When does a book become an ebook? When does an ebook become an interactive storytelling app? When does an interactive storytelling app become a digital game? The reality is, its hard to tell a lot of the time. The ever growing confluence of media forms and literature has muddied the waters. Between every concrete example of one of the above literary categories exist a myriad vagaries: transmedia, no media, participatory, agentic, emergent, haptic. Storytelling is experiencing a revolution just as impactful as when moveable type changed the world (Cull, 2011) – a revolution reflective of the shifts evident in greater society where digital creativity is flourishing amid technological advancement, an increasingly participatory culture, and complex networks of information flow (Wheeler, 2015).

 

Are we losing something here though? There is something very calming, relaxing.. even homely, about sinking into a deep couch and reading chapter one of a Cracking Good Novel, feeling the spine under your fingers and hearing the papery wing flap of the pages turning. Scholars wonder the same thing – whether the bells and whistles of all this digital enhancement break the hermeneutic immersion necessary for deep, focused reading (James & de Kock, 2013; Gurnsey, 2011). The answer, again, is muddied. In many cases, a poorly designed ebook / interactive storytelling app without a goodness of fit between its visual, audio, and haptics will distract from the experience – but one which hits a sweet spot between those elements can indeed support the literacy learning and reading experience (Roskos et al. 2014). There are many, many examples of digital literature “out there” now, all falling somewhere on this spectrum of distracting to enhancing.

 

Kicking back with a good book...?

Kicking back with a good book…?

 

Personally, I’m very interested in comparing the experience of print literature versus that of a storytelling experience in a digital game, as I’m a big fan of both. Storytelling in games has been hit and miss over the years but in the past three of four, designers are finding their stride, understanding that when wrapped up in a rich story, games become much more engaging and appealing (Alderman, 2015). Many games available today offer “literacy experiences” (The Last of Us, Bastion, The Stanley Parable, Papers Please, Life is Strange, Mass Effect) the avant garde of which are using gameplay mechanics (control forms, decision making, customisation etc.) to tap into “the emotions of agency” of the player, deepening the connection to the story perhaps in a way that books and films cannot (Phillips, 2013). Digital games can make the player feel guilty, for example; the consequence of a poor choice. Games are also exploring the edges of emergent, reactive storytelling where decisions a player makes in game effects the story arc, the characters, and the environment around them.

 

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Comparing print and digital literacy experiences then, it seems digital storytelling, in its many forms, can indeed provide new and exciting ways to tell the stories we’ve always enjoyed. Research also indicates that students’ comprehension does not necessarily suffer, regardless of the format of text (Margolin et al., 2013) – what matters is the mindset a reader deploys. What schools, teachers, and parents need to contend with then is expanding the notions of what literature and reading is. There will always be classic, good old text-based books, but it’s also much more than that now in our digital environment, such as transmedia mashups of audio, written word, video, art, music, and gameplay. These are semiotic resources (Walsh, 2013); methods that authors and designers make meaning from. Reading should be thought of as the process of constructing meaning from symbols (Lamb, 2011) – so, reading any of these new digital formats can be accomplished via unpacking its semiotic resources, just as much as novel, a movie, or a piece of art. In today’s media saturated, convergent environment it’s more important than ever that students contend with these kinds of digital literature formats, these new literacy experiences, so they become armed with the tools to make sense of the mediasphere around them (Moorefield-Lang & Gavigan, 2012).

 

To walk the talk then, I’m currently planning a series of sessions with a Grade 4 class at school who are conducting a unit of inquiry on how “the values we have influence the choices we make.” Exploring the digital game Never Alone (discussed in more detail here) with these students will, I hope, help develop understandings of this concept. Initially, we will inquire into traditional Iñupiat culture via web research and key readings with the purpose of learning about traditional Iñupiat values. Jumping into the game next and learning about the challenge facing Nuna and Fox, students will record how the story and game design reflect the values of the Iñupiat. We will gather information across the mini-documentaries embedded in the game, the story plot, thematic and symbolic elements, and game design – working to read and interpret the semiotic resources available and in doing so, increase our understanding of the key concept (and enjoy a wonderful story).

 


References

 

Alderman, N. (2015). The first great works of digital literature are already being written. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/oct/13/video-games-digital-storytelling-naomi-alderman

 

Cull, B. W. (2011). Reading revolutions: online digital text and implications for reading in academe. First Monday, 16(6). Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3340/2985

 

Lamb, A. (2011). Reading redefined for a transmedia universe. Learning and Leading with Technology, 39(3), 12-17.

 

Margolin, S.J., Driscoll, C., Toland, M.J., & Kegler, J.L. (2013). E-readers, computer screens or paper: does reading comprehension change across media platforms? Applied Cognitive Psycology, 27, 512-519.

 

Moorefield-Lang, H., & Gavigan, K. (2012). These aren’t your father’s: the new world of digital graphic novels. Knowledge Quest, 40(3), 30-35. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/aaslpubsandjournals/knowledgequest/docs/

 

Unsworth, L. (2006). E-literature for children: Enhancing digital literacy learning. Taylor & Francis.

 

Walsh, M. (2013). Literature in a digital environment (Ch. 13). In L. McDonald (Ed.), A literature companion for teachers. Marrickville, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA). https://www.csu.edu.au/division/library/ereserve/pdf/walsh-m3.pdf

 

Wheeler, S. (2015). Learning with ‘e’s. Crown House Publishing.

Never Alone, by Upper One Games in collaboration with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council and E-Line Media, is a ‘side-scrolling’ digital game. It’s unique in that it was developed in partnership with the Iñupiat, an Alaska Native people, who seized an opportunity to deploy the medium of digital games to preserve and explore their traditional values, share stories of native Alaskan folklore, and revitalise interest in Iñupiat culture (de Matos, 2014). Upper One Games state Never Alone is part of a new genre, “World Games”. Other pundits have called the game an “interactive piece of folklore” (Starkey, 2014) and a “playable fable” (Narcisse, 2014). Overarching these labels, Never Alone, sits under the broader umbrella of electronic game narrative (Unsworth, 2006).

 

Due to the collaboration with the Iñupiat the story content of Never Alone is authentic and compelling. You play as Nuna, a young Iñupiat girl and her animal companion Fox. A blizzard has decimated their village leaving starvation and destruction in its wake, and the duo set out to find the source of the blizzard. As you control Nuna and Fox through the various scenarios, an age-old Iñupiat voice narrates the action, while a translation in English rolls across the top of the screen. In addition, as you traverse the arctic environment, players unlock “cultural insights” in the form of mini-documentaries – real life interviews and footage of different aspects of Iñupiat life and culture which expand on the themes explored in-game. The story of Never Alone is dispersed evenly throughout the narration, cultural insights, animated cutscenes, and gameplay scenarios (Unsworth, 2006).

 

Together, Nuna and Fox traverse the harsh arctic environment

 

The digital affordances of the game medium in Never Alone enhance the story’s themes. Nuna and Fox each have unique abilities. Fox can crawl under small areas, climb up walls, and jump high. Nuna can throw her bola (a many-tasseled projectile used for traditional hunting), move heavy objects, and climb ropes and ladders. Players can switch between either character depending on the type of obstacle faced. You cannot succeed by simply using one character. This relationship embodies the theme of interconnectedness which the Iñupiat so valued – the interconnectedness of the people, the land, and the creatures who inhabit it. Further gameplay elements add to the diegesis: erratic blizzard winds can knock players off icy cliffs if not reacted too at the right time and ghostly Aurora Borealis phantasms can reach down and snatch the life from you, reflecting the dangerous weather conditions Iñupiat had to be weary of on a daily basis. In addition to these gameplay elements, inky animated “scrimshaw” illustrations of traditional Iñupiat artwork act as cutscenes which advance the narrative between chapters and a soundtrack of eerie and atmospheric music adds a sense of suspense and adventure to the unfolding story. When digital affordances such as these mix with a wonderful story, it creates a synergistic experience more than the sum of its parts (Yakota & Teale, 2014), and Never Alone certainly qualifies as an example of this.

 

Between chapters, traditionally illustrated cut-scenes advance the narrative

 

In terms of usability and accessibility, Never Alone is available on a great many platforms. The game offers support for 17 different languages, is updated across these different platforms regularly, and has an online customer support portal with frequently asked questions and help ticket submission. In game, the controls are customisable – players are able to change the sensitivity and layout, and the menu contains quick access to cultural insights, previous chapters, and game settings. On the downside, the game will stretch the processors of even the newest tablets, creating heat and draining the battery considerably. In terms of gameplay, while Nuna and Fox are generally “smart” when not being actively controlled, the characters can sometimes become stuck on random objects, breaking the immersion of the story and causing frustration.

 

Never Alone presents many opportunities when considering alignment to the curriculum – the key though, of course, is making sure students activate thinking and the teacher promotes comprehension (Lamb, 2011). Digital games, perhaps more than any other medium can captivate and engage a student so they get caught up in the game elements rather than taking time to consider and reflect. Unsworth believes relating game activities to literary aspects is one way to begin unpacking a game’s narrative, it’s themes and messages, just as you would a novel (2006). Never Alone can also be used to explore concepts of values, culture, and interconnectedness; as a primary resource for learning about traditional Alaskan culture (Fuhler, 2010); and as an example of cultural preservation and new forms of oral or traditional storytelling.

 

Mini-documentaries called “Cultural Insights” extend the learning

 

Never Alone’s story and design reflects Iñupiat values and principles: interconnectedness, coexistence, community, communal stories, respect for nature and one’s elders, and binding together to achieve impossible tasks. It is a rich, unique transmedia digital game created to share, celebrate and extend traditional Iñupiat culture. It powerfully leverages the affordances of the digital game medium to disperse a literacy experience across a rich transmedia environment.

 


References

 

Fuhler, C. J. (2010). Using primary-source documents and digital storytelling as a catalyst for writing historical fiction in the fourth grade (Ch. 11). In B. Moss, & D. Lapp (Eds.), Teaching new literacies in grades 4-6: Resources for 21st-century classrooms (pp. 136-150). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

 

Lamb, A. (2011). Reading redefined for a transmedia universe. Learning and Leading with Technology, 39(3), 12-17.

 

de Matos, X. (2014) Sharing legends with the world in Never Alone, a game inspired by Alaskan Native communities. Retrieved from https://www.engadget.com/2014/03/19/sharing-legends-with-the-world-in-never-alone-a-game-inspired-b/

 

Narcisse, E. (2014). Never Alone: The Kotaku Review. Retrieved from http://kotaku.com/never-alone-the-kotaku-review-1659789150

 

Starkey, D. (2014) Never Alone Review. Retrieved from http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2014-11-20-never-alone

 

Unsworth, L. (2006). E-literature for children: Enhancing digital literacy learning. Taylor & Francis.

 

Yokota, J. & Teale, W. H. (2014). Picture books and the digital world: educators making informed choices. The Reading Teacher, 34(6).