Can a Live Interactive Narrative Experience be an effective educational medium?
Real Life to Video Games to Real Life
In the early days of video games, many games were attempts to create digital versions of real-life activities. Pong, the first commercially successful video game, was based on real-life table tennis.¹ Later on, from the early text-based adventure games to simulations to sports games, video games aspired to try to emulate real life as best as possible. As technology has progressed over time, we now have games that are often indistinguishable from real-life video.
However, today we’re seeing a shift from digital games back to real-life, in-person gaming experiences. Real-life gaming experiences like puzzle hunts, paintball/lasertag games, and LARPs (live action role playing) have been around for many years, but generally they have been more for niche audiences. Recently however, we’ve seen real-life games becoming more a part of mainstream society.
For example, in 2009, American Ninja Warrior debuted as a real-life, obstacle course gaming contest and is still a popular show on NBC. In 2015, a Bud Light Super Bowl commercial featured a life-sized version of of Pac-Man. Today, augmented reality games like Pokémon Go and the upcoming Harry Potter: Wizards Unite are bringing in-person, real-life gaming to the masses.
In recent years, escape room games have become one of the most popular examples of gaming coming to real-life, with around 2,000 escape rooms now operating in the U.S.² Escape rooms have their roots in puzzle-solving, adventure video games, such as Myst and the Sierra On-Line games from the 1990s. In an escape room, you’re basically playing inside of a video game-like environment, trying to quickly solve puzzles and escape the room before the timer runs out. Escape rooms are now evolving to include narrative, actors, and new technologies, such as VR/AR, in order to make the gameplay even more immersive and like real-life.
Although not an actual gaming experience, immersive theater productions are interactive events that place people in active, participatory roles. In contrast to traditional theater or movies where the audience sits back passively and absorbs content, immersive theater provides an interactive space where people feel they are part of the experience. For example, in Sleep No More, one of the most famous and popular immersive theater productions, “players” actively follow around one or more actors in order to piece together a narrative that is unfolding simultaneously throughout a five-story building. Having the audience actively participate in a simulated environment can make immersive theater feel like a real-life gaming experience.
Live Interactive Narrative Experiences
Escape rooms and immersive theater are subsets of a broader term, “Live Interactive Narrative Experience (LINE),” which encapsulates experiences that are Live (synchronous, in-person), Interactive (actively participating, not just passively absorbing content), and Narrative (a focus on storytelling). In addition to escape rooms and immersive theater, LINEs can encompass other current and future new media storytelling experiences, including VR/AR interactive stories, transmedia productions, and location-based experiences, such as Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return, Evermore Park, and Area 15.
It’s easy to see why Live Action Narrative Experiences have an exciting future in the entertainment industry, but they also have strong potential in the education space for a variety of reasons.
Active learning experience: LINEs require active participation, often from every person in a group setting. Research shows that active learning leads to more engaged learners and stronger learning outcomes.³
Situated learning experience: In addition to being an active experience, LINEs are also situated experiences in which learning occurs within the context of a situation or story. Situated learning provides a stronger “learn while doing” educational experience compared to the traditional schooling approach of “learn then do” – e.g, read the textbook, then take a test.
Intrinsically motivating: LINEs can provide good intrinsic motivation to help participants progress through the entire production. A LINE is a Social activity, provides Purpose (meaning) through its narrative, gives Autonomy to participants, and delivers a sense of Mastery after completion, all of which are strong intrinsic motivators. (Note: We use the acronym “SPAM” to refer to the intrinsic motivators: Social, Purpose, Autonomy, and Mastery.)
Subject matter: LINEs can cover any content area, from basic literacy and numeracy skills to science, humanities, and any other subject. LINEs are able to immerse participants in environments related to the subject matter so can therefore make for deeper and stronger learning.
Life and learning skills: In addition to subject matter content, LINEs can help students learn and develop life and learning skills and mindsets, including 21st Century learning skills and social-emotional skills. LINEs are inherently an empathy experience that allows participants to step into the shoes of someone in a different environment or from a different background.
An example of an educational LINE is GameTrain Learning’s upcoming Manzanar Immersive project. This pilot program is an educational LINE that shares important lessons about the Japanese American World War II history in a hands-on, engaging environment. The LINE is designed to be an in-person empathy experience in which people collaborate to solve puzzles, complete activities, and interact with character actors as they proceed through the narrative of a Japanese American family living through the wartime experience. The goal for Manzanar Immersive is to help people learn about Japanese American history, culture, and values along with other learning skills, such as collaboration, communication, and empathy.
Manzanar Immersive is designed to be a mobile production that can be setup and used in various locations, including schools and museums. The design will later be used to create a framework for educational LINE productions about other learning content, including any K-12 and college academic subjects.
Future of Educational LINEs
Today, games are a major contributor to the digital media consumption of people in the U.S., where people spend an average of over five hours per day on a mobile or desktop device.⁴ With both adults and kids spending increasingly more time consuming digital media, there’s concern that we’re spending too much of our lives glued to a device.
LINEs are now becoming more popular in response to this proliferation of digital media content. In the future, there undoubtedly will be many new and exciting LINEs that get people interacting at physical locations instead of escaping into their digital devices. There is great potential of these future LINEs to not just entertain us but also educate us on any subject area and/or life and learning skills.
The future of live interactive narrative experiences will rely on the creativity and storytelling ability of designers, who might be professionals but could also be educators, students, or anyone else who have the desire to share a story or teach some content through a new, interactive medium. Anyone with such desire can potentially turn a classroom (or empty office or community center room or vacant retail space) into a meaningful, modern-day learning experience for today’s gamer generation.
¹ Baer, Ralph (2005). Video Games: In The Beginning. New Jersey, USA: Rolenta Press.
² Room Escape Artist (2017). Three Years of Room Escapes: The Growth of the US Market. Retrieved from https://roomescapeartist.com/2017/07/30/three-years-of-room-escapes-the-growth-of-the-us-market/
³ Michael, J. (2006). Where’s the evidence that active learning works? Advances in Physiology Education, 30(4): 159–167.
⁴ Statista (2017). Average time spent with major media per day in the United States as of September 2017 (in minutes). Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/276683/media-use-in-the-us/