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, playable stories designed to teach important life lessons–what Gee might refer to as ‘storied truths’.
These designed spaces, virtual worlds, or what we are calling playable stories, 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.Their success results in part because through game play, one is experientially situated within a play space that entwines real and fictional elements, all designed to embed the player and the ideas to be engaged within an authentic context.
More than a story to be read, games are powerful in part because of the perceptually immersive and interactive narratives they contain. For, in a game-narrative, the player is responsible for the direction of the unfolding game narrative and simultaneously their player identity as an individual who makes certain types of decisions. It is time to leverage these powerful technologies and methodologies more intentionally to engage players in socially, politically, and economically important issues. As such, and central to why Playable Fictions Studios came about, we are committed to using videogames to support a more knowledgeable, empathetic, and committed citizenship. While we acknowledge the challenge inherent in enlisting story and games as a deliberate pedagogical tool, we increasingly appreciate the methodologies and technologies underlying videogames as uniquely useful for establishing narratives that bear pedagogical value.
Up until this point, many videogames with a socio-political focus have been designed mainly as illustrated numerical models or simulations. Such simulations are powerful, but require an adroit imagination to appreciate the implication of those numbers for a social reality. In our work, we leverage our understanding of the power of narrative to create games that address important social issues, creating opportunities for more diverse and sustained engagement. Games, however, offer more than narrative, they offer a sense of play, where we can become others and engage in storylines and try on identities and make choices that we would not or do have an opportunity to experiment with in the real world. Play invites us into an experience that plays us, affording particular actions and at the same time leaving us as one who has realized these opportunities in a particular way.
It is in the ways that players live out choices, notions, and selves that we view games as providing playable fictions. Playable stories are interactive systems, sometimes built as immersive worlds, where the player becomes the central character who determines, through play choices enacted within a game structure, how the story will unfold. What is so powerful about playable fictions is that they are so particular, so local, so unique—yet the stories have such reach. They are metaphors writ large: teaching us about who we are and who we want to become. We established Lacuna Games with a commitment to producing and researching the power of these playable stories to improve our world.
About Sasha A. Barab PhD
Sasha Barab is a Professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, where he co-founded and serves as the Executive Director of the Center for Games and Impact.
Dr. Barab is an internationally recognized Learning Scientist who holds the Pinnacle West Chair of Education, and who has researched, designed, and published extensively on the challenges and opportunities of using games for impact.