction that videogames and social networking technologies have the potential to improve the quality of the world by allowing individuals to engage in immersive, interactive, fictional stories designed to teach important life lessons. These designed spaces, virtual worlds, or what we are calling playable fictions are educationally valuable and socially meaningful because they are intentionally designed to emphasize particular storylines and practices. While the idea that one can use games to support scientific learning or political activism may seem counterintuitive to some, there is an emerging number of powerful games being designed, many of which are being discussed on this site.


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  • @ 06/09/10 16:15 EST on Page: Playable Fictions - Reply - Flag(0)
    Balancing these tensions has been quite difficult, especially when you add in the needs of the teacher to ensure that children have consistent experiences. Moving into a time of "participatory curriculum" to build on Jenkins notion of participatory culture will be interesting to see what happens.
  • @ 06/09/10 16:18 EST on Page: River of Justice - Reply - Flag(0)
    In some ways as a designer of this project, I felt quite uncomfortable about putting players in this position--especially when they have to decide to kill a child. However, I firmly believe that such positioning helps to broaden our awareness of these atrocities and the complexities in realizing them.
  • @ 06/10/10 18:18 EST on Page: Drakos Dilemma - Reply - Flag(0)
    Admittedly, the narrative was formulated a lot later, after it was established that the game play did indeed communicate the concepts to our demographics. The narrative itself went through multiple changes before the current version (and different than the post above), which is in its third iteration.
  • @ 06/10/10 18:35 EST on Page: Drama Burden - Reply - Flag(0)
    Welcome to the page for Healthy Teens (aka Drama Burden). Our goal with this game was to give teens a set of tools with which they could begin to think about how to handle the kinds of social abuses that they deal with every day.

    Please feel free to leave comments in reaction to the game or with stories about this topic.

    -Ed Gentry
  • @ 06/11/10 14:30 EST on Page: Virtual Mesa Verde - Reply - Flag(0)
    Mesa Verde National Park is in the process of installing a kiosk so that visitors can play a version of our game. Our hope is that the cultural history they experience in the game will color their anticipation of what they'll find in the park, and give them new eyes to appreciate what is under the surface.