Welcome to Part 2 of “The Interdimensional Classroom” (TIC) series on gamification in education!
The topic for today’s chat is WORLDBUILDING. In my last post, I explained how the whole classroom RPG crazy thing I’m doing now grew out of a trading card project with my Grade 8s. Characters on the cards soon became full-blown Avatars living in a story world, so in pretty short order, that world had to actually exist.
Creating a world takes a lot of work, especially as a task added on top of other teacherly stuff, i.e. marking and lesson planning. I’m going to share with you my quick, slightly cheaty method for smacking together something that not only plugged a hole, but which I’m also increasingly happy with. (Summarized: EXPLOIT GOOGLE IMAGES!)
Invention began with a Bottom Up format – the default setting when piecing together something fast. Bottom Up models employ local/small-scale details and work towards a larger world setting. I decided my story would open with the well-known RPG trope of adventurers being called to help defend a small town against an onslaught of monsters. (Originality has notably taken a back seat throughout this process since I launched the game in advance of having many key details worked out!) By a stroke of genius, I named the small town…Smalltown.
By design, Smalltown was short on description – a boring, backwards farming community in the middle of a wheat field. The only character I bothered naming was its Mayor, Thistledown Curlicue, an appellation picked from thin air, as I had no sense yet for what atmosphere I hoped to strike. The creatures plaguing the town were Spellbinders – snakelike beings that hypnotize their victims and get them to spell tricky words. Our heroes had to find their nearby cave and clear it out. I downloaded a map from Google Images and enumerated the rooms on Photoshop to form a dungeon.
The above image served as my lesson plan for a week. Having it taught me that discrete visual representations – especially given how my artist brain works – was definitely the way to go for thinking forward to new content; in fact, it was the clearest I’ve ever pictured lesson design! I knew that without something concrete to guide the process, I’d be puzzling out the next move week by week, tacking on one area to another in an effective void. A map is a structured container. I went looking around for something to serve as the container for our whole year, and found this beautiful thing:
This initiated the switch to a Top Down model, where (literally) a big picture allowed me to easily see and plan a route for us to follow.
I had two criteria for the image: 1) It must have artistic value; 2) It must have varied terrain, both to represent different academic Units, and to add flavour to the story world. ‘Fantasy Map’ fit the bill, plus it had the distinction of being without text or other markers. I downloaded a bunch of PNG images of buildings – largely from the game Forge of Empires because of its wide range of eras in architecture – which could be placed where I wanted. Then I cropped the map into 6 areas: Dragonshead, Bluepool, Ald Cyngric, Dokeen, Yimihachika*, and Sekh Anoob. Each space represented both a certain content and time; 6 provinces, and just about 6 months when I found them (January-June) until school was to conclude. Perfect!
*Credit for the name “Yimihachika” goes to Amna Jawed of Grade 8. It is populated by robots. Cool.
Now that I had something to work with, I started telling myself little tales about why the place looked the way it did, and who might live there: The large, blue pool to the west of the volcano range was created after an eruption decades ago melted the ice caps to the north. The flood was also responsible for the marshland in the continent’s northwest.
A good start, but a bit geographic. Needed some cultural context next: The elves that lived in the icy lands begged the king when things started melting to allow them into his territory and help them through the environmental catastrophe. The king refused. Before it was a marsh, Ald Cyngric (“Old Kingdom”) was the center of a vast empire, but the curse brought about by his refusal for aid resulted in the flood, ultimately resulting in the end of human dominance and beginning the reign of the elves.
The story itself, being themed around refugees/immigration, provided some great opportunities, I thought, for our class to explore that topic.
This large-scale narrative structure helped me plot smaller places within the 6 provinces. I won’t get into the details because this article will get to be too plodding a read. (Full PDF here!) The important thing is that I didn’t use any real ideas of my own before I got the map. Everything came from just nabbing something out there and positing a few relationships after being inspired by what I’d found in under 10 minutes.
Below is a close-up of Bluepool province, where the elves currently rule, complete with the markers I created for it. Very easy to do in Photoshop with the “Place” function, and fairly nice looking.
Now why, you may ask, didn’t I draw any of this stuff myself? A: Time is the enemy.
Professional illustrations of the game world help create a more immersive experience by offering a view both captivating and specific, and immersion serves the game’s principal goal to heighten attention and motivation. If I ever go to market what I’ve worked on (anyone up for a collaboration!?), I’ll excitedly work something up but until then, it’s (you guessed it)…Google Images! Downloading with impunity.
As each of my 6 provinces/units consisted visibly of a different terrain, I now had keywords to search up fantasy art images. I created 6 corresponding folders and filled them up quickly with the most beautiful or inspiring ones I discovered. Some images fit well with the very thin narrative I’d cobbled together; others gave me new, and, in some cases, highly detailed ideas about possible characters, places, items, or plot points. It’s really just about making connections. Copyrighted/unoriginal material helped me kick things off enormously, but after relating enough random things together I started to achieve something with a fairly unique character.
Finally, I needed to know roughly what we’d learn in each area. My first thoughts about the game had been closely tailored to its educational nature, derivatively so…with Place X being all about grammar, Place Y about poetry, and so on down the curriculum. I eventually came to rule against this 1:1 correspondence, opting for something that felt more like a standard role-playing game than an educational equivalent of chocolate-covered broccoli. The work is still obviously part of it, but is integrated subtly where possible. I’ll chat more about the device I used (The Aspects) to patch content in to game areas in a forthcoming post.
So again, those quick steps to world creation:
- Create or find a map to act as the largest level of your game (5-10 mins).
- Break it down into however many areas you need (i.e. Units). Each will likely have a slightly different character (5-10 mins).
- Download a billion images corresponding to area keywords (30 mins) into separate folders.
- Pick out the ones that most inspire you and stitch together a simple narrative (30 mins-1 hr).
Refining the world and the cultural relationships that make the story work will be an ongoing process, but a sketch should be doable over a weekend.
(Next up: Check out how I transformed my Grade 10 Communications Technology class into a battle for media supremacy, in ONLINE MEDIA GURUS.)