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Teaching Through Story Games

Updated: Dec 4, 2021


Story is how we learn. Imagination - the ability to project ourselves into other places, other times, even other people - is the main way we transmit knowledge and understand the world. It's the first game we play: "peek-a-boo" is about imagining someone is gone, then experiencing the emotional thrill and relief of realizing they aren't.


And that is why story is so compelling - the emotional component is crucial to learning. We all remember moments when we were moved, whether by joy, anger, regret, shame, humor - and those experiences shape our future reactions. When you can't forget how embarrassed you were when your pants fell down in your third grade play, you'll likely have a hard time getting on stage again.


The opposite is also true - when you've experienced something that gave you confidence or joy, you'll hunger for more. All role-players know the feeling: the rush of genuine excitement at a moment of hard-fought victory, or the moving instant where a character's story becomes so real everybody at the table feels a part of it. It's the same kind of transport achieved when you're lost in a good book, but it adds another primal element: shared experience.


And because they tap into something so basic and primal in the human condition, story games are powerful - an untapped educational tool with immense benefits for every learner – especially kids.


Here’s a bit of what my games do, how they do it, and why they work with kids.

 

CREATIVE AGENCY and OWNING KNOWLEDGE


Think for a moment about a skill or project you’re proud of. How did you develop it? Most of us are proudest of the things we feel we’ve created – the paper where we surprised our professor with a new angle or argument, the piece of music that is an original. It’s the same with kids, and in my games, they are expressly encouraged to build their own world.


Most other games have a set background; the storyteller, or “game master,” decides what and who is in the world. In my games, kids have the agency to create anything – creatures, planets, worlds, characters – all of which I bring to life and incorporate in the story. Even students who are shy or struggle with writing feel excited to work on their story when they know they’ll get to enter the world they make and share it with their team, celebrating each other as writers and artists.

 

TEACHING CRITICAL THINKING


Critical thinking is shorthand for a complicated process – the ability to be creative and flexible in using multiple skills and approaches to difficult situations. In my games, characters have a number of different “Moves” they can use to tackle any problem. Do you want to be Athletic to sneak past someone, or try to charm them with Empathy? Every character has Tags – descriptive words – that kids can activate to help. If Slim C is Easygoing and Charming, she’ll probably have a better chance to chat with someone than sneak by.


By making using their character’s description – even their relationships with other characters and the drive that motivates them – part of how kids roll to solve problems, my games push them to think in terms of story: how would that character deal with this, given who they are? Kids often end up suggesting who would be best to solve a problem as they come to understand not just their own, but their teammates’ characters as well.

 

CONFLICT RESOLUTION and TEAMWORK


Think of a team you’ve been on that worked. Chances are, it did so for two reasons: first, because you all respected and understood one another well enough that you ignored or even enjoyed small conflicts, and second, because you shared a similar goal.


In my games, characters are eventually tasked to prevent something terrible from happening – plant the Seed of the World Tree or magic will die, or convince the townspeople to leave the mountain so they won’t wake the terrible Icehorn beneath it. Each makes Moves to help, creating a shared sense of goal that bonds them – especially as these moments are often tense and dramatic.


When small misunderstandings or differences arise between players or characters, this makes tolerance and acceptance the norm – after all, even if Darkeye the robot keeps threatening to punch everyone, he rescued Zonic the Zion when she was in danger – he’s got a warm heart under all that bluster! These moments of emotional intensity bond kids and help them build the sort of trust that forms when people face danger together, all while in a perfectly safe context.

 

IMPROV and PUBLIC SPEAKING


Speaking in public can be scary, even for otherwise confident adults. Part of this is due to fear of judgement – the idea that if we make a mistake, we’ll face scorn and ridicule.


In story games, a couple of elements let kids develop increasing confidence in their ability to speak up and out. First, they’re not themselves; they’re a hero with magical abilities and a mythical companion, a metahuman with superpowers, an alien with otherworldly skills. Being able to speak as someone else gives them license to explore different parts of their personality, playing as silly, overblown, heroic, or loud-mouthed alter egos.


Second, there’s no risk of ridicule. If your heroic character tries to issue an inspiring line and can only weakly manage “let’s go, team,” no-one will criticize – everyone will cheer and laugh at how silly it sounded, then back the character up. Even my quietest students have found voices that surprised them and their team.

 

CONFIDENCE in FACING CHALLENGE


Story games are all about experiencing, through play, moments that kids need or want to experience. Often, students introduce some serious topics – I’ve played through a robot revolution for equal rights, ecological disasters brought about by magitech pollution, and more. I also make a point of putting kids into situations where there is no “right” answer; sure, the landsharks are only invading the farmland because of the pollution that poisoned their old haunts, but the farmers will lose their livelihood and their families will suffer if the landsharks take over their fields!


Real life is complicated, and there are often no “right” answers – just the choice you make with the information and understanding you have. In classrooms where kids are scared to be wrong, they can develop an almost paralyzing fear of acting – in games, they are, as heroes, not given the option to back down. The emotional release of making a choice, wrestling with complex social and cultural tensions, and facing the tension of dramatic moments are important life experiences; being able to have them while within the safety of a game builds resilience for the real thing.


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