Learning by Creating Paths

(A sub-section of the overall discussion on reframing learning for mobile and pervasive games.)

  • Notable Mechanics for learning by creating paths: creating new games and place-based tours, GPS triggering/fences, treasure hunts, narratives of overlapping realities including historical events and imagined futures

What can everyday people learn by designing games for mobile? This page highlights the learning potential of projects that offer participants the ability to design their own games or path-based activities. This design experience is distinctive, given the ability to detect the location of players, and pull them through real space – reimagining history and neighborhoods along the way. Here we feature several new apps and tools including ARIS, GPS Mission and Playground Maker, which have emerged to help youth and adults create place-based tours and games. Participants learn through design to become tour guides, experts in how the invisible becomes visible, and to tell stories through neighborhoods, not just about them.

Creating triggers in real space is a particularly powerful opportunity for designers. For example, when a player is within 30 feet of a specific building, their phone can suddenly unlock a new video, giving a hint about the next location to visit or a new clue in a puzzle. This is possible in all three featured projects – ARIS, GPS Mission, and Playground Maker. At the most basic level, there is some learning from simply annotating and browsing physical spaces (see mobile apps like Wikitude).

Yet the annotations can just as easily layer alternate realities. The realities can go across time, encountering historical characters from bygone eras that might have lived nearby, or foretelling a future that may come to pass. Jim Matthews, a lead curricular designer for ARIS, emphasizes creating “memorable moments” when players encounter a historical figure in the virtual world when they wander into a particular neighborhood space (2011). For students, the need to create such memorable moments can drive them to study a neighborhood’s history in detail, or to think deeply about what the future might look like in front of a particular library, or half-way down their own block. Importantly, such engagement is highly dependent on the aesthetics and narratives of the alternate reality, and so analyzing this engagement often requires the tools of artists, and not just those of educators. See, for example, Jeff Watson’s discussion of the cultural implications of alternate reality games in his discussion of the right to the city elsewhere in this report.

This learning becomes more game-like when the triggers are made scarce. Matthews uses the example of a tour “where I can plant virtual trees, but I have only five seedlings” (2011). Such scarcity makes the play experience challenging, and the player’s choices more meaningful. Suddenly the student designer must reflect on how to sequence places into paths, how to tell stories with places.

The notorious iteration needed for good design is helpful for learning social issues (Sharp and Macklin, 2011). As learner-designers repeatedly test their games, imagining their audience and putting miles on their sneakers, they can develop a sense of identity as “insiders” who feel ownership in the neighborhood’s story and a connected sense of place. For many cities and communities, fostering insider status may be an invaluable shortcut to neighborhood belonging.

Finally, content mastery is often intrinsic to making good games. This is ironic because content often takes second seat to building skills and perspectives when learning by playing games. Yet for making a good game, knowledge of a social issue or community is often necessary background. The act of designing such a game often demands an iterative curatorial review of the social issue content, choosing which historical events deserve most attention, and which feedback loops can be tapped to offer meaningful choices. As they iterate on their design, game creators are pushed to dig deeper on the content. The best designers are thus curators. For the mobile case, deep content is often embedded in physical neighborhoods with long histories, and so play-testing the game requires long walks, and pulls the creators into unexpected conversations with residents and local activists. Choosing a path for your player can thus be an invitation for a deep informal learning of place and history, acquiring content and perspective unexpectedly along the way.
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  • Macklin, C., & Sharp, J. (2011). “Freakin’ hard”: Game Curricula about Game Design, Issues and Technology. In C. Steinkeuhler, K. Squire, & S. Barab (Eds.), Learning and Meaning in the Digital Age, Games Learning and Society. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Matthews, J. (2011, June 11). ARIS Curriculum Interview.