We recently created a game called Curriculum For The Future, and have been playing it with people and gathering their feedback over the last couple of months. This post explains why we created it, what we hoped it might achieve, what we’ve learned along the way, and what might happen next.
What is Curriculum For The Future: The Game?
The game was initially inspired by tabletop role-play games (RPG), where “players act out their role by deciding and describing what actions their characters will take within the rules of the game”. In this case, the game in its current version isn’t too extreme in terms of the roles it asks players to take on. There are no wizard, trolls, dungeons nor dragons. It’s built around a scenario set in the future in which teams of players must argue for different propositions about what the curriculum for young New Zealanders should look like. They present their ideas to a panel of judges (a group of players elected as a “Curriculum Committee”), who must consider the strengths and weaknesses of different points of view and make choices about which position(s) made the most compelling case.
The gameplay itself is relatively straightforward. Our goal was to give just enough framing and structure that players can find ways to be playful and thoughtful with the ideas that are presented in the game. We didn’t want the game mechanics to overly dominate or divert the focus away from those ideas, but we also didn’t want the game to feel too didactic or boring. We think we did OK for first-time game creators. The feedback, while largely positive (see below), has included a few sharp yet constructive comments which have helped us think more deeply about what the game does, and what it possibly could do, with some further modifications and adaptations.
Why did we create it?
We wanted to experiment with creating a process-based resource that could create space and opportunity for ideas about “curriculum”, in its broadest sense, to be generated and shared in a way that is different to the usual ways people might interact with curriculum theory and practice. Depending on who players are, “curriculum” may be something they rarely think or talk about explicitly in their day-to-day life.
One group of people who often have very little opportunity to directly talk about or unpack ideas about “curriculum” are school learners themselves – even though curriculum is implicit in every way to what they experience as school. We think that the question of what students should learn, and why, is one that pretty much everyone is capable of offering a perspective on, whether they are teachers, learners, parents, or anyone else. How deep or well-informed those perspectives are is a relevant question, but so too is the question of whether a game could enable perspectives to deepen or become more well-informed through gameplay. We therefore wanted to create a resource that might open up opportunities for curriculum conversations that mightn’t otherwise happen, amongst people who mightn’t otherwise think or talk about curriculum in these ways. However, the dynamics of bringing together diverse perspectives, and being aware of the different knowledge, power, and prior experiences that people might bring to bear given the opportunity, is easier said than done, as we’ve learned.
But why a game?
Curriculum For The Future: The Game aims to give players permission to suspend some of their existing ideas and assumptions about curriculum (and learning, teaching, and school) in order to playfully explore the question “what could the curriculum be?”. Players can try out ideas that might seem outlandish or unworkable in current real life. They can argue for positions that they may or may not really agree with, or even fully understand, or they can take a position they do agree with and test it against challenging questions.
We believe it’s relatively safe to do this kind of exploration in a game because there are no real or serious consequences – there are no ways to “get it wrong” necessarily. The ideas that the group of players collectively generates or imagines during the game do not necessarily have to be acted on. Some have suggested this is a weakness, though I don’t agree. In my view, that’s not the game’s primary purpose, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility for that to happen later, or with some variations of the game in some contexts where that is a key goal. The worst case scenario is that the game is perceived as boring or pointless – but much of the game’s success depends on what players bring to the game, how they choose to play, and what meaning they choose to make of the experience. The ultimate value of the game may also have a lot to do with the context of use, and what could happen before and after the actual gameplay experience. This is something we’ve been talking about with some of our test players, and there have been some interesting suggestions about ways to provide more wrap-around to take the ideas from the game deeper and further.
A work in progress
We’ve been talking about these as our “beta” versions as we are currently trialling them with different groups, gathering feedback, and continuing to modify and adapt as we go. Curriculum For The Future is a research-inspired resource. In the game notes and workshop notes we discuss some of the research and thinking they drew on. They were initially written with teachers in mind but as they grew we expanded our vision to hope that they would also be useful and usable by parents, students, and other people outside education.
This is where our testing with different players comes in. We’ve played the game with our colleagues at NZCER, with students and teachers at Onslow College, Wellington East Girls College, and Hobsonville Point Secondary School, with a group of mostly teacher participants at the EdChatNZ conference, and with a mixed group of 45 players that included secondary students, teachers, NZCER staff, Ministry of Education staff, and a collection of other people from education-related and non-education organisations in Wellington. We’ve played with student-only groups, and groups which mix together students, teachers, and other adults. We have tried various modifications each time based on the feedback we get from previous players. We’ve played with very small groups (pairs), and very large groups. Every time the dynamics of the game play out differently, and the feedback raises fascinating insights into game players’ experiences of the game. In a few instances, players have seized control of some aspect of the game, which is always exciting to watch.
What have we learned?
Most players say that it is fun and challenging
Only a few players have given explicit feedback that they didn’t like the game, most often because they felt they couldn’t connect with the content of the game, or couldn’t see it’s purpose. So far, these players have been the minority (although there may be others who privately disliked it but didn’t want to tell us). I’ve paid close attention to what these players have said, kept records of their feedback, and thought about what could be tweaked or changed to make it more enjoyable or interesting for them. I’ve also accepted that it won’t necessarily work for everyone, no matter how carefully we try to design it.
It gets people thinking, and opens an opportunity to hear other people’s thoughts, values, and ideas.
Many players have said this, particularly students. If the game succeeds in opening up a space for thinking and talking about curriculum and learning – even if that’s all it does – then I consider that to be a meaningful result. What happens next with that thinking is an open question and a “next challenge”. I invite everyone who’s interested to contribute their thoughts and efforts towards that next challenge.
It is perceived to suit certain personality styles or dispositions
Some players have pointed out that the game might favour people who are confident in their ability to speak in front of a group and/or who feel confident that they are knowledgeable enough to say what they think. This is almost certainly true, though there may be ways to tweak the gameplay to change habitual group dynamics that tend to favour the dominant voices. It’s also still quite a language-based game, and we already know that some of the concepts and vocabulary are hard for some players (students, or people not involved with education) to interpret, and the literacy demands of the game in its current form could be a barrier for some players. Perhaps we could try to take the game in a more visual or kinaesthetic direction. Perhaps we could remake the game based in a completely different cultural mode, style, and way of engaging with people. These are all interesting possibilities to consider.
For every suggestion or criticism of the game, someone else has said the opposite
Some people think they game should be more extreme, more outlandish, and that it should play up the “future” dimension in more provocative ways. Other think that it’s “ridiculous” to include more extreme ideas because it’s “obvious” that the less extreme ideas are going to “win” the game. Some people think we need to make it more fun, while other think we need to make sure people take it more seriously. Some people think it’s an interesting and fresh way to think about complex ideas in ways that open up for spontaneous and creative thinking, while others think the game needs to provide more explicit links to research and theory to help players take their thinking deeper.
What happens in the private space in players’ minds is as interesting as what is played out publicly in the game.
The written and verbal feedback we’ve been gathering shows that what happens publicly in the game is only the surface layer. Whether players leap into the game with gusto, or whether they sit quietly as observers, almost everyone who’s given feedback has indicated the many additional layers of experiences that you can’t necessarily see just by observing the game. Some people have talked afterwards about how the group dynamics in their table played out and how that could be different if the rules were different, or if the players were different, or if the context were different. Some talk about how they felt during the game, whether it was amusement, excitement, frustration, surprise, irritation, terror, or any other response. Are these the kinds of thoughts and feelings that are usually involved in conversations about curriculum? Perhaps not – and we think that’s interesting in itself.
“Everyone’s got an opinion on the colour of the bikeshed”
As we developed the game we had a lot of ideas about variations we’d like to have included. Some of these we tried and discarded, some of these we didn’t try, and some we’d still love to try if we have an opportunity. Our players have offered a lot of ideas too – some along the lines of our original ideas, and some which offered a different twist that we hadn’t thought of. I love the fact that other people can have these sorts of ideas from playing the game, and if I had unlimited time and resources I would love to keep experimenting and trying them out to see what happens. But my wise collaborator, game developer Dan Milward also wryly noted that “everyone’s got an opinion on the colour of the bikeshed”, and the original version of the game can’t be all things to all people… BUT…
It’s licensed under creative commons as attribution, share alike, non-commercial so that other people can take and remake the game in the ways they’d like to play it, or for the people they’d be interested to play it with. We want people to use it, adapt it, modify it. Our only request is that they share back with the rest of us what they’ve done and what happened.
In terms of the original version of the game, for now we’re pausing to think and reflect on all the feedback and think about what might come next. We’re also waiting to see whether anyone who’s experienced the game so far comes back to us with an idea, opportunity, or proposition for a “next step”.
Also, right from the beginning we’ve been thinking about whether and how we could remake Curriculum For The Future as a digital game. There are oh-so-many-reasons why we think this is an idea worth exploring. We’ve also discussed this possibility with everyone who’s played the game as well as a range of other people interested game development and games in education. But that’s a whole other story for the next post…