Gaming Our Way to Mars
I was having second thoughts about the Spanish Civil War.
Each year, Jesse and I get up to creating a new game thematic for the Middle School. We had agreed the Spanish Civil War would be great, since we wanted to introduce the concept of Anarchy to the students with a progressive message. But, the bloodiness of the event coupled with an ending that may leave kids catatonic seemed like a bit much.
So, we settled on going to Mars. I had read a book called Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. In the book, the pioneers of Mars face immediate questions about who they should work for. Should they continue to work for the huge company that sent them to the red planet, or should they aspire to create a new civilization. This seemed both playful and full of learning potential.
With months to go we started to collect Martian ideas, and discussed our goals in this unit. I wanted our students to feel the challenge of having freedom while also being responsible. Jesse was interested in working in some ideas about how bread and games have always kept populations in line.
As go time for our thematic unit neared, we had the mechanics of the game worked out, as well as a commitment to provide a quality game for the students to play. We knew what had bogged down our games in the past, things such as too much creative license for students, too much discretion for the teachers who would help, and a lack of activities to provide a more holistic learning experience. We felt we had a formula that would take care of these, and provide some new dynamics that kids could sink there teeth into.
Day one arrived. I was nervous as anything, knowing that I would not only have to get up in front of the entire Middle School, but also act. We had an idea of what would be said, but did not have scripts. We were method actors, taking on the role of our persona fully and working with the conviction that this was really who we were. I was Arkady Saro-Wiwa, second in command of the Nautilus, the first colony ship to go to Mars. Jesse was Robert Renstrom II, captain of the ship and of Old Earth wealth. He was briefing the crew on the importance of the mission.
I interrupted him: “People, why listen to this nonsense about carrying out the corporate mandate. We have a chance to make a better society, a better planet. It is our chance and ours alone to make”
Our 5 minute argument grew heated, and we knew we had the students attention as we would end each proclamation to cheers of those who were soon to follow us. Some would cheer as I incited revolution, while others cheered to the drum beat of the corporation.
Kids got into the colonies then, and decided whom they would join. Would they join the corporation, who would offer gifts and provide support, or would they join the Anarchists, where you knew your own path was yours alone to make, and the only support you would find was from fellow colonists?
By the end of the first lesson the students had read through the book, sided with the faction they felt would best suit them, and had a rough understanding of what it would take to be a Martian for the next three weeks of school.
On day two our students came in ready for their first of the daily quizzes. The members of each group could produce one of five resources through taking a quiz. While we would provide any who were present and took the quiz with resources, higher quiz scores would produce greater numbers for you. The first quiz was tough, but soon the students understood that there was a chance to earn just by trying, and those earning could buy them modules to build their colony. We had created a menu of 60 modules for the students to purchase, from community gardens and child rearing centres to 3D skate parks. The variety was enough that no two colonies were likely to take the same route to developing a sustainable society.
As a gesture of allegiance to the corporation, the students were gifted a launchpad to send goods back to Earth. The Anarchists, on the other hand, had been given a retrofitted launchpad that had been turned into what looked like a university dorm room. Each structure had points attached to it, and from the get go the two factions started off on very different paths.
Our third day of game play took some changes to our schedule, but allowed us to usurp a whole day for play on Mars. After the initial game play and lesson, the students were offered Dreadball, which we advertised as part of the reason our Mars mission was possible. The story went that Dreadball was televised and broadcast to Earth, and offered a more exciting and reality TV filled experience of the Mars mission. True, the players were scientists, but with the low G it still made the game incredible for spectators. All of the corporates were required to join, while Anarchists had the choice (but would not receive rewards).
Those who did not want to join in Dreadball were given absolute freedom from school for 2 hours. There was nothing they needed to do, although I did emphasize that as an Anarchist it is our responsibility to maintain a healthy community. I had arranged with teachers in the Primary School and Early Years to host our students as assistants, and had found a couple build projects happening with our Green School staff. Although voluntary, about half the students opted to help out in the community, while the others said they had homework to catch up on or just wanted to draw. Meanwhile, in the distance we could hear the roar of the games as the teams scored, and the excitement that spectator events undoubtedly hold.
By the end of our first week our students had a firm understanding of this new routine, and it was a welcome sight to come into school in the morning to face a flurry of students studying hard in order to maximize the resources their group could potentially get. These lessons covered a range of topics involving outer space, conditions to make life possible, and fundamental concepts like the periodic table. That said, it became apparent that our students were not used to the notion of a comprehension test, and found it very challenging to process the knowledge they were building from these quizzes.
In week two of the game, we no longer had concerns about the process of play, and the entire focus was around strategy. Some students had built up stashes of resources so that they could invest in more expensive structures, while other groups were buying many less expensive structures which had extension activities they could complete for additional resources. There were some groups who were deeply divided in what was needed next, while other groups followed a leader without question. It was in this week that the social dynamics of a MS student really kicked in.
By the end of our role play, we saw colonies that were mature and successful, with bad decisions made in their planning early on superseded by better decisions that would allow them to be sustainable. We had allowed the students to experience the challenges of making decisions that affect your future, and how to find consensus in a group of very different people.
As an educator, I came away with some important ideas. I recognized how powerful it is to engage in imaginative play, and not only create a system where students can play but also engage in that play myself. The conversations about anarchy and corporations extended far beyond the classroom, as did the notions of reality TV and ideas of space exploration. I started to wear my alter ego with pride, and found myself seeing the world through different eyes. Johnny Cash’s song “Man in Black” all the sudden could be connected to Howard Ehrlich, and something I understood as representing anger became so much more complicated. It is through the investment in the character that I allowed myself to explore these ideas in more detail, and students did so on their own terms as well.
The experience also left me with appreciation to those who have mastered the art of studying for tests. Our school has no emphasis on this, something that I agree is largely superfluous to learning. However, it is a form of learning, and one that requires certain skills that should be taught as well. Some students found a spark in the testing cycle, and demonstrated proficiency that my usual courses don’t allow them to exhibit.
As for games in education, I can’t help but feel like we are just starting to scratch the surface. There is much emphasis on video games as a learning tool at the moment, but from my experience I feel there is much more to be learned about applying gaming to the more social, digital free world.
If you would like to try this game out in your classroom, we have put together all the resources and packaged them into something we hope other schools can use. Please visit our Resource Site to find all the materials needed for this. Happy explorations!