Monday was a good. The sun shone in Edinburgh for the first time in what seemed like weeks, and I went to visit a class of kids using Neverwinter Nights in the classroom. I take my hat off to the teacher who has been working with them - great stuff! He took part in a teacher training course which Cathrin and I helped at, organised by Derek at Learning Teaching Scotland, in May. He didn't lose anytime in getting started with the kids. With the tenacity of a terrier, he pursued his local authority until they installed the software and now he is into his second 8 week block of teaching game design. The world needs more teachers like him!
The pupils were 12 year olds who elected to study a technology course in first year high school. They were on their 7th 2 hour lesson of a block of 8. Their games were reasonably well developed by the time I visited, and they had learned a lot of technical skills. They were confident about tasks (like joining areas together) which some of the younger kids I have worked with have had trouble with. The teacher is running it as a Curriculum for Excellence project, and so he is trying to develop independent learning and collaboration skills. This have evidently worked: when I was there the pupils wrote questions on the whiteboard for each other to answer, facilitated by the teacher, and other pupils answered by giving demos. I showed one boy how to make a character follow the player, and wrote a script to show him how to do this. He was then able to show his friend how to do it, and this started a chain of other kids who took print outs of the script home with them to work on later. This is impressive. A lot of kids get horribly daunted by the syntax of the scripting. (By the way, in the plugin we are developing for Neverwinter Nights 2, we have made it much easier to accomplish actions like this in the game without any complicated scripting).
I toured the class talking about their game ideas, and noticed something quite interesting. They all had a good clear quest structure, along the lines of: find an object (such as a key) to get you to another level where you kill a monster and get a reward. One example which made me laugh was "Collect the hands and take them to the king imp".
"Hands?" I said.
"yeah, hands. Look!" and the boy showed me some severed corpse hands in the library of items. He just liked them when he saw them - an example of serendipity. Serendipity is important in creativity: it's taking advantage of juxtapositions of unexpected things. From the research we've done so far in game making, exploring the available options in the libraries of characters in Neverwinter nights is a really important stage in the creative process. Often the kids come up with ideas for the rest of their game based on something which catches their imagination. But in this case, I am not sure how much further the kid had got. You could make something original and interesting from an imp and severed hands. But to do that you would need to explicitly link them together in some coherent way. You'd need to come up with a reason why the Imp wanted the hands. (Answers on the comments section...)
Another boy had a coherent logical structure which ended up with the player killing a bird. "What's wrong with birds?" I asked. He was puzzled - he didn't see why there should be a reason to kill the bird. I discussed this with Keiron yesterday who pointed out that if you're used to playing games without a strong storyline, then the task of killing a bird seems quite normal. Given the literacy development angle, I have always been interested in matching up the logical coherence of the game with a motivational coherence in the storyline. That is, characters should have some reason for wanting the items they request, or carrying out the actions they do. Of course, it's tricky to do both in a short project.
I spoke to a girl who wanted help with her quest. She had the structure of the quest (something like) "You talk to six or seven people and they help you find something". This intrigued me because the structure is there but the blanks haven't been filled in. Who are these people? What do you want to find? While I was helping her write a conversation, she had to pin it down to something concrete so she could write it in the dialogue. It turned out to be treasure, and she was able to move on from there. More usually when you talk to kids they have some rambling story line and they have trouble mapping it to a clear quest structure. Maybe it is because it is taught in a computing curriculum where the logical structure is more salient.
One last point. The teacher said that quite a few of the quests were similar to the one he demoed on the projector. We've encountered this before, and I bet teachers all over are familiar with it. You want to give the kids a good model to work from so you show them an example (in our case a game). Then some kids go and copy it, making only very minor changes (e.g. swapping in a different sort of character or name). Of course, this can be frustrating if you are trying to support creativity. At what point does making a series of small changes to an idea become creative? Analogy is also an important part of creativity. You need to be able to spot similarities between the problem you are working on and solutions you have already seen. But you need to avoid getting bogged down in a straightforward switching of names or other surface details from the original solution. There needs to be a twist somewhere, or at least a mix of ideas from lots of other sources. We're wondering at the moment how teachers and our software can support this. A hard problem, methinks.