The panel was moderated by Long Chu, who runs Writers in Schools in Austen Texas, he also acted as a participant. Writer in Schools hires writers in all genres who go into K-12 schools and teach students, often students of disadvantaged backgrounds, to enjoy and appreciate reading and writing creatively. His fellow panelists were Michael Angst, a poet and the founder of E-Line Media, a game company that makes educational and commercial entertainment games with a learning outcome emphasis, and Rick Brennan, a game designer and former history teacher who designed the history game Historonics.
Long Chu framed the conversation by saying that they are thinking about gamed based learning as a possible new genre of writing and teaching. They assert that game design, learning, and writing have enough common skill sets that they are compatible and complimentary. For example, Long Chu says that learning the system of a new game, and learning the constraints of a sonnet and its form are essentially the same thing. Writer’s in Schools has begun investigating a game like format, in which students are asked to first grasp and play with relatively simple forms like haiku, and then move up to sonnets, etc.
Rick Brennan described becoming a Social Studies teacher in order to give students a better experience than he had as a student in K-12 education in Texas. But what he found once he became a teacher, was that authorized textbooks were still really alienating for students, particularly when teaching history. So he designed Historonics to teach students about world history via having them read texts and then build a fictional nation and a fictional government in the game, in which each of them held positions and jobs, collaboratively (off screen) the students were asked to make policy decisions and design a civilization, even dealing with diplomatic issues. They were asked to make choices based upon what they were learning about real world history. He found that the students were engaged and that outcomes improved. However the Texas school system told him that he wasn’t conforming to standards and so he had to stop, so he quit in order to build a company with the mission to bring game based learning into schools. He now works with E-Line media owner and found Michael Angst to make custom versions of his history game for schools.
Michael Angst, the founder and owner of E-Line media works with education partners and non-for profit organizations to create games for education and amusement. They make education games and curriculum systems in partnership with schools. If a school contacts them they engage in a semester long process of collaboration, in which the teachers tell them their needs and the difficulties that they are having, then the team observes, discusses, and brainstorms ideas for games (this stage lasts about six weeks). Then, they begin making the educational games and holding workshops with the school and teachers for another six weeks, and then finally they beta-test the program at the school, and revise it accordingly for another six weeks. They focus on creating games that improve interpersonal engagement and educational participation. For example, in a school in Austin they made a game called “Pro-Word-Ness” which teaches students, through a game set up, to break words down to the component parts (root word, pre-fix, suffix, etc.) via a matching game, and in doing so improve their vocabulary and linguistic fluency.
One major commercial game they made was in partnership with an Alaskan Native group who approached them to make a game which would help preserve and spread their oral story-telling traditions. The tribal group was concerned that the younger generation was losing knowledge of traditional story telling. E-Line media programmers, writers, and artist collaborated and consulted with Native storytellers and created a game called “Never Alone” which has sold millions of copies on Steam. The game showcases traditional story-telling and cultural values such as a connection to nature.
All of the panelists consistently emphasized that they do not approve of or make games that make kids stare at screens, but rather they create tools to act as a gateways into knowledge, language, and interactive and engaged learning. Overall, I was pleased about the way in which they talked about integrating technology into creative writing education, but not at the expense of the art itself. So often these types of conversations end up sounding very anti textual media, and this one avoided that entirely, and instead focused purely on the way technology is a new tool to achieve the ends of engaging students in the written word.