TDU Adventure 2019: Social participation through pervasive game design

This is not directly related to #kotobarollers or even language learning, but another class I teach at Tokyo Denki University. I am posting here mainly as a way of preserving in text my reflections on this class and to hopefully inspire others to consider getting their learners to engage in projects that extended out of the classroom. Please forgive me for this off-topic post. 🙇🏼‍♂️

The event we completed today (Jan 26th, 2019) was called “TDU Adventure” and was created as part of a game design class I teach. I will focus on this activity in particular later in the post. First, however, I will provide some background regarding the class and how this activity came about. 

The class is a 15-week elective course available to all students at the university, any department, any grade, and runs twice a year. In the first semester, the focus is on the development of board/card game prototypes. The second semester (which we just finished) focuses on the development of pervasive games (ARGs, BIG games and the likes).

The overarching aims of the course are:

  • To introduce the students to formal definitions of games and game design (get them to think about what is and isn’t a game),
  • Expose them to “new” forms of games (i.e. game types that they perhaps hadn’t played before),
  • Get learners to display their creativity as part of multidisciplinary and multi-age groups,
  • Create and assess a “product” of their creation.

This particular class is one of the more popular “seminars” (there are about 20 different seminars and many of them have fewer than 10 students attend, therefore at risk of being discontinued due to a university-wide policy on registration). I usually have 20 ~ 25 students sign up. There is a real dearth of classes at my university that cater towards formal game design, and so I’m glad I have the opportunity to engage with students on this subject matter.

Course overview

The pervasive game course is roughly designed to go from learning about pervasive games, designing some simple ones an then a group project involvong the creation of a larger game that they have real people play and give feedback on. The course was inspired by  UCI’s Transformative Play Lab.

1. Introduction to “game” defintions

This class also introduces historical, philosophical definitions of game, as well as the concept of the “magic circle” (important for talking about pervasive games!)

2. Introduction to “pervasive” games

In this class, I introduce a multitude of pervasive games and look at the various archetypes. Those being:

  • Treasure hunts
  • Assassination-type games
  • Escape rooms
  • LARPs
  • Alternate Reality Games (and Augmented Reality Games)

We also create our own version of the classic alternate reality game “Killer” by Steve Jackson (1998).

Killer: The Game of Assassination: Steve Jackson ...
Killer: The Game of Assassination

This year’s version of Killer had students killing each other outside of class with the phrase “Have a nice day,” in English. Ha! Other “legal” weapons were banana gun, laser beam (mobile phone light) and placing a sticker on the target. We kept track of kills via a shared LINE group.

3. Design a simple pervasive game

The main activity of these classes is to create a very simple “game” and then report on how well the game achieved their intended goal. The games should manipulate or subvert the behaviour of other students as they go about their day at TDU. How are my students supposed to do this? With a set of 8 coloured chalks and the campus as their playground. This activity is based on the “walk and chalk” concept (Tanenbaum et al., 2017). Additionally, I was heavily inspired by what I read in Bogost’s Play Anything (2016) about play as finding the “figure” from the “ground” as in the classic Rubin jars:

In the case of this particular activity: How can students in my class make other students notice the campus that they are walking around? How can they make elements of the campus pop out of the “background” and into the “foreground” of other students attention armed only with chalk! Quite a challenge, and this year there were some great entries. Two worthy of mentions are 1) a game designed to get students to follow a path of footprints to a kebab van, thus working as an advertisement for the van, and 2) a step with the words “踏んだら留年する” (If you step here, you’ll fail the year) to try and get students to walk around a specific step.

A selection of tweets about the walk and chalk activity
Chalk footsteps

Each group gave a presentation on their project. The second project in particular I thought was an excellent example of manipulation and the creator of the project revealed that he had actually collected some data on it in his report. He sat near the step during the lunchtime break and kept a count of people who either stepped on it or avoided it. He also kept count based on their direction of walking (up or down) and whether they were alone or with a group of friends. I don’t remember the numbers now, but I recall that if a student was with a group of friends, they were more likely to step on the offending step, which we hypothesized was because it was considered more playful and funny to be the person that stepped on it when amongst peers.

A student tweets about the step saying “Even if I don’t step on it I’ll still be a repeater.”

There was also a bit of commotion caused by this event. I didn’t seek approval from the Student Affairs office before doing the class and we left the chalk on the ground after we finished (of course, to keep the behaviour manipulation up for as long as possible!). The office considered our work an act of graffiti and sent out a university-wide message admonishing such behaviour! Thus, in terms of the goals of the project… we were able to manipulate the behaviour of not just other students but the admin as well. Success in my books!

My tweet about the “graffiti” incident

Create a pervasive game as a group

The main, and culminating project of the course is for students to make a pervasive game as a group, get others to play it and report on the play session. First, everybody pitches an idea individually and then groups are formed around the most popular concepts. There is a slight negative element to this in that groups often form based on friendships but it is not always the case. This year, the two groups that I will be focusing on consisted of students from different departments and grade level. Once groups are formed, they have around six or seven weeks to create it, test it, get others to play it, receive feedback and write a report on it.

Some groups designed games for their peers to play which means that they get feedback from non-class members (usually friends). This year there were three groups that did this. Their games were:

  • A treasure hunt around the university using Google Maps, quiz questions and hidden coordinates. This game started off as a LARP version of the popular game Monster Hunter, but they considered it too difficult to create and (in my opinion) copped out and did a treasure hunt instead. Still, they documented it well came up with an interesting concept simialr to geocaching themselves.
  • A QR code treasure hunt around campus.
  • A piece of interactive fiction which utilized bots on the popular messaging app LINE. You can play here (Japanese only):
Interactive fiction game created by students on the course

However, some of the groups were persuaded by me (ever so gently of course) to think wider than just creating something for their friends to play.

A bit of history: Last year was the first year I ran this project and working with me and General Affairs office one group managed to invite elementary school students from the local area to come and do a scavenger hunt around campus. The event was a great success and we got featured in the university press for our efforts. On top of that, one of the students that created the game confided in me that he used the experience during his interviews as something not only that he was proud of, but that showed how he was able to connect classroom learning with social participation. Excellent! And something that I am eager to get more studenst to do in this class. Hence the gentle push based on the experience of previous students work. 

So, this year, two groups took up the challenge of creating a pervasive game aimed at elementary school students and they really raised the bar in terms of quality. The games are described below, and both were held on the same day (January 26th) as “TDU Adventure 2019.” 

  1. A spot-the-difference game using smartphone VR
  2. An escape the room game featuring a custom electronic circuit built by the students themselves.
TDU Adventure 2019 poster

Logistics of setting up the project

TDU Adventure required students to work with the General Affairs office. Initially, the students (with me in tow) pitched the idea to the appropriate person in the office. She gave us the OK, but suggested that some of us go with her to the local board of education to pitch the idea to the council. In other words — she thought instead of only her pitching the idea to the board of education, if the students did it themselves it would:

  1. Give more weight to the project because it would show that the students were invested in it.
  2. Give the students a useful experience of talking (presenting?) their ideas to a non-university “real” person.

I agreed and was lucky enough to find two willing participants that volunteered to go to the board of education.

Following that, the board of education accepted the proposal and commented that the students who went to the council offices were very professional and confident when presenting their ideas (good job!). The students handed over 300+ flyers (see above) to the board of education, which were then distributed to three local elementary schools. 

How did parents apply to participate?

On the flyer was an email address to which the parents were instructed to write their child’s name, school, and age. One of the group members watched for incoming emails and replied when necessary.

All in all, a pretty smooth process, and one that was made possible by working with the university general affairs department. 

Onto the games:

Spot the difference VR 👓

The spot the difference VR game, as the name suggests, utilised smartphone VR and Google Street View as a way to create immersive 3D photos (see below for an example). The concept was that invading aliens had messed with reality and that if players used special devices (VR smartphones), they could see exactly what had been altered. Gathering clues in this way would lead to the aliens’ hideout where they could be defeated for good!

Above is an example photo. It is of a particular room in the university featuring a number of different animals on the computer screens. The goal of this room is to find which of the animals is different when looking through VR goggles and when looking at the screens in real life. 

Student participants scanning the room for alien lifeforms

Escape room game 🚪🔓

The escape room game was also spread over five different rooms, so it was more of an “escape TDU” game. Their concept was that players would answer three riddles or questions in each room, giving them a number between 1 and 10 for each answer. These numbers were then used as the code for a combination lock on a box in the room. In the box was an electrical circuit (one for each participant). After clearing all five rooms, the electrical circuit parts could be put together to create a device that would let them escape!

Participants attempting to open the combination lock on the box in the first room

The meta aim of the game was to get the elementary school student participants interested in studying electronics at university. The devices that participants created as part of this game were, therefore, custom made from individual components, and a circuit diagram was also supplied to show how it could be made, introducing the participants to the world of electrical engineering. The device was actually a multicoloured LED which could be triggered via three buttons. A really wonderful concept, and the execution was fantastic. 

The final device featuring the circuit diagram

More great points about this project:

  • The questions in each room based on a specific school subject. There were rooms dedicated to geography, maths, English and so on. The questions in each room were also graded to be the right difficulty for the students based on national standards.
  • The creators of the game found some riddles online and created their own.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the pervasive game class this year was a definite step up from that of the previous year. The games created as part of the walk and chalk class causing a bit of commotion was a highlight for me, I just hope the students felt a positive sense of anarchy as well! I was immensely satisfied with TDU Adventure, too. Comments from the participants’ parents were very positive. One mother said:

“Thanks for such a fun and free experience”

indicating a feeling close to guilt that she and her son could participate in an event of this scale and receive gifts all for free.

A father also said:

“When I was at university we didn’t have the opportunity to do such hands on, practical lessons, this is a really great opportunity for students.”

I would like to think so, too!

Bonus presentation (JP only)

References

  • Bogost, I. (2016). Play anything: The pleasure of limits, the uses of boredom, and the secret of games. Basic Books.
  • Jackson, S. (1998). Killer, The Game of Assassination. Steve Jackson Games.
  • Tanenbaum, J., Gardner, D., & Cowling, M. (2017). Chalk, Props, and Costumes: Two Exercises for Teaching Pervasive Game Design. Analog Game Studies,4(4). Retrieved January 26, 2019, from http://analoggamestudies.org/2017/07/2716/